By May Huang
In September, Scotland held an independence referendum; my city, Hong Kong, is still witnessing the brave and tenacious efforts of citizens who are fighting for universal suffrage through the Occupy Central Movement. Will either the Scottish referendum or the Umbrella Revolution inspire writers to put pen to paper? Here are ten novels grounded in sociopolitical change that show how the written word is often the best way to capture history and express political beliefs.
- A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities is famously set during “the best of the times” and “the worst of times:” the French Revolution. It traces the story of a French aristocrat and English lawyer who, although distinct in character, look near-identical and fall in love with the same woman. Their fates are intertwined in this story of love, revolution and sacrifice as both – along with the rest of France – live under the cruel shadow of the “the sharp female called La Guillotine.”
2. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird was published during the Civil Rights Movement and remains one of the most heartwarming bildungsromans of all time. When Scout’s father is called to defend an innocent black man in court, she becomes witness to one of the darkest chapters of history. Yet her journey to understanding is a beautiful story about abandoning prejudices and being brave. The hero of the novel is none other than her father, one of the best lawyers and parents in literature: Atticus Finch
3. The Color Purple by Alice Walker
Like Harper Lee, Alice Walker was deeply influenced by the Civil Rights Movement during the 1960s. In The Color Purple, she captures the hardships that a group of black women have to stomach in the face of racism and gender inequality. Readers admire the strength that Celie demonstrates in her fight for independence and remember to not be one of those people who “walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.”
4. North by Seamus Heaney
Many poems in Seamus Heaney’s North were inspired by The Troubles, a period during the 1970s when Irish nationalists in Northern Ireland clashed with Ulster Protestants: the former hoped to unite with the rest of Ireland while the latter preferred to remain as part of the United Kingdom. In his poem Punishment, Heaney draws a parallel between the punishment that the ancient ‘Bog People’ suffered and the “tarring and feathering” endured by Irish women who fraternized with British Soldiers during the 1970s. Throughout history, there will always be those who “connive / in civilized outrage / yet understand the exact / and tribal, intimate revenge.”
5. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
The Women’s Movement of the 1960s and 1970s heralded significant social change: women were given the right to abortion, to vote and to fairer employment. The characters in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, however, live in a patriarchal society in which women are helpless victims of misogyny and prejudice. Published in the wake of the anti-feminist and conservative-driven Christian Right Movement, The Handmaid’s Tale was – and still is – a firm cry for the preservation of women’s’ rights and gender equality.
6. Les Misérables by Victor Hugo The French Revolution
The second novel in this list that is set during the French Revolution, Victor Hugo’s 1,000+ page-long Les Mis is perhaps more accessible as an Academy award-winning and Tony award-grabbing musical. Yet it nonetheless occupies an important space on the shelf of French literature, capturing romance, patriotism, redemption and resolution as its characters – from the young Gavroche to the old Jean Valjean – strive towards “a life about to start / When tomorrow comes!”
7. Dr Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
Mostly set during the buffer period between the Russian Revolution in 1905 and the outbreak of World War Two in 1945, Doctor Zhivago encompasses a range of sociopolitical conflicts: World War One, the Russo-Japanese War and the Russian Civil War, just to name a few. Its protagonist, Yuri Zhivago, finds himself fighting on the warfront – but also battling his personal affairs of the heart.
8. Animal Farm by George Orwell
The atrocities that George Orwell witnessed during the Spanish Civil War of 1937 drove him to write one of the most incisive allegories in literature: Animal Farm. It is the farm-version of Russia after the October Revolution of 1917 and a biting criticism of totalitarianism. Two pigs, Napoleon and Snowball, represent the Soviet leaders Joseph Stalin and Leon Trotsky and remind us that “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
9. Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson
The first novel in Laurie Halse Anderson’s The Seeds of America trilogy, Chains tells the story of a young girl’s fight against slavery at the onset of the Revolutionary War in the 1770s. Throughout the novel, our protagonist, Isabel, struggles to break free from the “chains” that society’s laws have placed on her. Wise beyond her years, Isabel is victim to much injustice and brutality but persists, insisting that “a scar is the sign of a survivor” and refusing to allow her soul – and not just her body – be chained.
10. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie
Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution transformed everyday life in China between 1966 and 1976. One of the 12 million youths who were forced to do manual labour in the countryside during the 1970s as a way of being “re-educated” about socialist values, Dai Sijie drew on his personal experiences when writing Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. He traces the story of two young boys who, when sent to the countryside, have their lives irreversibly changed once they become drawn to a little seamstress – and western literature.