What is Literature?

‘Anything can be literature, and anything which is regarded as unalterably and unquestioningly literature – Shakespeare, for example – can cease to be literature’


The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory defines ‘literature’ as  ‘a vague term which usually denotes works which belong to the major genres: epic, drama, lyric, novel, short story, ode (qq.v.). If we describe something as ‘literature’, as opposed to anything else, the term carries with it qualitative connotations which imply that the work in question has superior qualities: that it is well above the ordinary run of written works…’[i].  The inclusion of genre into this definition causes problems, as genres are established retroactively and are in a state of constant flux, being constantly transformed and challenged by new literary works, which can often generate new genres. However, the definition does well to immediately draw attention to the status of ‘literature’ as a ‘term’ rather than a concrete object. ‘Literature’ is an abstract category that has been appropriated to a certain body of writing within the last two hundred years. It is also important to note that the term has ‘qualitative connotations’ as this definition seems to be implicit within Eagleton’s statement. But if literature has ‘superior qualities’, what are they?

Literary theory in the first half of the 20th century generally aimed to find an objective set of criteria with which to define ‘literature’, beginning with the Russian formalists, who argued that literature is set apart from ordinary writing by its formal features. Lev Jakubinskij first argued that literature is characterised by connotative, rather than denotative language, or language, not purely for communication, but in which the ‘practical aim retreats to the background… and language resources acquire autonomous value’[ii]. Viktor Shklovsky developed this theory by arguing that ‘the purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known’[iii]. This led to a focus on the construction rather than the motivation of a work, its form rather than its content. He believed that through the process of habituation we fall into a routine of recognising, rather than seeing our surroundings, and that literature ‘defamiliarises’ us from them, through ‘the slowness of perception’ created by innovative form, much like Wordsworth’s view that in poetry ‘ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual aspect’. In Art as Technique Shklovsky backs up this view with a persuasive reading of Tolstoy. Related in ideas to the formalists was the American school of New Criticism as exemplified by Cleanth Brooks. In The Language of Paradox[iv] Brooks exemplifies the view that literature is ambiguous and paradoxical language that concretises universals, much like Jakubinskij’s view that literature is connotative language. The New Critics believed that through close reading of literature we learn moral lessons and gain insight into universal truths. However, these theories fall apart when applied to the works of other canonised writers. Hemingway’s language in the extract in Appendix A, for instance, is both denotative and incredibly simple in its description. Hemingway’s use of adjectival description is sparse, and when it is used, limited to the most basic adjectives possible to express an idea (‘old’, ‘good’, ‘sad’). His description is entirely concrete and lacks metaphor. This draws the reader’s attention away from the form of the writing to its actual content, which according to the rules of the formalists makes this extract ordinary writing rather than literature.

It could be argued that rather than defamiliarising us from reality, Hemingway defamiliarises us from a decadent, defamiliarising trend in literature prior to his own. This is not an argument in favour of the formalists as their focus was entirely on the distinction of form over content (not form over previous forms), however it does tie in with the theory of Jan Mukarovsky, who argued that literature is writing that subverts and breaks away from the literary status quo. This is an interesting idea as innovation is often respected and admired in works of literature but it does not account for the fact that any writing can unintentionally subvert the literary status quo, and still not be classed as literature, for example if it is a piece of journalism or advertising, and equally writer who are considered to be canonical have followed others in style. TS Eliot proposed a similar idea, which managed to avoid this problem. Eliot saw literature as writing that both influences and is influenced by the ‘literary tradition’. Both of these arguments suffer from circularity. How can one know which texts constitute the ‘literary tradition’ without first being able to define literariness. Indeed, Eliot seemed to believe that the ‘tradition’ could be chosen arbitrarily, and he made popular the metaphysical poets, whose work reflected his own aesthetic ideals, and attempted to discredit widely respected writers such as Milton (whose work did not) by arguing that they suffered from a dissociation of sensibility.

I will now run through some other potential definitions. It could be argued that ‘literature’ is written stories. However this definition is a two-fold failure. Literature can also be the expression of a moment, a stream of consciousness or a description of a landscape or scene. Equally a written story can be ‘non-literary’, as in a piece of journalism (though some journalism is thought of as literature). The idea that literature is fiction is refuted by the presence of diaries (Samuel Pepys), historical works (Bede’s Ecclesiastical History) and journalistic works (Hunter S. Thompson). Literature as ‘creative’ writing is based upon a linguistic flaw, as all writing is in essence an act of creation. The argument that literature is aesthetic rather than utilitarian writing is true in the case of a lot of canonised works, but it does not account for the numerous polemics, satires, philosophical dialogues and other motivated writings that can be found within the canon. Literature can be either aesthetic, or aesthetic and utilitarian, but it is also true that ‘non-literary’ writing can contain aesthetic qualities. The conversational style of the extract in appendix B plays on the contrasting of long streams of adjectival description, with short abrupt sentences. The adjectives in the first line convey a sense of warmth and companionship, creating a metaphor

Appendix A

He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. In the first forty days a boy had been with him. But after forty days without a fish the boy’s parents had told him that the old man was now definitely and finally salao, which is the worst form of unlucky, and the boy had gone at their orders in another boat which caught three good fish the first week. It made the boy sad to see the old man come in each day with his skiff empty and he always went down to help him carry either the coiled lines or the gaff and harpoon and the sail that was furled around the mast. The sail was patched with flour sacks and, furled, it looked like the flag of permanent defeat.

Appendix B


Friendly, comfortable, generous and together; you could happily pour this all-rounder any time. Straight merlot is not normally my thing: a little dull; I like a twist of interest from another grape. I was convinced I could smell a little something undeclared else in here though, giving it a bewitching scent of redcurrant leaves over ripe June strawberries. “Yes,” said Jean-Claude Mas when I bumped into him by chance a few days later, “It has some cabernet franc in it.” Aha. Magic ingredient.

Appendix C

The fridge will be

emptied of all

expired items

every Friday evening

[i] J.A Cuddon (1977). The Penguin Dictionary of Litarary Terms and Literary Theory. 3rd ed. London: Penguin . p505-506.

[ii] L. Jakubinskij (1917). On Sounds in Verse Language (quoted in The Formal Method, B. Eichenbaum (1926)), Petrograd.

[iii] V. Shklovsky (1917) Art as Technique (in Literary Theory: An Anthology, ed. J. Rivkin and M.Ryan (1998), 2nd ed. Oxford)

[iv] C. Brooks (1947) The Language of Paradox (in Literary Theory: An Anthology, ed. J. Rivkin and M.Ryan (1998), 2nd ed. Oxford)

Contrasts and Comparisons in ‘Paradise Lost’

Paradise Lost is built upon comparisons and oppositions that colour our reading of the poem. Milton uses these oppositions and subverts them by blurring their delineations allowing us to experience almost first hand the vertiginous complexity of moral experience and human existence.

The most obvious theme in a poem about sin and the fall of man is that of good and evil. God and the angels represent the good while Satan and the devils represent evil, and Adam and Eve are the metonymic representatives of man-kind, who occupy a middle ground, caught in the struggle between the two opposing sides, and who feel the attraction of each. However, this opposition is far from simple or concrete. Milton’s supplication to the muse ends with an exposition of his purpose: to ‘justify the ways of God to men’[i]. This immediately puts into question God’s legitimacy as a pure representative of Good, as if this were an accurate epithet, his ways would not need to be justified. In fact, when God first appears, in Book III, his character appears irate and unmerciful, rather than good. He has seen Satan approaching Eden and in his omniscience realises that Adam and Eve will eat from the tree, but rather than expressing sorrow or pity, he seems to use their free will as an excuse for their damnation, turning the blame on to them, and he angrily exclaims, ‘whose fault? Whose but his own? Ingrate, he had of me all he could have; I made him just and right, sufficient to have stood, though free to fall’[ii]. Immediately prior to this outburst God has been discussing the fall of Satan and his crew, and the complex Latinate syntax makes it difficult to realise at first that he is now talking about Adam. This irascibility is only emphasised by the fact that the first character we encounter in the poem is Satan, and that he appears to be far nobler in character than we would expect from the reification of evil. Satan’s conviction in his opposition to God seems to be a result of a passionate political belief in democracy, rather than an evil disposition, as can be seen in this passage:

Is this the region, this the soil, the clime,                 

Said then the lost Archangel, this the seat                 

That we must change for Heaven?—this mournful gloom                 

For that celestial light? Be it so, since he                 

Who now is sovereign can dispose and bid                 

What shall be right: furthest from Him is best,                 

Whom reason hath equalled, force hath made supreme                 

Above his equals. Farewell, happy fields,                 

Where joy forever dwells! Hail, horrors! hail,                        

Infernal World! and thou, profoundest Hell,                 

Receive thy new possessor—one who brings                 

A mind not to be changed by place or time.                 

The mind is its own place, and in itself                 

Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.


The first line dramatically increases in pathos, due to the repetition and shortening of ‘is this the’ in the sequential references to ‘region’, ‘soil’ and ‘clime’. It is important to note that Milton did not use speech marks, so we are unsure whether the first line is being spoken by the narrator or Satan, and in this case uses Latinate syntax to delay the revelation until the second line, which means we are drawn into feeling the building emotion ourselves. The use of ‘lost’ as an epithet to archangel brings up an issue of scale, as we cannot comprehend the immensity of space that could make a being that is closer to Godliness even than the majority of angels feel lost. This is a tension created by Milton’s attempt to describe the metaphysical in the language of the physical, or expressed differently, to explain in man-made language something that is beyond the comprehension of man. This is a recurring theme throughout the poem that I will return to later. Milton tries to make us comprehend the dismal nature of hell by creating a binary opposition between its ‘mournful gloom’ and heaven’s ‘celestial light’, and the contrasting of ‘this’ and ‘that’ sets up the ideas of immediacy and distance. These first three and a half lines convey the deep misery of the setting that Satan has found himself in, so his stoicism and principled defiance that we see when he suddenly cuts in with ‘be it so’ in the middle of line 4, is surprising and endearingly noble. ‘He who now is sovereign can dispose and bid what shall be right’ is, in my opinion, one of the most important lines in the poem. It explicitly highlights the arbitrary nature of objective morality. We see from this line that the only reason that Satan decides that ‘to do aught good never will be our task, but ever to do ill our sole delight’, and the only reason that he can be seen as evil, is because he disagrees with God, and it is God who decides what is good and what is evil. Satan argues that according to reason God is equal to the other angels, but it is only ‘force hath made (him) supreme above his equals.’ His following farewell to heaven and embrace of hell along with his assertion that ‘the mind is its own place, and in itself can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven’ is incredibly stoic and is more the admirable resistance of a social revolutionary than a malevolent spirit.


In fact, this view of Satan as a freedom fighter for democracy against a tyrannical autocrat highlights another comparison, this time external to the text, which can, and, dubious as authorial readings tend to be, in this case I think should be made, and that is the parallel between Satan’s rebellion against God and the English civil war, which we know Milton to have been very actively involved with. In this reading Satan and his followers represent Cromwell and his anti-royalist army, while God represents the tyrannical king, Charles I. The most compellingly analogous sections of the poem, which support this idea are the two counsels held; the first in hell to decide on the actions of Satan’s army in gaining vengeance on God, and the second in heaven, when God sees that man will fall and somebody will have to be made mortal and die to redeem them. During the council in hell, Satan is the last to speak, allowing Moloch, Belial and Beelzebub to pitch their ideas first to be decided on by general consensus. In comparison, the voice of God dominates the council in heaven, with only Christ replying. This meeting is conducted as a despot’s declaration, rather than a democratic counsel. Linguistically, Satan speaks humbly and nobly, asserting that ‘I should ill become this throne, O peers, and this imperial sovereignty, adorned with splendour, armed with power, if aught proposed and judged of public moment, in the shape of difficulty or danger could deter me from attempting’. In comparison to this, God rants bad-temperedly (‘ingrate, he had of me all he could have’) and then asks, ‘which of ye will be mortal to redeem man’s mortal crime, and just the unjust to save(?)’ A variation of this reading could also be made, in which Satan, as well as representing Cromwell, could also represent Milton himself. The powers of Satan and God once again form a binary opposition. God’s power, according to Satan, derives from ‘force’, whereas Satan’s own power is in his rhetoric. Before the poem even begins he has used his powers of persuasion to build an army with which to rebel against God, and his power over their minds is clearly incredibly strong, as they remain loyal to him even after their defeat. He again manages to convince Eve to disobey God, not through force but by persuasion. Milton’s role in Cromwell’s revolt was not as a fighter, but as the Secretary of Foreign Tongues, in the Commonwealth parliament, and he wrote important tracts and polemics in support of the deposition and execution of the king, such as Areopagitica. Milton also studied classical rhetoric while at school and was required to participate in regular debates at Cambridge, so he clearly understood the importance of persuasion as opposed to force in a political uprising.

Related to the opposition of God and Satan, is that of heaven and hell, and just like man Eden acts as a middle party, prone to shifts and changes. We first see hell, which is characterised by darkness (‘darkness visible’), fire (‘as one great furnace flamed’) and depth (‘bottomless perdition’). Heaven, in contrast is characterised by light, and Milton emphasises the absolute nature of this light through repetition, when he says ‘since God is light, and never but in unapproachèd light dwelt from eternity, dwelt then in thee, bright effluence of bright essence increate’. Eden is subject to a cycle of day and night, at first undisrupted, but after the fall suddenly subjected to eclipses and storms. However, it is Milton’s use of light and darkness with regard to heaven and hell that I find most interesting. Milton was completely blind by the time he wrote Paradise Lost and his use of visual imagery takes on a abstract and sublime character, which melds together the physical and metaphysical in a way that must necessarily transcend or be limited by the human imagination. Rather than shying away from these descriptions Milton is content to use oxymorons and paradoxes, such as ‘darkness visible’, or simply images that can’t be comprehended like ‘thou from the first wast present, and with mighty wings outspread Dove-like sat’st brooding on the vast abyss.’ This use of incomprehensible imagery emphasises the sense of the sublime and allows Milton to show that ‘the ways of God’ are far beyond our comprehension.



[i] John Milton, Paradise Lost, Oxford, 2008; Book I, 26



Frailty thy name is Hamlet (A silly and unconventional reading)

Lacan tells us, in ‘Desire and the Interpretation of Desire in Hamlet’[i], that Shakespeare’s Hamlet is set apart from previous versions of the story by the central role given to Ophelia. In fact, female sexuality in general plays a vital role in understanding what is generally seen as Shakespeare’s most deeply psychological play and I will argue that in following the psychoanalytical readings expounded by Freud, Ernest Jones and Lacan, and taking into account some of the play’s inconsistencies regarding the ghost of Hamlet’s father, a new political reading, of Hamlet as conspirator to the throne, can be made. Hamlet’s hamartia, or tragic flaw, is usually seen as his incapability of decisive action and vengeance for his father. Goethe attributed this to a sensitivity, which is unequal to the task[ii] (‘conscience does make cowards’). Coleridge similarly claimed that Hamlet has ‘an overbalance in the contemplative faculty’[iii], which leads him to deliberate over everything and makes him incapable of decisive action. It has been argued against this view that Hamlet’s indecision is inconsistent. His murder of Polonius occurs in an instantaneous moment of passion, which it may be argued overrides his cowardice, however, the manner in which he sends Rozencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths is carefully pre-meditated. When the role of female sexuality is taken into account, however, an entirely different explanation for this paralysis can be expounded. Hamlet’s state of depression and madness (feigned or otherwise) is caused by two factors: Claudius’ murder of Hamlet’s father and his incestuous marriage with Gertrude. Criticism prior to Freud generally saw these as distinct reasons contributing to Hamlet’s psychological state, however, using the tools of psychoanalysis and particularly the theory of the Oedipus complex, Freud argued that the combination of the two factors outweighed the sum of their parts[iv]. Ernest Jones points out Hamlet’s differing reactions to Claudius’ two crimes – moral indignation and the wish for vengeance for the murder of his father, and a disgusted horror at the marriage – and then explains the issue thus, ‘it has to be borne in mind that the perpetrator of the crimes is a relative, and an exceedingly near relative. The possible interrelation of the crimes, and the fact that the author of them is an actual member of the family on which they were perpetrated, gives scope for a confusion in their influence on Hamlet’s mind that may be the cause of the very obscurity that we are seeking to clarify.’[v] Freud’s argument, later developed by Jones, is that Hamlet’s closeness to Gertrude, which comes through in lines such as ‘let not thy mother lose her prayers, Hamlet, I pray thee stay with us’, is indicative of an Oedipus complex, whereby he had repressed wishes to kill his father and gain his mother’s full attention. According to Freud the marriage of Gertrude to Claudius brought those repressed feelings to the surface, causing Hamlet’s neurosis. It is significant that he contemplates suicide before the ghost tells him that his father had been murdered (‘O that this too, too sallied flesh would melt’). This reading places a far greater emphasis on Gertrude’s sexuality as a factor behind the events of the tragedy, as it shows that Hamlet’s inability to kill Claudius is due to his guilt at wishing to commit the same crime. Both Freud and Jones later go on to argue that Hamlet’s neurosis is a reflection of Shakespeare’s own, however this sort of authorial reading is one that has lost it’s credence over the last century, particularly with Barthes’ declaration of the ‘death of the author’.

Hamlet’s Oedipus complex manifests itself in a madness, which we cannot be sure to be feigned, as Hamlet claims, or real. This madness is most famously expressed through Hamlet’s soliloquies on the subject of suicide. In the ‘to be, or not to be’ soliloquy Hamlet is questioning whether suicide or endurance is ‘nobler in mind.’ The idea of nobility ‘in mind’ can be seen as an attempt to compensate for what he feels are ignoble and vile thoughts.  He conflates the ideas of death and sleep (‘to die: to sleep’) and therefore runs into the fear that checks his drive towards suicide, ‘to sleep, perchance to dream’. In Freud’s theory of the unconscious the subject’s superego represses socially unacceptable thoughts, but these often come through in dreams through the processes of condensation and displacement, or in Lacan’s terminology, metonymy and metaphor. Hamlet’s fear of dreams, and his statement elsewhere that ‘I have bad dreams’, show that the repressed feelings that so horrify him resurface in his dreams, and his fear of the ‘undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns’ is a fear that those dreams may continue in the eternal sleep of death.

Hamlet’s treatment of Gertrude throughout the play is scornful and disgusted. He tries to overcompensate for his knowledge of his hypocritical position by emphasising his mourning in a performative manner and contrasting it with what he sees as her indifference. In Hamlet’s first scene he aggressively takes issue with her use of the word ‘seems’ when describing his mourning. He sets up a binary opposition between ‘seems’ and ‘is’, which he then undermines by saying, ‘tis not alone my inky cloak’, implying that the black cloak and suit are indeed part of his act of mourning – seeming and being are conflated rather than opposed. ‘Customary suits’ and ‘forced breath’ are what Hamlet calls ‘but the trappings and the suits of woe’, and contain implication of insincerity the words ‘customary’ and ‘forced’. Hamlet, however, says ‘I have that within which passes show’, again contradicting himself by asserting that ‘passes’ do actually ‘show’ rather than ‘seem’. His inconsistencies show that his mourning ‘seems’ far more than he would like to admit. In the closet scene, after the murder of Polonius, Hamlet’s treatment of his mother is still more scornful and accusatory in spite of her pleas of remorse (‘thou turnst my eyes into my soul and there I see such black and grieved spots as will leave there their tinct’), and it becomes clear that his disgust at the surfacing of his desires towards her has led him to violently reject and abhor sexuality. This can be seen from the dirty and sickening language he uses in 3.4.90-92. ‘The rank sweat of an enseamed bed stewed in corruption, honeying and making love over the nasty sty’ is an incredibly sordid and potent picture of the way in which he views her marriage, which so closely reflects his own repressed desires.

Hamlet’s treatment of Ophelia likewise reflects his Oedipus complex. Jones argued that before the death of his father Hamlet’s superego was successful in repressing his Oedipal tendencies, and that he had transferred his feelings of attraction from Gertrude to Ophelia (‘I loved you once’), who in her modesty, chastity, devotion and simplicity can be seen as the polar opposite of Gertrude. Lacan developed this idea further by arguing that after the murder of Hamlet’s father Ophelia loses her status as the love object, and in a separation from Hamlet’s subject becomes excluded and rejected. Hamlet’s disgust towards Gertrude becomes a more general misogyny, and he sees Ophelia merely as a ‘breeder of sinners’ and propagator of life (and therefore misery). He sees all women as sexually insatiable and corrupting, as seen in lines such as ‘wise men know well enough what monsters you make of them’. He likewise appropriates to Ophelia unpleasant general stereotypes of women – ‘you jig and amble and you lisp, you nickname God’s creatures and make your wantonness your ignorance’. His imperative, ‘get thee to a nunnery’ has a double meaning, as in Shakespeare’s day nunnery meant both what it does today and was also used euphemistically to mean a brothel.

There is one more implication of the Oedipus complex in relation to royals such as Hamlet, which was relevant to Oedipus himself, but doesn’t factor in Freud’s formulation, and this is of succession to the throne. Hamlet throughout appears to be disinterested in politics and the state of affairs in Denmark, however some inconsistencies regarding the ghost of Hamlet’s father bring this into question. In the first scene when the ghost visits Barnardo, Marcellus and Horatio they discuss the old king with a reverent air – ‘that fair and warlike form in which the majesty of buried Denmark did sometimes march’. At no point in the play do they speak of Claudius in the same way, and it seems significant that they go to Hamlet with their news rather than him. Another question raised by consideration of the ghost is why does it appear to them, but not to the queen? If it merely appeared to Hamlet, but not Horatio and the guards then it could be explained away as madness, however this is not possible under the circumstances. At no point throughout the play is Hamlet able to confirm absolutely that Claudius killed his father, even while Claudius is praying, as Hamlet arrives too late to hear his confession. Hamlet’s play is presented as an attempt to prove Claudius’ guilt by presenting him with the act that he supposedly committed, and Claudius does indeed leave in horror. However, this is not conclusive evidence. What Claudius has just witnessed, whether it is indeed a representation of his own crime or not, is a play, put on by his nephew, in which a nephew kills a king and marries the queen, his mother. Could it be that, rather than being wracked with guilt by the scene, Claudius has instead seen within it an elaborate threat engineered by Hamlet (who is, of course, the next in line to the throne). My argument is that Barnardo, Marcellus and Horatio are conspirators who wish to depose Claudius and instate Hamlet to the throne. They win over Hamlet to this plot and he feigns madness in order to portray Claudius as an incestuous tyrant and to generate the implication that Claudius killed his father. This appears to leave the ghost scenes unreconciled, but this is not the case when we consider that Horatio is the only character left at the end to tell the tale.

[i] Desire and the Interpretation of Desire in Hamlet

Author(s): Jacques Lacan, Jacques-Alain Miller and James Hulbert

Source: Yale French Studies, No. 55/56, Literature and Psychoanalysis. The Question of Reading: Otherwise (1977), pp. 11-52

Published by: Yale University Press

[ii] J.W. von Goethe, in The Romantics on Shakespeare. p. 306


[iii] Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Coleridge’s Writings on Shakespeare, Capricorn, New York, 1959. pp. 164-5


[iv] Freud, S, The Interpretation of Dreams (excerpt) in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works, Vol. 4, Ed. and trans. James Strachey (London: Hogarth, 1953-74), pp. 258-266.


[v] Jones, E, ‘The Oedipus-Complex as an Explanation of Hamlet’s Mystery: A Study in Motive’, The American Journal of Psychology, 21.1 (Jan., 1910), pp. 72-113.