Imagine an anthropologist attempting to understand the lifestyle of the ancient Babylonians. She might begin by digging up artifacts at an excavation site, and drawing conclusions from what is found. The clay pot suggests that they cooked in ovens, and the drawings on it suggests a culture that values the arts. Now imagine that she found a book of Babylonian myths that were translatable. She reads these stories with interest, feeling like she is getting a first hand glimpse into the lifestyle of the ancients.
If we accept her ability to read a story to better understand a society, then we accept reflection theory. This theory postulates that literature reflects the society that birthed it.
Now think of America immediately prior to the Civil War. The North looks down upon the southerner's farms filled with slaves; the South is growing annoyed with the northerner's meddling. With tensions running high, a book is published, relating a fictional account of a slave's life. The book is widely read, and the northerner's demands for Abolition increase. The South responds by ceding from the union, and war erupts. Uncle Tom's Cabin helped push the nation toward Abolition and the Civil War.
If we accept that literature can shape or change society, then we accept control theory. This theory postulates that literature influences the society that reads it.
A Spiraling Relationship
I believe that both of these theories are true. Literature is society's mirror, but it is also an agent of change. When an event occurs within a society, the artists and authors will notice and eventually write about it. When people in the society consume the subsequent art and literature, their beliefs and behaviors will change subtly. This influence will spur changes within the society, which will in turn cause literature to adapt. Art and Society exists in a symbiotic relationship that leads to growth and development.
A Centering Tool
Literature also focuses a society. It reveals strengths and weaknesses. It comments on beauty and debasement. It provides a path. When society begins to walk along that path, literature and art will gently pull it along until the path reaches a dead-end or the walker has squandered the experience. The next change in literature will again give society a chance again to center, learn, and grow.
Literature is powerful. We humans are story creatures. We engage in activities thinking that they will provide us with good stories to tell our friends. We talk about the chapters in our lives when significant changes occur. On the whole, we treat our life as a story and live in a way that will ensure it is a good one.
Our lives are stories, and stories are both a reflector and director of society. That is the power that we wield.