Literary Conveyance of Knowledge

2. How can a literary work of fiction, which is by definition non-factual, convey knowledge?

A work of literature are sometimes perceived to convey knowledge. Usually this is as allegory (one story with two interpreted meanings). Tolkien said “I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence.” In Albert Camus’s The Plague, this was supposed to be something about the spread of Nazi Germany during WWII. In the case of George Orwell’s 1984, it is the repressive nature of Bolshevik Russia. I have read both books. I did not understand The Plague, but I did understand 1984. The reason I did not understand The Plague is that the story was probably dependent on some sort of military history in North Africa. The reason I understood 1984 is because I have studied Stalinist Russia. In fact, while recently reading up on Glavlit, the Soviet censorship body, I was amazed at how well Orwell portrays the facts.

This is all to say: The knowledge helps me to understand the books. The books do not help me understand the knowledge. Hence why The Plague bored me to bits and 1984 was really interesting. Also, Orwell portrays facts — he doesn’t convey them. He did not lead me to understand the nature of censorship or The Purges in Russia –  knowledge of The Purges and censorship helped me to understand Orwell. But this Allegory stuff is where they do not portray knowledge.

Yet on the other hand, these stories can convey knowledge by their tone, who wrote them, and why. Take Rowling, she writes to entertain and for money.  Orwell wrote to spread his ideas. Still ignoring his non-fiction works, 1984 and Animal Farm can be used to gauge his mood, as a socialist towards Soviet Russia. It can be used to show how he felt as a socialist and humanitarian. Rowling on the other hand, though some (including myself) contend that Harry Potter is some allegory of the interwar period and WWII, does not help us understand opinion towards the interwar period: This is of course because her allegory is not as foremostly important as Orwell’s, but also because there is nothing new to be known about western opinion on Hitler and Nazi Germany.

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