Nineteenth-Century Social Protest Literature Outside England Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Nineteenth-Century Social Protest Literature Outside England

Social protest literature of the nineteenth century was a product of the rapid urbanization and industrialization of Western countries, along with the rise of socialist thought. It may be divided into two broad categories: literature that focuses on revealing society's ills and literature that either advocates or opposes certain types of social or political reform. These broad categories encompass a wide variety of works that treat a range of subjects, including slavery, women's rights, minority rights, poverty, aristocracy, racism, ethnocentrism, and the immigrant experience. German writer Ludolf Wienbarg perhaps best encapsulated how nineteenth-century protest writers envisioned their role and the purpose of their works when he declared, “Prose is a weapon, and we have to sharpen it.”

While England is widely recognized as the center of nineteenth-century social protest literature, with such well-known writers as Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and Elizabeth Gaskell infusing social criticism into their writings, writers from other countries also produced literary works that actively reflected the political and social controversies of the day. In France, Victor Hugo's Les Misérables (1862) remains one of the most powerful depictions of corruption and depravity in literature. Hugo had attained such prominence over his lengthy literary career that the novel was released in nine languages upon its initial publication. Hugo's popularity and influence eventually came under ridicule by the French Realists, however, who spurned what they perceived as Hugo's tendency to romanticize life, and sought in their own works to portray an objective and “scientific” view of society's ills. The best known of the Realists, Émile Zola, published numerous protest works, most notably Germinal (1885), an indictment of industrialism and the political structures that foster social inequality. Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary (1857) and Guy de Maupassant's Une Vie (1883) were other important contributions to the Realist movement.

Just as the Realists in France rebelled against writers such as Hugo, the writers of Young Germany also defined themselves by reacting against established literary figures. This revolutionary literary movement, headed by Karl Börne and Heinrich Heine, strove to move away from literary Romanticism and to inject political debate into literature, an effort that led to the banning of their works and the polemicization of criticism. The German form of Realism is exemplified by the influential social novels of Theodor Fontane, many of which portray the withering aristocracy and rising proletariat. The “ideals” of society were satirized by E. T. A. Hoffman in his Lebensansichten des Katers Murr (1820-22), a novel that contrasts artistic creativity to the stifling social norms of the bourgeoisie and nobility. Hoffman viewed such norms as stultifying, producing an inevitable inhibition of originality and independence.

In Russia, where the repressive tsarist state tolerated little or no open dissent, a tradition of progressive liberalism nevertheless survived. In the nineteenth century a new, highly radicalized group, the raznochintsy, emerged. Among the older generation of liberals Fyodor Dostoevsky and Ivan Turgenev produced novels of social protest. Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment (1866) and Turgenev's Fathers and Sons (1862) both critique Russian society while depicting members of the radicalized younger generation. While Dostoevsky, in his depiction of the character Raskolnikov, showed radicalism to be misguided as well as dangerous, Turgenev presented a much more sympathetic portrait of a radical in his central figure Bazarov. Turgenev's use of the term “nihilist” to characterize Bazarov brought it into wide use in political discourse throughout Europe and America to describe revolutionaries who advocate the complete destruction of the status quo. In what is sometimes viewed as a direct response to Fathers and Sons, the radical journalist and member of the raznochintsy, Nikolay Gavrilovich Chernyshevsky wrote What Is to Be Done? (1863). This novel portrays a nihilist, Kirsanov, in heroic terms and posits an idyllic society that will emerge after the destruction of the present one.

While European protest writers often focused on philosophical questions of individuality and the dynamics of social structures, American reformist literature commonly emphasized political issues. The most prominent of these issues were slavery, women's equality, corruption within the government, and the distribution of wealth. Mark Twain is considered one of the key American promulgators of literary social protest, largely due to his novel Huckleberry Finn (1885). In it he achieves a skillful blend of protest and literary craftsmanship by highlighting the flaws and hypocrisies of American society. Edward Bellamy used a different technique to advocate social change in Looking Backward (1888), a utopian novel metaphorically portraying a socialistic form of government. While scorning the competitive social and economic system developing in America, the novel depicts a society in which citizens are equal on all levels. In his works, George Washington Cable encouraged equality through civil rights, a view most powerfully stated in his novel The Grandissimes (1880), in which he portrays a South still suffering from the legacy of slavery.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, Edgar Allan Poe argued that social reform was not the answer to the problems facing society. Perhaps one of the most vehement literary opponents of feminism, the anti-slavery movement, and democracy, Poe maintained that social reform would destroy the individual in a futile hope to aid the masses. He contended that “in efforts to soar above our nature, we invariably fall below it. Your reformist demigods are merely devils turned inside out.” Dickens for his part provided an outsider's critical observations on nineteenth-century American society. After a five-month tour of the United States, he published American Notes (1842), a comparison of British and American societies that alleges that the United States was rife with faulty social constructs and prejudice, which stifled the country's high ideals of liberty and freedom for all. Arguing that only Boston—a center of higher education—was well-civilized and respectable, Dickens inferred that education was the key to an effective, orderly society.