Definition of Didacticism
Didacticism describes a type of literature that is written to inform or instruct the reader, especially in moral or political lessons. While they are also meant to entertain the audience, the aesthetics in a didactic work of literature are subordinate to the message it imparts. In modern times, “didactic” has become a somewhat pejorative way to describe a work of literature, as contemporary authors generally do not attempt to teach moral lessons through their writing. However, the original definition of didacticism did not carry this negative connotation.
The word didacticism comes from the Ancient Greek word διδακτικός (didaktikos), which meant “relating to teaching, education, or wisdom.”
Common Examples of Didacticism
Every textbook and “how-to” book is an example of didacticism, as their explicit purpose is to instruct and educate. Books written for children also often have a didactic intent, as they are often created to teach children about moral values. Religious sermons are also usually examples of didacticism, as the preacher is intending to use the religious text to give the congregation moral guidance. The following quote is one of the most famous Christian sermons ever delivered:
Natural men’s prudence and care to preserve their own lives, or the care of others to preserve them, do not secure them a moment. To this, divine providence and universal experience do also bear testimony. There is this clear evidence that men’s own wisdom is no security to them from death; that if it were otherwise we should see some difference between the wise and politic men of the world, and others, with regard to their liableness to early and unexpected death: but how is it in fact? Eccles. ii. 16. “How dieth the wise man? even as the fool.”
—“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” written and delivered by Jonathan Edwards in 1741
Significance of Didacticism in Literature
While didacticism in literature is generally frowned up nowadays, it was a key feature of many ancient texts, and remained popular up until about the 18th century. It was seen as a benefit for the reading audience to have these texts to use as moral guidance. While there are examples of didacticism in more recent literature, they are fewer and further between. Edgar Allen Poe even went so far as to refer to didacticism as the worst thing an author could do in his treatise The Poetic Principal. Poe and others considered didacticism to be a detriment to the literature which it burdened down.
Examples of Didacticism in Literature
Here is a poor burdened sinner. I come from the City of Destruction, but am going to Mount Zion, that I may be delivered from the Wrath to come; I would therefore, Sir, since I am informed that by this Gate is the Way thither, know if you are willing to let me in?
(The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan)
John Bunyan’s novel The Pilgrim’s Progress is a famous didacticism example. Bunyan makes the allegory and lesson he is trying to impart clear: the main character’s name is Christian and he travels from the City of Destruction on his way to Mount Zion. Along the way, Christian comes up against many obstacles, and his journey through and around these obstacles helps to instruct the reading audience how to overcome obstacles themselves by leading moral lives. Bunyan makes the references to Biblical stories obvious so that readers could more easily grasp the moral lessons he was trying to teach therein.
So they established the rule that all poor people should have the alternative (for they would compel nobody, not they) of being starved by a gradual process in the house, or by a quick one out of it. With this view, they contracted with the waterworks to lay on an unlimited supply of water, and with a corn-factor to supply periodically small quantities of oatmeal, and issued three meals of thin gruel a day, with an onion twice a week and half a roll on Sundays.
(Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens)
Charles Dickens’s novel Oliver Twist, about an orphaned boy in poverty, is an example of a Victorian didactic novel. Dickens wanted to dramatize the difficulties that poor people had in society, thereby making the reading public more sympathetic. The point of didacticism in this novel was to change popular opinion and encourage a more moral viewpoint on the part of citizens of Dickens’s day. In the above excerpt, Dickens describes the horrible options available to poor people, which were either to die slowly inside the workhouse or quickly outside of it. Though poor people had some access to food inside the workhouse, it was meager and accompanied by such grueling work that they could not survive those conditions. Dickens wanted to motivate his reading public to more fully consider the issues in his day surrounding poverty.
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son.
(“If” by Rudyard Kipling)
In the poem “If,” Rudyard Kipling lays out the different ways that his son can become a man, and to live well in the world. The above excerpt is the final stanza of the poem in which Kipling brings his lesson to a close. Here he provides the strong conclusion for both his son and any readers that if they just follow these guidelines they will have a good life, by Kipling’s standards. This is a didacticism example because it presents a clear message about how to live morally, at least in Kipling’s views.
Siddhartha learned a great deal from the Samanas; he learned many ways of losing the Self. He traveled along the path of self-denial through pain, through voluntary suffering and conquering of pain, through hunger, thirst and fatigue. He traveled the way of self-denial through meditation, through the emptying of the mind through all images. Along these and other paths did he learn to travel. He lost his Self a thousand times and for days on end he dwelt in non-being. But although the paths took him away from Self, in the end they always led back to it.
(Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse)
Of course, not all moral lessons in didactic literature align with Christian values. In his 20th century novel Siddhartha, Hermann Hesse explores the philosophy and moral teachings of Buddhism. In the above excerpt, the main character Siddhartha reflects on the different ways he has tried to achieve Enlightenment and lose the burdensome Self. However, there is more to it than just the things he lists as having tried, and the rest of the novel will bring him through different lessons that the reader can experience concurrently.
Test Your Knowledge of Didacticism
1. Which of the following statements is the best didacticism definition?
A. A piece of literature meant to instruct or inform.
B. A teacher.
C. An annoying piece of literature that is impossible to enjoy.
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2. Why might an author decide to use didacticism examples in their works of literature?
A. To show the author’s own superiority by understanding complex moral issues that they don’t expect the reader to understand.
B. To help his or her reading audience live a moral life.
C. To frustrate the reader by writing abstruse and esoteric lessons that the reader is unable to comprehend.
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3. How can we surmise that John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress is a didactic text?
A. All of the characters have allegorical names, like Christian, Goodwill, Mr. Worldly Wiseman, and Sloth.
B. The plot of the novel has many Biblical allusions, and several scenes are very similar to Biblical stories.
C. Christian goes through many trials and tribulations that show readers how to have moral lives themselves.
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