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What is Canon in Literature: A Comprehensive Exploration

Are you tired of the same old books filling your bookshelf? Do you ever wonder why some books are considered “classics” while others are not? The answer lies in the literary canon, a collection of works deemed significant and influential in a particular period or genre. But who gets to decide what makes the cut? In this article, we’ll explore the ongoing debate surrounding the literary canon and the push to diversify and expand it to include a broader range of voices and perspectives. So grab a cup of tea, settle in, and dive into the ever-evolving world of literature.

The Concept of Canon in Literature

Canon in literature refers to works considered significant cultural or artistic value, often held as models for other literature. These works represent the central texts within a literary tradition, with their rules and principles shaping the broader understanding of literature.

Historical Roots of Canon

Stemming from ancient societies, the idea of a literary canon has evolved. The term “canon” was initially used in religious contexts, referring to the definitive collection of sacred texts. It later expanded to describe a broader range of cultural and artistic works. For instance, the classical Greek and Roman canons have influenced Western literature, setting the foundation for later literary principles and conventions. Similarly, the medieval period saw the creation of vernacular literary canons.

Functions and Purposes

  1. Cultural Preservation: Literary canons ensure the preservation and transmission of culturally significant works, contributing to the continuity and development of a society’s values, ideas, and history. For example, the cultural memory associated with a canon carries the heritage of a particular group.
  2. Educational Value: Canons are used as a basis for teaching literature, providing students with an understanding of the foundational works within a tradition. They are a reference point for discussing themes, styles, and techniques across various periods and cultural contexts.
  3. Aesthetic Evaluation: The concept of a literary canon allows for discussing and evaluating works based on specific artistic standards. The qualities of exceptional literary works can be identified and appreciated through canonicity.
  4. Comparative Analysis: Establishing a canon facilitates the comparison of domestic and international literary traditions, fostering dialogue and engagement between various cultures, as seen in the study of postcolonial literature and the Western literary canon.

It is important to note that canonicity is not static, and the works considered part of a literary canon may change over time. New works are added, while others may fall out of favor or become less relevant. Additionally, debates surrounding the canon continue to evolve and diversify, acknowledging the need for more inclusive representation and expanded perspectives in literature.

Canonical Authors and Influential Works

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare is often considered the greatest author of English Literature, and his work has significantly impacted literature worldwide. His plays, such as Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, and Macbeth, are studied deeply and held as examples of the highest quality of dramatic literature. Shakespeare’s work has also been influential in shaping modern storytelling techniques and the development of the English language.

Jane Austen

Jane Austen is another significant figure in the literary canon, known for her groundbreaking novels on society, marriage, and moral values. Her most famous works include Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, revolutionizing the literary genre. Austen’s work explores relationships and the role of women in society, and she is often regarded as a feminist writer.

Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf significantly impacted the literary world with her distinctive writing style and exploration of female characters in the early 20th century. Her novels, such as To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway, showcase her innovative approach to constructing narratives and her thorough depiction of characters’ inner thoughts. Woolf’s work has influenced the modernist literary movement and inspired female writers.

Toni Morrison

American author Toni Morrison is celebrated for her powerful and insightful examination of Black American experiences, emotions, and history. Her impactful novels, including Beloved and Song of Solomon, have earned her numerous awards, including the Nobel Prize for Literature. Morrison’s work is essential for understanding the complexities of race, gender, and social issues in America.

Emily Dickinson

Distinctive and enigmatic, Emily Dickinson’s poems have made her a vital part of the literary canon. While she was not well-known during her lifetime, Dickinson’s poetry has become highly celebrated for its unconventional structure, language, and themes. She has influenced many poets who came after her, and her work is emblematic of the richness and resonance found within American poetry.

Constructing a Literary Canon

Criteria and Principles

Constructing a literary canon involves selecting works of significant value and importance within a particular cultural or historical context. There are typically several criteria and principles that are considered when determining which works should make up a canon:

  • Historical significance: Works that have significantly impacted the development of literature or society or represent defining moments in literary history are often included in a literary canon.
  • Aesthetic merit: A literary work’s artistic quality, complexity, and beauty are considered when evaluating its worthiness for inclusion in a canon.
  • Cultural relevance: Works that reflect or engage with a particular culture’s values, beliefs, and experiences may be deemed integral to the canon of that culture’s literature.
  • Influence on other literature: Works that have heavily influenced subsequent literature are prime candidates for canonical status, as they help to shape the course of literary development.

These criteria are not exhaustive or mutually exclusive, as a work may fulfill multiple criteria and be recognized for different reasons. Additionally, assessing these criteria often involves subjective judgment, as different readers or critics may prioritize certain aspects over others.

Inclusion and Exclusion

Constructing a literary canon inevitably involves deciding which works to include and which to exclude. This selection process can be influenced by various factors, such as:

  • Academic consensus: The opinions of scholars and literary experts play a crucial role in constructing a canon, as their assessments of various works contribute to determining which ones are most significant or deserving of recognition.
  • Popularity: The popularity of a work among the general public can also contribute to its inclusion in a canon, particularly if it has had a substantial impact on society or has become widely known and discussed.
  • Diversity: In recent years, there has been a growing emphasis on including diverse writers and texts in literary canons to counter historical biases and ensure that the canon reflects a wide variety of voices and experiences. This can mean considering works by authors from different backgrounds, genders, and periods.

Despite efforts to create a more inclusive canon, constructing a literary canon remains imperfect and open to criticism. Some argue that canons can perpetuate power imbalances or reinforce cultural elitism. However, it is essential to remember that canons are not static and evolve as new works are created and societal values shift.

Overall, constructing a literary canon involves careful consideration of various criteria and principles and judgments about which works most deserve inclusion. The process is inherently subjective and open to debate, but it strives to recognize and honor the most significant and influential works of literature within a given context.

The Western Canon

The Western Canon refers to a selection of highly regarded books, plays, and other works in Western literature that have significantly influenced and shaped Western culture. These works have been selected and deemed valuable by scholars, critics, and institutions for their artistic, philosophical, or historical significance.

Notable Figures and Works

Some of the most influential authors and their respective works in the Western Canon include:

  • Homer: The Iliad and The Odyssey
  • Dante Alighieri: The Divine Comedy
  • William Shakespeare: Hamlet, King Lear, and Macbeth, among others
  • Miguel de Cervantes: Don Quixote
  • Jane Austen: Pride and Prejudice
  • Charles Dickens: Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities
  • Fyodor Dostoevsky: Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov
  • George Orwell: 1984 and Animal Farm
  • James Joyce: Ulysses

This list is not exhaustive but represents a few of the most influential authors and critical works shaping the Western Canon.

Influence on Western Culture

These notable works from the Western Canon have impacted the development and history of Western literature and profoundly affected Western culture. They encompass various themes, societal values, and ideologies that have shaped philosophy, religion, politics, and art in the West.

For instance, Homer’s epics laid the foundation for the Greek literary tradition, Dante’s Divine Comedy influenced the development of Christianity, and Shakespeare’s plays contributed to the formation of the English language and modern storytelling.

These authors and their works continue to be studied and debated, inspiring new interpretations and analyses as they remain relevant to present-day society. Altogether, the Western Canon holds an important place within the broader context of human culture and continues to influence our understanding of the world.

Canon in Other Art Forms


Just as in literature, the canon in music refers to a collection of works accepted by most practitioners and scholars as being the most important and influential in shaping the art form. The canon primarily consists of works by composers such as Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart in classical music. These works are often performed and studied because of their historical significance, artistic merit, and innovative qualities.

In popular music, the canon is more loosely defined. It may refer to a set of songs or albums from various genres that have significantly impacted the development of popular music. From the blues and jazz to rock and hip-hop, different periods and styles have their canonical works. Still, the concept of canon in popular music can be highly subjective and heavily influenced by personal tastes and cultural background.

Visual Arts

In the realm of visual arts, the canon refers to a collection of works considered masterpieces embodying the highest standards of artistic excellence and skill. Like in literature and music, the concept of canon in visual arts has its roots in the Western tradition but has since expanded to include various art forms worldwide.

The canon in visual arts has historically been influenced by factors such as religious beliefs, as seen in the canon of Christian art that centers around themes and motifs from the Bible. This creates a foundation for works like Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling or Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper. Similarly, the canon of Islamic art includes works like the Great Mosque of Córdoba and the Alhambra Palace, which demonstrate the era’s architectural prowess and intricate designs.

In contemporary art, the idea of a canon has become increasingly complex due to the sheer variety of artistic styles and the globalization of the art market. Nevertheless, well-established artists from various periods and traditions still hold significant influence, as evidenced by their continued presence in museums, galleries, and art history courses.

One way the canon in visual arts is maintained is through the production of catalogs raisonnés, comprehensive listings of an artist’s works, often used to help identify authentic pieces and track their provenance. For example, the catalog raisonné of a well-known American artist like Jackson Pollock would help collectors, museums, and scholars establish the authenticity of his works.

The concept of the canon in other art forms, like music and visual arts, serves a similar purpose as in literature. It provides a foundation for understanding various artistic works’ development, style, and significance. However, the canon in all art forms remains dynamic and subject to change as new works and artists gain recognition, proving the ongoing importance of re-evaluating and re-contextualizing the art that defines our collective history.

Controversies and Debates

Gender and Racial Bias

One of the major controversies surrounding the literary canon is the issue of gender and racial bias. Traditionally, the canon has been dominated by works of white male authors, often disregarding those of women and minority voices. This lack of diversity has led to criticisms that the literary canon promotes a narrow and exclusionary view of literature, affecting both schools and society.

Moreover, the content of many canonical works showcases the perspectives and biases of their authors, which may contain dated or even offensive ideas to contemporary readers. This raises questions about the role of such texts in shaping the values and traditions of future generations.

Canon Expansion

In response to these issues, numerous scholars and educators have advocated expanding the canon to include more diverse voices. The hope is to foster a more inclusive understanding of literature that better reflects society’s diversity by opening the canon to a broader range of perspectives.

Canon expansion involves ongoing debates, as critics often disagree on which works should be included or excluded. For example, some argue that expanding the canon to include lesser-known works may dilute the quality of the canon. In contrast, others contend that this approach leads to a richer and more nuanced understanding of literature.

Marginalized Voices

An essential aspect of canon expansion involves giving voice to those historically marginalized or excluded from the literary conversation. This entails not only the inclusion of works by women and minority authors but also the promotion of texts that discuss the experiences and perspectives of these communities.

By incorporating marginalized voices into the literary canon, educators allow students to engage in a more diverse and inclusive dialogue. Moreover, it encourages schools to reconsider traditional curriculums and promote literary works that better represent the experiences of all students.

Ultimately, the debate over the literary canon is ongoing and complex, involving many different perspectives on the values and priorities of literature. However, by engaging in these discussions, society can strive for a more nuanced and diverse understanding of the written word.

Alternative Canons and Canon-Formation

Diverse Voices and Perspectives

The traditional literary canon often gravitates toward particular authors and works, sometimes sidelining equally important voices and perspectives. Alternative canons attempt to rectify this by including work from lesser-known authors, especially those from diverse backgrounds and historically marginalized groups. For example, Toni Morrison, an African American author, has risen to prominence recently and is now widely recognized within traditional and alternative literary canons.

Alternative canon formation reevaluates the significance of different literary works, broadening the scope of literature and enriching our understanding and appreciation for various forms of expression. This approach allows for a more inclusive and representative syllabus, as seen in the growing academic interest in Emily Dickinson’s poetry and the resulting shift in her literary status.

Cross-Cultural Canons

A cross-cultural examination of literary canons acknowledges that literature transcends geographic and cultural boundaries in content and importance. By exploring different literary traditions worldwide, we can find common themes, ideas, and motifs despite differences in language and context. This alternative canon formation challenges the idea of a single, monolithic canon and encourages a more open-minded appreciation of diverse literature.

Focusing on the core elements of literature – such as character, plot, themes, and language – can reveal universality in human stories, regardless of their origin. For instance, the use of melody and instruments in various forms of storytelling has a profound cross-cultural resonance, as seen in oral traditions, poetry, and prose from different periods and parts of the world.

Exploring cross-cultural canons and alternative canon formation helps provide a comprehensive literature perspective as an evolving and interconnected global enterprise. By highlighting diverse voices and perspectives, we shed light on a richer tapestry of literary expression and broaden our understanding of human experiences throughout history.

Canon in Religious Contexts

The Biblical Canon

The concept of the canon in literature has its roots in religious contexts, particularly in forming the Biblical canon. The Biblical canon refers to the collection of sacred texts or scriptures considered authoritative by a specific religious tradition, such as Christianity or Judaism. These texts are believed to be divinely inspired and hold significant spiritual importance for faith adherents.

In the Christian tradition, the Biblical canon consists of the Old and New Testaments. The Old Testament comprises various books considered sacred by the ancient Israelites, while the New Testament includes texts written by early Christians about the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. The process of forming the Biblical canon was complex and involved various considerations, such as apostolic authority, divine inspiration, and agreement with established doctrines.

During the early centuries of Christianity, debates and disagreements arose over which texts to include as part of the holy scripture. In addition to the canonical texts, various apocryphal writings also emerged. These texts were not accepted into the canon and were considered non-authoritative by the majority of the clergy. The formation of the canon was further influenced by the decisions of religious councils, such as the Council of Carthage and the Council of Hippo, which solidified the list of accepted books.

Canon in Other Religious Traditions

Aside from Christianity, other religious traditions also have a concept of canon. In Judaism, the canon consists of the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings. This collection of texts is commonly referred to as the Hebrew Bible or the Tanakh. The process of canon formation in Judaism was similar to that of Christianity, with various religious authorities debating and deciding on which texts to include in the canon.

In the Islamic tradition, the canon refers to the Qur’an, which is believed to be the revealed word of God, and the Hadith, a collection of sayings and actions of the Prophet Muhammad. The Qur’an and the Hadith guide religious practice, beliefs, and Islamic law.

The concept of canon in other religious contexts, like Hinduism and Buddhism, often revolves around collections of sacred texts, such as the Vedas and the Tipitaka, respectively. These texts serve as the foundational teachings for these religions and hold a similar position of authority as the Biblical canon in Christianity.

Various religious traditions have a concept of an authoritative body of sacred texts or literature considered “canonical.” The formation of these canons is often complex, involving debates, councils, and the influence of religious authorities, such as priests and clergymen. The concept of canon in religious contexts helps establish a shared body of knowledge and spiritual insight for adherents of the faith and defines the boundaries of orthodox belief.