Literature; The Vehicle For Social Change

Project and Seminar Material for English Language

Literature; The Vehicle For Social Change


Literature has some unique features that make it admirable. It is these features that possess the power that spark off the change in people. An understanding of these features helps us to understand literature better. Such features as Theme, Style, Plot, Character and Characterization, Setting etc. All these deal with peoples’ emotions and their environments. Literary appreciation, as well as criticism has helped to expose and entrench these features. In sum, literature through its aesthetic and artistry have shaped and affected the society positively. When you read any literary work, you find yourself in the work which expresses some of the features mentioned earlier.

Chapter One


1.1 Background to the Study

This research entitled “Literature” a vehicle for social change” sets out to study how literature can bring about change in the society.

In this research I might use the word “vehicle” and “tool” interchangeably, in addition to the words “change” and “development” in order to achieve the objective set for this work.

The issue of whether literature has the capacity to trigger off a revolution has been an enduring controversy. Some people believe it does not, while others argue that literature is of no use if writers write and no one reads what they write. A work of art becomes effective only when it is read. A writer and critic, Kole Omotoso has more to say on this;

The society has to use what it produces for literature to be relevant. For instance, had not responded to some of the 18th and 19th century novels depicting the suffering in Russia, the Russian revolution would not have happened. It was when a member of the British parliament read Charles Dickens’ representation of poetry in London in Oliver Twist that they decided in 1832 to come up with an education act.

… I still insist that literature has no function, except that which is given it by those who read it. On its own, it cannot change anything unless someone responds to the work and does something with it. If there is no response to literature, there is little literature can do (Ezeigbo 2000-13).

What we deduce from Omotoso’s assertion is the fact that literature can be a catalyst to revolutionary change. What is required is for an individual (a reader) or individuals (readers) to apply the knowledge, the information gathered from literature to bring social change.

The unrelenting persecution faced by writers all over the world is a clear indication that literature can indeed be a weapon to achieve change, which bad leaders dread; hence the persecution of courageous writers. In apartheid South Africa, in Kenya during the time of Arap Moi, in Nigeria under Abacha, and in Eastern European countries during the cold war, many writers faced death sentence, imprisonment and detention as a result of their work and their· activism. Literature is a threat to dictators. Bad leaders fear and hate writers and their works.

In traditional African society, art was functional, and the artist, performer or story teller was fully aware of this. The traditional oral artist knows the didactic role his/her art had to play and geared the performance towards achieving that end (Ezeigbo 2000: 57-58). Thus in such a society, art was placed at the service of the society. Modern African writers are a product of their species of the traditional society. At the African-scandinavian writer’s conference in Stockholm in 1967, Soyinka, among other things, declared “the artist has always functioned in African societies as the record of mores and experiences of his society and as the voice of vision in his time” (21).

Perhaps writers elsewhere have not always thought it their responsibility to direct their societies. For instance the followers of “The Aesthetic Movement” believed in the dictum” art for arts sake” and defended this position in the late 19th century Europe.

This type of attitude has been rejected by most African writers. Chinue Achebe believes that the writer “should match right in front” in “the task of re-education and re-generation that must be done and that the artist is “the sensitive point in his community” (45). Agreeing, with Soyinka and Achebe, Romanus Egude adds that the literary artist” dissects the society not only at its political level but also at its moral levels” (64).

This is what other writers have done over the years Since Nigerian literature came of age with the publication of Achebe’s Things Fall Apart in 1958. Our writers are among the best in the world; they are contributing through the power of their imagination and artistic creativity to the growth of literary productions that are changing the face of world literature, Writers, with award wining titles, like Chinue Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Buchi Emecheta, Ben Okri, NiyiOsundare, Femi, Osofisan, Zainab Alkali, Helon Habila, Chimamanda Adichie, Promise Ogochukwu and others have put Nigerian literature in the world’s literary hall of fame and contributed to Nigeria’s cultural and intellectual development. They have used art as a means of effecting revolutionary changes in society.

It seems proper to mention the contribution women writers have made in engendering equity and parity in gender relations and in creating awareness of the plight of women in the world’s largely patriarchal societies. From Europe to the Americas, Asia and Africa, women writers have consistently portrayed the injustice the female gender faces from birth to old age. There is no doubt that some of the finest prose writers-novelist especially-in the world, past and present, have been women. This is even more evident in the African literary tradition.

Modern writers like Virginia Woolf, Margret Drabble, Emma Tennant, Tone Morrison, Alue Walker, Buchi Emecheta, Flora Nwapa, Yvonne Vera, Zaynab Alkali, Tess Onwueme, Grace Ogot etc, raised women’s consciousness, addressed the politics, thus drawing attention to the fact that women are subjugated and marginalized. It is obvious that culture is pivotal in the consideration of gender difference (Ezeigbo 1996). Culture plays a prominent role in the subordination of women· to a subaltern position in discourse and in real life (Ezeegbo 2005).

1.2 Statement of Problem

As earlier remarked, this research sets out to study how literature can change the society. There are many ways literature can change the society I Shall be mentioning few of them.

  1. Literature teaches. It is teach us everything about humanity. It is important to know that no writer writes in a vacuum. What they depict In their writings is the experience of people in their environments and societies of which are either good or bad. If good, it is encouraged but if bad, it is corrected. A good teaching generally is designed to bring about a change in behaviour. If literature goes on to achieve this, then literature is good and should be encouraged.
  2. I also want to point out here that literature helps to develop and promote language. Apart from English which has over the years become the official and second language to most countries of the world, including Africa, most African local language have entered into English lexicon what we have as Nigerian language today is part of the development and promotion of language. There is no other field of discipline that develops and promotes language like literature. It is only in a literary piece you can find such Nigerian English as “Oga”, “botton power” “go-slow”, “garri”, “agbada”.
  3. Literature promotes and preserves culture. You, get to know about people’s culture through their literature. African culture and tradition have commanded attention of many people of the world through their literature, just like people from other continents of the world. For instance, the culture of the Igbo people in the eastern part of Nigeria is captured in Acbebe’s Things Fall Apart before the corning of the Whiteman. The younger generations are brought to the knowledge.
  4.  Literature preserves history. For instance, the Nigerian civil war story would have been forgotten if writers like Adichie in her Half of the Yellow Sun and the playwright Onyebuchi’s Bleeding scare (2005) to mention a few.
  5. Literature also entertains. It is meant to entertain. It brings happiness. Literature elicits the beating of nature. It is for relaxation. It mirrors the society.

1.3 Aims and Objective of the Study

The aim of this research work is to sensitize the society on the need to develop a reading culture on literary works. It is also aimed at exposing the hidden powers that literature possesses. Literature is not just for pleasure. There is more to it in our quest for societal changed

1.4 Significance of the Study

The significance of the study will be drawn as we progress in the course of this research work.

1.5 Research Questions

In the course of this project work, the following questions will be addressed;

  1. Has literature the ability to change the society?
  2. What are those features in literature that helps it achieve this change?
  3. Are the societies willing to change?
  4. What is the relationship between literature and history?
  5. What is the relationship between literature and culture?
  6. How is the government encouraging up-coming artist?

1.6 Scope of the Study

The scope of this study captures little part of English, American, East African and finally narrowed down to Nigeria.

1.7 Limitation of the Study

This study can only be limited by time and non-availability of data etc.

1.8 Definition of Terms

Different terms will be used in the course of this research work and they will be well defined


This is the events of the past records of people, nations and their culture.


This is the way of life and value of people.


This is the relationship between God and man through indirect and direct contact.


It is a cluster of people with the same speech and cultural belief.


It is the location and time of an event.


It is the central idea of a story.


Itis the choice of language.


It is the story-line of the event.

Chapter Five


5.0 Introduction

Much has been done in trying to define literature and its impact on society. This attempt virtually cuts across the three genres of literature with reference to English and American, literary works, down to Africa and our own nation, Nigeria. The impact of literature of the society cannot be overemphasized.

5.1 Response to Research Questions

The question remains, has literature the ability to change the society? If it has, to what degree?

All these questions have been answered in the text used in this research. For instance, in The Last Duty by Isidore Okpewho, an understanding of the author’s work is that war destroys, not only lives, but bonds and ties. He then cautions against anything of such. As earlier remarked, no country which has witnessed war would wish it to happen again. This account for the reason the Nigerian nation is doing everything to subvert any future outbreak of war, despite such attempts in the past. Presently, the unity of the country is overtly threatened by the Islamic fundamentalist, otherwise known as Boko Haram.

Okpewho also reveals how need could destroy self-dignity. The events of the war have created for Aku the need for love, protection, comfort and assurance. The detention of her husband, Mukoro, an event brought about by the war robs her of her legal lover. Aku was faithful, dependable but the war changed the whole experience. Nigeria learnt her lesson in a hard way. Literature served as a tool for this caution.

In Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Adichie, warns on religious extremism. As goes the saying, “Too much of everything is too bad”. There is need for balancing of gift as endowed to us by God. Eugene one of the major characters in novel is not just a religious zealot, but cruel. There is no freedom in the family as long as he lives. His exist, as far as the family is concerned is “a good riddance to bad rubbish”.

Adichie In the novel, reveals the need for economic and intellectual empowerment. If Kambili’s mother were empowered, the idea of poisoning the father of her children could not have arisen. This novel, kind of, is a wake-up call for Nigerian women against social, religious and cultural barriers that limit them.

5.2 Findings

The following observations were made;

  1. Any society that lacks reading culture will not experience development. A writer and critic, Kole Omotoso observed; “for instance, had Lenin not responded to some, of the 18th and 19th century novels depicting the sufferings in Russia, the Russian revolution would not have happened?. People should be encouraged to read.
  2. One remarkable thing about literature is its ability to embrace history, language and .culture. This ability distinguishes literature from other fields in arts. It is the vehicle that drives them.
  3. Literature transcends time and space. It recalls the events of the past, brings them to the present and makes them relevant for the future. We see that in The Last Duty.
  4. Literature teaches morals. It has the ability to shape characters and make them responsible.
  5. Bad leaders do not like writers. Experience has shown in the past that writers have had confrontations with past government in their various countries. We saw that in Nigeria as well as in Kenya.

5.3 Recommendations

The study strongly recommends the following;

  1. The society must be encouraged by government to develop reading culture by establishing local libraries and making books affordable. A wise man once said, “Reading makes a great man, while writing an exact man”. A society that reads is bound to be great.
  2. The society should not stop at reading, it should go further to apply the discoveries made. Since literature mirrors the society, we can use other people mistakes to correct ourselves.
    The government should encourage up-coming artists by relaxing certain laws that makes it difficult for them to write in order to sustain the impetus already created by the former artists.
  3. Stage-drama should be revived. As observed by a notable playwright, Ahmed Yerima, drama is dying in Nigeria. The state. of insecurity in the country is not allowing people to go to theatre houses to watch stage-drama.

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