This Is a Masterpiece: Prior Expectations of Literary Masterpieces Kelli Norris
June 17, 2013
This Is a Masterpiece: Prior Expectations of Literary Masterpieces
According to Oxford dictionaries, a masterpiece is a work of outstanding artistry, skill, or workmanship (Masterpiece, 2013). This, in one’s personal opinion, is only a partial definition and leaves many unanswered questions. What makes a literary work outstanding in skill and artistry? How is it written? Is it a pleasure to read or is it painful? Is the piece humorous or serious? On what characteristics can one expect a literary masterpiece to focus? Answering these questions gives one the true definition of a masterpiece. Literary masterpieces are works of outstanding artistry and skill because their themes transcend time, as well as genre, and resonate with all people regardless of gender, race, or creed.
One expects a literary masterpiece, not only to be well written, but also to serve as an example of the best possible writing. Depending on genre, form, and style one expects different things from a masterpiece of literature. If one reads Homer’s ancient master works the Iliad and Odyssey, one expects to find epic poetic verse filled with ornate language and divine context. If on the other hand, one reads Melville’s Moby Dick or Stevenson’s Treasure Island, one expects high adventure rife with danger and intrigue. Alternately, if one reads Shelley’s Frankenstein or Stoker’s Dracula, one expects a chilling depiction of horror that presents vexing moral and ethical dilemmas. Regardless of genre, there are certain expectations that are common to all masterpieces. One expects a masterpiece to be thought provoking and address important issues. Likewise, one supposes a masterpiece to feature extraordinary characters in unusual circumstances that teach valuable lessons. In addition, the most fundamental expectation one has for a masterpiece is this. One expects to be thoroughly “blown away.” These expectations are based on what one is taught. If a piece of literature is presented as a masterpiece this implies a consensus opinion, and one presumes it to be the best example of its kind.
Often, one first encounters literary masterworks in school. An academic setting lends a certain amount of credibility and status to any literary work in the eyes of a child. However, because so many masterpieces are used as teaching tools a definite stigma attaches to them as well. When one is forced to read and study a piece of literature, it becomes difficult to see its appeal. It is important to remember that just because a work is superbly written and all the components of greatness are present does not mean it will automatically touch everyone. Individuals connect with different aspects of literature, for some it is theme, for others it is genre, and for others still it is characters. One person may identify so strongly with Holden Caulfield that they believe The Catcher in the Rye is the greatest book ever written, while another may be so be so bored by the plot they think the book is completely awful. A problem arises when a person is graded harshly or criticized by scholars and literary snobs for their personal opinion and preference. One is given the impression that reading for “fun” is wrong, and even offensive. That the reason they do not connect with a particular masterpiece is that they are intellectually stunted and simply do not comprehend it. This academic stigmatization can cause one to avoid the literary masters in favor of popular fiction that one does not need to work as hard to understand.
I was introduced to the great masterpieces by a grandfather with a vast library of such literary treasures, and a mother who preferred to read “smutty” romance novels. Grandfather, whom I admired greatly, implored me not to waste my time on the “trash” mother read. Mother, whom I loved dearly, assured me there was nothing wrong with reading for pleasure and affectionately called grandfather a stuck-up old “expulsion of intestinal gas.” Being a curious feline and dedicated overachiever, I decided the best approach was to sample both sides of the proverbial fence, which I did. What I found is this: while it is true that the artisanship present in masterpieces is truly profound, when popular fiction tries to duplicate this artisanship it is very entertaining.
Masterpieces are undeniably important because they focus on characteristics of global significance. They shed light on the common plight of people. Great literatures represent humanity’s hopes, fears, and desires. They teach, inspire, and entertain the masses. Literary masterpieces bring people closer together because they address universal experience to which anyone can relate. Master works define a society’s culture throughout the ages. Societies are constantly growing, changing, and evolving, and the themes of the masters adapt with each new generation, withstanding the test of time. The world’s masterpieces influence every aspect of society. One need only watch a Marine Corp recruitment video with modern-day soldiers morphing into knights in shining armor battling dragons to see medieval literature’s influence. The classics serve as guides for ethical behavior, inspiration for the oppressed, and manifestos for social change. Literary masterpieces strike soundly upon the chord of emotion and human understanding. They are transcendent because this chord resonates cosmically, regardless of gender, race, culture, or time.
Masterpiece. (2013). Oxford dictionaries. Retrieved from http://oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/masterpiece