Formal Literary Canon

Sarah Henderson

What is a Literary Canon?

A literary canon is a complex group of literary works assembled that are considered valuable to read and teach. The literary canon has the ability to shift throughout time depending on the different cultures and values of society.
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The Crucible by Arthur Miller

The Crucible is a play, written in 1953, that depicts the very gruesome and merciless witch trials that occurred in Salem, Massachusetts. The most important aspect of this play is not the language or style, although they are different than the modern prose style of today's writing, but the content itself (Celine). The historical importance of the novel places such an ancient, misunderstood time period into the public eye through portrayals of brutal accusations and romantic plot twists. However, it has been noted that this play is not entirely "accurate" (Celine). The characters drastic behavior and overexaggerations, while containing some truth, personally related to the audience of the 1950s for other historically important reasons as well. During this time, Communism and McCarthyism was an ongoing problem and accusations were being made left and right (The Crucible). This play placed the issue of false accusations and drastic human behavior of the time in the spotlight in order to address the audience personally and call for societal change (The Crucible). The culture and historical value placed into this play is useful in today's society for gaining an understanding of the time periods and how the two time frames crossed to teach a lesson to society both in the 1950s and today.
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Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Frankenstein, written in 1818 and known as a tale of a modern Prometheus, is a valuable piece to place in the literary canon due to its textual format and moral lessons taught to the audience. The format of the entire novel is that the story is placed within a frame of a sailor by the name of Walton. This is used to emphasize the story and lessons learned by VIctor Frankenstein and also carry these elements into a wider view. Through this format the lesson that Frankenstein learns is passed directly to Walton, making him a foil to Frankenstein. This then reflects the text back on the reader. It is as if the format of the novel highlights a picture within a frame and then asked the audience "Now what will you do with the knowledge you have gained outside of this picture?"

Shelley also used Biblical, textual, and mythical allusions to teach life lessons to the audience. Such valuable lessons included: knowledge is power, but too much can be dangerous; nature contains a power that is inexplainable to human beings; and curiosity can lead to trouble. Frankenstein claimed that "the world was to me a secret which I desired to divine," meaning to discover and control. This journey teaches humans of their true weakness and how there is a powerful force outside of the control of man. This forces society to humble themselves and therefore teaches an important religious and moral concept to those reading the text.

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The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Great Gatsby has become known as a literary classic not only for its direct reflection of the author's lifestyle, but because of the portrayal of an extravagant and luxurious lifestyle of the 1920s that is entertaining to any reader today. If you ask any high school student why they enjoyed reading The Great Gatsby it would be because of the riches, flattery, and love that fills every page to the novel. However, the book itself is significantly important to read because of the culture of the tale. It has been known that the book was written as a play on the "American Dream" with the most successful and luxurious members of that dream being deceitful and dishonest (Spargo). This book directly reflects the culture of America, and was not as popular during the time that it was publish because of the bold statement that it was making. Fitzgerald basically frames the naivety and innocence among the liars who live in luxury before being brought down from their pedistool (Spargo). While this text is not important multiculturally, it is important culturally and historically for the United States. By reading this, people have come to realize certain corruption within society and what is truly wrong with the "American Dream" (Spargo). This now becomes a lesson on abundance and selfishness that carries into politics and morality today.

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Hamlet by William Shakespeare (The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark)

Hamlet is one of the most well-known pieces that Shakespeare has written and has become universality known. The complexity of the piece and existential elements of the play are what make the work so valuable to literature. One of the most famous quotes in literature comes from Hamlet in which he questions, "To be or not to be." While portrayed as a man driven to insanity, Hamlet actually represents the true picture of existentialism in which man adds meaning to a meaningless life by discovering who he is. It is not enough to merely "be" on earth, but it is what you do with that time on earth that matters. This play contemplates the complexity of life and death and the uncertainty that each contains. Within existentialism, it is accepted that death is the only truth; but, Hamlet questions this solidity of this known truth, making the topic universal for all readers to interpret and reflect on the value of their lives.
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Lord of the Flies by William Golding

Lord of the Flies, published in 1954, is a significant piece due to its universality. This is not a very old piece; however, I feel that the psychological concepts placed in the piece are relatable for all human beings and the way that they think. Freud's psychoanalytical concepts of the Id, Ego, and Superego are represented by the novels main characters. Jack represents the Id seen through his drastic, violent behavior and constant thirst for hunting seen through the repeated chant "Kill the beast! Cut his throat! Spill his blood!" (Golding 172). Simon becomes a representation of the other end of the spectrum, or the Superego, as he fetches fruit for little kids periodically and gives his food to others if needed. Sadly, Simon is killed by the boys as well as Piggy that represents the reason, or ego, of the boys. While slightly awkward and not very authoritative, Piggy was always the first to think logically and was killed in the end. This highlights the power of the qualities that the Id represents. Ralph, of course, fights between these three representing the value of thought and choices. These psychological concepts are universal as they are common in everybody's mind according to Freud's theory behind one's psyche.
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Macbeth by William Shakespeare

Macbeth is a traditional text that has continued to be included in the literary canon for years due to its development of conflict. It is one of the shortest of Shakespeare's plays, but the themes and conflict of the play are what make it so beneficial. There is a universal and multicultural theme of fate that is developed throughout the piece. The fact that there is a destiny for someone that is affected by his or her actions is what makes the reader ponder the events of the story in reflection to their lives. Also, the play highlighted a major societal debate between male and female roles that still continues in today's society. Macbeth's wife questions his manhood and what classifies as masculine qualities to get her way and gain power. The three witches have beards, playing down the role of women in society and granting them more importance through a masculine property. These societal lessons are what makes the text so valuable, as well as the ability to teach them through a slightly simpler piece done by the well-known William Shakepeare.
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The Odyssey by Homer

The Odyssey continues to hold importance in the literary canon because of the genre itself. This work is a well-known tale in greek mythology that is not only entertaining, but is culturally significant to literature. While many other works tell of societal conflict, this work sets the foundation for many allusions and lessons to be learned in other literary works (Mitchell). This tale of Odysseus' journey tells of many characters and elements of nature that teach lessons on humility and selflessness that are referenced to in other works of literature. Invisible Man for example references the cyclops multiple times. Without understanding this foundation of greek mythology, the tone and/or message of the work could be overlooked. While it is not focused on a specific issue, The Odyssey is still relevant to literature today as it serves as a link between other pieces.
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Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Pride and Prejudice has been a well praised novel for it's elegance and cleverness. The timelessness of the piece is what makes this work so important to literature. While it tells a wonderful tale of romance and class, there was a satirical element added to work that preserves the culture of the 1800s. This work seems to make fun of the time period in which marriage was simply an act to gain social status and wealth. During this time frame nobody wanted to accept that the society was as shallow as it truly was, which is why this culture is so fascinating in today's society. The historical importance and emphasis on the qualities of marriage that should not be praised, is what makes this work so valuable in comparison to today's society.
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Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

Romeo and Juliet has become a classic in literature for its romance and universality. The themes of love, sacrifice, and irrational behavior are relatable and easy to make connections to. This piece has remained in the literary canon due to its publicity and simplicity of concepts. Most people have heard of Romeo and Juliet and it's message which makes the work so universal. This is a common piece to teach in high school due to the fact that young readers can relate to the attitude and actions of the characters. The niavety, spontaneous nature, and irrational actions are easy to relate to for a young audience psychologically, which makes this text so fascinating among high school students and young adults. While this is not necessarily the most important of Shakespeare's pieces and the lessons that are taught are also seen in other works, the fact that the piece is well known and is universal is what keeps this piece in the literary canon.
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The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Scarlet Letter, much like The Crucible, holds significant historical importance as it reflects the harsh and religiously centered society of Puritans in Boston. However, there is more than just a historic significance to the piece, but a complexity that makes this work so valuable. Pearl seems to represent an innocent beauty that comes from a sinful act, while her mother, Hester Prynne, represents a steady and "free thinking" woman among the strict rules regarding religion and roles (McCrum). There is a secret continuously hidden behind a lie to the public that ironically brings out the beauty in people once it is truly surfaced. This book serves as a lesson in morality and religious repentance, but also of the beauty of love and freedom (McCrum). It is the symbolism, secrecy, and irony in this text that is added to the old English that builds the complexity of the work. This work remains in the literary canon, not only because of its reflection of time period, but because of the different types of analysis that can be drawn from the selection.
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To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

To Kill a Mockingbird has become an incredibly famous work in the literary world and continues to be taught year after year in English classrooms. The value of this work comes from the lessons that it teaches and that the audience can connect with. According to Good by Teaching the lessons could include numerous topics including, "discrimination, racism, cruelty, and growing up-all topics that teenagers connect with." This novel evokes rage, sympathy, and desire from the audience through the misunderstood characters and plotline that displays intense social issues. This novel starts to stray away from the fact that literature should focus around white, males, but give some justice and reason to African Americans even though the ending is not entirely pleasant. However, the novel does emphasize the moral lesson of accepting all people into society no matter what they have done or look like. The court case and Boo Radley can both tie into this message. While discrimination is not as much of an issue in today's society like it was when the book was published, there is still a lesson to be taught to the readers on willingness to change, to be accepting, and to stand strong for his or her beliefs. This piece has remained valuable for historical importance, entertainment, and the moral lessons taught that have been applicable to society for years.

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1984 by George Orwell

1984, written as a representation against Communism and totalitarianism, remains valuable in the literary canon simply because of its uniqueness and multicultural elements. This portrayal of a dystopian society reflects the acts of communism and even some of Hitler and the Holocaust. These elements are in through the Party being a controlling force that dominates elements of the past and into the future. Even the main character served as a symbolic representation of Winton Churchill who stood against such outrageous acts in the world during this time. This work serves as a valuable link to historical events in relation to how they could effect the future, as well as serve as a depiction of some cultures across the world. This book has become a warning of societal and governmental control and highlights the strength and value of individualism. There are dangers to too much conformity, and that is what Orwell wished to teach his audience. The fact that the audience can take this piece and learn from it, even today, has made this an novel of high literary merit.

Works Cited

- Celine, W. "The Crucible and Why It Should Be Taught in School." Teen Ink. Emerson Media. Web. 9 May 2016.

- "The Crucible - Book Review." Common Sense Media. Common Sense Media Inc., 2016. Web. 9 May 2016.

-McCrum, Robert. "The 100 Best Novels: No 16- The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1850)." The Guardian. Guardian News, 6 Jan. 2014. Web. 10 May 2016.

-Mitchell, Stephen. "Why You Might Want to Read the Odyssey." The Huffington Post., Inc, 2 Oct. 2013. Web. 10 May 2016.

-Shmoop Editorial Team. "Shmoop: Homework Help, Teacher Resources, Test Prep." Shmoop University, Inc., 2016. Web. 10 May 2016.

-Spargo, R. Clifton. "Why Every American Should Read The Great Gatsby, Again." The Huffington Post., Inc, 9 Apr. 2013. Web. 9 May 2016.

-"5 Reasons to Teach To Kill a Mockingbird and 6 Reasons Not To." Goodbyteaching. WordPress, 28 Sept. 2012. Web. 10 May 2016.

(Different blogs and articles were used to see why the books are still taught to other students. Because I had not read some of these texts in over a year or two, dates of publication were google as a quick reference and Shmoop was occasionally used to remember the general plotline before writing the analysis for books such as The Crucible, The Great Gatsby, The Scarlet Letter, The Odyssey, and To Kill a Mockingbird. Since this was used to jog my memory, but did not need parenthetic citations directly, I cited it in the works cited.)