What is Literature: Its Definition, Nature, and Function

what is literature

In the attempt to define the term ‘literature,’ one can distinguish between two general directions: a broad and a narrow definition. The broad definition incorporates everything that has been written down in some form or another, i.e., all the written manifestations of culture (hence, there are terms such as ‘research literature’, ‘the literature on civil rights, etc.).

Criteria for Defining Literature

Needless to say that such a broad definition is problematic as it does not really facilitate communication about the topic. Furthermore, this concept neglects the fact that in many cultures in the past and for a number of indigenous peoples today, literature has not been captured in written media but has been passed down in a long oral tradition of storytelling, myths, ritual speeches, etc.

Attempts to come up with a narrow definition have, however, led to such a diversity of approaches that one can hardly talk about ‘the’ narrow definition. Nevertheless, it is possible to sift out some of the criteria scholars have applied in order to demarcate ‘literary texts’ from ‘non-literary texts.’

These criteria include:

fictionality – a product of imagination

specialized language – differs considerably from normal everyday language

lack of pragmatic function – not have been intended by the author for any specific purpose

ambiguity – open to interpretation

What is Literature?

It is an enduring expression of a significant human experience in words well-chosen and arranged.

  • enduring – lasting, not ephemeral
  • expression­ – sharing; a manifestation
  • significant – important, necessary, meaningful
  • human – people; different human conditions
  • experience – the heart of literature
  • words well-chosen and arranged

It comes from the Latin word “litera” which means an acquaintance with letters.

Literature can be defined as everything in print.

It is a body of literary productions, either oral, written, or visual, containing imaginative language that realistically portrays thoughts, emotions, and experiences of the human condition.

Some loosely interpret literature as a faithful reproduction of man’s manifold experiences blended into one harmonious expression. Because literature deals with the ideas, thoughts, and emotions of man, literature can be said to be the story of man. Man’s loves, grief, thoughts, dreams, and aspirations coached in the beautiful language is literature.

Literature is a product of a particular culture that concretizes man’s array of values, emotions, actions, and ideas.

The Nature of Literature

Literature is language in use that provides insights and intellectual stimulation to the reader. As one explores literature, he likewise discovers the beauty of language.

The language that is used by literature differs from ordinary spoken or written language.

Literature uses special words, structure, and characteristics. Primarily the language of literature differs from ordinary language in three ways:

  • language is concentrated and meaningful;
  • its purpose is not simply to explain, argue, or make a point but rather to give a sense of pleasure in the discovery of a new experience; and
  • it demands intense concentration from the readers.

It indicates that the language of literature has originality, quality, creativity, and pleasure.

The Functions of Literature

Dulce and Utile

  • Dulce – to entertain; to give pleasure and enjoyment
  • Utile – to instruct

4Rs of Literature


Literature is a means of reassembling reality. We want to see what we cannot see in reality.


Literature helps us recognize the people and their contributions.


Literature is a means of modification of behavior.


Literature is a means of recording history. It reveals the past, the present, and the future.

All the above definitions describe literature from different perspectives. Still, there are certain things that are common to them. They all recognize the fact that:

i. Literature is imaginative

ii. Literature expresses thoughts and feelings

iii. Literature deals with life experiences

iv. Literature uses words in a powerful, effective, and yet captivating manner

vi. Literature promotes recreation and revelation of hidden facts.

Literature is thus summed up as permanent expressions in words (written or spoken), specially arranged in pleasing accepted patterns or forms. Literature expresses thoughts, feelings, ideas, or other special aspects of human experiences.

This post was originally published on my previous website at Teacher Anele <iamteacheranele.wordpress.com>

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