Most authors do not sit down and say “I am going to write a novel and this will be the message.” However, as we progress in writing a given work, certain social themes that are important to us at that moment will emerge.
Most of the time social themes will emerge as a natural outgrowth of the creative process. That particular story may have begun as a a “what if” moment, which, during the process of writing, becomes a powerful story.
We don’t sit down to write with a particular moral or political agenda in mind, but our own values will come out in who the characters we create are, how they perceive their world, and in the society we create as the backdrop for them.
Some of the most gripping works of modern literature occurred when an author was particularly moved by a situation presented by the society in which he lived:
Fahrenheit 451 is a dystopian novel by Ray Bradbury published in 1953, the year I was born. It is regarded as one of his best works. The novel presents a future American society where books are outlawed and any that are found are confiscated and burned. The title refers to the temperature that Bradbury believed was the ignition point of paper.
Besides having an incredible cast of characters set in compelling situations, the novel discusses and exposes the role of book burning in suppressing dissenting ideas. In a 1956 radio interview, Bradbury stated that he wrote Fahrenheit 451 because of his concerns at the time (during the McCarthy era) about the threat of book burning in the United States.
Fahrenheit 451 remains a classic, because the societal pressures and fringe threats that inspired Bradbury to write this novel still exist, perhaps even more so than during the McCarthy era.
Germinal (1885) is the thirteenth novel in Émile Zola‘s twenty-volume series Les Rougon-Macquart. (From Wikipedia:) Often considered Zola’s masterpiece and one of the most significant novels in the French tradition, this novel is an uncompromisingly harsh and realistic story of a coal miners’ strike in northern France in the 1860s. It has been published and translated in over one hundred countries and has additionally inspired five film adaptations and two television productions.
Germinal is a brutal depiction of the poverty and wretchedness of a mining community in northern France under the second empire. At the center of the novel is Etienne Lantier, a handsome 21 year-old mechanic, intelligent but with little education and a dangerous predisposition to murderous, alcoholic rage. Germinal tells the parallel story of Etienne’s refusal to accept what he appears destined to become, and of the miners’ difficult decision to strike in order to fight for a better standard of life.
The Milagro Beanfield War, 1974, is the first book in John Nichols‘ New Mexico Trilogy. The book opens when Joe Mondragon, a feisty hustler with a talent for trouble, slammed his battered pickup to a stop, tugged on his gumboots, and marched into the arid patch of ground. Carefully (and also illegally), he tapped into the main irrigation channel. And so began-though few knew it at the time-the Milagro beanfield war.
But like everything else in the dirt-poor town of Milagro, it would be a patchwork war, fought more by tactical retreats than by battlefield victories. Gradually, the small farmers and sheep-men begin to rally to Joe’s beanfield as the symbol of their lost rights and their lost lands. And downstate in the capital, the Anglo water barons and power brokers huddle in urgent conference, intent on destroying that symbol before it destroys their multi-million-dollar land-development schemes. The tale of Milagro’s rising is wildly comic and lovingly tender, a vivid portrayal of a town that, half-stumbling and partly prodded, gropes its way toward its own stubborn salvation.
Prodigal Summer (2000) is the fifth novel by American author, Barbara Kingsolver. It is a hymn to wildness that celebrates the prodigal spirit of human nature, and of nature itself. It weaves together three stories of human love within a larger tapestry of lives amid the mountains and farms of southern Appalachia. Over the course of one humid summer, this novel’s intriguing protagonists face disparate predicaments but find connections to one another and to the flora and fauna with which they necessarily share a place.
The narrative follows Deanna, a solitary woman working as a park ranger, Lusa, a widowed farmwife at odds with her late husband’s tight-knit family, and Garnett, an old man who dreams of restoring the lineage of the extinct American Chestnut tree.
Kingsolver’s extensive education in biology is on display in this book, laden with ecological concepts and biological facts. Her writing also exhibits her knowledge of rural Virginia, where she grew up.
The Idiot, first published serially in The Russian Messenger between 1868 and 1869. is a novel written by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. (From Wikipedia:) The 26-year-old Prince Lev Nikolayevich Myshkin returns to Russia after spending several years at a Swiss sanatorium. Scorned by the society of Saint Petersburg for his trusting nature and naiveté, he finds himself at the center of a struggle between a beautiful kept woman and a virtuous and pretty young girl, both of whom win his affection. Unfortunately, Myshkin’s very goodness precipitates disaster, leaving the impression that, in a world obsessed with money, power, and sexual conquest, a sanatorium may be the only place for a saint.
Elizabeth Dalton wrote that in The Idiot, more than in any other of Dostoevsky’s works, we are shown the actual experience itself of one mind wrestling with the various tensions of life – rather than simply dwelling on intellectual speculation, as we see in Crime and Punishment and Notes from Underground.
The House of the Spirits (Spanish: La casa de los espíritus, 1982) is the debut novel of Isabel Allende. In one of the most important and beloved Latin American works of the twentieth century, Isabel Allende weaves a luminous tapestry of three generations of the Trueba family, revealing both triumphs and tragedies. Here is patriarch Esteban, whose wild desires and political machinations are tempered only by his love for his ethereal wife, Clara, a woman touched by an otherworldly hand. Their daughter, Blanca, whose forbidden love for a man Esteban has deemed unworthy infuriates her father, yet will produce his greatest joy: his granddaughter Alba, a beautiful, ambitious girl who will lead the family and their country into a revolutionary future.
The House of the Spirits is an enthralling saga that spans decades and lives, twining the personal and the political into an epic novel of love, magic, and fate.
These stories are powerful because of the characters that were created when that “what if” moment occurred, and because of the societal pressure under which their stories unfold. They are considered among the greatest works in modern literature, and all of them are gripping, moving works of fiction, heavily laced with the social reality of the authors’ times.
All of these books are considered masterpieces, and each one struck a chord one way or another with me, although I confess, although each made a large impression on me, I have not reread most of them in recent years.
All of these books are available at your local library, or very reasonably priced at Amazon.com.