Didacticism: Definition and Examples in Literature

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Didacticism is all about teaching and educating and the word didactic comes from a Greek term meaning the same. The term didacticism, when referring to writing, describes literature serving as a means to teach the reader something, whether that be morals or how to make stew. Some connotations of the word didactic can include an inference of being heavy-handed and preachy, but that manner is not a requirement for something to be didactic. That said, it certainly can preach as well as instruct or advise.

Key Takeaways Didacticism

  • Didactic text is instructional, not always preachy.
  • Before how-to videos and self-help books came fables, myths, and proverbs.
  • Literature that has an ethical message among its themes can be didactic, just as straightforward second-person instructional text can.

You'll often be able to tell didactic writing by sight, as it is nonfiction that makes use of the second-person point of view, using you or your and imperative sentences, as opposed to first-person point of view (I, we, our) and third person (he, she). However, it doesn't have to use second person, so third person usage doesn't automatically rule out the use of didactic text. 

Didactic Writing Types

Didacticism has been around since before language was being written down or printed; as long as there's been something to instruct, there have been stories to deliver the lessons. Before the Aesopic fables, there were parables, myths, legends, and proverbs passed down from generation to generation to inspire and advise people how to live and instruct in practices to follow.

"One of the age-old functions of all folklore is education, and performers who would amuse us are just as often eager to teach us as well," said author Sandra K. Dolby. Whether it's "literature" depends on how narrowly you define that term, though. "On the other hand, there are those who would argue that 'literature'true artis never utilitarian, never purposeful, that writing intended to advise or persuade is communication or rhetoric but not literature." ("Self-Help Books: Why Americans Keep Reading Them." University of Illinois Press, 2005)

Others would disagree, noting that the world (and art) is rarely so black and white. They would cite works of literature as illustrative of didacticism when there's something to learn from them—such as William Golding's "Lord of the Flies" and Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird." These works make ethical arguments in their themes. In the former, the author portrays civilization and ethics/moral codes vs. barbarism. In the latter, Atticus Finch teaches his children about prejudice, courage, and doing the right thing, even when it's not a popular position. 

Whether someone defines a particular work as literature or not, though, if it's instructional, it's definitely didactic writing.

Didacticism Examples

From "Advice to Youth" by Mark Twain: "Always obey your parents, when they are present. This is the best policy in the long run because if you don’t, they will make you... Now as to the matter of lying. You want to be very careful about lying; otherwise, you are nearly sure to get caught." Even if the speech he gave is satire, there's still truth in what he says. Humor as a convention can also make advice easier to take. 

Compare Twain's voice with the more matter-of-fact tone used in "Camping Out" by Ernest Hemingway: "The simplest [bug repellant] perhaps is oil of citronella. Two bits’ worth of this purchased at any pharmacist’s will be enough to last for two weeks in the worst fly and mosquito-ridden country.

Rub a little on the back of your neck, your forehead, and your wrists before you start fishing, and the blacks and skeeters will shun you. The odor of citronella is not offensive to people. It smells like gun oil. But the bugs do hate it."

In Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, in addition to imploring leaders to pass civil rights-related laws, he also instructed Blacks protesting to make their voices heard in a peaceful way. Note the use of second person here as he speaks to the audience (using the imperative form in the first sentence with "you" understood before the word "let"): "Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence."

Other examples of didacticism in literature include Medieval morality plays. Writers of didactic essays from the Victorian era include Thomas De Quincey (1785–1859), Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881), Thomas Macaulay (1800–1859), and John Ruskin (1819–1900).

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Nordquist, Richard. "Didacticism: Definition and Examples in Literature." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/didactic-writing-term-1690452. Nordquist, Richard. (2021, February 16). Didacticism: Definition and Examples in Literature. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/didactic-writing-term-1690452 Nordquist, Richard. "Didacticism: Definition and Examples in Literature." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/didactic-writing-term-1690452 (accessed June 8, 2023).