A FEW WORDS ABOUT ATTITUDES AND VALUES
The phrase ‘attitudes and values’ will become very familiar to you over the next two years; you will find that you are required to comment on ‘attitudes and values' in the exams on all modules – and even your coursework. So, a definition of the phrase is required, so that you can be aware of this as you read the various texts you will encounter during the course.
A good place to start would be the OED, which defines ‘attitude’ as:
‘A settled way of thinking or feeling about something’, and ‘value’ as:
‘The regard that something is held to deserve; the importance, worth , or usefulness of something.’
There doesn’t seem to be a great deal of difference between the two – it would seem that ‘values’ could imply ‘morals’ and therefore ‘attitudes’ could be how we apply (or otherwise) those moral values.
In their book ‘Living Language and Literature’, George Keith and John Shuttleworth suggest that reading literature as a cultural practice is a way of acquiring moral values, and indeed all cultures have their literature, which reflects the prevailing moral attitudes of that culture at the time that the particular piece of literature was written. These ideas change over time, so you have to be aware that the ‘attitudes and values’ of a Victorian writer will not be exactly the same as those of a modern writer. But, whatever the age it was written in, literature has tremendous power – why else did Hitler order the burning of books; why else did Pol Pot order the extermination of teachers and all intellectuals (any unfortunate soul who wore glasses was deemed to be an intellectual); why else did Stalin have such an uneasy relationship with writers? As Edward Bulwer-Lytton famously said, ‘The pen is mightier than the sword.’
A good example of changes in attitude and why we must be wary of judging writers of the past by modern standards, is ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Today, this book would instantly be pronounced politically incorrect, patronising, racist even (to call a black person an ‘Uncle Tom’ is now regarded as an insult) but when it was written, black slaves were not literate and so had no way of expressing their ideas, and the book itself played a large part in gaining support for the anti-slavery movement.
I am indebted to Val Pope for the following suggestion:
Attitudes and values are what the writer believed and what was generally believed in society at the time the text was written, compared with what the people who read it now believe, and what is believed in modern society. Look at the similarities and differences (if any) between the two. Always be aware, though, of the prevailing beliefs at the time of writing, as these will be what shaped the text. So you will need some background knowledge of the writer and his or her times.
The best illustration of ‘attitudes and values’ is to look at some examples. Writers did not always agree with prevailing moral attitudes, and often used writing as a means of social comment. Dickens often wrote about the Victorian poor, and the hypocrisy and cruelty shown towards them. His exposure in ‘Nicholas Nickleby’ of the ‘boarding schools’ to which unwanted children were routinely sent, led to a public outcry and a closing of many of these schools. Similarly, Charlotte Bronte’s description of Lowood School in ‘Jane Eyre’ also led to an enquiry. Some novels have become horribly prophetic – such as Orwell’s ‘1984’ and Ray Bradbury’s ‘Fahrenheit 451’.
One method used by many writers is the depiction of characters; Dickens in particular excelled at this. His choice of names is a start – as soon as you read in ‘Nicholas Nickleby’ that the hero is going to ‘Dotheboys Hall’ , run by a Mr Whackford Squeers, you get the feeling this is not going to be a pleasant place, and the description of the character of Mr Squeers and his family, reinforce this initial impression. You will find an extract from Dickens’ ‘Hard Times’ in the Anthology for Module 1, and reading this will soon acquaint you with Dickens’ attitudes and values, and the various ways he expresses them.
Another good example of the expression of attitudes and values through literature is ‘The Scarlet Letter’ which you will be studying. Hawthorne was very critical of the Puritans’ punitive, harsh attitudes, and this is shown in the opening chapter of the novel, where he describes the prison, one of the first buildings they erected on arrival at the colony, as ‘the black flower of civilised society. The building itself is dark and forbidding, but at its very doorway blooms a wild rose, a symbol that ‘the deep heart of Nature’ could pity and be kind. In the next chapter he describes the crowd waiting for Hester to be brought forth for her punishment, all in drab garments, and the women in particular wishing the worst punishments on Hester. When she appears, she is young and beautiful, dressed quite richly, and now we see why, the older and uglier the women in the crowd were, the harsher the punishment they wished on her. All through the novel, it is obvious t hat Hawthorne’s sympathies were with Hester, but, although he deplored the punishment meted out to her, what she had done was not acceptable in Hawthorne’s society either, and so there was to be no happy ending for Hester.
The list of examples could be endless, but I hope enough has been said to help you to comment on attitudes and values as required, and to discuss these and other points with your teachers as you study the various texts. Just remember - all literature expresses attitudes and values, because all literature is an essential part of the culture in which it was written, expressing as it does the prevailing moral ideas and values of that culture at different points in its history. The best example of the importance of literature to any culture is t he attempt to devise an international language. ’Esperanto.’ It never caught on, as it had no literature of its own, so did not reflect any particular culture. How do you learn a language if you can’t read its literature?
© C Devine May 2007