Literature like music and love is universal in the sense that it is able to transcend through cultures and even time. No matter how different the culture, history, heritage and language of one country to another, literature is still able to reflects these aspects, and it still manages to be the same for each culture and country in the sense that the themes are the same—humanity’s introspection of themselves and their human nature as participants in this world.
It is true that literature varies but it is also very true that though there can be over a thousand differences of one country’s literature to another, there is one great similarity that overcomes those thousand of a differences which is, literature from all over the world centres on aspect—the humanness in humanity. Since time immemorial, there have been two major types of literature, one that is composed orally and is passed through oral means which is the vernacular literature (using a specific language) and the other which is composed through written means and is passed through printed means.
The other is never more important to the other as both have greatly contributed to the progress and development of the literary world—but it is true that oral literature is the first type of literature ever created, followed by the written type as writing tools and other innovations are developed. The differences between the two is what is most obvious—the other is spoken while the other is written but aside from that there are other differences of the two in which oral literature takes on more traditional, primitive and even ancient constructions, structures and languages.
However, the written literature also takes on primitive forms but not as old as that of oral literature; for example, the mythologies which is one of the forms of vernacular literature is usually concerned with human creation, universal creation and all other things concerning creation of tangible and even intangible things. And then, there would be the examples of written literature in ancient times such as the tankas and haikus of ancient Japan that centred on the things that were considered important back then.
Sei Shonagon’s “The Pillow Book” for example focused mainly on the life of the royal family of Japan and things that one can see in the royal court. Sometimes, as simple and mundane things such as the crock of the cock would be even written about as with the two poems written by Sei Shonagon would show: “Though you can tell me/ You heard a cock crow” (Ed. Morris, 1992, lines 1-2). Though, one thing which is very similar with the vernacular and written literature is that it usually involves the nature—both human and environmental in the context.
But still, this similarity of literature is shadowed and pushed back by the fact that there are too much differences involved. For example, the haikus and tankas of Japan are very different from the lyrical ballads of France as well as the narrative epics of Greece and Rome. Each nation and country has a distinct literary characteristic that is very unique to them—Japan has courtly life of the royal family depicted in their literary works, lyrical ballads of France has knights and stories of crusades and pilgrimages while the epics of Rome and Greece seek to uphold the importance of valour and courage of their soldiers.
Thus, each literature in the world has themes that are unique only to them—but on a closer scrutiny, they are actually the same. Even if the samurai and war lords are only unique to Japanese literature, there are kings and princes that becomes the leader of knights in French literature in the same way that there are generals that act as leaders of soldiers in Greek and Roman literature—thus, each text are constructed in the language of a particular country but the content are the same.
Plots, themes and characters can even be interchanged even if they seem different from each other. In Barthes’ (2001) “Mythologies” for example, he mentions that mythologies are reflection of a culture that has a symbol of something (signifier) which can have a special meaning unique only to that culture or country (signified). But this does that mean that the something entirely belongs to a particular culture, it just mean that it has a different context.
This just proves that no matter how different people and cultures may seem to one another, it does not mean that they have to be entirely alienated from other people or cultures. The world may be physically huge but in literary standards, it is actually quite small. References Barthes, R. (2001). Mythologies. Canada: HarperCollinsCanada, Ltd. Morris, I. (1992). The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon. New York: Columbia University Press.