Laura Getty, PhD
Rhonda Kelley, PhD
Kyounghye Kwon, PhD
Douglass Thomson, PhD
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TABLE OF CONTENTS
Hebrew Bible, “Genesis” and “Exodus”
The Epic of Gilgamesh
The Iliad and The Odyssey
Oedipus the King
The Apology of Socrates
The Art of War
The Book of Songs
The Mother of Mencius
The Bhagavad Gita
Reading about any culture foreign to one’s own tends to create a form of culture shock in the reader. In a world literature class, students frequently face texts that are completely unfamiliar to them, and the typical culture shock reactions set in. We tend not to like things that we do not understand, in part because we do not like the feeling of not knowing something. I have had students complain that they did not “like” a story before we discussed it in class, and then the same students decide after the class discussion that they now like it. Again, understanding and liking go hand in hand. Give the literature a chance; something that might not make sense at first may end up being one of your favorite stories after finding a way to approach it.
That being said, whether students like a story is not the point of reading that text in a literature class. We read literature in these classes to learn something. It is a nice addition to the experience if students like the works, but we can read and analyze texts that we do not enjoy just as effectively as the ones we do: In some cases, it is actually easier. Critical thinking comes from taking something that is unfamiliar, breaking it down into manageable chunks of information, fitting it back together, and using the experience to replicate the process in other situations in the future.
A literature class is, of course, a perfect place to learn critical thinking skills. When interpreting a text, pretend that you are a lawyer in a courtroom arguing a case. Not all cases have smoking guns; most are won or lost on circumstantial evidence alone. The interpretation needs to be based primarily on evidence from the text; therefore, there can be more than one possible approach, but some interpretations can be wrong if there is no support in the text for the generalizations that the student uses. Evidence is the key; based on what the text tells us, what do we actually know? Expert opinions (secondary sources) may help, but remember that both sides in a court case usually can call some expert who will agree with them. Authorial intention is not entirely out of bounds in such an argument, but it operates on the same principles: What can we actually argue, based on the evidence? For instance, any knowledge of Hemingway’s personal history makes it unlikely that the story “Soldier’s Home” could be interpreted as unsupportive of soldiers. Alternately, there are cases when the author’s life is of little or no help. Faulkner refused to tell an interviewer what the meaning of “A Rose for Emily” was, preferring perhaps that the reader not be limited by a simple (or simplistic) explanation of meaning.
In every interpretation, remember to distinguish between the views of the original audience and the views of the modern reader. While a text may remind students about their grandfathers, that association does not often help when interpreting a story written by someone years ago who did not know their grandfather. (It may, of course, help students interpret their interpretations, but, except for the very best reader response theorists out there, that approach is more commonly found in a different field of study.) If the story is about a grandfather in ancient Greece, the comparison with their grandfather would be most useful if it helped focus them on what the characters in that time period in Greek society thought about grandfathers (or treated them, or talked to them, etc.) back then that is similar to or different from modern expectations. In other words, what does the work tell us about the expectations of the original audience? Without at least a solid guess about what the original audience thought about the work, it is impossible to discuss whether the author is writing something that conforms to society’s expectations or argues against them, let alone what the original audience was expected to learn from the story, or how it expected to be entertained.
The expectations of the audience bring us full circle to the issue of culture shock once again. Students in U.S. universities often feel more comfortable with American or British literature, since the K-12 school system in the U.S. usually emphasizes those works. Even if some students have not lived through the 1960s in the U.S., there is still a sense of familiarity to students raised in the U.S., although they might not understand as much of the deeper social context as they think they do. A world literature class may be the first place that some students have encountered European works, let alone non-Western texts. The emphasis in this anthology, therefore, is on non-Western and European works, with only the British authors who were the most influential to European and non-Western authors (such as Shakespeare, whose works have influenced authors around the world to the present day). In a world literature class, there is no way that a student can be equally familiar with all of the societies, contexts, time periods, cultures, religions, and languages that they will encounter; even though the works presented here are translated, students will face issues such as unfamiliar names and parts of the story (such as puns) that may not translate well or at all. Since these stories are rooted in their cultures and time periods, it is necessary to know the basic context of each work to understand the expectations of the original audience. The introductions in this anthology are meant to be just that: a basic overview of what students need to know before they begin reading, with topics that students can research further. An open access literature textbook cannot be a history book at the same time, but history is the great companion of literature: The more history students know, the easier it is for them to interpret literature.
These works can help students understand the present, as well. In an electronic age, with this text available to anyone with computer access around the world, it has never been more necessary to recognize and understand differences among nationalities and cultures. The literature in this anthology is foundational, in the sense that these works influenced the authors who followed them. For Western literature, it is necessary to know something about the Trojan War (and the Trojan Horse) to understand everything from literary references to them (for almost three thousand or so years) to why a computer virus would be named a “Trojan Horse” because of what it does. In India, the characters in the Mahabharata and the Ramayana still show up in regular conversations, and it would be impossible to read modern Indian literature without a basic knowledge of these texts, which are referenced frequently. Chinese literature is infused with Confucian concepts, which influenced Chinese culture for thousands of years. These are just a few of the examples of why these texts are important to this day, and the introductions will explain the influence of each work.
A word to the instructor: The texts have been chosen with the idea that they can be compared and contrasted, using common themes. Rather than numerous (and therefore often random) choices of texts from various periods, these selected works are meant to make both teaching and learning easier. Students often learn better when there is a theme or a set of themes that they can use to make sense of the stories. For example, the differences among cultures and time periods in the definition of a hero are found throughout the anthology. As the time periods progress, the type of hero changes as well: warriors in the ancient world, knights and samurai in the medieval period, and soldiers in works set in the Renaissance. Many of the works examine the role of women in society, and each time period contains numerous works of social commentary. There are epics across world literature to compare, belief systems from the Greek pantheon of gods to Native American origin stories, and philosophical questions about ethical and moral behavior.
It is by comparing similar topics and themes that students are most easily able to see the significant differences in the cultures. If I ask students to discuss a work such as the Analects of Confucius, they often do not know where to begin or what to say. If I ask students to suggest what would happen if Gilgamesh were dropped into the environment of the Analects, they immediately see the problems: Gilgamesh is not a “gentleman” by Confucian standards, nor does he have the temperament to attract gentlemen retainers, who would expect courteous and proper behavior from him.
While cultural expectations are not universal, many of the themes found in these works are. Human beings have always cared about friendship, love, and finding their place in the world; we still read and watch stories of heroic journeys, bravery in its many forms, family relationships (good and bad), and the triumphs and tragedies of people who are not so different from ourselves.
As an example, the following assignment is one possible way to compare the texts in the Ancient World section.
Culture Shock Essay: take a character such as Achilles and place him in a story with a culture that would be completely foreign to him (such as the Mahabharata). How would he react to the people around him, and what would they think about him/his behavior? This topic could be mixed and matched: Hector in Gilgamesh, Arjuna in the Aeneid, Aeneas in the Art of War, etc.
Again, by asking the students to compare cultures, it is easier for them to identify differences. Obviously, a similar type of essay would work in the medieval period and the Renaissance, and Ancient World texts could be compared to medieval or Renaissance texts as the term progresses.
A note about calendar systems: The anthology uses B.C.E. (Before Common Era) and C.E. (Common Era). As a world literature text, it seeks to be as inclusive as possible of belief systems around the world. Of course, the numbering system used comes from the Christian calendar’s B.C. (Before Christ) and A.D. (Anno Domini—in the year of our Lord); basically, Christianity is the determiner of what is Common Era and before. Since there needs to be a way of comparing time periods across these cultures, and today’s world uses the numbering system that stems from the Christian calendar, it is the system used throughout. It would be too unwieldy to use all of the relevant calendar systems, although it is worth noting to students that they exist. For instance, 2015 C.E. is the year 5776 in the Hebrew calendar, the year 4713 in the Chinese calendar, and 1436 in the Islamic calendar. For Hinduism, the current Epoch of this cycle of the universe (which is destroyed and remade numerous times) started in 3012 B.C.E., and the current Era in that Epoch started in 78 C.E. Obviously, it would be both difficult and confusing to employ more than one system.
Many of these ancient world texts concern themselves with the definition of a hero, as well as the (often separate) definition of a leader: A leader can be a hero, but a hero is not always a leader. Love for one’s family drives the actions of the majority of the characters in this section; romantic love has its place in the stories as well, although it is discussed less. Both societal and religious expectations play key roles in the behavior of these characters, so it will be necessary to understand a few details about those beliefs. The chapter introductions will address some basic religious beliefs for each region.
As with all the time periods in world literature, different events mark the end of the ancient world in different cultures. If the fall of Rome in 476 C.E. marks the end of an era in Europe, it is clearly an irrelevant date to cultures such as China and India. The unification of China under the Qin dynasty in 221 B.C.E. marks the end of Ancient China and the beginning of the Dynastic Period. Classical India ends somewhere between 550 C.E. (with the fall of the Gupta Empire) and 1206 C.E. (with the establishment of the Delhi Sultanate following hundreds of years of Islamic invasions).
While poetry is found in all of the ancient cultures included, a commonality across most of those cultures is epic poetry. Epic heroes often have some kind of supernatural ability, or are demigods, and/or have the help of the gods. In Gilgamesh, the title character is two-thirds god and one-third human (an interesting exercise for a modern-day geneticist), while Achilles is the son of a goddess and a mortal man in the Iliad, as is Aeneas in the Aeneid. If Odysseus is not a demigod, he certainly is loved by the goddess Athena, who protects him through his journeys. In the Mahabharata, the main warriors of the story are all demigods, and in the Ramayana, the main character is a god: an avatar of the god Vishnu, sent down to earth in human form to fight evil. The Metamorphoses is the anti-epic of the group, arguing that there are no real heroes: just gods and humans who make mistakes, forming history along the way.
Many of the works in this section have another commonality: They are foundational texts for their respective societies. Western literature would not exist in its present form without the influence of Greek and Roman epics or ancient Greek drama. References to the Trojan War, to Ovid, and to Oedipus (among many others) are found in media from literature (in the Middle Ages to the present day) to newspaper comic strips. Sun Tzu’s The Art of War is still taught around the world. In present-day India, the characters in the Mahabharata and the Ramayana are referenced in everyday conversations. Confucian ethics influenced Chinese thought for well over two thousand years.
The works in this section are meant to be compared and contrasted. Consider the following questions while reading:
Compare the definition of a hero in Gilgamesh, the Iliad, the Mahabharata, and the Aeneid. What does a hero have to do to be admired by his own society? What can’t he do?
How are Gilgamesh and Achilles similar? How is Hector both similar and different to them?
How are the expectations for a gentleman in the Analects similar to the expectations for the sons of Pandu in the Mahabharata? What makes Aeneas both similar and different to them?
What view of the gods do the characters have? What does their pantheon of gods expect from the characters, and what do they expect of the gods?
How do characters in this section deal with authority/authority figures? Why?
Written by Laura J. Getty