Created By: Discar on July 17, 2012 Last Edited By: Discar on August 27, 2015

Illiteracy in Fiction

How illiteracy is treated in fiction.

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Illiteracy is treated very differently depending on the languages of the work in question. In the Western world, a character being unable to read is a minor tragedy, and a sign that someone seriously screwed up raising them. Often, that character's plot will revolve around learning to read.

In the east, however, this is not quite the case. In Japan (and a number of other countries), it isn't all that surprising to find someone who can't read kanji, or whatever the local high-level equivalent is. Kanji is so advanced that even people who study the Japanese language regularly are expected to need a dictionary on hand to read literature. This has spawned an entire media type, the Light Novel, which mostly uses the simpler hiragana instead.

Therefore, a Japanese character who can't read/write kanji is treated as a bit of an idiot, but nothing to write home about. Foreign characters also fall into this a lot.

Western Examples:

Live Action TV

  • Charles in Charge has an episode where a boyfriend of Sarah hides his illiteracy by getting her (and others in the past) to do his homework for him. Portrayed as sad but sympathetic.

Eastern Examples:


  • In Sailor Moon, Chibi-Usa brings back a letter from the future, written by her mother, Neo-Queen Serenity. The characters are well aware at this point that Serenity is the future version of the main character Usagi, but can't believe Usagi could write such an intelligent and mature letter. Until they notice that the letter doesn't have any kanji in it.
    Rei: You can even see where she made mistakes and erased them.
    Ami: Couldn't she have just used a dictionary?
Community Feedback Replies: 19
  • July 17, 2012
    Charles In Charge has an episode where a boyfriend of Sarah hides his illiteracy by getting her (and others in the past) to do his homework for him. Portrayed as sad but sympathetic.
  • July 17, 2012
    However, I'm not sure illiteracy in kanji, but literacy in kana, is the equivalent of illitteracy in a Western setting, since in the latter it's usually all or nothing (no reading whatsoever).
  • July 17, 2012
    • In A Day No Pigs Would Die, Robert discovers some papers among his fathers things showing that he had spent much of his adult life secretly trying to learn to read. He had accomplished, at least, learning how to spell his own name.
  • July 17, 2012
    • In both the book and film of The Reader, the Big Secret is that Hanna Schmitz, a former SS prison guard, cannot read, which would acquit her of her crimes. Here, illiteracy is treated as a handicap that left her naive, resulting her not knowing she was involved in genocide. In the book, there's a subtext that we're defined by our interaction with the written text, to the point that not being able to read means not existing. In the book, she's practically invisible to Michael's family and classmates. Comes off as a Warped Aesop.
  • July 17, 2012

    Card Captor Sakura had Kero making fun of Syaoran for having trouble reading Kanji. He replies that he can read it fine; his trouble stems from the usage being different in Japanese than it is in his native Chinese.

    Live Action TV:

    The Cosby Show had an episode featuring a man who was illiterate and struggled to hide the fact.
  • July 17, 2012
    So are Japanese people ever portrayed as not even being able to read kana? Does that ever happen?
  • July 17, 2012
    • An episode of Head Of The Class had a similar plot to the Charles in Charge one mentioned. A star basketball player has hidden for years that he can't read, including getting others to do his homework for him. Now he has to take the SATs in order to get into a college, in order to go pro. He considers just going pro straight out of high school, but at the endof the episode he announces he's taking the next year off to learn to read.
    • On Gor many members of the Warrior caste are illiterate, considering it beneath them. Others hide their literacy. Tarl Cabot, the protagonist for most books, is semi-literate in Gorean: he can read it passibly well, but he has trouble writing (especially the alternate lines which are written & read right-to-left instead of left-to-right).
    • South Park: Officer Barbrady was revealed to be illiterate. He was suspended until he could learn how to read.
  • July 17, 2012
    I would assume illiteracy is depicted in several different ways. Why not identify one of them (a trope) and make a page on it?
  • July 18, 2012
    Waynes World did a spoof of Oscar Bait speeches that ended with Wayne wailing "I never learned to read!"
  • July 18, 2012
    Brutha in <Small Gods> is a special case. He can't read but he can memorise the symbols for someone else to interpret.
  • July 18, 2012
    Let's throw Hollywood Illiteracy and Artistic Licence Illiteracy out there before someone else does (even though I doubt either quite fit).
  • July 18, 2012
    Literature: George Mac Donald Fraser in his Mc Auslan books (thinly disguised autobiography about his time as a junior officer in the Gordon Highlanders) notes several of the men he commanded were functionally iliterate, wartime conscripts who would have been passed over in peacetime by the British Army for this reason. He notes the existence of the Royal Army Education Corps, one of whose reasons for being was to provide remedial education for backward soldiers, including basic literacy lessons where needed. He also describes Private mcAuslan, the dirtiest soldier In The World, who was conscripted illiterate and despite the RAEC's best attentions, would be demobbed illiterate. McAuslan is the soldier who completely misunderstood during a lesson on how to navigate by the stars. For him, one stellar landmark would forever be The Constipation of O'Brien .
  • July 18, 2012
    Why only western and eastern works?
  • July 18, 2012
    ^Isn't everything one of those?

    ^^^^That's a Subversion; he really did.
  • July 18, 2012
    We have this. Never Learned To Read.
  • August 12, 2012
    My first thought was to expand Never Learned To Read 's description to cover the eastern type, but I think they might deserve to be separate tropes. Thoughts?
  • August 27, 2015
    Brookside had the character of Niamh Cosgrave, an Irish traveller and mother of nine who concealed her illiteracy until offered a job for which being able to read and write was mandatory.
  • August 27, 2015
    Already have: Never Learned To Read. Tagging as "Already have".
  • August 27, 2015
    I'm throwing in a Motion To Discard. Unless you rewrote it to mean something like fiction where illiteracy is the norm.