One of the most important manners in which a society and its culture advances is through social change. Our history is filled with activist novelists, who have written on many different social and political issues. Where would our society be today without authors and activists like Harriet Beecher Stowe, who spoke out against slavery in her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or Frederick Douglass, who also spoke out against slavery in his many novels including My Bondage and My Freedom and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. Or what about Andre Aciman who wrote LGBT fiction; or George Orwell’s novel 1984, which highlighted government, politics, and forms of social control. Social change begins with the individual person which means a novel only needs to connect with and touch one person to help envoke awareness and potentially change. When individuals read about social issues affecting their own community, country, or world, and when they are exposed to different viewpoints on those issues, their perspectives and opinions might change. Literature exposes readers to characters and situations they may never have an opportunity to experience in real life. It allows the reader to identify with the character’s struggles; to empathize with them.
The connection the reader feels with the characters and the issues presented, is what makes literature such a strong tool for social awareness, which can lead to social change.Social awareness and social change are not just limited to fictional stories but is also more easily related to nonfiction. In a study published in Psychological Science, researchers from the University at Buffalo asked 140 undergraduate participants to read excerpts from either the Harry Potter or the Twilight series. The participants then underwent a series of tests, and results showed that those participants who read the Harry Potter excerpts “self-identified as wizards” whereas the participants who read the Twilight excerpts “self-identified as vampires” (Gabriel and Young 992). This study is significant because it demonstrates how reading a good novel not only gives the reader a chance to get lost in the pages of the book, but it provides the reader the opportunity for “social connection” and to become “a part of something larger than oneself” (Gabriel and Young 993). Obviously, in real life a person would not be exposed to the life of a wizard or a vampire; but, through literature the readers were able to experience that connection.
The same principles and theory of character connections could be applied to such novels as Uncle Tom’s Cabin or William Butler Yeats’ Easter, 1916. Reading these works gives the reader the opportunity to connect with the life of a slave and the people who participated in the Easter Uprising of 1916 in Ireland. These stories helped bring about social awareness across the globe to the issues surrounding slavery and a suppressed Irish country. The authors created a connection between the readers and the characters that can lead to feelings of empathy by the reader.
The author only needed to connect with one person because social change begins with the individual, and these stories were published around the world and read by millions. In Yeats’ poem Easter, 1916, Yeats remembers the people who participated in the uprising; who they were, where and how he met them. They were people that he may not have known well, people he never gave a second thought to, or he may not have liked when he knew them, but upon reflection, he realizes that he respects them for their self-sacrifice for what they believed in.
“To know they dreamed and are dead”, “Are changed, changed utterly / A terrible beauty is born” (Yeats 573, 574). Many lives were lost that day, and those deaths were terrible; however, as Yeats implies, in the end there is a beauty to it because those deaths will be remembered for the sacrifice that was made, for the dream of independence. His poem brought about a kind of social awareness surrounding the Easter Uprising. Yeats gave society and/or the reader, the opportunity to connect and empathize with the characters of his poem; those who lost their lives that day. Even if Yeats was only able to connect with one person – social changes begins with the individual person.In an article published in the Social and Personality Psychology Compass, researchers state that, “exposure to fictional friendships between members of different social groups can reduce prejudice” (Dill-Shackleford, Vinney and Hopper-Losenicky 634). This article refers to a case study from Italy wherein a group of students were once again given excerpts to read from the famous Harry Potters books. The Harry Potter stories are important because in the stories Harry Potter relates to many characters from different groups who face discrimination within the wizardly world of Harry Potter.
Harry befriends the minorities and attempts to understand them; he empathizes with these characters; and therefore, leads the reader to feel the same. The students in the study, after reading the Harry Potter pieces, are then asked how they might act or feel towards refugee children in the future. The study concludes that the children who read the Harry Potter excerpts reacted more positively and showed no signs of prejudice towards the refugee children, especially when compared to the control group of children who did not read the excerpts. This proves that literature can affect how people, in this instance children, view people who are different from them. When they read about fictional characters who displayed empathy towards minorities, it reduced the tendency towards prejudicial tendencies.
Once again, social change begins with the individual, and if one piece of literature can affect one person’s view, it can evoke social change. In conclusion, literature is simply stories and stories have been a part of our culture for as long as we have existed. Stories can affect people’s emotions, enhance one’s ability to empathize with others, promote social acceptance, and bring people together surrounding social issues that affect our daily lives. Great literary novelists have used literature to bring awareness to many social issues over the years. From slavery, to woman’s suffrage, civil rights, and even LGBT rights.
It can bring about awareness to the self-sacrifices of those who stood and fell for what they believed in. For years literature has helped bring about social change and as long as there are novelists willing to write about social issues, it will continue to bring about social change for future generations. The writer, the story, only needs to connect with just on person because social change begins with the individual.?