Great Authors of the Great Western Literary Tradition—The Value and Interpretation of Literature

The Great Authors is one of the Great Courses offered by the Teaching Company. This first edition is out of print, but you can obtain the current edition of the course by going to I have decided to put some of summaries of these lectures on this blog because it was one of my favorite courses from the Teaching Company.

This is a summary of the first two lectures by Professor Arnold Weinstein, who is the Edna and Richard Salomon Distinguished Professor at Brown University, where he has been teaching courses in European, English and American literature at Brown University since 1968.

1. The Value of Literature

Prof. Weinstein talks about the definitions offered in the past for the value of literature, and some of the ironic arguments he poses against those definitions.


Argument Against

A. Literature is non-utilitarian. It often is very useful indeed—for displaying your educational and socioeconomic status.



B. Literature helps one
how to think.
If society actually valued “how to think” over “what to think”, this value would mean a lot more. However, the trend seems to be towards the latter.


C. Literature is a source of
ethical values
Often heroes in literature transcend or transgress moral boundaries, even in the Bible.
Moreover, there are examples of literature being a bad corrupting influence:

i. Tale of Paulo and Francesca in Canto 5 of the 2nd Circle of Hell in Dante’s Inferno where they are corrupted by reading.

ii. Cervantes, whose hero Don Quixote is addled by reading too many picaresque novels.

iii. Flaubert’s Emma Bovary is ill-equipped to deal with reality because of her reading of romantic fiction.

What Prof. Weinstein says is a more reliable value of literature, rather than the moral improvement it may or may not effect in the individual, is to give any individual who reads great literature a greater understanding of the concerns and crisis of a particular culture.

Also, it can chart the various cultural and scientific changes going on in the background in any particular age and can therefore be used to see a historical period not in terms of dry facts about events, but rather “from the inside” as it were.

2. The Interpretation of Literature

There is a crisis with the notion of theory with regards to literature, and in response to all of this political infighting, one might just ask the naïve question: “why can’t you simply read the books?” However, the human being as an individual is, to a certain extent, the problem of his or her own culture, and you cannot read a literary text in the past without understanding not just the author’s intent, but the cultural assumptions within which that author lived.

One example is when Voltaire read Shakespeare, and translated the famous “to be or not to be” soliloquy …

“To be, or not to be? that is the question!
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles…”

… into French as follows.

“Demeure, il faut choisir et passer à l’instant
De la vie, à la mort, ou de l’être au néant.
Dieux cruels, s’il en est, éclairez mon courage.
Faut-il vieillir courbé sous la main qui m’outrage…

This translates back into English as the following:

Yet stay, we must now choose as in the moment caught,
From life to death we pass, from being into naught,
Cruel gods, if such there be, pray guide me past my daring,
Must aging’s hand bear down and crush me all despairing…

Notice how the French version rhymes because that was the style, of rhyming Alexandrian couplets, rather than the free verse of the English. Also, notice that there is a reference to “cruel gods” in the French version, a cultural reference which is inserted there by Voltaire to make more sense to his French audience, but one that is totally absent in the original English.

3. Modern Interpretations of Literature

Prof. Weinstein cites Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud as the two greater influences in 20th century literary criticism. Karl Marx tried to show how literature could illuminate the socioeconomic forces at play within the society where that literature was created. For example, the boy in the Blake’s poem about the Chimney Sweeper in the Songs of Innocence talks about a tale which the chimney sweeper tells to comfort himself.

And yet, in the poem about a chimney sweeper in The Songs of Experience, this tale is exposed for the tool of exploitation that is actually is.

“The Chimney Sweeper,” from Songs of Innocence by William Blake

When my mother died I was very young,
And my father sold me while yet my tongue
Could scarcely cry ” ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep!’ ”
So your chimneys I sweep & in soot I sleep.

There’s little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head
That curled like a lamb’s back, was shaved: so I said,
“Hush, Tom! never mind it, for when your head’s bare
You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair.”

And so he was quiet, & that very night,
As Tom was a-sleeping he had such a sight!
That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned & Jack,
Were all of them locked up in coffins of black.

And by came an Angel who had a bright key,
And he opened the coffins & set them all free;
Then down a green plain, leaping, laughing, they run,
And wash in a river and shine in the Sun.

Then naked & white, all their bags left behind,
They rise upon clouds and sport in the wind.
And the Angel told Tom, if he’d be a good boy,
He’d have God for his father & never want joy.

And so Tom awoke; and we rose in the dark,
And got with our bags & our brushes to work.
Though the morning was cold, Tom was happy & warm;
So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm.

The Chimney Sweeper,” from Songs of Experience

A little black thing among the snow,
Crying ” ‘weep! ‘weep!” in notes of woe!
“Where are thy father and mother? say?”—
“They are both gone up to the church to pray.

“Because I was happy upon the heath,
And smiled among the winter’s snow,
They clothed me in the clothes of death,
And taught me to sing the notes of woe.

“And because I am happy and dance and sing,
They think they have done me no injury,
And are gone to praise God and his Priest and King,
Who make up a heaven of our misery.”

And Freud knew what he was doing when he drew upon the plays of Sophocles for material to illustrate his theories of the Oedipus and Electra complex, in order to show why they have had some emotive power for generations of audiences, because they illustrate the primordial beginnings we all go through early in life.

I am appreciate of Prof. Weinstein’s efforts to talk about the importance of literary theory, but also understand his warning about its abuses, where we read into a particular piece of literature any pet theory that we happen to have, whether it reflects any actually intention on the part of the author or not.

With this survey of the importance of literature and the measured consideration of the value of literary theory to help interpret literature, the series now turns to Homer, the first author in the Western Literary Tradition who wrote The Iliad and The Odyssey. That will occupy the next six lectures (three for the Iliad and three for the Odyssey).


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