How to identify a worldview in literature

In Realms of Gold: The Classics in Christian Perspective, Leland Ryken, a Professor of English at Wheaton College, helpfully writes:

The simplest way to conceive of world view in literature is to identify what value is elevated to a position of supremacy. This value also becomes an integrating force, so that all aspects of life are defined in terms of it. This central value is what Nathan Scott calls the work’s “ultimate concern” – some “fundamental hypothesis about the nature of existence which . . . introduces structure and coherence . . . into the formless stuff of life.”

In addition to a central integrating value, a world view consists of basic premises about God, people, and the universe. The imagined world that a piece of literature presents is offered to us as the author’s picture of reality – of what is and what ought to be. To identify a world view in literature, therefore, we can ask such questions as these: According to this picture, what really exists? What is the exact nature of these things? What constitutes good and evil behavior? What is valuable and worthless? What is the good life?

An additional useful tool of analysis is to regard the major characters in a story (especially the protagonist) as undertaking an experiment in living. A character’s experiment in living is tested during the course of a story, and its successful or unsuccessful outcome is an implied comment on its adequacy or inadequacy.

The Christian allegiance of a work is seen chiefly in its world view. A Christian novel, claimed Flannery O’Connor, is not identified by its subject matter but is instead a story “in which the truth as Christians know it has been used as a light to see the world by.” It is Christian by virtue of “what it assumes about human and divine reality.”

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