The Power of the Story: Fiction and Political Change

The Power of the Story: Fiction and Political Change

The Power of the Story: Fiction and Political Change

The Power of the Story: Fiction and Political Change

Synopsis

Can a novel caus riots, start a war, free serfs or slaves, break up marriages, drive readers to suicide, close factories, bring about legal change, swing an election, or serve as a weapon in a national or international struggle? These are some of the larger, direct, social and political effects which have been ascribed to certain exceptional novels and other works of narrative fiction over the last two hundred years or so. In their crudest form, claims of this kind are obviously naive, oversimplifying the complex ways in which literary tests "work in the world" and oversimplifying. Too, the casual processes required to account for a major social or political change. But is it possible to modify or refine such claims in the light of contemporary theory and historical research so that the mechanisms by which each text has engaged with the political forces of the time are adequately described? The author explores this question in the form of a theoretical essay on narrative and power, followed by five detailed case studies of works by Turgenev, Harriet Beecher Stoew, Ignazio Silone, Solzhenitsyn and Salman Rushdie each of which had or were said to have had a major impact on the political events in their time.

Excerpt

C an a novel start a war, free serfs, break up marriages, drive readers to suicide, close factories, bring about a law change, swing an election, or serve as a weapon in a national or international struggle? These are some of the large-scale, direct, social and political effects which have been ascribed to certain exceptional novels and other works of narrative fiction over the last two hundred years or so. How seriously should we take such claims?

In their crudest form, assertions of this kind are obviously naive, oversimplifying the complex ways in which literary texts can be said to "work in the world" and oversimplifying, too, the causal processes required to account for a major social or political change. But is it possible to modify or refine such claims in the light of contemporary theory and historical research so that the mechanisms by which each text has engaged with the political forces of the time are adequately described? This book explores that general question through the close examination of five works, from several different countries and periods, for which remarkable direct political effects of one kind or another have been claimed. It is an inquiry both at the level of theory (in what sense, and by what mechanisms, might literary works conceivably be said to start wars, swing national opinion, and so on?) and at the level of history (what evidence can be gathered on the influence which a particular fictional narrative has had in a given place and at a given time?).

The first two works studied, Ivan Turgenev A Sportsman's Notebook and Harriet Beecher Stowe Uncle Tom's Cabin (both published in volume form in 1852), are probably the pieces of narrative fiction for which the most spectacular claims have been made. It was Turgenev's boast, echoed later by many historians and literary critics, that his A Sportsman's Notebook, a . . .

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