Great literature should first entertain. But its power can also be used in other ways.
Ways Stories are Used
There are three main ways stories influence readers.
- To reflect and affirm society’s values
- To shape society’s values
- To inspire readers
Examples of Books that Reflect Society’s Values
The classic example? Anything by Jane Austen. Reading them is like opening a window into the mind of the early nineteenth century.
The heroes and heroines in her novels are generally those who confirm to the values of the day. Those cast in the role of villain, like Wickham and Willoughby or the Crawfords, are those who defy the accepted morality and standards of behavior.
Another lesser known example is The Trustee from the Toolroom by Nevil Shute. The hero is faced with a nearly impossible task, but out of a sense of duty and what is right, he selflessly sets his mind to it. How a middle-aged mechanic manages to navigate international travel in the late 1940s and retrieve his dead sister’s fortune from a shipwreck is a testament to an earlier age when duty and honor meant fulfilling obligations, no matter how inconvenient.
What’s interesting is the hero never considered not fulfilling his duty. That’s a far different value than we see in our society today.
Examples of Books that Shape Society’s Values
Uncle Tom’s Cabin is the classic example of a novel written to change public opinion. That the anti-slavery movement picked up after its publication demonstrates how well the author succeeded.
Cider House Rules attempts to show both sides of the abortion debate, but in the end, comes down on the pro side. The sympathetic, thoughtful hero makes one want to agree with him, swaying the reader to adopt his viewpoint.
John Grisham’s The Confession is another example. The protagonist starts off fairly neutral on the subject of capital punishment. By the end, he is rapidly against it, and the reader has been pulled along to this point of view.
Examples of Books that Inspire Readers
This category doesn’t necessarily include inspiration as regards to faith, but it could. There are entire genres that could be included here, such as war stories or survival stories such as Unbroken or American Sniper.
Also in this category we would have such epics as the Lord of the Rings. In this classic, the small, obscure, weak and ungifted with any powers turn out to the heroes. Good triumphs over evil. The underdog wins out against impossible odds.
What books have you read lately reflect or shape values, or inspire?