Political fiction

Not to be confused with Legal fiction.

Political fiction employs narrative to comment on political events, systems and theories. Works of political fiction, such as political novels, often "directly criticize an existing society or present an alternative, even fantastic, reality."[1] It overlaps with the social novel, proletarian novel and social science fiction. Highly influential earlier works include Gulliver's Travels (1726), Candide (1759), and Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852).

Political fiction frequently employs satire, often in the utopian and dystopian genres. This includes the totalitarian dystopias of the early 20th century, such as Jack London's The Iron Heel and Sinclair Lewis' It Can't Happen Here.

Political satire

Greek playwright Aristophanes' plays are known for their political and social satire[2] particularly his criticism of the powerful Cleon in plays such as The Knights. He is also notable for the persecution he underwent.[2][3][4][5] Aristophanes' plays turned upon images of filth and disease.[6] His bawdy style was adopted by Greek dramatist-comedian Menander, whose early play Drunkenness contains an attack on the politician Callimedon.

Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal (1729), is an eighteenth century Juvenalian satirical essay in 1729, where he suggests that the impoverished Irish might ease their economic troubles by selling their children as food for rich gentlemen and ladies. This satirical hyperbole mocks heartless attitudes towards the poor, as well as British policy toward the Irish in general.

More recently George Orwell's Animal Farm (1945) is an allegorical and dystopian novella which satirises the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the Stalinist era of the Soviet Union.[7] Orwell, a democratic socialist,[8] was a critic of Joseph Stalin and hostile to Moscow-directed Stalinism, an attitude that was critically shaped by his experiences during the Spanish Civil War.[9] The Soviet Union, he believed, had become a brutal dictatorship, built upon a cult of personality and enforced by a reign of terror. Orwell described Animal Farm as a satirical tale against Stalin ("un conte satirique contre Staline"),[10] and in his essay "Why I Write" (1946), wrote that Animal Farm was the first book in which he tried, with full consciousness of what he was doing, "to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole".

Orwell's most famous work, however, is Nineteen Eighty-Four and many of its terms and concepts, such as Big Brother, doublethink, thoughtcrime, Newspeak, Room 101, telescreen, 2 + 2 = 5, and memory hole, have entered into common use since its publication in 1949. Nineteen Eighty-Four popularised the adjective Orwellian, which describes official deception, secret surveillance and manipulation of recorded history by a totalitarian or authoritarian state.[11]

19th century novel

An early example of the political novel is The Betrothed (1827) by Alessandro Manzoni, an Italian historical novel. Set in northern Italy in 1628, during the oppressive years of direct Spanish rule, it has been seen sometimes as a veiled attack on the Austrian Empire, which controlled Italy at the time the novel was written. It has been called the most famous and widely read novel of the Italian language.[12]

In the 1840s British politician Benjamin Disraeli wrote a trilogy of novels with political themes. With Coningsby; or, The New Generation (1844), Disraeli, in historian Robert Blake's view, "infused the novel genre with political sensibility, espousing the belief that England's future as a world power depended not on the complacent old guard, but on youthful, idealistic politicians."[13] Coningsby was followed by Sybil; or, The Two Nations (1845), another political novel, which was less idealistic and more clear-eyed than Coningsby; the "two nations" of its sub-title referred to the huge economic and social gap between the privileged few and the deprived working classes. The last in Disraeli's political novel trilogy was Tancred; or, The New Crusade (1847), promoting the Church of England's role in reviving Britain's flagging spirituality.[13]

20th century novel

The Quiet American (1955) by English novelist Graham Greene questions the foundations of growing American involvement in Vietnam in the 1950s. The novel has received much attention due to its prediction of the outcome of the Vietnam War and subsequent American foreign policy since the 1950s. Graham Greene portrays a U.S. official named Pyle as so blinded by American exceptionalism that he cannot see the calamities he brings upon the Vietnamese. The book uses Greene's experiences as a war correspondent for The Times and Le Figaro in French Indochina 1951–1954.[14]

Proletarian novel

The proletarian novel is written by workers mainly for other workers. It overlaps and sometimes is synonymous with the working-class novel,[15] socialist novel,[16] social problem novel (also problem novel or sociological novel or social novel),[17] propaganda or thesis novel,[18] and socialist realism novel. The intention of the writers of proletarian literature is to lift the workers from the slums, by inspiring them to embrace the possibilities of social change or a political revolution. As such it is a form of political fiction.

The proletarian novel may comment on political events, systems and theories, and is frequently seen as an instrument to promote social reform or political revolution among the working classes. Proletarian literature is created especially by communist, socialist and anarchist authors. It is about the lives of poor, and the period 1930 to 1945 in particular produced many such novels. However, there were works before and after these dates. In Britain the term working class literature, novel etc. is more generally used.

Social novel

A closely related type of novel, which frequently has a political dimension, is the social novel – also known as the "social problem" or "social protest" novel – a "work of fiction in which a prevailing social problem, such as gender, race, or class prejudice, is dramatized through its effect on the characters of a novel".[19] More specific examples of social problems that are addressed in such works, include poverty, conditions in factories and mines, the plight of child labor, violence against women, rising criminality, and epidemics because of over-crowding, and poor sanitation in cities.[20]

An example of a social protest novel is John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939), which is a passionate depiction of the plight of the poor. However, many of Steinbeck's contemporaries attacked his social and political views. Bryan Cordyack writes, "Steinbeck was attacked as a propagandist and a socialist from both the left and the right of the political spectrum. The most fervent of these attacks came from the Associated Farmers of California; they were displeased with the book's depiction of California farmers' attitudes and conduct toward the migrants. They denounced the book as a 'pack of lies' and labeled it 'communist propaganda'".[21] Some accused Steinbeck of exaggerating camp conditions to make a political point. Steinbeck had visited the camps well before publication of the novel[22] and argued their inhumane nature destroyed the settlers' spirit.

Notable examples

This is a list of a few of the early or notable examples; others belong on the main list

Main article: Politics in fiction

Science fiction

See also


  1. ""HIST 294 - Political Fiction", Wesleyan University, accessed 12 December 2005 Archived September 16, 2006, at the Wayback Machine.
  2. 1 2 Sutton, DF (1993), Ancient Comedy: The War of the Generations, New York, p. 56
  3. Bates, Alfred, ed. (1906), "Political and social satires of Aristophanes", The Drama, Its History, Literature and Influence on Civilization, 2, London: Historical Publishing, pp. 55–59
  4. Atkinson, JE (1992), "Curbing the Comedians: Cleon versus Aristophanes and Syracosius' Decree", The Classical Quarterly, New, 42 (1): 56–64, doi:10.1017/s0009838800042580
  5. Anderson, John Louis, Aristophanes: the Michael Moore of his Day
  6. Wilson 2002, p. 17.
  7. "BBC - GCSE English Literature - 'Animal Farm' - historical context (pt 1/3)". bbc.co.uk.
  8. Orwell, George. "Why I Write" (1936) (The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell Volume 1 – An Age Like This 1945–1950 p. 23 (Penguin))
  9. Gordon Bowker, Orwell p. 224 ; Orwell, writing in his review of Franz Borkenau's The Spanish Cockpit in Time and Tide, 31 July 1937, and "Spilling the Spanish Beans", New English Weekly, 29 July 1937
  10. Davison 2000.
  11. The Oxford Companion to English Literature, Sixth Edition. University of Oxford Press: 2000. p. 726.
  12. Archibald Colquhoun. Manzoni and his Times. J. M. Dent & Sons, London, 1954.
  13. 1 2 "Benjamin Disraeli 1804–1881", Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism, eNotes, accessed 25 August 2013
  14. Andrew J. Bacevich, "Best Intentions: An Appreciation of Graham Greene". World Affairs
  15. H. Gustav Klaus, The Socialist Novel in Britain: Towards the Recovery of a Tradition. ( Brighton: Harvester Press, 1982, p. 1.
  16. H. Gustav Klaus.
  17. A Handbook to Literature 7th ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1996), p.487; "social problem novel." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online Academic Edition. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2012. Web. 02 Nov. 2012.
  18. J. A. Cuddon (revised C. E. Preston), The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. (London: Penguin, 1999), pp. 704, 913
  19. "social problem novel" in Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online Academic Edition. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2012. Web. 04 Nov. 2012. .
  20. "Childers, JW (2001)"
  21. Cordyack, Brian. "20th-Century American Bestsellers: John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath". Graduate School of Library and Information Science, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Retrieved February 18, 2007.
  22. Shillinglaw, Susan; Benson, Jackson J (February 2, 2002). "Of Men and Their Making: The Non-Fiction Of John Steinbeck". London: Penguin. Retrieved December 17, 2008.
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