Characteristics of English Literature

English literature can be found in all parts of the world: America, India, Australia, Britain and many smaller areas. Its history ranges from the Old English of Beowulf to the stream-of-consciousness of James Joyce. While it shares certain characteristics with all Western literature, there are a couple of characteristics that make English literature unique.

The English Language

English has more words than most languages, and those words have come from many different sources from all over the world. As a result, English is rich in words that vary slightly in meaning or that have differing connotations (subtle meanings). Shakespeare was a master at using the English language to compose great literature, using its wealth of words to compose brilliant speeches and witty puns. He was also not shy about making up his own words when the ones available did not suffice. Writers like Herman Melville who chose English, their second language, as the one to write in often did so because of the enormous depth and flexibility of English vocabulary.

Five (or Thereabouts) Common Themes in Dramatic Narrative

English literature revolves around just a handful of common themes, many of which are shared with Western literature, that describe nearly all its stories. The five most commonly identified and most commonly used are overcoming the monster, rags to riches, the quest, voyage and return, and boy meets girl. Nearly every single story told in English incorporates one or more of these themes. Two other themes, comedy and tragedy, are often added to this total, but these themes can be simplified down to happy ending/unhappy ending.

In certain regional English literary areas, there is some variance. For example, Indian English literature is likely to incorporate both Asian and Persian themes like the Asian love-suicide theme in which one character kills himself for love. These, however, are additive and do not replace the core five English literary themes.


English literature, like the literature of most of Europe and a large part of the Middle East, has been heavily influenced by its Christian and Greco-Roman heritage. This can be seen most clearly before the 20th century, when a classical education ceased being the norm for youths. These influences are blended with uniquely British traditions, most notably King Arthur and Robin Hood. The tragic but heroic king (which can also be traced back to Beowulf) and the cheeky good-hearted rogue are common English literature stereotypes.


While it is not unique to English literature, Utopianism---the search for a perfect land in this life---is remarkably common compared to other literary traditions. The theme can be traced back to Plato's Republic, but was revolutionized by Thomas Moore in the 1600s when he wrote Utopia. From that time forward, utopias and dystopias (lands that seem perfect but which are in fact terribly flawed) have been common plot drivers in English literature, concentrated especially in fantasy and science fiction genres.

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