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The Political Novel

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 0 0

Since its inception as a form of art, the novel has been used to convey political messages. In fact, for certain stylistic reasons (which shall be examined in due course), the novel lends itself to the presentation of political messages in a manner just as effectively as, or even more effectively than, other forms of art such as poetry, visual art, theater, and music. Modern realist fiction such as Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, and Dalton Trumbo's Johnny Got His Gun more than amply illustrate both the range of issues which the novel may tackle within its pages and the effectiveness of narrative fiction as a medium through which political opinion may be communicated. Should one find even such examples lacking, however, one may simply consult the entire history of the novel, from its birth out of Western Medieval romances up through the present day, to find no shortage of politically motivated works of fiction.

Perhaps one of the most important factors behind the novel's capacity to convey political ideas is its versatility. There is no shortage of genres in which novels may be written. Thus, correspondingly, there is no shortage of stylistic choices an author may make in attempting to convey his ideas. These facts are illustrated beautifully by the history of the novel. Some of the earliest and most effective political novels utilized the biting genre of satire to criticize the status quo. For example, Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, Francois Rabelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel and Voltaire's Candide all make use of vicious satire to lampoon contemporary European society. While none advance a dogmatic, explicitly political agenda, all criticize the social status quo, a gesture which, if accepted by an author's readership, may carry far reaching political and social consequences. Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Julie is yet another example of a novel which, rather than explicitly advancing a political agenda, questioned social mores and encouraged the everyman to do the same in such a fashion as to have far reaching political and social consequences. Rather than using satire, however, Rousseau composed Julie in the form of an epistolary novel, that is, a narrative told through a series of letters. In Russia, authors such as Ivan Turgenev, Nikolai Chernyshevsky, and Fyodor Dostoevsky used the novel as a medium for debate about political solutions to the endemic social problems plaguing late-Czarist Russia. Following the publication of Turgenev's Fathers and Sons, in which he depicted and lamented the development of nihilistic, revolutionary tendencies in Russia's youth, Chernyshevsky published the utopian socialist novel What is to Be Done?, portraying the same revolutionary youth as idealistic, romantic heroes. Dostoevsky responded with his novella Notes from the Underground and Crime and Punishment, in which he described the dangers of such revolutionary, nihilistic ideas taking root in young people. Back in Western Europe, following the Romantic and Symbolist movements, during which much political and social commentary was produced in the form of poetry, politics again found expression in the novel with turn of the century Realist authors such Emile Zola and his seminal work Germinal. It was this Realism which influenced American author Upton Sinclair and his hugely influential novel The Jungle. The political novel really flowered in the 20th Century following Sinclair's work. Again, in this period, one may find a broad range of genres being utilized to convey political ideas. Sinclair and, to a certain extent Dalton Trumbo, were Realists. In the work of Dalton Trumbo and his predecessor Erich Maria Remarque, one finds the first Realist descriptions of war. The depiction of the hellish, day-to-day conditions of war in Johnny Got His Gun and All Quiet on the Western Front are amongst the first descriptions of the real, human experience of war, and served to kick start a change in public opinion regarding war which bore fruit in the anti-war movement in the 1960's and the skeptical attitude many today hold towards war. Steinbeck's most political works were truly American novels, telling sweeping, beautiful, and tragic yet hopeful tales about real Americans. Other authors like Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, and Ray Bradbury used futuristic fiction, and science fiction to attack the totalitarian direction modern government seemed to be taking in their respective works Brave New World, 1984, and Fahrenheit 451. Orwell also told a fable-like allegory of totalitarian politics in his Animal Farm. In the mid-1950's, Ayn Rand wrote popular narrative adaptations of her highly philosophical, anti-communist political beliefs. Finally, especially in the 1960's and 1970's, a whole new generation of political causes found expression in novels, as debates over minority groups' rights, women's rights, and the environment began to heat up.

This (very) brief, partial history of the development of the political novel illustrates the aforementioned "versatility". One of the main reasons for the novel's success in conveying a message and for politically motivated authors' attraction to it as a medium is this versatility. Whether the author writes as a satirist, Romantic, Symbolist, Realist, Modern, or Post-Modern; whether the novel is fiction, historical fiction, psychological crime drama, science-fiction, philosophical fiction, fable, or satire; whether the author seeks to revile existing society, offer constructive criticism of social problems, or argue against war, against capitalism, for capitalism, for social religiosity, for the environment, for women's rights, for civil rights, or against all forms of totalitarian government; all of these "whethers" matter little. Time has proven that the novel can convey all of these viewpoints (and more), in every genre, from authors of every artistic tradition.

This fact of versatility may well prove to hold for every medium of artistic work. Certainly, poetry, painting, or music are equally versatile art forms. However, the novel may prove to be more effective at conveying a political message than these other art forms for one extremely simplistic fact: its sheer length. An author may simply express more ideas and more fully develop a depth of ideas in a 1000 page novel than a painter on one canvas or a poet in a 15 line poem. Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, over the course of several hundred pages, an author may effectively develop characters with whom the reader sympathizes. This fact is extremely important in the strategy of writing an effectively political novel. It is a strategy which many modern authors who attempt to convey a political message employ. In The Jungle, The Grapes of Wrath, and Johnny Got His Gun one may observe Sinclair, Steinbeck, and Trumbo employing this tactic firsthand. In all three books, the author proceeds, basically, by constructing common, everyday characters with whom the reader can easily sympathize and then subjecting said characters to all manner of horrors at the hands of whatever institution the author writes against. This is a very effective method of progressing, and its success or failure can be attributed, in general, to the individual author's storytelling skill.

As this is the case, it will be beneficial to examine each of these three exemplary novels one by one, in some detail, to determine the reasons for their success or failure, as individual novels, to effectively convey a political message. This examination will be further useful simply because of these particular novels' status as exemplary novels, that is, one may derive value from the fact that an in depth analysis of each of these particular novels' effectiveness may be abstracted and applied to other novels in general.

In Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, Sinclair tells the story of Jurgis Rudkus, a Lithuanian immigrant to the United States, and his family whom he brings with him in search of a new and better life. In the stockyards and meatpacking plants of Chicago, hard-working, honest Jurgis and his family are crushed into bitter poverty, despair, and depravity by the cold, uncaring heel of greedy, monopolistic corporations in cahoots with a corrupt government. Sinclair draws sympathy for Jurgis by portraying him as the epitome of all the values America purports to uphold: hard work and industry, virtue and morality, family, and simplicity and trust. However, it is exactly these values which lead Jurgis and his family to the depths of poverty and despair. It is only by striking out on his own, forsaking his family, and becoming a criminal who operates within the corrupt establishment that Jurgis ever achieves a measure of success. In the end, Jurgis discovers hope in the socialist movement, but Sinclair's novel degenerates into a socialist diatribe with a large section of writing more fit for political pamphleteering than for creating an interesting fictional narrative.

Sinclair's novel, while effective in several respects, demonstrates (both in its content and in its reception by the reading public) the various pitfalls to which the political novel may be subject. First of all, Sinclair does an excellent job of debunking the traditional American, Horatio Alger-style myth of hard work as a virtue. Sinclair does this by painting an extremely sympathetic picture of Jurgis, and going on to show how material, economic conditions and the capitalistic system (in short, conditions beyond an individual's control) can destroy even a good man and especially a man who fully embodies the virtues of the economic system which destroys him. By showing this, Sinclair destroys the myth of the "American Dream," especially as symbolized by social mobility through work ethic. Thus, Sinclair brilliantly sets up the potential for a beautiful socialist message (which would oppose the debunked American myth) in the conclusion to his novel. However, by resorting to direct socialist polemics in the conclusion rather than continued story development, he negates this potentiality. This perfectly demonstrates that a political novel's potential strength and effectiveness lies not in direct, forceful presentation of political ideals, but rather in subtlety and storytelling. The effective political novel does not interrupt the narrative to make a political point. In order to effectively communicate his ideals and persuade people, the author must subtly weave the ideals into the fabric of the story.

The reading public's reception of The Jungle also demonstrates another potential failing of a novel with political tones. There is so much information in a novel, and so many subtleties behind its presentation, that a novel leaves much room for interpretation. In this particular case, Sinclair was aiming to convince the public of the necessity of socialism. However, the public latched onto the horrific, disgusting details of food preparation in the packing plants, which Sinclair often presented in a very journalistic style. These details certainly played a part in Sinclair's overall argument for socialism, as they showed the primacy of profit making as a goal in capitalism and the resultant disregard which the machination of capitalism has for the health of society at large. Because Sinclair did not effectively conclude his anti-capitalistic narrative, though, the masses noticed only how disgusting the practices of the factories were. Sinclair's novel directly lead to the passage of the Pure Food Act, which was a major step toward healthy quality control in factories and the existence of governmental regulatory agencies such as the modern FDA. Thus one may see that Sinclair's novel was extremely politically influential, but, because of his failure to clearly present his ultimate message, in ways far different than he imagined and hoped.

An excellent counter example of a novel which does effectively make an anti-capitalistic argument is John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. The novel follows the Joads, a sharecropping family from Oklahoma who are driven off of their ancestral land by an alliance between large, conglomerate landowners and the banks. The family packs all of their belongings on a truck and treks thousands of miles to California, drawn by the promise of plenty of work and a particularly American belief in a man's ability to better himself. However, upon reaching California the family discovers that all the promises of work are merely a ploy by more large landowners designed to exploit a huge, newly created class of migrant workers. By drawing a huge surplus of labor, the landowners can effectively set wages as low as they would like, thus increasing their profits. Furthermore, nearly all of the migrants' socialistic efforts to resist this profiteering are forcibly prevented by local police forces in alliance with the big landowners.

Similarly to Sinclair, Steinbeck shows the way in which the capitalistic system robs and crushes the common man and the ways in which economic forces beyond the individual's control come to determine so much of his life. However, by not resorting to forceful diatribes, Steinbeck makes the point far more effectively. He even effectively presents the socialistic alternative to the capitalistic exploitation rife in his story. He does this, though, by weaving the solution into his narrative. Constantly, he shows how lives are bettered when people band together spontaneously and help one another. From a waitress selling an Okie family candy at a discount prices to the Joads assisting a random family they meet along the road to Jim Casy's sacrifice for a workers' strike, Steinbeck utilizes his narrative to illustrate the alternatives. In fact, one of the most effective and convincing scenes occurs when the Joads move to a government camp. There, even though everyone is still poor and out of work, life is far better for everyone simply because everyone cooperates with everyone else, shares their family's resources communally, or works for the good of the camp.

Another way in which The Grapes of Wrath is far more effective than The Jungle is through its use of rich biblical symbolism. The Joads undergo a sort of exodus to a promised land. Jim Casy (JC, for Jesus Christ, perhaps) sacrifices himself on two occasions for other people. Through these and other such biblical symbols, Steinbeck forces his readers to subconsciously relate his story and his message to a commonly known and highly respected story. Such rich symbolism is lacking in Sinclair's novel.

Finally, Dalton Trumbo's novel Johnny Got His Gun is effective in the same ways, but for entirely different reasons. In the novel, average American boy Joe goes off to fight in World War One. In the trenches there, his arms, legs, and face are blown off so that he, while still alive, is reduced to a senseless shell of himself trapped in a hospital bed. The novel primarily derives its effectiveness from its shock value, a value which has certainly diminished (but not disappeared) with time. Today, everyone is fully aware that war, if not plain wrong, is certainly hell. This is thanks, in large part, to modern media's ability to report on the true nature of war. Images and descriptions of horrifying, inhuman, hellish violence have, since the Vietnam War (if not before) been commonplace on our televisions and in our newspapers. Now, we recognize war as a terrible thing, a different world, which only the bravest few must experience for the sake of the mass of citizenry (hopefully, and hopefully not for the ulterior motives of a nation's politicians). When Johnny Got His Gun first appeared though, such a conception of war was largely absent in the public at large. Instead, most people still held war to be a noble, glorious endeavor. With the shocking, frank, realist portrayal of the violence of war and its outcomes in Johnny Got His Gun, Trumbo debunked the myth of war as noble and glorious. The belief in the justification of war certainly did not vanish, but Trumbo's novel forced people to see a previously hidden, but painfully real and human, side of war. Even if Johnny did not eradicate war from the face of the earth, it was one of the first works in a long line of anti-war works and realist portrayals of war, the collective effect of which was to force the large-scale, public re-evaluation of the type of wars which are, in fact, worth fighting.

From all of this, one can derive a fairly accurate picture of the ability of the novel in general to impact politics: the novel can be a powerful tool in influencing public opinion. Its success or failure is largely dependent upon the prowess of the author, yet there are certain features which can help to guarantee its success; narrative contiguity, reference to popularly understood symbols, debunking of widely held myths, and shock value are some of these features. There are certainly other such features, some of which are featured in certain books in the wealthy history of the political novel which has been previously mentioned.

As a final note on the effectiveness of novels conveying a political message, one ought to consider the establishment's response to the works previously mentioned. Nearly every single work mentioned in this paper, along with countless other political novels, has been, at one time or another, in one place or another, banned. The simple fact that the powers-that-be (in all of their wisdom, which is honed specifically to assist them in maintaining their status as the powers-that-be) wish to keep incendiary, revolutionary, or politically motivated novels and fictional works of social criticism out of the hands of impressionable youth or disenfranchised commoners speaks volumes to the ability of the novel as an art form to influence, inspire, and change minds. Though it may be cliché, knowledge is power, and the artfully framed words of factually-based, opinionated books are a doorway to knowledge.



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