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Chapter 3: Writing Mechanics Help
Chapter 12: Teaching Writing
Chapter 23: Teaching Reading
College English Composition: Help and Review
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What is World Literature?

World literature can be defined as works of literature that have been created, distributed, and circulated beyond their country of origin. These works include The Odyssey, Things Fall Apart, A Doll’s House, and The Recognition of Sakuntala to name a few. All of these works of literature were created in countries around the world and are included in teachings in the United States and beyond. Great world literature is studied all over the world, for example, The Odyssey, which was created in ancient Greece, is studied by scholars everywhere.

World Literature Topics

Topics of World Literature vary depending upon when and where the literature was written, although some works have similar themes and features, including the human condition, which cannot be avoided. Topics of world literature often include a discussion on humanity‘s origin, power, heroism, and love. In most instances, the biggest feature of world literature is that it can be understood thematically by people of many different cultures, nationalities, time periods, and ethnicities.

Some other common features of world literature include:

  • Folklore
  • Legends
  • Fables
  • Mythology

These features are often found in world literature because they are used by a culture as a way of discussing or trying to figure out where they came from and why they are there. In other words, these features are humanity’s way of inspecting their own humanity, which is valued throughout time and across cultures. Great world literature is widely read beyond the borders of its origin country.

Famous World Literature Authors

Quite a few authors are studied in world literature, including but not limited to:

  • Homer – (ca. 700 BC), The Iliad, The Odyssey, Greece
  • The author of Beowulf (ca. 1000 BC), England
  • Chinua Achebe – (b. 1930), Things Fall Apart, Nigeria
  • Dante Alighieri – (1265-1321) The Divine Comedy, Italy
  • Fyodor Dostoyevsky – (1821-1881), Crime and Punishment, Russia
  • Henrik Ibsen – (1828-1906), A Doll’s House, Norway

The works of literature named above are some of the most widely studied works of world literature due to their topics of heroism, love, the human condition, and power. These are only a few of the many works of world literature that are studied today by scholars and students around the world.

Classics of World Literature

Some classics of world literature include The Odyssey, Things Fall Apart, A Doll’s House, and The Recognition of Sakuntala. Each of these works discuss humanity, adventure, love, civilization, life, inequality, and other topics that are still widely relevant in today’s society.

The Odyssey

The Odyssey was beautifully written somewhere around 700 BCE (over 2000 years ago) and discusses themes of adventure, heroism, and romance. Through its discussion of these topics, it pushes readers to consider their own humanity and the concept of divinity in addition to that of all people. Written as an epic poem, Odysseus (the hero) is trying to get back to his home and his wife after the Trojan War in Greece.

On his adventure, he meets many creatures, cyclops and nymphs, and people, Sorceresses, and Phaeacians, who help and hinder him. He experiences a shipwreck, and ultimately to reunite with his wife, he has to kill all of her suitors who have been staying in their house eating and drinking all of their food. While he has been gone, over one hundred suitors have tried to court his wife, but she resisted. He accomplishes ridding the house of these suitors with the help of Telemachus, Eumaeus, and Philoetius (a servant and cowherd).

Things Fall Apart

Things Fall Apart is written by Chinua Achebe and originated in Nigeria. The book is set in Africa with the main character of Okonkwo living in fear of becoming just like his father, who is considered lazy and a coward. He overcompensates for this fear by becoming the opposite of his father, which leads to wealth and prosperity for him in the form of money and wives. When his adoptive son is sentenced to death by the tribe, Okonkwo participates in the murder, which leads to intense guilt that he cannot show due to his vow of active masculinity.

Ultimately, he is banished from the tribe because he murdered the boy responsible for his adoptive son’s death, and he was sent to live in another tribe native to his mother where he learns about white Christian missionaries. Okonkwo calls for an aggressive uprising against these people, but when he sees that will not happen, he dies by suicide out of pride and devastation.

This book is widely read outside its native country of Nigeria due to its continuing themes of masculinity and what it means to be human. Discussions regarding the book often include civilization and what it means to be civilized. We see in Things Fall Apart Okonkwo’s experience of guilt, loss, love, pride, fear, and sorrow, which can be deeply felt in people of current society because those emotions are things that will never flee humanity.

A Doll’s House

A Doll’s House is a three-act play by Henrik Ibsen, which is native to Norway and originated in 1879. The play’s main character and housewife, Nora Helmer, becomes unhappy in her marriage to her husband, Torvald Helmer. The couple receives a visitor on Christmas Eve who is experiencing financial hardship, Kristine; Nora can relate and admits to this woman that she took an illegal loan from a secret admirer and forged her father’s signature to do it. At the time of this play, women were not allowed to take monetary loans from anyone without their husbands, fathers, or brothers there to sign for it.

Nora gets blackmailed by one of her husband’s employees, Krogstad, to put in a good word for him, because he knows about her illegal loan. When Nora does put in this good word for him with her husband, her husband informs her that he will not retain this employee because he is a criminal and has forged signatures himself. We find out at the end of the play that Kristine and Krogstad were lovers, and Krogstad intends to deliver a letter to Torvald detailing Nora’s illegal loan.

Nora intends to complete suicide when Torvald finds the letters, but instead, Torvald is filled with rage that he has to keep Krogstead to save face. When Torvald berates Nora with words of her unfit motherhood and claims to keep the marriage to save face, Nora realizes that her husband is selfish, and the only thing he cares about is appearances. Nora decides to leave her husband because she feels like a doll he has to play with, and her duty to herself is the most important one for her to fulfill.

This play inspects the quality of a woman’s life when it is justified and controlled by a husband, and through this, the main issue discussed in the play is gender inequality between men and women. We see the examination of societal gender roles, selfishness, vanity, and the emotional turmoil that can have on a family. This play, written in 1879, is a trailblazer in its implications that a woman’s emotional wellbeing is just as important as a man’s and should not be sacrificed for the sake of vanity or society’s gender roles.

The Recognition of Sakuntala

The Recognition of Sakuntala was originally written circa the 2nd century in Sanskrit, as a play by Kalidasa and Vishvamitra in India. This play pays homage to the myth of Sakuntala, where Sakuntala is raised in a monastery as an orphan. One day, while on an errand, King Dushyanta becomes taken with Sakuntala and courts her immediately. He gives her a wedding ring for her to bring with her to the palace where they are to be wed. Just before Sakuntala leaves for the castle, a sage comes to the monastery.

Sakuntala, too enamored with her fated wedding, forgets to serve the sage dinner, so the sage puts a curse on Sakuntala that will prevent her husband from remembering her unless she shows him an object from his memory of when they met. She then leaves for the palace, remembering the ring that he gave her, but on her journey, the ring is washed away in a river. King Dushyanta kicks her out of the palace because he doesn’t remember her, and she is disowned by the monastery upon her return there. After some years, the ring is found in the belly of a fish and returned to the king, who is at war. When the war ends, he finds Sakuntala and marries her.

The Recognition of Sakuntala possesses themes of love, war, and caution. It provides a lesson for the audience that is relevant in any society for any person. The play warns of using caution and making sure not to forget to perform all duties. The play touches on attraction, relationships, and mistaken identities, which are all elements found in modern romantic comedies.

Lesson Summary

Great world literature can be read by anyone anywhere in the world, and the reader will still be able to relate to the themes and features of the work. Common themes in world literature include humanity, power, love, adventure, and heroism, which can be understood by people no matter where they live or where they come from. Examples of world literature include: The Odyssey, Things Fall Apart, A Doll’s House, and The Recognition of Sakuntala. Each of these works exhibits a particular theme relevant to world literature.

The Odyssey is a beautifully written epic poem from more than 2000 years ago that contains adventure, romance, and manners, and it pushes readers to consider both humanity and divinity. Things Fall Apart is a book originally from Nigeria that is widely read and appreciated outside of Nigeria. A Doll’s House is a Norwegian play largely focused on inspecting gender inequality between men and women in a marriage. Lastly, The Recognition of Sakuntala is an Indian play originally written in Sanskrit that tells a tale of unexpected love, mistaken identity, and missed opportunity.

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