Top 10 novels based on political revolutions and social movements

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.

  1. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

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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

To Kill a Mockingbird

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

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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

North - 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

HandmaidsTale - 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

Les Miserables - Victor Hugo

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

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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

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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

Chains - Laurie 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

Balzac and Chinese Seamstress - Dai

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.

 

Why Magazines Need Fiction in the Digital Age

With the landscape of online news publications rapidly changing, how will large publications keep up with the democratization of articles? Perhaps the answer is not as obvious as people think. 

Much has been said about the changes that print media has undergone since the rise of the internet, but two major changes in recent years have prompted another minor media revolution. The rise of news aggregators, for one, has caused many newspapers to end their reign as the primary portals to local and global events. Reddit and applications like Flipboard have changed the landscape completely, moving audiences to a central base where a seemingly-limitless trove of information can be accessed. Secondly, Twitter has changed how news is disseminated, rewarding those who provide immediate coverage with the loudest voice, regardless, at times, of their overall credibility. While this is advantageous for consumers, magazine publications are put in great danger. Suddenly, they must rely on loyalty, unique content and most alarmingly of all, chance to maintain an audience. While some will thrive, others will lose out. It is a time of great change, and alternative solutions need to be considered.

There are few publications that actually combine news, commentary and fiction. The New Yorker is the one significant exception, but other than them, you will be hard-pressed to find an online news magazine that does little more than frame fiction as a special featurette, and even then the stories will rarely transcend the themes of local color or seasonal escapism.

Considering the sheer volume of capital put into news aggregators on computers, smartphones and tablets, the ubiquity and accessibility of magazine journalism should not be overlooked as a mere bonus of the digital age. The now-dated model of physical magazine subscriptions is already as luxuriant as an analog wristwatch for our generation of readers, making the contract between exploratory, crusading journalists and their readers much more ineffective. We must therefore offer more credit to the accommodating voices of this new medium, and readers should not settle for limited voices or distant speculation. ImageNeither should they divine the most precious airtime to those away from the fray—sudden protests from Brazil to Turkey in this month alone, for example, speak to the ease of citizen mobilization, to the need that movements have to foster identities in little to no time.

Fiction offers a solution to such problems. With the incessant barrage of information being collected on Twitter turning seemingly one-sided events into theaters for conflicting interests, what major publications need to recognize is just how fiction can communicate to large audiences without confirming anything. You are now able to read dozens of articles about events that occur halfway around the world in a matter of minutes, but the sheer accessibility of such information does not increase the density of such news. Only through acts of transcendence can journalists now defeat the accumulation of information, and the result of such bravura has some people wondering about the limits of journalism.

There are many solutions that magazines should consider when thinking about implementing fiction. The sheer amount of freelance writers populating virtually every country on earth is staggering and self-evident, but instead of sequestering the next generation of journalists to a mere 150 characters, perhaps using writers with an ability to show both sides of a story while presenting a personal account of life in a crisis-ridden area is not only a more effective way to capture an audience, but also a more interesting one.

Now before you contend that the divide between journalism and fiction is a false dichotomy, those who disregard fiction as a domain for non-truths or mere mind-wandering need to consider its more relevant purposes. Not only can fiction suggest without pointing fingers and give voice to the voiceless, it can also incite debate about a topic without disseminating erroneous information. Consider the incessant tumult of global protest as an example for my argument. Magazines may pursue the loudest voices or those representing secondary groups in a struggle, but it is still difficult to capture the middle-point, where the average protester, with all their good and bad qualities, can become a suitable representative of external scrutiny.

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It should no longer be about the most aggrandized or marginalized, but about the voice that is neither. The most important protester is the one that will not stand out, that will, in their lack of identity, be they that will connect with the reader. Those writing in the 21st century should, in my opinion, use this social and personal aspect or analysis as the most prescient subject of reflective scrutiny.

Such an approach can also change how opinion is formulated by the news and magazine readers. With the breadth of information for major events often too large for a single article to encapsulate, fictional texts have the ability to make such issues irresolute, or rather, charge the reader to create their own opinion on the topic. Literature has long celebrated its ability to empower the reader instead of just feeding them information; this relationship, I believe, will prevent news stories from losing their relevance because of an excess of speculation or a lack of information on their part. I’m not saying that fiction is an easy way out for publications behind on pressing international news, but I’m contending that an alternative route inciting deeper reflection is just as if not more effective when information spreads much more quickly than it can be summarized and commented upon.

Let’s go back to the example of the protesters. What we know about protesters in Turkey and Egypt is that they’re disenchanted with frivolous authoritarianism, but what many audiences abroad want to know is what day-to-day experiences bring together such groups and what simple struggles become symbols of oppression. Fiction could be implemented by publications wanting to communicate such answers without threatening to become sentimental, as the stories could expose both the virtues and the flaws of both fighting causes.

There was never a gilded age where fiction became equally or more prominent than news, but the law-reforming effects of Dickens’ famous novels or Upton Sinclair’s harrowing The Jungle demonstrate that such an alternative to journalism is not only available but also dynamic. The serious study of sociology and urban living would not be taken so seriously were it not for works that are technically “untrue”. Fiction is of course just as untrue as it chooses to be, and if written with the same conviction and tact as today’s finest journalism, it will have the same poignancy as the many great articles lost in the incessant aggregation process.

The Jungle (1906) was a watershed for its candid exposure of early 20th century factory conditions, leading to the Meat Inspection Act and Pure Food and Drug Act to be passed

Ideal journalism is usually viewed as brash, fearless work that shows both sides of the coin, but fiction writing promises a more totalizing experience. Fiction is a form of rhetoric that can provide not just one but every perspective to the reader. Magazines need to exercise such empowerment, lest they want to lose out to the bells and whistles of sensationalism or speculation. I like to see these stories as footnotes, not as extra tidbits of information, though, but rather as works that give a humanizing dimension of events, for better or for worse. Big publications will lose poignancy if they cannot communicate what those in the fray of turmoil can explain with their smartphones, so it’s best not to play catch-up, and instead approach news with a novel mode of scrutiny.