Historically, the XVII century is known as the Age of Enlightenment, also commonly referred to as the Age of Reason. This era is characterized by the principle: everything should be subjected to reason as the main authority. Outstanding achievements in science that started to belong to more and more intelligent people gave way to constant searches of reasonable ideas among ordinary people. The reason was considered to be some illuminating power that is capable of destroying chaos and shadows of ignorance.
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Figuratively speaking, the Age of Enlightenment called upon everyone to think independently. Such changes in the way of thinking contributed to considerable political changes like governmental consolidation, nation creation, greater rights for common people, and a decline in the influence of authoritarian institutions such as the nobility and Church.
Literature as a constant reflector of the current events and ways people percept the world around cannot stand aside and fail to exhibit the characteristics and ideas of the new way of thinking. The current paper is concerned with three pieces of literature that originate from different countries, namely, Moliere’s Tartuffe, Sor Juana Ines De La Cruz’s Reply to Sor Filotea De La Cruz, and Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal. The paper is intended to reveal the works’ reflecting the characteristics and ideas of Enlightenment thinking.
Starting with the comedy of the French author, it is reasonable to admit that during the Age of Enlightenment, France was characterized by a varied ideological struggle, scientific creative deeds, and political events that influenced the country’s development. France was about to leave the morass of feudalism, political division, and economic backwardness; it entered the first phase of capitalism. Enlighteners strived for equality among people and cared much about the spread of education with the masses. Students and scholars of the Age of Reason believed that every situation and conflict could be solved with calm reasoning. Everyone who failed to act and react reasonably but, instead, did it passionately without considering this or that problem properly was to be ridiculed.
The famous play of Moliere has a lot of examples of reasonable thinking required by the French society of the XVII-XVIII centuries. But the most brightly, the ideas and actions of the Enlightenment era are reflected in the character of Dorine. Throughout the play, she signifies herself as an enlightened character; her overall behavior depicted by the author indicates how aligned with the ideas of Enlightenment the character was created.
From the very beginning of the play, Dorine is shown as a logical, intelligent, and plain speaking person. For example, when Madame Pernell speaks of a town member named Orante as “virtuous and devout,” Dorine explains that this is because the character does not have the beauty of youth any longer and has made a choice to live her life in solitude (Moliere 316). As the play runs, the reader observes more distinctly the difference between Dorine and Pernell as representatives of the new way of thinking and adherent of the old order.
Bright examples of thoughts and feelings of Enlightenment are Dorine’s conversation with Orgon when he comes back home from a business trip. Dorine speaks of the state of his house and informs him of his wife’s recent illness. But Orgon does not care about her health; instead, he is interested in the state of his houseguest. Dorine cannot accept Orgon’s unwillingness to care for his wife and sarcastically expresses her indignation. This sarcastic expression of her incredulity at Orgon’s answering questions about Tartuffe instead of his own wife is a perfect example of ideas of Enlightenment.
Further, the reader gets to know about Dorine’s views on suicide which correspond to the Enlightenment views on suicide. Dorine’s position is that suicide is not the way to solve the problems; death is the simplest action that one can take when facing a problem. Dorine says that the very idea of suicide maddens her, and when Mariane suggests committing suicide, she makes fun of her (Moliere 328). It is in the Enlightenment traditions to mock unreasonable actions or ideas of people.
Suppose we consider Swift’s Modest Proposal, we will find a lot of ideas of Enlightenment here. Though the narrator’s suggestion to sell Irish people born into poverty as food for rich gentlemen and ladies does not sound reasonable and illuminatingly, one should understand it as a piece of one of the brightest examples of irony in the history of the English language. By means of the irony, the author “details vividly and with rhetorical emphasis, the grinding poverty” (Smith 136), thus describing the inequality of Irish people. As it was mentioned above, Enlighteners are characterized by fighting poverty.
Moreover, Swift’s work presents a wonderful sample of argumentative thinking: every suggestion of the narrator is carefully considered and a balanced study of the arguments is presented. The narrator even foresees possible outcomes of his undertaking.
Despite of the absurdness of the idea that he has suggested Swift presented a carefully thought over plan of fighting with the difficulties the Irish people faced with. Realizing the role of irony in the work under consideration one should appreciate the ideas of the Enlightenment that the satirical pamphlet is based on.
One more work that exhibits characteristics of Enlightenment is Sor Juana Ines De La Cruz’s Reply to Sor Filotea De La Cruz. This epistolary essay also brings about equality, but this time this equality between men and women. The author resorts to sarcastic tone that helps her more vividly express her desire to learn and teach (an aspiration common for all Enlighteners). The reply is also a sample of constructive thinking – in a long biographical section the author explains how and why she came to the education she had at that moment and the obstacles she needed to overcome to attain it. The author dwells on the church father’s writings on education for women that demonstrate her competence in the subject.
The author’s stress on the need for educated women comes from the importance of education proclaimed by the Enlightenment but goes further, because feministic ideas were not common for the Age of Reason yet.
As it is clear from the mentioned above, the works under analysis focus on the ideas that the Age of Enlightenment brought. Being created in different times they all reflect the new way of thinking and do not stop evoking the readers’ interest because of the burning issues discussed.
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Moliere. Tartuffe. Harvest Books, 1968.
Quintana, Ricardo. Swift: An Introduction. London: Oxford University Press, 1955.
Smith, Charles Kay. “Toward a “Participatory Rhetoric: Teaching Swift’s Modest Proposal.” College English, 30.2 (1968): 135-149.
Sor Juana Ines De La Cruz. Response to Sor Filotea. Sor Juana Ings de la Cruz: Obras Selectas. Barcelona: Editorial Noguer, 1976.
Swift, Jonathan. The Modest Proposal. Pocket, 2005.
Trueblood, Alan S. A Sor Juana Anthology. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1988.