Literature is the artistic form and creation of the human mind that aspires to be freed from its narrow boundaries. However, literature evolves from life, and, therefore, the connection between literature and life is intimate and vital. It is the expression of the individual and social life through enlivened language.
Literature collects its theme from life, but its objective is not so much to teach as to delight. Herein lie its power and universal appeal. It records the thoughts and feelings of great minds. While there are some who take the perfection of form to be the chief preoccupation of literature, many more are inclined to the view that the utmost value of literature is its human significance.
Literature may be described as the magic mirror of life and society, as it reflects not like the news in the newspapers, but depicts the depth and breadth of life with its magical colours. The quality and nature of reflection depend upon the writer’s attitude of mind, whether he is progressive in his outlook or reactionary. Naturally, a conservative writer sets a high value on the traditional ways of life, age-old ideals, respect for religion, chastity of women, and so on. On the other hand, a progressive writer tends to show how conservatism hinders the natural freedom of human life by restricting the free movement of men and women, and sets for liberating new ideas for moving the society to newer ways of life. The laws of morality, again, undergo changes from country to country and from age to age. This led Aristotle to affirm that the proper subject of poetry or literature is human action in its universal dimension.
Thus great literature always serves the need of the people from age to age. In it, we hear the voice of life in its inmost desires and noblest aspirations, and thus it leads the people forward to a higher plane of life and thought. That is why, Whitman said that the object of literature is “to free, arouse and dilate the human mind.” Literature, in this sense, must emancipate the mind from its limitations, and arouse it to a consciousness of the dynamic urge of life. If an artist or a writer loses sight of this consciousness and contents himself with the perfecting the technique only, he is no longer an artist, but only a craftsman. The artist should be deeply involved in the ultimate purpose of what he creates. However, moral life need not be a life limited by some codes of conduct. So far as the artist deals with this, his art is fundamentally moral and has a prophetic role to play. We know a good piece of literature attracts us in two ways—through its matter and through its manner. The manner must be such as will be pleasing to the reader.
The influence of literature on society, however, is felt directly or indirectly. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was directly responsible for a movement against slavery in the USA in those days. The novels of Dickens had an indirect influence for removing social wrongs and calling for the necessary legal, and social reforms. Elliot’s “The Waste Land” brought a wider significance in life and literature. Thus the realistic artist brings to a focus the oddities and cruder aspect of life, as we should know life fully, not only the bright side but also the seamy and dark side of life. In fact, life is a stream of tendencies, and a great artist is able to fix upon those tendencies which are vital in weaving life into futurity. Hence, literature is not a reflection of a static society, but of the dynamic currents beneath the surface of life.