Supervised by: Lila Brustad, MSc. Lila studied literature and anthropology at Sarah Lawrence College where she was awarded the James Zito and William Park Fund in Literature. She completed her MSc in Medical Anthropology at the University of Oxford where her dissertation focused on the role of creative writing in fostering social belonging.
The values and impacts of literature on the world can be established categorically, although the spectrum of types of impacts is limitless. In this paper, we demonstrate the impacts of literature on society through the categories of political impacts, social impacts, communal impacts, and personal impacts. We demonstrate these impacts by analyzing pieces of literature, looking at their impacts on society, and how they undeniably impacted society. To argue our points, we use the thoughts and writings of several literary experts from multiple different areas of literature, such as Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, British-American poet W.H. Auden, American literary critic Donald Pizer, and more. Our use of a variety of people from throughout literary space and time helped us argue how not just books and poems, but literature as a whole has the power to impact and change the world.
Henry Ward Beecher described books as the windows through which the soul looks out (Beecher, 1885). But why is ink on paper so tremendously impactful on society? Why do thin pages binded together hold so much power? Why is literature so necessary in change? Literature holds a profound significance in the realm of change, serving as both a reflection and a catalyst for transformation. Literature is essentially a mirror, reflecting the norms, values, and complexities of societies at different points in history. Through its pages, literature captures the essence of human experiences, both good and bad. It holds the capability of empowering voices dissenting against injustices, and articulates the dreams of a better world. But it doesn’t stop at just mere reflection on our society; literature also possesses the power to ignite change. It challenges the status quo; the predetermined norms that aren’t always right, or fair, or unbiased. It inspires movements, and fosters empathy by inviting readers to step into the shoes of characters from diverse circumstances and backgrounds. Whether by shedding light on social issues, advocating for equality and justice, or simply by providing a sanctuary for contemplation and introspection, literature is an essential force that drives the evolution of societies and individuals, making it an indispensable tool in the pursuit of positive change. That being said, there are a multitude of things literature has the ability to change. For instance, The Jungle (1905) by Upton Sinclair has laid bare deplorable conditions that stand as a testament to the remarkable capacity of literature to spur political change. Or The Doll’s House (1879), a play by Henrik Ibsen, played a pivotal role in advocating for social change via presenting and criticizing gender roles and womens’ rights. In addition, The Bell Jar (1963) by Sylvia Plath was a poignant exploration of personal change regarding mental health and unique identities. Furthermore, Junot Diaz’s 2007 work The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao sheds light on the complexities of cultural identity, community, and shared experiences.
All in all, throughout history, literature has proven itself to be an unparalleled catalyst for change, sparking revolutions of thought, dismantling societal norms, and igniting the flames of progress that still burns bright today.
The Value of Literature in Generating Political Change
The novel The Jungle demonstrates that literature is a unique tool in impacting the world through its impacts on politics, and the changes resulting from those impacts. The Jungle is a 1905 novel written by Upton Sinclair which aimed to expose the conditions that the working class was subject to in the United States, and specifically in Chicago’s meatpacking industry. The novel follows Lithuanian immigrant Jurgis Rudkus, who came to the United States in the hope of living the American dream, and goes on to show the world he instead found himself in. The Jungle is a piece of literature with a major impact on society, causing widespread social, legal, and political change
Sinclair’s deeper aim when he wrote The Jungle came from his own Socialist beliefs. Professor Robert Cherny writes that Upton Sinclair hoped that readers would recognize that the horrors portrayed in the novel were a description of corporate greed and exploitative practices of capitalism, and that The Jungle would cause a major societal shift in which people would reject capitalism and turn to socialism (Cherny, 2012). Upon publication, The Jungle quickly became a success, with the novel selling twenty-five thousand copies in six weeks, although no extreme socialist action ever took place, as Sinclair may have wished for.
Sinclair achieved one of his goals with The Jungle in less than a year: worker conditions were drastically improved as a result of the passing of The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, which made it so meatpacking plants had to process products in a sanitary manner. In addition, the Meat Inspection Act of 1906 made it so the U.S. Department of Agriculture had to inspect all livestock before slaughter. The Jungle played a significant part in the passing of both acts. Kirsten Rouse writes of how when President Theodore Roosevelt received an advance copy of The Jungle, he immediately sent labor commissioner Charles P. Neill and social worker James Bronson Reynolds to investigate the meatpacking industry of Chicago, due to the extremely worrying conditions described in the novel (Rouse, 2023). When Neill and Reynolds completed their investigation and found that the conditions were more or less accurate to those in the novel, Roosevelt used the threat of disclosing the contents of the investigation to speed along the passage of both acts, which became law on the same day. This instant political impact and change caused by The Jungle shows how literature has the ability to uniquely impact politics, and society as a whole.
An argument could be made that The Jungle does not prove literature impacts politics, as an argument can be made for the ulterior motives of Sinclair in The Jungle. Critics such as Jacqueline Tavernier-Courbin have called the novel something akin to propaganda. Courbin, in an assessment of The Jungle which is included in renowned critic Donald Pizer’s collection of essays, The Cambridge Companion to American Realism and Naturalism, states that ‘Sinclair tends to assault the reader with the message he wants to carry, subordinating plot, character development, and verisimilitude to propaganda’ (Pizer, 2006).
While critics have argued against The Jungle’s impacts due to the biased messages in the novel, Michael Moghtader writes that it is still collectively agreed among critics (such as the aforementioned Courbin, along with William Bloodworth, L. S. Dembo, Jon Yoder, and Michael Brewster Folsom) that The Jungle played a role in the major impact of politics and that, as Moghtader writes, ‘the description of Chicago’s meatpacking industry influenced the United States Government to change the food spoilage laws in the early part of the twentieth century’ (Moghtader, 2007).
Bloodworth addresses the concerns of propaganda in the novel, writing of how this concern of propaganda is minimal and not the entirety of the novel (Bloodworth, 1997). He writes: ‘Sinclair in these final chapters has […] shifted the focus of the novel from Jurgis to the Socialist movement itself. Up to the accidental stumbling into the Socialist lecture, Jurgis’ story is almost entirely his own’ (Ibid). Furthermore, Bloodworth, Courbin, and other critics of The Jungle and its literary value couldn’t deny the impact that it had on America. Bloodworth himself wrote: ‘Few readers-and not very many American writers-could ignore what he had done’ (Ibid). The Jungle is a powerful piece of literature which has always been easily accessible by the community, which undoubtedly changed America.
The Jungle and the impacts it has had on America show how literature is a powerful tool in changing the world through politics. Without the novel, the working conditions of America would undoubtedly be worse off. Although the motives of Upton Sinclair may be questioned, it is undeniable that his work had a major and beneficial impact on the meatpacking industry, proving the ability of literature to tangibly impact politics and thus our world as a whole.
Shaping Social Discourse and Encouraging Criticism
Literature can directly tackle social issues or status quo, both in the time when published, or in the future where it may still hold relevance. Literature can be used to make a direct observation of an expectation or criticism, or can simply point to issues that need to be tackled and thereby cause the audience to feel empathy for those involved. Discussing, criticizing or simply mentioning social norms directly brings such topics to the public who may not even be aware it is an issue. Then, the said public can discuss how these tackled topics have affected them, and possibly how to change such norms to be more inclusive for the betterment of society. Many pieces have had such effects by explaining and exploring social norms.
One such work is A Doll’s House, a play written in 1879, a time when women and men had very set roles and social circles to follow. The play, written by Henrik Ibsen who is considered ‘one of the world’s greatest dramatists’ and someone who calls himself a humanist, was a direct criticism created to tackle these social circles (Shah, n.d.). The play made an immediate impact and became a scandal at the time when first performed. This is due to the fact that it directly tackled the expected roles men and women held, giving women a character to look up to, to fight for their freedom and individuality. It has also been praised by critics and academics as a work of dramatic art, however there are opposing stances as to the play’s message (Finch & Park-Finch, 2014).
The play itself spoke about the story of Nora, a wife with two children and a “perfect” life. However, the issues she faced, such as needing to fake a signature of a man because she needed to get a loan to save her own husband’s life, was criticized for legal reasons within the story as this was a breach of law. But the bigger issue was because of her status as a woman and wife that she should not have to work or borrow money for her husband. These were the same issues women faced within society. Her husband was ashamed to have been saved by a woman, when it should’ve been the other way around. Women were expected to not be independent at the time unless absolutely necessary, such as for a widow, and anything else was different and odd. The play ends with Nora leaving her husband and children behind. There are two major interpretations of the play: one was to break the direct norms the majority had followed at the time of the woman needing to be a mother as ‘it is worthwhile to leave her family to achieve her independence and individuality’ (Ghafourinia & Jamil, 2014). The other is leaving for the best interest of the children where she will return once both her and Torvald have grown rather than leaving forever. The play’s presentation set off events that continued in discussion to the present day. Ibsen himself had found issue with the way women were treated, saying ‘ a woman cannot be herself in modern society. It’s an exclusively male society’ (Ibsen, n.d.). Gail Finney stated that ‘in closing the door on her husband and children, Nora opened the way to the turn-of-the-century women’s movement’, and the play itself attracted majorly female audiences in likely hopes of being able to gain the confidence to stand up to these norms too to get their deserved individuality (Finch & Park-Finch, 2014).
A Doll’s House is not the only piece of literature that tackles the issues of such roles but is one that is well known, as schools and other places of education use it for discussion and exploration. The very same critiques of expectations can be portrayed and explored in other pieces of literature, such as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), and continue bringing up ways to deal with the harmful norms of the time.
Even today, the play is discussed by scholars and schools to further interpret and explore the story, in order to unpack the old messages and current issues. Nora is a character that brings hope to fight for freedom and a person’s own individual status. The play contains topics that can be discussed by modern audiences, such as the topic of modern-day feminism, modern-day expectations, what issues are still seen and what people are expected to follow. Concepts and topics that can be explored through adaptations which are made to further connect with the current audience and issues rather than focusing on past audiences from a time that has gone by already. Short films, long films, remade plays with modern visuals; it is done constantly to once again bring literature to the front to tackle issues. An example is Nora, a short film from The Guardian that is a direct response to the original play to explore how even in the present, women haven’t managed to reach the same status as men and still are expected to follow certain expectations because following a “man’s job” is considered to be abandoning her children (Payne-Frank, 2012).
Even though since the play has been written, society as a whole has changed and women have more independence, there are still places that hold onto old traditions and issues that remain even after so long. One lasting issue being how some banks still tie a woman’s name to a husband or father automatically unless asked not to (Almodóvar-Reteguis, 2019). This can be considered a counterclaim to say literature does not impact social expectations and norms as even so far into the future since its original publishing, the world still has similar issues to the past. However, despite that fact the play is still being performed or shown in many forms, and after so much time has passed, shows that the play has the power to inspire women to continue tackling the issues that are still around and create important discussions in society that otherwise might not have happened.
Literature as Personal Transformation
Literature, in its many forms, can also challenge personal opinions and views, along with improving empathy of the audience. Within literature, a person is shown multiple viewpoints that they would otherwise not see in their daily lives. Especially when one is directly placed in another’s shoes, it is hard not to learn and experience something of someone else’s life. Some concepts that can be explored through literature are what expectations a person puts on themselves, and whether or not others will control that.
One such piece of literature is the novel The Bell Jar (1963) by Sylvia Plath. It tackles many feminist and exploitation issues at a time closer to modern day, specifically to also secure women against male domination (Budick, 1987). However, it is more so from a direct personal link rather than a third person view such as a play like A Doll’s House. The Bell Jar is still widely discussed today in schools due to the lasting relevance of the novel’s messages on feminism and mental health. As opposed to the play where everything is seen from an almost outside perspective, in The Bell Jar, the audience directly sees what the main character does and feels. Her exact thoughts and how she perceives the world that expects her to drop her own life for a man and children.
Within the book, Esther faces issues of self-identity and what is expected of her. While she herself wanted a specific goal for herself – to become a writer – the doubt cast by society directly impacted how Esther thought of herself. External expectations impacted Esther, such as getting married early and acting for others as a mother rather than acting for herself, as well as keeping a lower status than a man. There are moments within the book where she feels like an outsider, and isn’t ready to tackle some of the problems she’s facing, as others are constantly bringing up the issues. The way that society has constantly forced one narrative onto Esther, both explicitly and sometimes accidentally without realizing how harmful it was, that left her in the end at a doctor to deal with her depression. Even at the doctor, she didn’t want to face her depression fully until the end of the novel. The novel itself brings attention to female exploitation, all under a banner of the institution of marriage, under which women are constantly criticized for their individuality, whether they truly want their individuality and what they should be wanting instead (Imtiaz, 2019).
When the audience is directly shown how the protagonist feels, their issues and thoughts of the events she had to live through – and with the added information of the author’s life – it can bring said audience to a place where they would need to face the information given. The Bell Jar directly shows how societal norms can have extremely negative effects on an individual. This can lead to the audience thinking about their own lives and situations, and hopefully feeling empathy for the fictional character, the author, and others who may have similar experiences. Some people never have to experience the horrible situations some may be used to, and having the opportunity to see those situations can bring the possibility of realizing how lucky some individuals are. These discussions let another know what others lived through without actually feeling the issues directly, but place it within a new light for others to hopefully understand.
However, within the same vein, as The Bell Jar can be seen to be speaking of issues seen today, the fact that those issues still prevail is a counterclaim to say that literature does not challenge and change personal views and opinions, at least not so quickly or so effectively. Exploitation of women still occurs on the daily, where virginity and the willingness to forget and ignore their individuality and issues is still expected, and forced in some places and situations to act as a “model wife”. Nevertheless, showing these experiences to foster empathy and bringing these issues to light can create powerful change because society as a whole will then be more knowledgeable of how to truly help others to improve the lives of others.
Igniting Collective Change Through Empathy
As shown above, literature has many powers. One which is especially relevant is its capacity of transformation, hence it being a unique and effective tool in making change in the world. Beyond the personal transformation written about in the last section, literature can be a powerful tool to create change for collective good. There are various ways literature uses this superpower of change-making, one of which includes ingraining themes of community and unity into writing. Now, what do communal themes signify, and why do they have such power in literature? As accurately described by Dr. Chaim Noy, a notable anthropologist and expert in cultural and community studies, a communal theme is a concept centered around shared experiences, values and interactions (Noy, 2006). These themes often emerge from social dynamics, common history, and the cultural similarities of specific backgrounds. This is an incredibly useful tool as creating groups or communities in literature can shape shared identity and acknowledge diversity, so people can be more empathetic and challenge prejudice or pre-existing social issues. This can also include literature that empowers marginalized voices and people, which also helps share their stories and possible realities in a different perspective than all other kinds of mediums. Meaning that people can sympathize with the narrator(s) because the reader is reading the thoughts and actions of the characters, and knows what the character is going through. One such example of a piece of literature exacting themes of community is within the novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007) by Junot Diaz. On the surface, the main communal themes revolve around the experiences of the Dominican-American family residing in New Jersey, but community is so much broader than only that. And in this book specifically, there are numerous more communal concepts, such as struggles with identity, a clashing of values (American and Dominican), family dynamics, language, resilience, and even economic disparities. Overall, communal themes are powerful when it comes to literature. But that still hasn’t answered the question on why they have such power.
Broadly, communal themes can build empathy. As described by Janina Levin’s description of empathy as ‘a concept [which] intersects the fields of psychology, moral philosophy and aesthetics’ (Levin, 2016). This explains the magnetism of emotion invoked on readers as empathy is being built. The reason for empathy to be an effective tool for worldly change can be simply described as the empathy-altruism hypothesis. This essentially predicts that individuals with high-levels of empathy will be more likely to help than those who lack empathy (Batson, 2015). Janina Levin further builds that ‘In literature, the claim that empathy leads to altruistic action goes along with arguments for cultivating novel reading as an empathic activity that could make us better world citizens’ (Levin, 2016). By invoking empathy from communal themes, using whatever means such as using social backgrounds, or economic situations, people are moved, and tend to be “better world citizens.” For example, in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, readers can build empathy for the cultural struggles highlighted throughout the book, where characters are challenged by their bicultural identity and assimilation, by relating to them, or just feeling towards them. And this could possibly result in the empathizer seeing someone from a different group differently. For example, someone who’s not multicultural could better resonate with someone who is, and can go on to actively find ways that the latter individual may differ from the former individual and what the consequences of said differences are. This is called empathy-driven-change, and this isn’t just useful in literature, but pretty much any initiative for change, where people are more adept to seek out change because of their empathic standpoint of something. For instance, the Harvard Business Review stated that empathy is the secret to organizational change as it has the power to include people, and unite them as one so they can all change something unanimously (Sanchez, 2018). That is the power of empathy; to make people one, and create a shared humanity. And this is why literature is powerful, because it’s a hub of empathy. However, some believe that some people wouldn’t identify with some of the communities and so reach would be more limited. W.H. Auden, in his essay ‘Writing’, expressed the idea that literature might not have the power to change the course of history or significantly alter society’s trajectory (Auden, 1963) . He believed that literature’s influence was more subtle and worked on a personal level, shaping individuals’ understanding of the world. While Auden’s perspective on literature’s influence being more personal and subtle certainly has merit, literature has the power to represent diverse perspectives and experiences, thereby broadening empathy and understanding among communities. When stories include characters from various backgrounds and marginalized groups, it can lead to greater inclusivity and challenge exclusive thinking. And yes, some people won’t empathize, but a lot may, and that is still a notable change, as there is not one thing on this planet that eight billion people will unanimously agree with. So there will always be exclusivity, but there might be less exclusivity, leading the way to more change.
In a world where societal change often seems like an uphill battle, literature emerges as a remarkable and potent instrument capable of instigating transformation through communal themes that evoke empathy in readers. As Auden suggested, literature’s impact might be personal and subtle, but upon closer examination, its ripple effects extend far beyond individual contemplation. Literature stands as a bridge between hearts and minds, transcending cultural barriers and fostering a shared human experience that ignites collective change.
In 2013, Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai spoke to the United Nations with a message where she advocated for compulsory education for children (Preston, 2013). During her speech, Yousafzai said her now famous quote: ‘Let us remember: one book, one pen, one child, and one teacher can change the world.’ This idea of a book and pen changing the world is not a new concept at all. Literature has been changing the world for thousands of years, and throughout the world; from Confucius’ Analects in China and Homer’s Odyssey in Greece to the Indian Bhagavad Gita and Epictetus’ discourses in Rome. All of these examples of literature tie in together because they are all examples of literature which, in one way or another, changed the world, whether it be due to societal changes, such as from the teachings of Confucius, or due to the changes in literature itself sparked from Homer’s works.
In our paper, we analyzed more modern pieces of literature, from Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle and Henrik Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House, to Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar and Junot Diaz’s novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. The variety of locations and dates for these pieces of literature, especially in contrast to the ancient examples previously provided, show how literature is not just a simple concept, but a spectrum with a variety of impacts, which was argued in our paper.
In our paper, we argued how literature changed the world by impacting politics through our analysis of The Jungle, supporting our argument by explaining the many political changes, such as laws, rules, and regulations set in place thanks to the novel. We also argued that literature tackles social issues and challenges the status quo by analyzing Henrik Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House and supporting our argument by examining the gender roles it helped to challenge through igniting discussion and encouraging social criticism. Finally, we argued that literature can change the opinions of people in a society by looking at Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, supporting our argument by analyzing how it tackles issues of female exploitation, and the changes in beliefs from the novel.
From our varied analysis of literature’s impact on society’s trajectory, the conclusion that literature has the deft ability to reshape political thought and actions, inspire social and political change, reshape individual beliefs, and appeal to empathy via community, is clearly outlined. The spectrum of literature’s effect is one that is broad, and it is one that is infinite and timeless. Literature’s unique power in reshaping the world is in its simple ability to never be contained in its pages, but an ever-evolving force which changes based on the people behind the words. Literature is the manifestation of humanity, which can transform how people see fit.
ACL Digital (2023) The Role of Empathy in Driving Successful Change Initiatives. Available at: https://www.acldigital.com/blogs/role-empathy-driving-successful-change-initiatives#:~:text=E mpathy%20allows%20change%20agents%20to,making%20the%20change%20more%20manageable. (Accessed: 19th August, 2023)
Almodóvar-Reteguis, N. (2019), ‘Where in the world do women still face legal barriers to own and administer assets?’, Data Blog, https://blogs.worldbank.org/opendata/where-world-do-women-still-face-legal-barriers-own-and-administer-assets (26 August 2023)
APA PsynNet (2015) The Empathy-Altruism Hypothesis. Available at: https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2015-47040-013 (Accessed: 19th August, 2023)
Bloodworth, W.A. (1977) in Upton Sinclair. Boston, Massachusetts:Twayne
Budick, E. (1987) ‘The Feminist Discourse of Sylvia Plath’s the Bell Jar’, College English, Vol. 49, No.8, 872-885, https://www.jstor.org/stable/378115?seq=7 (24 August 2023)
Cherny, R. (2012) The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Available at: http://ap.gilderlehrman.org/history-by-era/politics-reform/essays/jungle-and-progressive-era (Accessed: 16 August 2023).
Finch A., Finch H. ‘A Post-feminist, Evolutionist Reading of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House’, [No publisher] https://www.finchpark.com/arts/dolls-house.pdf (24 August 2023)
Ghafourinia, F., Baradaran, J. (2014) ‘The Women’s Right in Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House’, JNAS Journal, https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Leila-Baradaran-Jamili/publication/360208043_Journal_of_Novel_Applied_Sciences_The_Women%27s_Right_in_Henrik_Ibsen%27s_A_Doll%27s_House/links/62683fd6ee24725b3ec8f71f/Journal-of-Novel-Applied-Sciences-The-Womens-Right-in-Henrik-Ibsens-A-Dolls-House.pdf (24 August 2023)
Harvard Business Review (2018) The Secret To Leading Organizational Change Is Empathy. Available at: https://hbr.org/2018/12/the-secret-to-leading-organizational-change-is-empathy (Accessed: 19th August, 2023)
Imtiaz, M. Et al. (2019) ‘Marriage and the Exploitation of Women: A Case-Study of The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath’, American Research Institute for Policy Development, https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Maryam-Imtiaz/publication/339477545_Marriage_and_the_Exploitation_of_Women_A_Case-Study_of_The_Bell_Jar_by_Sylvia_Plath/links/6405e7bb0cf1030a5679ebd0/Marriage-and-the-Exploitation-of-Women-A-Case-Study-of-The-Bell-Jar-by-Sylvia-Plath.pdf (24 August 2023)
Levin, J.(2016) Productive Dialogues Across Disciplines: ‘Literature and Empathy Studies’ Journal of Modern Literature, 39 (4), 187-193. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/be232b81-f3a2-3e8a-8e75-1f562ec544eb?read-now=1&seq=1 (Accessed: 19th August, 2023)
Moghtader, M. (2007) “Discursive Determinism in Upton Sinclair’s ‘The Jungle.’” in Kraver, J., Kratzke, P. (ed.) CEA Critic, The Johns Hopkins University Press
Payne-Frank, N. (2012) Nora: a short film responding to Ibsen’s A Doll’s House – video, The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/film/video/2012/oct/18/nora-ibsen-dolls-house-video (Accessed: 26 August 2023).
Pizer, D. (2006) in The Cambridge Companion to American realism and naturalism: Howells to London. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Preston, J. (2013) Malala Yousafzai, girl shot by Taliban, makes appeal at U.N., The New York Times. Available at: https://archive.nytimes.com/thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/07/12/video-of-malala-yousafzai-at-u-n-calling-on-world-leaders-to-provide-education-to-every-child/ (Accessed: 26 August 2023).
Rouse, K. (2023) Meat Inspection Act of 1906, Encyclopedia Britannica. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Meat-Inspection-Act (Accessed: 16 August 2023)
Shah, A. ‘The Concept of Feminism in Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House’, The Criterion, https://www.the-criterion.com/V7/n6/047.pdf (24 August 2023)