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Social Context and Values in Literature

0 December 14 2017, 07:14 in Literary Analysis Essays

Social Context and Values in Literature

History and the society play a fundamental role in shaping literature. More particularly, the social activities and cultural experiences, including the values, beliefs, and attitudes of the time when the piece was written, ultimately contribute to the creation a literary text. Understanding the social settings and values of that period, therefore, illuminate the meaning behind the narrative and it gives relevance to the text. This as a result allows the readers to not only gain new information but also develop new thoughts and concepts.

The influence of social events and value in literature is evident in The Epic of Gilgamesh, Antigone, The Last Days of Socrates, and the Song of Roland. While written centuries apart, these works nonetheless reflect the social values of their respective societies. These four literary pieces present the different attitudes of the Mesopotamians, Greeks, and Western European regarding various values and issues, including morality, the concept of courage and wisdom, religion and politics, as well as the role of women.

The Epic of Gilgamesh, for example, highlights the concept of morality as well as the value of courage and wisdom. Regarded as the world’s first literary masterpiece, the narrative centers on the epic story of a Sumerian King, Gilgamesh, who starts his kingship as cruel tyrant. After the death of his friend, the king begins to question his own mortality and seeks out the secret to eternal life. He soon realizes that his dream for immortality is next to impossible and while he cannot live forever, humanity will. This prompted Gilgamesh to resume his rightful place in the world and vowed to be a better king.

This epic story reflects the polytheistic religion of Mesopotamian. The narrative, in particular, shows that as a group, Mesopotamians acknowledge the existence of multiple gods and goddess and perceive them as powerful and immortal figures. More than this, however, the Epic of Gilgamesh reveals the sensibilities of the Mesopotamians and how they place an emphasis on respecting the deities. The group alternately believes in the importance of morality and ethics. These values are embodied by the character of Gilgamesh, who evolved from being an unjust man to a just and moral king. The epic, in particular, highlights the idea of morality and how the gods live by their own laws. Humans must therefore live with obedience and piety. It is only by living these values can one achieve wisdom and fulfilment. In the case of the Sumerian King, he gains wisdom only after reconciling with his own mortality.

In addition to values, the story of Gilgamesh alternately presents the dominance of men and subordinate role of women in the Mesopotamian society. In the narrative, both the king and Enkidu are depicted for their masculinity. The gender divide becomes all the more apparent with the absence of depiction and reference of a female figure. Rather, women are portrayed in this narrative for their sexuality and are portrayed as an embodiment of moral frailty. The characters of the prostitute and Ishtar highlight the idea of women as seductress and the embodiment of moral weakness. When Ishtar for example, tries to seduce Gilgamesh, he answers, "Your price is too high,/ such riches are far beyond my means” (132). This response indicates that Gilgamish is aware of the seductive nature of Ishtar and women, in general,

The presence of a patriarchal society, the role of women, and the consequences of going against social rules are alternately present in Sophocles’ Antigone. This Greek play was written during the 4thcentury. It revolves around the tragedy of Antigone and how she defies the law. From a social and culture point-of view, Antigonepresents the central issue of gender. More precisely, the play mirrors the male-dominated society of Ancient Greece as well as the how women are suppressed in this patriarchal setting. The dominance of men is embodied by Creon’s hubris and strict kingship. Antigone, on the other hand, is a character that tries to step outside the bounds of proper female subservience. She defies both the law and the authority of Creon by burying her brother against the ruler’s orders. In this narrative, it becomes clear that women during this period are deemed as second class citizens, whereas men are figures of power and authority. Creon represents the power held by men to create and enforce laws; while the character of Ismene reinforces the societal idea of what women should be – passive and submissive. The role of men as enforcers of law and women as followers are expressed best in the lines, "But this proud girl, in insolence well-schooled, first overstepped the established law, and then – a second and worse act of insolence – she boasts and glories in her wickedness. Now if she thus can flout authority unpunished, I am women, she the man”.

The character of Antigone, on the other hand, presents the contrast between the expectations of the society on women and their true capabilities. More particularly, the decisions and actions of Antigone in this narrative signify that women are also strong despite of the suppression of the patriarchal society. But while the play depicts the potentials of women, it nonetheless reinforces the idea that a patriarchal society should and will always prevail. The tragic ending of Antigone embodies the consequences of going against the male societal structure. Her convictions in this play are often depicted as misbehaviours that require punishment. Hence, Antigone’s role shows the female rebellion will ultimately result in punishment and death.

Apart from the role of women, Antigone similarly presents important Greek values of that period. The virtue of duty, for instance, is highlighted in this play. Scholars explain that duty and responsibility is an important value for Greeks. Duty in this case, refers to both civic responsibility and familial responsibility. The concept of civil responsibility is embodied by the character of Creon who feels that his responsibility as the new ruler of Thebes outweighs his family and their happiness. This is evident when he continued with his orders despite the pleadings of his son Haemon to spare Antigone’s life. Creon’s inability to fulfill his duties towards his family prompted his son to renounce his allegiance to his own father. His dedication to his duty as a king is best expressed in the lines, "Is this city going to tell me how to rule? Am I to rule in my own interests or someone else’s (Sophocles 736). This represents how Creon puts his duty for polis above everything and everyone else. The value of familial responsibility, on the other hand, is exemplified by Antigone. While Creon was focused on his duties as king, Antigone asserts her allegiance to her own family. This love and strong sense of duty for her brother ultimately caused to break the law.

The concept and importance of duty is also evident in The Last Days of Socrates. This piece centers on the defense made by Plato for Socrates who was put to trial for accusations of corrupting Athenian youth as well as inventing new deities. In this piece, Socrates explains that he has no experience with the law and the jury, but he will nonetheless speak with honesty and directness. The philosopher explains that he considers it his utmost duty to question men and expose their ignorance and false wisdom. The philosopher similarly argues that he is the most loyal Athenian and in his own ways, a patriotic citizen who deeply cares about the welfare and good of his polis. Alternately, he points out that he is only after the best interest of his city. In the end, the jury decides to execute Socrates who stoically accepts the verdict. Before his death however, Socrates warns the jury that by silencing their critics they have harmed themselves more than they have harmed him.

In this speech, Plato highlights important values of patriotism, civic duty, as well as wisdom as embodied by Socrates. The values of wisdom and duty, for example, are evident in how Socrates is always engaging in intellectual activities. What is most interesting to point out is that unlike the common notion of being loyal and patriotic, Socrates’ method mainly involves engaging in pursuits for wisdom which he deems as the highest moral value. This underlines the premium that Athenians give to wisdom and duty. More particularly, Ancient Greeks were mostly concerned with pursuits that will enable them to expand their knowledge in the human realm and at the same time, fortify their understanding and concept of ethics and virtue. Hence, the character of Socrates was depicted as an ardent advocate of wisdom as well as self-knowledge. Consequently his character show that the lack of wisdom and the presence of ignorance results to evil. Socrates is, therefore, giving the readers a bigger idea of the ideals and virtues that individuals must emulate. In fact, this desire and duty to seek wisdom cost Socrates his life.

Largely connected with Socrates’ desire for knowledge and wisdom is the concept of duty. In this literary piece, Plato highlights the importance of duty which, in the case of Socrates, comes in the form of exposing people of their own ignorance. The philosopher believes that by helping people gain knowledge and wisdom he is, in fact, doing the polis good. This means that for Socrates wisdom equates to goodness while ignorance yields evil. Coming from a social context, this message represents the sensibilities of Ancient Greeks. That is, they believe that leading a life of wisdom is a supreme moral duty of every man.

The Song of Roland is another literary piece that presents the social value of its time. Similar to Antigone and The Last Days of Socrates, this poem underlines the importance of duty. Duty, in this narrative, is in the form of one’s duty to his faith. The narrative centers on the quest of Christian knights to defend the city of Saragosa from the Muslims. The acts of the protagonist show the devotion that Christians should have for their faith. More particularly, the poem presents Roland as a devout individual who is ready to die and give up his life for God and for Christendom. In fact, literary scholars depict Roland as first and foremost a conqueror and a holy warrior. A closer examination of the character of Roland would reveal that he exemplifies the knightly as well as religious ideals of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. This means that the protagonist in this epic poem is shaped to serve as an example to other Christians of that era. Simply put, he epitomizes the virtues of duty and devotion to God.

Courage and heroism are also values tied with the religious tone of the poem. It specifically shows the idea that a Christian must embody courage that will enable them to assume their religious role of defending their faith. Charlemagne and Roland are characters who embody courage and heroism whose main task is to serve in God’s name. This bravery and heroism are evident in Roland’s final attempts to blow his olifant. Alternately, Charlemagne showed bravery when he fights the Muslim army and kills Baligant. In the end, the poem also shows the rewards of heroism and bravery portrayed by the two characters. Roland’s reward, for example, comes when angels took his soul to paradise. Accordingly, Charlemagne’s reward is his claim to his kingship (Cunnigham 4).

To sum, The Epic of Gilgamesh, Antigone, The Last Days of Socrates, and The Song of Roland all highlight important virtues of their times. The protagonists in these narratives embody values such as wisdom, courage, bravery, and duty. In the same way, these literary pieces also underline the social activities and attitudes of the period. The subservient role of women as well as the patriarchal society, for example, is evident in The Epic of Gilgamesh and Antigone. Accordingly, the Ancient Greeks desire to gain knowledge as well as their sense of duty to their polis is apparent in The Last Days of Socrates; while the religious duties of a Christian is highlighted in The Song of Roland.

Works Cited

Cunnigham, K.G. "Historical Pespective and the Song of Roland”. Primary Source, 5, 2

Plato. Apology.New York: BookRix, 2015

Sophocles. Antigone. London: Penguin, 2015

The Epic of Gilgamesh. London, Penguin, 2000



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