Didacticism (dahy-DAK-tik-iz-um) is a literary movement encompassing written works that both instruct and entertain. Didactic literature’s overarching philosophy is that reading should contain a lesson as well as a certain amount of pleasure. In didacticism, entertainment doesn’t necessarily refer to an edge-of-your-seat kind of interest; it simply means a work is readable and not solely academic in nature.
Though some readers and critics employ the adjective didactic disparagingly to describe writing that is overly preachy and without much explicit entertainment value, didacticism is a separate literary philosophy. Works that fall under its definition may certainly possess a heavy-handedness, such as moralizing or lecturing, but these qualities are not prerequisites, so long as there is some amount of both instruction and readability in a piece.
The word derives from the Greek didaktikós, meaning “skilled in teaching.” Didacticism has its roots in oral traditions, in which parables and myths offered listeners a source of entertainment along with moral lessons.
The Origins of Didacticism
Didacticism began before the written word. Early cultures dispersed knowledge and entertainment through oral storytelling. Spoken fables, parables, and myths were a means to educate as well as amuse. One generation passed them on to the next, and the stories altered slightly to reflect cultural changes and evolutions in attitude. Fairy tales are an early example of didacticism. They started as an oral tradition and eventually passed from culture to culture, with each society putting their own spin on the tales to ensure they captured their community’s norms. The first written fairy tale, believed to be “The Smith and the Devil,” dates to 1300 BCE.
Another early example is the poem “Works and Days” by Greek poet Hesiod, written around 700 BCE. The 800-line verse isn’t merely a poem; it is a farmer’s almanac that Hesiod used to teach his brother about agriculture. Athenian philosopher Xenophon wrote “On Horsemanship,” one of the earliest surviving examples of a didactic essay, around 350 BCE. The treatise details the proper care and training of horses.
Novels as a form didn’t come into being until the 11th century; one of the first didactic novels emerged around 100 years later, with Muslim scholar Ibn Tufayl’s Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān. It concerns a boy living on an isolated island who learns about the natural world through his direct experience with it. Later, he meets another human—his first—and eventually shares his knowledge with the rest of the world.
As the influence of Christianity spread, so too did one of the most monumental works of didactic literature: The Bible. For Western culture, the Bible is both wisdom and entertainment—the exact definition of didacticism. It shapes their reading material, theatre, politics, and way of life.
This led to the development of morality plays, a theater genre based in didacticism, during the Middle Ages. Though these plays diminished in popularity during the early Tudor Era, Western writers and philosophers continued producing didactic literature. Scholars consider Puritan writer John Bunyan’s 1678 Christian allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress a classic didactic work; it is also the first novel written in English. In the Victorian Era, didactic essays were particularly popular.
In the 19th century, attitudes toward didacticism changed, with many viewing these types of work as too moralizing and hectoring. Edgar Allan Poe was one vocal critic of didacticism, calling it one of the worst heresies imaginable.
Types of Didactic Works
Didacticism defies literary genres. Didactic text appears in virtually every kind of writing, including:
- Children’s literature
- Fables and fairy tales
- Poetry and verse
Morality plays are theatrical dramas that make abundant use of didacticism. They started in Medieval Europe, where they evolved from staged interpretations of Bible stories called mystery plays. The Bible provided a major influence for early morality plays; popular themes often centered on one of the Seven Deadly Sins.
Morality plays contain allegorical characters who teach the audience moral lessons through plot-driven stories. In most morality plays, the central teaching involves a good versus evil struggle; the protagonist, who usually symbolizes the human race or a particular social group, learns the difference between—and the consequences of—right and wrong.
While morality plays largely fell out of favor at the beginning of the 17th century, contemporary playwrights still write them. Because of their clear-cut presentations of basic moral and ethical behavior, plays written for children are often, to some extent, morality plays. For instance, staged versions of beloved fairy tales like Little Red Riding Hood and Henny Penny are fun for kids to watch while teaching important lessons—respectively, that they should never talk to strangers and they should not believe everything they’re told.
Morality plays appear in more mature theatre as well. German playwright Bertolt Brecht is one of the most prominent modern writers to pen morality plays—and, by extension, didactic philosophy. In fact, Brecht developed his own version of morality plays with a new dramatic movement called epic theatre. Epic theatre emphasizes breaking down the actor-audience divide to engage audience members in ways that make them seek answers to big questions about morality, ethics, politics, social issues, and other subjects.
Didacticism’s Functions and Mechanisms
The function of didacticism is to teach and entertain. Didactic literature accomplishes these goals through compelling, engaging text. A didactic nonfiction work might utilize second-person point of view to immerse the reader in a more straightforward way. This approach uses the you and your pronouns and sentences that read like direct instructions to or insights about the reader. How-to books, self-help books, and instruction manuals are all common examples of this approach.
While second-person point of view is often an automatic giveaway that a text is didactic in nature, there is no formal requirement saying this is the only approach. Both first person (I, me, my, we, our) and third person (he, she, they, them) voices are also effective. However, they might make didacticism more difficult to spot.
Notable Didactic Authors
Throughout history, many writers have created didactic literature. The following is a list of some of the most prominent and their works.
- Thomas Carlyle, On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and The Heroic in History
- Thomas De Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater
- Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment
- Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie
- Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure
- Doris Lessing, Re: Colonised Planet 5, Shikasta (a.k.a. Shikasta)
- Thomas Macaulay, The History of England from the Accession of James the Second
- Iris Murdoch, Under the Net
- Alexander Pope, “An Essay on Man”
- Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead
- John Ruskin, Modern Painters
- Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin
- Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence
Examples in of Didacticism in Literature
1. Aesop, Aesop’s Fables
The fables created by Greek storyteller Aesop are the most enduring examples of ancient didactic literature. They started out as popular tales in the oral tradition and weren’t written down until some 300 years after Aesop’s death in 564 BCE. There are 725 fables in total.
Among the most famous are “The Ant and the Grasshopper,” about a dawdling grasshopper who learns a lesson from an ant about the importance of hard work and planning ahead, and “The Tortoise and the Hare,” in which the creeping tortoise emerges the unlikely winner of a race against the overly boastful hare. As in all of Aesop’s fables, these characters act out broad but familiar dilemmas that most human beings will face at some time during their lives. They illustrate what can happen when one follows the less virtuous path, as well as what can happen on the more righteous one.
2. John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress
The Pilgrim’s Progress is a two-part allegory of Christian theology. In the first part, the protagonist, appropriately named Christian, goes on an epic journey through a dreamscape that takes him from his home to the City of Destruction, the Celestial City and, finally, Mount Zion. The City of Destruction symbolizes the earthly world, while the Celestial City denotes heaven. Along the way, obstacles abound, challenging Christian’s faith and underscoring the importance of sticking to one’s beliefs, sacrificing anything for salvation, and trusting in the divine will of God. This excerpt comes from the conclusion of Part 1:
Now when they were come up to the gate, there was written over it, in letters of gold,
“BLESSED ARE THEY THAT DO HIS COMMANDMENTS, THAT THEY MAY HAVE RIGHT TO THE TREE OF LIFE, AND MAY ENTER IN THROUGH THE GATES INTO THE CITY.”
Then I saw in my dream, that the shining men bid them call at the gate: the which when they did, some from above looked over the gate, to wit, Enoch, Moses, and Elijah, &c., to whom it was said, These pilgrims are come from the City of Destruction, for the love that they bear to the King of this place; and then the pilgrims gave in unto them each man his certificate, which they had received in the beginning: those therefore were carried in unto the King, who, when he had read them, said, Where are the men? To whom it was answered, They are standing without the gate. The King then commanded to open the gate, “That the righteous nation (said he) that keepeth the truth may enter in.” Isaiah 26:2.
3. Mark Twain, “Advice to Youth”
“Advice to Youth” is an 1882 essay by Mark Twain, intended as a satire of various adult mores and institutions. The style is intentionally overly didactic to emphasize the essay’s satirical nature.
Twain presents six tongue-in-cheek lessons to American youth: obey your parents, but only in their presence; respect strangers and one’s superiors—but others only selectively; go to bed and get up early, preferably with a lark as an alarm clock; lie sparingly until you’ve mastered the art of lying, then lie freely; practice care around guns, but, better yet, just handle unloaded ones; and don’t waste youth on trashy literature, only good books.
As a final skewering of conventional attitudes and homogeneity, Twain concludes the essay with this guidance:
Build your character thoughtfully and painstakingly upon these precepts, and by and by, when you have got it built, you will be surprised and gratified to see how nicely and sharply it resembles everybody else’s.
4. Herman Hesse, Siddhartha
Siddhartha is a short novel written in straightforward language, but its major philosophical themes make it an important work of didactic literature. It is the story of a young man, Siddhartha, who lives during the time of the Buddha and undertakes a similar journey of self-discovery. He meets many people during his adventures, each of whom teaches him a big lesson about life, death, human nature, enlightenment, or a similar mystery. Though inspired by Buddhism, Siddhartha is on a path uniquely his own that ultimately presents him with the reality of the separateness of the human experience—and how, paradoxically, the commonality of our separateness is something that connects us.
Siddhartha is just as instructional as it is narrative:
Siddhartha listened. He was now listening intently, completely absorbed, quite empty, taking in everything. He felt that he had now completely learned the art of listening. He’d often heard all this before, all these numerous voices in the river, but today they sounded different. He could no longer distinguish the different voices–the merry voice from the weeping voice, the childish voice from the manly voice. The all belonged to each other: the lament of those who yearn, the laughter of the wise, the cry of indignation and the groan of the dying. They’re all interwoven and interlocked, entwined in a thousand ways. And all the voices, all the goals, all the yearnings, all the sorrows, all the pleasures, all the good and evil, all of them together was the world.
Further Resources on Didacticism
Goodreads maintains a list of Popular Didactic Books.
WorldCat has a directory of didactic literature and authors closely associated with the genre.
A University of Tennessee faculty member discusses the fine line between didactic fiction and fantasy in children’s literature.
Washington State University has an overview of religious didactic literature of the Middle Ages.
A Duke University website delves into the particulars of didacticism in early Greek and Roman literature.