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It’s been called the Age of Enlightenment or the Age of Reason. Literature of the time reflected the new priorities of logic, science, and reason and began to explore new concepts of man’s place in this world, the fabric of society, politics, and government, and the realities of life on this planet. 



The Novel Comes of Age

The 18th century also saw the birth of the novel as a literary genre and as a method of presenting themes about society, about man’s emotional struggles, about politics, about love and romance, and more. Who has not read Gulliver’s Travels by Johnathan Swift? Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Caruso is often considered the first book that ushered in the novel as a literary genre. From Rousseau’s Emile to Voltaire’s Candide to Galland’s publication of the first translation of the Muslim work One Thousand and One Nights, it is obvious that fiction was wide and varied, but without the older, more traditional religious themes. The Age of Enlightenment meant that writers of fiction could branch out into humanistic and earthly themes, influencing the rise of the romance novel, which remains a hugely popular genre today.

The gothic novel exposed readers to dark themes of superstition, horror, and mystery, usually set in medieval times. The Castle of Otranto written by politician Horace Walpole is often considered to be the first gothic piece that set in motion an entire genre of fiction that crossed well into the 19th century with authors such as Mary Shelly and Bram Stoker (Dracula).

Non-Fiction Takes a Turn

Non-fiction works, by such authors as John Locke, Descartes, Johnathan Swift, Adam Smith, and even Karl Marx covered the full gamut of societal, economic, and political challenges of the day. Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations is classic and typical of non-fiction during this century. He proposed a capitalist economy, free from autocratic rule, at the same time that Karl Marx was extolling the value of communism.

18th Century Poetry

The poetry of the 18th century probably best reflects all the thoughts of the Age of Enlightenment and Reason. Besides, it serves as a bridge between this era and Romanticism which blends in during the last half of the century. This is obvious through the works of individuals such as Pope and the later poetry of romanticists such a Wordsworth. Those who want a good “taste” of 18th-century poetry should definitely read the following:

       The Rape of the Lock by Alexander Pope – mock heroism and satire on upper-class vanity.

       On Being Brought from Africa to America by Phillis Wheatley – though ahead of its time, the poem’s theme is the basic value of all people, regardless of race.

       The Tyger by William Blake – here is romanticism creeping in

       Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Coleridge – a long narrative poem in the classical tradition- one of the most famous lines ever – “water, water, everywhere, but not a drop to drink.”

Looking at Common and Distinctive Features

Literature always reflects the political, social, economic, and spiritual times in which authors live. In fact, this is often a common research paper topic for college students who study literature. It can be challenging, and many go to outside sources for help, such as Edubirdie, a research and writing service that can assist.

The Age of Enlightenment (aka, the Age of Reason) was no exception to complexity. Here came a huge movement (spawned by the Renaissance) that based its ideas on science, reason and logic, man’s place in his real earthly environment, the pursuit of worldly happiness, and the political and social concepts of liberty, individualism, and even separation of church and state. Clearly, “war” had been declared on autocratic monarchies and the dominance of the Catholic Church.

If we can speak to distinctive features of literature of the Enlightenment, those that separate it from previous centuries, though not present in all genres and pieces, they would be the following:

       Humanism: More importance is given to earthly/human matters than to spiritual ones. Even when there was a hint of a religious theme, it was still humanized, such as in Thomas Gray’s “Elegy in a Country Churchyard.” Humanism values the use of logic and reason for solutions, as opposed to spiritual beliefs or superstitions.

       Individualism: Individual autonomy of thought was valued, as was the questioning of the autocratic control of monarchies and the Catholic Church. Thus, such pieces as those of Voltaire and Rousseau.

       Tolerance, Equality, and Individual Freedom: One need look no further than the U.S. Declaration of Independence and its later Constitution to see the influence of Enlightenment thought on these ideas.

       Criticism of Traditional Societal Class Structures: This thought gave rise to satire as a literary form, perhaps best characterized in “The Rape of the Lock,” and Swift’s, Gulliver’s Travels.

       Pursuit of Earthly, Human Pleasures: With the advent of the novel and its secular themes, reading for pleasure became an avid pastime for many. And the content of those novels extolled the pursuit of earthly pleasures – consumer products, love and romance, adventure, and such. One need only read Voltaire’s Candide to see heretofore forbidden topics of novels – illegitimate children of the wealthy (and even the Pope), sex, rape, blasphemy, and more. While it was actually written as a satire of the French government, the plot included events and circumstances that would shock and defy French censorship law.

Summing Up

The Age of Enlightenment attacked virtually every societal, economic, and political institution known to man at that time – monarchies, the Church, societal class structures, and the dominance of religion over science. Its literature reflected all of these attacks and ushered in not just a new age of reason, science, and humanism, but fostered major upheavals around the world.


Author’s bio. Jessica Fender is a professional writer and educational blogger at Writeload. Jessica enjoys sharing her ideas to make writing and learning fun.