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Can English Literature be summed up by one symbol?

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Can English Literature be summed up by one symbol, ‘The Island’? I’ve just finished reading Margaret Atwood’s guide to Canadian literature, Survival. As well as being very useful for my dissertation, it has raised this interesting question that I thought I’d share.

Atwood explores the idea that every country or culture’s literature ‘has a symbol at its core’. She acknowledges this is a massive generalisation, but suggests that America’s symbol is ‘the Frontier’, for England, it is ‘the Island’ and for Canada, it is ‘Survival’. I’ll be addressing the American and Canadian ideas in my dissertation, but it got me thinking about English Literature. Is the one unifying principle of my culture’s literature ‘The Island’?

Atwood goes on to explain that by ‘Island’, she means the sense of ‘island-as-body, self-contained, Body Politic, evolving organically, with a hierarchical structure…’ She gives the example of old proverb ‘the Englishman’s home is his castle’ as a practical example of this. I think there are two key ideas in here, first that English Literature is remarkably self-contained and secondly that it is defined by our class structure. Whilst ‘the Island’ represents self-containment well, I don’t think it is particularly true that English literature is self-contained. From our earliest stories, English literature has been influences by a wide range of cultures, ideas and countries. Beowulf for example was influenced by Scandinavian sagas, Chaucer by French romances and Shakespeare by Boccaccio. I am sure there are many more examples, but that was just off the top of my head! I think literature by definition is a melting pot of different influences and so to say any literature is ‘self-contained’ is problematic. What is less problematic for me is the idea of our literature being extremely influenced by class hierarchy. There is plenty of evidence for this, from Dickens to Austen and more recently, Ian McEwan. However, is this the central unifying principle to our vast canon of literature? It is certainly a strong candidate, but I do feel slightly uncomfortable with endorsing it wholeheartedly. I’m trying desperately to think of exceptions to justify not feeling comfortable, but the more I think about it, the more positive examples I think of!! One thing I can say though is that I don’t see the link between ‘The Island’ as a symbol and class hierarchy. Why not just call our symbol ‘Class’? I don’t think there are any easy answers to this, but it is a question I will have to keep thinking about until I reach a more satisfactory conclusion for myself. If I have any further worthwhile insights, I’ll let you know!

In conclusion, a big thank you to the wonderful Margaret Atwood for making me think, as she always does!

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