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A Canon of Classics

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Carli Bonavia

on 19 July 2013

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Transcript of A Canon of Classics

A Canon of Classics
Classic literature can be difficult to define and has been defined in many different ways. Some key characteristics of them are:

Classics express an artistic quality of some sort, a discussion of love, truth and beauty.
A classic text does not date, but shows the universality of its themes by representing a particular time period while remaining relevant and meaningful in decades and centuries following its publication. Recent texts cannot be called classics as they have not been put to the "test of time''.
Classic texts are universal in their appeal, as they reflect human nature in some way. They feature topics such as love, hate, death, life and faith and appeal to the emotions of all readers, of all backgrounds, interests and experiences.
Classic texts can be seen through a lens of history and connections can be made between other works of literature, the literary experience of the writer and the ideas of the time period. This is somewhat due to the importance of the themes in these texts and the way they express basic human experience.
A canon is a set of literary texts that has come to be considered as important and representative of a certain time and place. There are canon texts from particular countries, particular times, particular movements and in particular languages which are seen as the most important works of these categories. It is both a classification and a rating.
Canon - not CANNON!
When a text is added to the literary canon, it is acknowledged as being widely read, studied and respected. Texts can be added or withdrawn from the canon although it is rare for them to be removed altogether. For example, growth and rising interest in the area of women's studies has allowed many female authors, whose works were often overlooked in favour of men's writing, the chance to be added to the canon. Being added to the canon gives a text a sort of authority and status, it means it is respected and therefore more valuable than an average text.
But who decides what becomes canon?
Well, there is no council that meets to decide whether Jane Austen's unfinished stories are canon or not. It is more of a consensus of many influential people such as academics, literary critics, teachers and other people who are respected for their opinions and knowledge in this area. Due to the fact that there is no governing body of literary canon, there are no rules about what can and cannot be let in - so it is a subjective term.
Texts are added to the canon for various reasons. Often they are simply of a greater quality than other texts of the same period, or region. Texts can also be added if they are relevant to contemporary historical events and trends, if they were ground-breaking in some way, or have a particularly strong cultural resonance and meaning. Texts are also added for numerous other reasons.
It is sometimes said that 'canon' refers to texts that are recognised by the Church as the word 'canon' comes from a religious lexicon and means the laws of the Catholic Church. The sense that literary circles use the word comes from the original Latin which means a measuring rod or standard. This means that all other texts should try to meet the high standard set by the classics.
'The Secret Agent' by Joseph Conrad was published in 1907. It features themes of espionage, terrorism and anarchy, as well as prejudice, racism and vulgarity. It become very well known and widely discussed following the September 11 attacks in America. Its themes and plot were particularly relevant to this period in time and it was 'canonised' as a result of an event nearly 100 years after its publication.
Mary Shelley's 1818 novel 'Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus' marks the creation of two of Western cultures most enduring figures - Frankenstein and his creation. This novel both sparked the myth of Frankenstein's monster and helped create tropes that the horror genre has been replicating ever since. She also writes the monster as an intelligent, and at times sympathetic, character - a monster with a heart, something used unceasingly in Hollywood and in literature.
William Shakespeare's play are classics for many reasons but his play 'Henry V' has had a surges in popularity whenever England has been threatened or indeed been triumphant. It tells the tale of a young king who is victorious at the very important Battle of Agincourt in 1415. Henry is an English hero and as such, is often discussed when England is in times of great need of heroes like World War 2. During the second world war, Laurence Olivier starred in a film production of Henry V to boost the morale of both soldiers and civilians. Henry's valour, strength and bravery were and still are an inspiration, he is a valuable figure to English culture and the play, written in 1599, reflects his importance to society.
There are many different types of canon although there can be a problem due to the largely Western focus of classic literature. It has often ignored works from other cultures although this is slowly starting to change.
Western canon
English canon
American canon
French canon
German canon
Eighteenth Century canon
Nineteenth Century canon
Feminist canon
Romantic canon
Gothic canon
Modernist canon
Colonial canon
Post-colonial canon
And so, so many more.
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