How Does Fiction Mirror Society?
From fairy tales to science fiction to comic book heroes, storytelling in all forms captures the imaginations and emotions of readers. It can also engage people's minds and enlighten them to social concerns in a way that reality often can't. Cultural values, societal fears and current events are all ways fiction provides a mirror for real life.
A Cultural Craft
From the time they are children, readers learn about their culture through stories, states Leoné Tiemensma of South Africa's Midrand Graduate Institute. Fairy tales, folk tales and music are often the vehicles that teach children the values, behavioral preferences and ideologies of their culture. Fiction can provide young readers with a reflection of their own experiences and lives, letting them develop an emotional connection with characters like them. This can motivate them toward pride not only in their cultural heritage, but greater self-esteem and respect for others as they live out the stories' values in their own lives.
Fictional Stories, Real Fears
As authors create fiction, their stories often mirror the real-life fears that plague society, states Simon Fraser University philosophy professor Andrew Feenberg. The apocalyptic and dystopian literature of the 20th century, which depicts end-of-the-world scenarios and failed attempts to create a perfect society, provide key examples. In the shadows of the atomic bomb's creation, books like Nevil Shute's "On the Beach" and Pat Frank's "Alas, Babylon," depict the terrifying outcomes of world-wide nuclear holocausts. Fear of the conformity of Communism also led to the creation of Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" and George Orwell's "1984."
History Comes to Life
While reflections of societal fears portray uncertainty about the future, fiction can also bring readers understanding of their current circumstances by mirroring real-life events. John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath," a novel about a family fleeing the devastation of the Oklahoma Dust Bowl, captured the imagination of Depression-era audiences, telling a story of perseverance and survival that was easy for American families to identify with. More recently, Jonathan Safran Foer's "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" and Don DeLillo's "Falling Man" have given readers fictional mirrors to approach the tragedy of September 11 through the eyes of both children and adults.
Social Justice Struggles
Along with providing entertainment, fiction can also be a powerful mirror for social issues. Racial inequality provides a prime example of how literature can both reflect and stimulate public opinion. In 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin" took a strong stance against slavery, leading to controversy that fueled the abolitionist movement. Almost a century later, Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird," with its brutal portrayal of racism through a child's eyes, brought the Civil Rights movement to the forefront of literary circles. In both cases, the books' popularity reflects a strong desire for social change among readers.
- World Library and Information Conference: Books Are Windows, Books Are Mirrors
- Simon Fraser University: Dystopia and Apocalypse
- National Education Association: The Grapes of Wrath
- PBS.org: Slave Narratives and Uncle Tom's Cabin
- National Public Radio: After 50 Years, To Kill a Mockingbird Still Sings America's Song
- Digital Vision./Photodisc/Getty Images