While Frank Kermode’s work, The Sense of an Ending, grapples with, as the title suggests, the idea of endings throughout history and fictional works, for me, the above quote answers the question, why study literature? He states:
“What it seems to come to is this. Men in the middest make considerable imaginative investments in coherent patterns, which, by the provision of an end, make possible a satisfying consonance with the origins and with the middle. That is why the image of the end can never be permanently falsified. But they also, when awake and sane, feel the need to show a marked respect for things as they are; so that there is a recurring need for adjustments in the interest of reality as well as of control.” (17)
Being always in the “middle,” or in the present, always in transition, creates in us a human need to find consonance between origins and ending and how they are affecting us now in order for us to come to terms with “things as they are.” Within and throughout history, we seek patterns to “use” our past, to recognize our present, to predict our future. Those recording history do so by subjectively adjusting things according to their own realities.
In the same way, we can seek patterns within literature. Readers of novels expect a beginning, middle, and end that create a sense of unity within. However, just as we do not necessarily experience time in a totally linear fashion, novels don’t always follow a linear timeline either. We constantly imagine and create in our own minds thoughts of our past and possibilities for our futures, whether they may be entirely true or not. As humans, this imaginative process is innate, a way to come to an understanding, or consonance of existence. Novels are able to express through fictive language this same imaginative process we all encounter.
While some may argue that history is more telling of human nature because it is based on “fact” while novels are works of fiction, we must again remind ourselves that history, as Kermode suggests, is very much like a work of fiction, simply because it is written by humans with naturally fictive minds. The patterns that we recognize in literature are just as worthy of study as the patterns we see throughout history, because they are both, in some ways more than others, products of the imaginative human mind.
As Kermode argues, it is a natural human tendency to impose some sort of sense onto nature, “[f]or concord or consonance really is the root of the matter” (58). While some believe that we can never fully understand because we are constantly in transition, our fictive minds will always continue to search for that “sense of an ending” anyway. As mentioned, some may find solace in studying history and its patterns, shaping their present by learning about the past as a means of arranging their future. Others may find comfort in theology, placing confidence in faith as a means to explain the chaos we feel in nature and to find unity within past, present, and future.
As an English graduate student, I may be a bit biased, but studying literature, the novel in particular, has proved to be an excellent way to find consonance within a fictive mind. Perhaps why I favor novels to create a sense of unity of my time is because novels have to unique ability to combine ideas presented throughout history and theology as well. Just as those that find comfort in theology (those that study theology might have different thoughts, though) find it through their faith, novel readers can find this same feeling through the knowledge that everything we read is fiction.
We study literature because we are looking for a beginning, middle, and end. While we can find this in the plot, no matter the author’s temporal narrative choices, novels create a sense of unity, simply because there will always be an end. Sure, we can look to history and theology for guidance of our own present, but novels incorporate all of that along with imaginative narrative patterns that more closely resemble the way our minds work, which is often in a fictional manner in accordance with reality. We all experience the same moment in time differently, and so the fictional world of novels allows us to do the same. Novels continue to respond to “their” times. By studying these texts, we can continuously grapple with the chaos and seek consonance through new, imaginative narratives that our minds are very much equipped to handle.
(I get the feeling Prof. Kermode was a little biased as well.)