Literature has been given diametrically opposed functions. Is literature an ideological instrument: a set of stories that seduce readers into accepting the hierarchical arrangements of society? If stories take it for granted that women must find their happiness, if at all, in marriage; if they accept class divisions as natural and explore how the virtuous serving-girl may marry a lord, they work to legitimate contingent historical arrangements. Or is literature the place where ideology is exposed, revealed as something that can be questioned? Literature represents, for example, in a potentially intense and affecting way, the narrow range of options historically offered to women and, in making this visible, raises the possibility of not taking it for granted, both claims are thoroughly plausible: that literature is the vehicle of ideology and that literature is an instrument for its undoing. Here again we find a complex oscillation between potential 'properties' of literature and attention that brings out these properties.


We also encounter contrary claims about the relation of literature to action. Theorists have maintained that encourages solitary reading and reflection as the way to engage with the world and thus counters

the social and political activities that might produce change. At best it encourages detachment or

appreciation of complexity and at worst passivity and acceptance of what is. But on the other hand,

literature has historically been seen as dangerous: it promotes the questioning of authority and social

arrangements. Plato banned poets from his ideal republic because they could only do harm, and novels

have long been credited with making people dissatisfied with the lives they inherit and eager for something

new -- whether life in big cities or  romance or revolution. By promoting identification across divisions

of class, gender, race, nation, and age, books may promote a 'fellow feeling' that discourages struggle;

but they may also produce a keen sense of injustice that makes progressive struggles possible. Historically,

works of literature are credited with producing change: Harriet Beecher  Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin,

a best-seller in its day, helped create a revulsion against slavery that made possible the American Civil War.


Jonathan Culler, Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction, 38-9