Didactic Literature: Definition and Characteristics
Literature exists in a range of forms and assumes different purposes. In view of that, many critics, writers, and philosophers from Plato’s times have attempted to define literature and its purpose. They have proposed theories of literature that explore its nature, essence, its role in society and the relationship between literature, writer and reader. This has led to debates about what relation art holds to morals and whether a literary work should attempt to teach something. Such a piece of literary work is usually termed as ‘didactic’ in nature and purpose. This view of literature is considered the opposite of that of art for art’s sake theory that holds art and literature as purely aesthetic, which implies that the definition lies in not only recognizing its characteristics but also in differentiating it from the other types of literature.
Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the word ‘didactic’ in more than one way: “designed or intended to teach”, “intended to convey instruction and information as well as pleasure and entertainment” and “making moral observations”. The word is claimed to have its origin in a Greek word that means “to teach” or “to instruct”. All these definitions of the word emphasize more on the objectives of literary work than its form or means.
All American Glossary of Literary Terms defines the word ‘didactic’ as follows: “refers to literature or other types of art that are instructional or informative” and regards “non-didactic” as an opposite of this term and that the latter refers to a literary work that gives more importance to artistic qualities even if it is instructive. Therefore, a literary work that is artistic can also have didactic properties. Apparently, any literary work that teaches or implies a moral is considered didactic. This is supported by Sir Philip Sidney in his An Apology for Poetry: “a speaking picture with this end, to teach and delight”. Even though it delights as well as teaches, its ability to improve the readers’ virtue or morals is given primary position. Religious tales, moral fables, especially in the form of Morality Plays during the Elizabethan period are often referred to as didactic in nature as they attempted to teach a moral lesson based on a fable or a parable. Moreover, Fables and Parables are didactic in themselves.
Overall, to define didactic literature in a nutshell, it aims at teaching, improving the readers and having a moral impact on them. This could be done in a preachy style or a story-telling style, but the end is what makes this type of literature different from the other non-didactic ones.
Having defined didactic literature, its characteristics can be examined. A didactic literature can be in any form ranging from poetry to non-fiction or a short-story to a novel. Whatever form it takes on, its primary intention is to instruct the reader or to teach a moral lesson. Pilgrim’s Progress employs allegory as one of the key literary forms. Aphorism as against elaborate or extravagant wordplay is employed in such writings. One such example is the use of Heroic Couplet of Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Criticism as in “To err is human; to forgive, divine” or “A little learning is a dangerous thing;”, which aim at preaching morals. Brevity is a signature characteristic as is evident from the above.
In the modern period, Epic Theatre is an example of didactic literature; however, it did not follow any specific hexameter or heroic couplet styles but depended on the lighting, facial expression and other theatre techniques to present moral issues to the audience and make them think and arrive at solutions. This was in a way didactic as its primary motive was to bring about a moral effect on its audience.
What becomes more evident from the examples is that the purpose of the intention of the writing is what could be used as the basis for classifying any piece of writing as didactic literature. If a book or a piece of writing aims at presenting a moral problem, teaches or preaches a lesson or virtue, not appealing to emotions but to the moral consciousness or rational sense then the writing can be classified as didactic literature.
In conclusion, didactic literature is defined as one written or created with the purpose of teaching or preaching and can be of any form but the function is what makes it distinct. The key characteristic to identify such literature is its moralizing intention or the impact it has on its readers, not an emotional but more an instructive, primarily moral and preachy.
“All American: Glossary of Literary Terms.” nd. Web. 15 Mar. 2012.
An Essay on Criticism: Part 2. Alexander Pope. 2011. Poetry Foundation. Web. 15 Mar. 2012.
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Glaisyer, Natasha & Pennell, Sara. Didactic literature in England, 1500-1800: Expertise reconstructed. London: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2003.
Sidneys Apologie For [Defense Of] Poetry. Nighan, Raymond. Web. 15 Mar. 2012.