A common plot for a Very Special Episode
: A character, typically a friend or acquaintance
of The Hero
, is revealed to be illiterate by some odd quirk of behavior. This is typically a shameful secret to them; the episode typically ends with their beginning to study, and the issue is never mentioned again.
This plot lends itself to mysteries because of the suspicious behavior used to cover-up illiteracy and the opportunity for a character to be cleared of crime because the crime depended upon being literate.
This trope has started to invite parody, and is probably on its way to becoming a Discredited Trope
in relatively wealthy societies due to the vast majority of the people within possessing functional literacy. If it's still played straight, the character will probably be dyslexic
, with the Aesop
being that this has nothing to do with being uneducated and should not be a source of shame. Characters are also occasionally revealed to be unable to read English (or whatever is the dominant language where they are living) due to being recent immigrants.
Stories set in or around the Industrial Revolution
(or similar time periods where universal education is a recent invention) may have the character in question quit school at a young age in order to support his family, or due to some other bit of the harshness of life. These characters simply do not have the time to learn how to read, having never had the security of life to allow for an education. By the time they do become secure enough in their livelihood to take the time, they are simply too ashamed to admit it and usually get by with only a very basic literacy, or (if they're old enough) claiming that their eyes aren't what they used to be.
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Anime and Manga
- Bizenghast: Edrear is shown to be illiterate. This is Played for Laughs when Edrear asks directions to a store called Jacys, and it is revealed to be directly behind him (and clearly labeled).
- Cassandra Cain, Batgirl II, was raised to be the perfect assassin by her father, who never even spoke in front of her, so she didn't know how to speak, much less to read. When she was taken in by the Batfamily, she spent her life as a crime-fighter. It was consistently depicted as a set-back, and eventually caused the rift between Oracle and her, after Oracle called her 'stupid' in the middle of a battle while Cassie was desperately trying to shut down a killer robot, hurting Cass deeply.
: You're kidding—you still don't even know the damn alphabet
?! All those hours you spend practicing martial arts
and you can't spare the time to learn your #$%@ ABC
's?! For God's sake, Cassie—how stupid can you be?!
- Cassandra Cain has it worse than most. The reason her dad never spoke to her is to encourage the language centers of her brain to 'read' body language. As such, besides the usual troubles of learning to read (and speak) later in life, her brain effectively developed in such a way that her ability to learn speech was almost completely demolished. Makes this a pretty big What the Hell, Hero? moment for Oracle, as she's effectively not only hurt by being reminded of her embarrassing handicap, it ignored the fact that the only reason she is that way is because of severe emotional abuse (her father would randomly attack her as part of her training) for the first several years of her life, culminating in her killing a man while knowing exactly how horrified he is. At age eight. That the only thing wrong with her brain is her difficulty with language is a sign of nothing short of Heroic Willpower.
- Meggan from the X-Men spinoff Excalibur was illiterate since her inhuman appearance kept her from going to school as a child. During the course of the series, several members of the team offered to help tutor her, and near the end, she finishes her lessons and has an average adult reading level.
- Also X-related, Catseye from the Hellions was abandoned at birth since her mutation manifested early, and she spent much of her life thinking she was a cat who transformed into a human rather than vice-versa. Once discovered by Emma Frost, she went from complete illiteracy to grade school-level reading within a year, showing a hidden intelligence.
- The 100th issue of Groo The Wanderer (Marvel run) is about Groo learning to read.
- Davos Seaworth in A Song of Ice and Fire. Due to his lowly origins, the smuggler-turned-knight-turned Lord never learned how to read. It's his elevation to Hand of the King that prompts him to learn, alongside his young son.
- This applies to the majority of common people in Westeros. Only nobles, maesters, septons etc. can usually be relied upon to be literate. In one scene Arya Stark is trying to show Hot Pie how to read a map, and he's astonished that she can actually read the place names written on it (unaware that she's actually nobleborn).
- Brutha from the Discworld novel Small Gods is illiterate and remains that way through the duration of the book. He more than makes up for it, however, with his incredible memory: he recalls literally everything he experiences with perfect clarity.
- Seeing as Brutha's the prophet of a religion, this is likely a reference to Muhammad who similarly achieved prominence and spread a religion, but only learned to read at the end of his life.
- And also played with in Brutha's case because at one point he's called upon to memorize the contents of an entire library so that it can be reproduced even if the library is destroyed by Omnian fundamentalists. This being the Discworld, the books start to "leak", he gains the information without having understood the words that he memorized.
- Harry King, a former mud lark and now-recycling-mogul, never bothered to learn letters either. He hires people to read things aloud to him, but thinks of written words as a distraction to the business side of things.
- Garion in the Belgariad had his family deliberately keep him illiterate and socially isolated on a distant farm. This is because he's The Chosen One, and his coming and the great deeds he must perform were written down as prophecy ages go... and they don't want him reading or hearing about any spoilers. When he's already too far into his epic quest to back out then they finally allow one of his traveling companions (the one he's supposed to marry later, so they get lots of quality time together) to tutor him. The prequel, Belgarath the Sorcerer, gives another reason: one of his ancestors nearly threw Aloria into civil war after reading the prophecies and getting a swelled head, and they'd rather history not repeat itself. Or rather Polgara would rather it not. Belgarath thought it was a stupid idea(which it was), especially given unlike the one who messed up Garion did not know his heritage already, so there was no real worry.
- Also from David Eddings, Sephrenia is deliberately illiterate in the Elenium trilogy. This is her own choice, however; she speaks both the Elene and Styric languages fluently, though Styric is her native tongue (And she can read Styric). She doesn't want to learn to read the Elene language because she doesn't want to accidentally become confused in a situation where she needs to think and speak very quickly in Styric (the language in which one casts magic).
- The Verger by Somerset Maugham is about a man whose illiteracy bars him from promotions in the local church, so he looks for alternatives and by opening tobacco shops makes a fortune. The last line makes the story. Go on - read it.
- Aunt Sissy in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn never learned because her immigrant parents didn't realize they were supposed to send her to school until she was too old to start.
- A Judgement in Stone by Ruth Rendell is well-known for its opening line of "Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write." Eunice, the family's maid, is obsessed with keeping her illiteracy a secret from everyone throughout the story, and the family's learning of it leads her to kill them all.
- Larten Crepsley in The Saga of Darren Shan. Considering his upbringing as a child laborer turned vampire's assistant, it's understandable.
- In the Horatio Alger, Jr. book Ragged Dick, young Dick realizes that his illiteracy will be an obstacle in his plan to lift himself by his bootstraps. He solves this by finding another orphan who was able to get some schooling before being kicked out on the streets, and allowing the boy to sublet his room in exchange for tutoring.
- Being literate is comparatively uncommon among most of the population of Redwall. Most of the Abbeydwellers learn enough of the basics to function, but most vermin and a few of the Long Patrollers don't really need to read.
- Jakub Wędrowycz's academic education is limited to three years of elementary Russian school, so he barely knows Latin alphabet (he never bothered to brush up on it in over 80 years).
- Eragon never learned to read (a fact that surprises Brom, since his uncle Garret was literate). Of course, it only takes a month of instruction for Eragon to be literate enough to gather information from government records, and only a few months after that for him to read philosophical discourse and write epic poetry (in a different language).
- A touchy subject for Todd in Chaos Walking. He never learned to read beyond a few words, and he can't even read his own mothers journal. Leads to a heartwarming moment wherein Viola reads out her journal for him.
- The aptly named Blood Knight Zsadist of J.R.Ward's Black Dagger Brotherhood series is illiterate for well over a century until he fell in love with the aristocratic vampire Bella, and learned to read in order to be "worthy of courting" her. Before then, Zsadist made no effort to change his illiterate state, though there were hints it did bother him, since it not only inconvenienced him but also forced him to rely on others - mainly his twin, Phury - to accomplish simple tasks. Once he recognized his feelings for Bella, he worked relentlessly with his tutor, Mary, with all his hard work at last culminating in him writing, "I love you" to Bella in a squiggly, childlike handwriting.
- Although there are newspapers and bookstores around, a point is made that illiteracy among lower-class people is common in A Brother's Price, since mothers make more money if their daughters work alongside them than if they're off in schools. Men are almost never taught to read. Cullen Moorland admits that his cousin tried to teach him, but he claims she was a poor teacher, and anyway it's not like his wives, once he's married, will let him read. The Whistlers, seriously thinking about courting him, feel differently.
- In Guardians of Ga'Hoole, Soren's mate Pellimore had never known to read until Soren taught her. And from there... the love blossoms...
- In Transformers: Last Stand of the Wreckers: There was a back-up story where Springer is in a coma and put in the care of Roadbuster on their base. Roadbuster passes the time by reading to him, having to learn to do so, because he's spent millions of years fighting. He continuously struggles and eventually reads almost all 331 cataloging their adventures to him, twice, the second time trying to get the more complex words right. He doesn't read 113, because they both know it's a lie, but he does reveal some circumstances that Springer never knew.
- Comes up by way of Culture Clash in Patricia C. Wrede's The Raven Ring. It's mentioned in one scene that the protagonist can't read, and it's implied that this is normal for her people, who have a strong Oral Tradition. She has no idea why her rich city-born companion is embarrassed to have brought the subject up.
- A large theme in Captive of the Orcs. Very few Orcs can read. Even high ranking Orcs are usually illiterate. On the other hand, the Luminean Exiles have near-universal literacy.
- Bards in the Deverry series are forbidden to read. They believe that if a bard learns so much as the name of a single letter of the alphabet, his Agwen (Muse/Patron goddess) will desert him forever. They pass on all their lore through oral tradition.
- Spenser encounters a college basketball star who can't read in the novel Playmates.
- In Matched, most people don't know how to read, since reading and books are outlawed.
- Inverted by Tarzan, he somehow taught himself to read English from some books his birth parents had, but didn't know how to speak it. In fact when he first meets other white people they assume he's a different man from the Tarzan who wrote the warning sign outside his parents' cabin because he can't understand their speech.
- The woman to whom Bob Dylan is singing in "One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below)" can't read books. Like her mother and sisters, she can read the stars.
- Country singer Paul Overstreet once recorded a song called "Johnny Can't Read," a song that championed literacy programs.
- The get-away driver played by Noel Fielding in the music video for Blue Song by Mint Royale can't read clocks at the very least, so he listens to CDs in the car that are the same length as the time the bank robbers need him to wait. When the song ends, he knows to start the car.
- John Cena would say this word for word during some interviews/debates to get the crowd laughing.
- Less comedic example: Bob Backlund really was illiterate for most of his adult life. Despite graduating college, he didn't teach himself more than basic literacy until he was 42.
- The Mark & Brian Radio Program had as a recurring sketch of Brian as an out of work voice over guy. He's when just speaking to someone. But the moment he starts reading from the script he mangles the words horribly and inevitably sets his co-stars into Corpsing.
This month, we're proud to offer the 1960 Oscar winning film Spar-tackus
, from leggendary director Stanley Kubbrick
, is the story of a glad-ai-ator who leads a violent revolt against the Romulan empire. Starring Kirk Deglaze
, Laurence Oliviary
, and Tony Curtis. It will make you stand up and say "I am Spar-tack-us."
- Adventures in Odyssey had the episode "Cousin Albert" were Lucy discovers that her basketball star cousin Albert cannot read. Albert says that basketball is all he ever wanted and that he doesn't need to learn how to read. He changes his mind after he was beaten in a one-on-one game with the school janitor who also couldn't read.
- The Barbarian class of 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons has this trope as one of the quirks of the class. In order to be able to read and write, a barbarian must either spend two skill points on "Literacy" or take a level in another class. The reason for the illiteracy varies, such as whatever society he came from having an oral tradition or something similar, but the barbarian entering civilization will have a few problems.
- GURPS acknowledges that while this is more of a skill, it can be a serious advantage in low tech levels. Conversely, illiteracy is a serious disadvantage in high tech levels.
- Keeping the general populace illiterate is a control method implemented by the Coalition States in Rifts. Even high-ranking members of the military are not literate by default. The standard "Dead Boy" armor suit can read aloud written text to its wearer.
- In Ironclaw only Mages and a few other careers like Dilettante (one of two playable forms of nobleman) are automatically literate.
- In The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, being a local vagrant has never learned to read. The Widow Douglas takes pains to teach him, however, and by the end of the play, he can read at least a little and is proud of it.
- In the stage version of Beauty and the Beast, it's revealed that the Beast only has rudimentary reading skills (at best) and is embarrassed by it. When a song from this version, "Human Again", was animated for the IMAX version of the original film (where it had been a Cut Song), this detail was included in a short dialogue scene.
- This sets off the main plot of Gutenberg! The Musical, as the town's inability to read helps spur Gutenberg to invent the printing press. Most notably, a woman's inability read accidentally kills her child (she mistakes jelly beans for medicine. It's that kind of musical).
- In The Unsinkable Molly Brown, Molly grows up on a farm just as illiterate as her father and her brothers. However, she has certain ambitions, and the one that begins the refrain of her theme song is, "I'm goan' to learn to read and write."
- The little-known game Freedom! has a slave trying to escape from the American South. If the player character is illiterate, signs will be displayed with unintelligible characters.
- Nino from Fire Emblem 7, who learned to use magic tomes by watching Sonia and imitating her chants (something that gets her a lot of respect from fellow mage and potential love interest Erk). Her supports with Canas has him teaching her how to read.
- Sissel from Ghost Trick, which almost leads to some complications early on in the plot. Apparently, it's because of his Ghost Amnesia. Except it's not. He really Never Learned to Read, because he was a cat when he was still alive.
- Books in Yggdra Union can only be used by "the literate" (an in-game item condition), Nietzsche and Milanor are greyed out in selection. Guess what that meant?
- In Red Dead Redemption the main character John Marston's wife Abigail Marston admits that she's illiterate. At one point she suspects that her husband has received a love letter from another woman. Unable to read it herself she asks John to read it for her.
- In Dragon Age II, Hawke can make a gift of a book to Fenris, prompting him to admit that - thanks to his background as an escaped slave - he's never had the opportunity to learn how to read. Hawke can offer to teach him, if the player chooses.
- Player characters in Ancient Domains of Mystery may start the game illiterate, depending on the chosen class, race and Learning stat.
- In Kid Icarus: Uprising, Pit, upon seemingly falling to his doom claims to have never learned to read.
- In the opening chapter of Dragon Quest V, the hero is only 6 years old and can't read well. The few times he is able to read something, he has an older friend with him. This doesn't apply in later chapters, though, and you can go back and reread several signs you couldn't when you were young.
- In Crash Tag Team Racing, one of the many quotes that Crunch Bandicoot says upon having his vehicle destroyed in a race is a claim that he never learned to read.
- Lelouch, Suzaku and Kallen are unable to read in Code MENT, Played for Laughs. Though Lelouch has shown the ability to write (it's Japanese, so he can't read kanji but can write hiragana or katakana (we're guessing)).
- Luffy from None Piece is unable to read the disclaimer in episode 3, Played for Laughs.
- This map◊ from The Other Wiki's article on literacy shows the percentages of countries' populations that are functionally literate. Fortunately, the description mentions that some of the countries in the red have improved a bit since the map was made.
- The Mongols and Vikings are well-known for this, largely due to the fact that historians know very little about their true cultures and values because of their inability to record their own histories. The vast majority of information we have about them was written by Christians and Muslims, both of whom were terrified and disgusted by these barbarian invaders, which makes the actual beliefs and practices of the Mongols and pagan Vikings difficult to understand or even extrapolate on.
- While the trope itself has becoming somewhat cliched, there are obviously people in real life for which this is true. Also worth considering are cases where someone is dyslexic, and thus has a situation where although they are attending school and being taught literacy, it eludes them until the condition is identified.
- That said, a shockingly high percent of people in the US are functionally illiterate. That is, they can read just barely enough to get by but anything more is beyond them.
- Lance Henriksen is one particularly famous example - he dropped out of school before sixth grade and was illiterate until the age of 30, when he started acting and taught himself to read his scripts.
- Unfortunate Implications aside, there was a widely successful Junior-Major league hockey coach in Quebec who revealed he was illiterate when he retired.
- American Idol Season 3 winner Fantasia Barrino was functionally illiterate for years into her performing career; she would perform songs from memory and would make excuses such as being "Southern" when faced with dense materials like contracts.
- Maria Teresa "Mariettina" Goretti was said to be illiterate, which wasn't very uncommon in the times and place she lived (rural Italy in the very early nineteenth century). She allegedly still gained the knowledge she needed to get the Holy Communion purely by hearing and memorising what the local Passionist priests taught her.
- It's actually a kind-of common backstory among Christian saints, specially those who come from low-class backgrounds. Again, understandable due to the lack of advance in proper education until few time ago.
- Brazilian eco-martyr Chico Mendes was illiterate until the age of 18, having been deliberately kept so by the owner of the plantation he worked on, in an attempt to prevent him from learning what exploitation meant.
- This trope was the norm for most of the world until the Industrial Revolution. Most people worked in jobs in which literacy wasn't necessary, which took up so much time that they didn't have the leisure time needed to pick up an unnecessary skill. Up until the invention of the printing press, this was compounded by the fact that there simply wasn't much reading material available. The single largest group of people with the time and inclination to learn to read in Medieval and Renaissance times was the clergy. This is why bookkeepers are sometimes known as clerks (A word derived from cleric).
- Adam Carolla was functionally illiterate most of his life. When he started working at KROQ radio when he first got his break into showbiz, he forced himself to learn to read because he couldn't read copy off the cuff and got tired of having to memorize everything for hours ahead of time.
- In Antebellum America, plantation owners generally tried to keep their black slaves illiterate, lest they get their hands on abolitionist publications. Some states even passed laws against teaching slaves to read.
- Illiteracy was widespread in Tsarist Russia, as you'd expect of a backwards, feudal society where most people were peasants. At the time of the communist revolution in 1917, only twenty-four percent of Russians could read. In response, the Bolsheviks began the Likbez campaign in 1919. By the 1950s, illiteracy had effectively been eradicated from the Soviet Union.
- In one of his stand-ups, Chris Rock talked about how American slaves weren't allowed to learn how to read, which must have lead to some rather awkward scenarios:
Slave stearing a carriage: Oh Lord there's a stop sign up ahead, what is I gon' do?! If I don't stop I'll crash, but if I stop they'll know I can read and they'll kill me! What is I gon' do...
(keeps going and causes a crash)
Cop: Nigga what's wrong with you! Couldn't you see that stop sign?!
Slave: Uh...you mean dat octagon thing?
Cop: Who taught you OCTAGON nigga?!