Craig White's Literature Courses

Terms / Themes

Didactic Literature



didactic etymology: < Greek "apt at teaching"

definition: Having the character or manner of a teacher or instructor; characterized by giving instruction; having the giving of instruction as its aim or object; instructive, preceptive. (Oxford English Dictionary)

The primary intention of didactic art is not to entertain, but to teach the audience a moral or a theme.


much children's literature; religious literature; parables, fables.

anecdotes to sermons, pep talks, lectures.


Thirty Days hath September poem

Thirty days hath September,
April, June and November;
February has twenty-eight alone
All the rest have thirty-one
Except in Leap Year, that's the time
When February's Days are twenty-nine.


There Were Twelve Disciples
(Sunday School song)

There were twelve disciples Jesus called to help him:
Simon Peter, Andrew, James, his brother John,
Philip, Thomas, Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus,
Thaddeus, Simon, Judas, and Bartholomew.
He has called us, too. He has called us, too.
We are His disciples, I am one and you!
He has called us, too. He has called us, too.
We are His disciples, I am one and you!


The A-B-C melody

(Use of rhymes in these examples = mnemonic rhymes

mnemonic = for memory resulting from mimesis and reinforcement

since didactic literature often involves learning something from memory, like the ABC's)

In Literary Criticism

The term "didactic" may negatively criticize work that appears overly burdened with instructive, factual, or otherwise educational information, to the detriment of the work's artistic integrity or appeal to a sophisticated reader.

Students in English or Literature classes sometimes interpret the "theme" of a text as "the moral of the story" (e.g., "be honest," "treat everyone equally"), only to find their teachers are not impressed!

Scholars of literature usually regard overly or directly moralistic literature as simplistic and overdetermined, for children rather than adults. The author's intention limits the meaning of literature to the moral or lesson. The reader can only accept or reject.

Serious, non-didactic literature treats serious themes or issues from real human life. The difference is that serious literature explores problems without pretending to simple solutions, so that an accurate representation or mimesis of human life in all its complexity is achieved.

Some great literature is didactic, but the other qualities of the text such as characterization, plot, or spectacle make the didactic element less overwhelming.


Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment (1866)

Victor Hugo, Les Miserables (1862)

Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (1843)

Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin (1851-2)

Rudyard Kipling, If (1910)


If the purpose of literature is to entertain and instruct, how then do we learn from literature that is not directly didactic?

modeling: audience sees what works or doesn't, what actions are determined social or anti-social

exercises sympathy, compassion

 depth of characterization or incident indicates complexity of human life and morality > "judge not, lest ye be judged"

tragedy: catharsis




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