What Is Canonical Literature? What You Need To Know

What is canonical literature? If you want to expand your literary horizons, you might be thinking about checking out a few canonical works.

Literature has had a tremendous impact on the course of human history, and people spend their entire careers studying how literature has both impacted and reflected the human culture. To better understand the impact of literature, it is helpful to divide it into different periods and styles. The way that works are divided is called literary canon.

Canonical literature refers to works divided into different categories representing different periods, authors, geographical locations, and cultural influences. To fully appreciate a work, it is beneficial to understand which canon it falls into and why it is categorized in that way.

What Is a Canon?

What is canonical literature?
William Shakespeare, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

A canon refers to works that are considered to be representative of a certain genre, location, or period in history. Even though there is some debate regarding how different authors and their works are categorized, like many literary elements, canons solidify over time. A few examples include:

  • The works of William Shakespeare are generally categorized as Western literature from the Renaissance.
  • Geoffrey Chaucer is usually included in Western literature as well, but his works are usually categorized in a different period from that of Shakespeare. 
  • The works of Jane Austen are usually categorized as literature from the period of romanticism.
  • The works of Homer are usually included in the Classics, which includes works from the time of the Romans and Greeks.
  • 20th-century writers, such as Ernest Hemingway, might be categorized as more modern writers, but many people would put him in a separate time period from Toni Morrison.

With these few examples from popular literature books, you can unpick how critics categorize canonical literature. Depending on the exact boundaries you use, the canons can change. Still, dividing works of literature into different categories makes it easier for you to understand and appreciate the impact they had on their contemporaries and people today. 

Where Does Canon Come From?

The exact origins of the word “canon” are unclear, but many people believe it comes from ancient religious texts, such as the Quran or Bible. Many people use “canon” to refer to religious traditions, with many of them dating back to the soundings of modern religious sects. The works that are included and generally accepted by the religion are considered to be “canon.”

In contrast, works outside of these texts are considered apocryphal. For example, the Gospel books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are Cannon to Christianity, but the Gospel of Mary Magdalene is a controversial text, regarded as apocryphal and non-canon.

Canon is also a term that applies to modern creative works. For example, numerous Star Wars movies are considered to be “canon,” but many popular Star Wars books, like the Thawn trilogy, are not considered canon. This is a term that can be applied to numerous other types of literature. 

What Is the Cultural Significance of Literary Canons?

Literary canons are important because they are reflective of human culture during a historical period. For example, readers can review works written by African-American writers during the Civil Rights Movement and better understand what they were feeling as they were fighting against the Jim Crow laws of the South, striving for equality.

It is also beneficial to look at works written by Asian American writers during WWII, particularly those in the Pacific, because they provide a view into what life was like as armed conflict was tearing the region apart. The same can be said of Jewish writers telling their stories in Europe during World War II. 

Even though we have video accounts of many of these stories as well, the same cannot be said of people who lived hundreds of years ago. In this case, the only window we might have into their personal stories comes in the form of books. That is why it is critical to look at literary canons and categorize work properly. That way, we can view it in an appropriate context. 

How Do Canons Change Over Time?

Literary canons can change and evolve over time. Not every author’s work is appropriately appreciated or categorized during the time when they were alive. This is particularly true of female writers, who often had to publish their work under a pen name because they were not allowed to write when they were alive. A few examples to note include:

Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin, Pen Name – George Sand: Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin was born in 1804 in Paris. She published under the pen name George Sand because female writers in France had a difficult time earning the recognition they deserved. One of her most popular novels was Indianawhich focuses on a woman who breaks free from a dying marriage and travels to Africa to find love.

Charlotte Bronte, Pen Name – Acton Currer: Charlotte Bronte lived during the Victorian era in England, which meant that she could not publish under her actual name and adopted a male pseudonym. She and her sister were afraid that their writing would not seem feminine, which would make it hard to gain the recognition they deserved. One of Charlotte’s most celebrated works is Jane Eyre, which tells the story of a girl who is orphaned at a young age. Despite the challenges in her upbringing, she grows to enjoy tremendous success.

Mary Ann Evans, Pen Name George Eliot: Mary Ann Evans was born in England in 1819. She published under the pen name George Eliot in an effort to avoid falling victim to the stereotypes of female writers. One of her most popular works is Middlemarchwhich focuses on realism and psychological insight during major conflicts in the 19th century. She fought hard against the unnecessary constraints placed on female writers and advocated for more creative freedom during her career.

Louisa May Alcott, Pen Name – A.M. Branard: Louisa May Alcott is one of the most celebrated female writers. During her career, she worked hard to portray the literary strength of female writers in 19th-century America. While she spent a portion of her career publishing under her real name, she published her early works under a pen name that gave her the freedom to write darker novels. Despite that, her most popular work is Little Womenwhich isn’t nearly as dark as many of her earlier works.  

These are a few examples of the many female writers forced to publish under a male pseudonym. Now, they are widely considered some of the greatest writers of all time, but their contemporaries did not know they were writers until much later. As a result, the attribution of their works has changed over time, altering the way they are included in literary canons as well.

Examples of Canonical Works of Literature

Examples of canonical works of literature
James Andrews, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

If you are interested in checking out some canonical works of literature, a few examples include:

  • The Odyssey by Homer, largely considered to be a canonical work of classic literature
  • The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, widely considered to be a classic work of medieval literature
  • Macbeth by William Shakespeare, typically grouped with other Renaissance literature
  • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, usually included with Romanticism

These works will give you a closer look at what culture might have been like in that part of the world during that specific time. 

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