In our present society we are trained to be judgemental. Due to relentless bombardment by social media and advertising, we have evolved into a constantly comparative society. The twenty-first century (unlike past centuries) is dominated by countless forms of entertainment. As a result, both past and present literature can often be pushed to one side by more easily accessible forms of entertainment. Therefore, it is inevitable that past literature will be judged by the standards of the present because modern society has a wider range of entertainment options. This judgement, however, does not necessarily need to be negative.
I believe that the key to any piece of literature to being positively received is that it is widely accessible. Consequentially, present-day society tends to judge literature from the past in a negative and disproportionate way. However, I am of the opinion that this is the fault of our modern society, not the literature.
It is easy to forget that literature of the past was often criticised, rejected and condemned at its time of publishing because it often illuminated or tackled controversial topics of the era. It is perhaps viable to judge past literature by the standards of the present because, modern-day society is more enlightened and sensibilities are softened.
I believe that writing from the past should be positively judged by modern readers for its great contributions to the evolution of society by tackling and debunking societal norms.The saving grace of much of past literature is the passing of generations and thus the evolution of mindsets which led to the challenging of social norms by campaigns such as feminism, Darwinism and the civil rights movements. Therefore, present-day audiences now judge literature more favourably in many cases because we embrace that literature has a voice for truth, even though that voice is often challenging and uncomfortable.
On the other hand, I believe that at times it is nearly impossible for past literature not to be judged negatively by the standards of the present. Although the critical view of past literature has become more positive on the whole, this makes little difference to the fact that most individuals do not pick up a classic novel, go to watch a Shakespearean tragedy, or look to epic poetry for entertainment, inspiration or even education.
There is an irony behind The Personal History of David Copperfield being hailed as 2020’s next top film, whilst in reality, it is one of Dickens’ most lengthy novels read by an obscure minority. Perhaps modern-day society glamorises past literature, putting it on a pedestal in media adaptations when, in actuality, some of the negative judgements from modern audiences are justified.
Perhaps even more comforting and refreshing to a modern-day audience is the addressing by past literature of the woes of life. Meaningful confrontation of depression, madness and corruption is something that I feel literature of the present lacks. Keats’ profoundly painful poetry was the result of his deep depression: Ode to a Nightingale depicts him in dire pain as if from being poisoned. Hamlet feigns madness and spurns his love, Ophelia, who thus turns mad and takes her own life. I would present that, rather than judging past literature, modern-day society should value it and, from its experiences, learn from its wealth of wisdom.
Often, modern readers can judge to the point of dismissing past literature on the grounds of inaccessibility of structure, form, style and language. However, if we delve deeper and look at the meanings, morals and experiences that are encapsulated in these art forms, we find true enlightenment. The enormous value of past literature is revealed when we see an exploration of human nature mirrored in the lives of characters who are still immensely relevant in the present.
To conclude, I believe that present society would be enriched by seeking inspiration from the beautiful language of past literature. Modern society would do well to heed the warnings of the past and to learn from the experiences documented in its literature.