Saturday, November 26, 2011

Real vs. Fictional Social Structure

In general, literature is seen as a reflection of the culture it is from. However, we've seen that the 18th century characters we've read about are known to push the envelope of social roles. What do you think this means in terms of literature as a mirror to society? Do you think the characters we see exemplify authors' ideals of a perfect man/woman and perfect relationships according to 18th century norms? I know most of us can only speculate what 18th century life was like, but what have you gathered from the characters we have seen this semester? Do you think everyone had a character they wanted to be like (Lord Orville, Squire B, Pamela or Evelina for example), or were these fictional characters intended to only put fictional names to values and ideals?


  1. I tend to think that the fiction from this time period paints a relatively realistic picture of the social structure/class relations of the day. Obviously, fiction is fiction, and authors will take creative liberties wherever they see fit, but especially since the genre of the novel was so new, most wrote about what they knew. Class structure was much more rigid and visible in the eighteenth century than it is today, meaning it would have been extremely difficult to write a realistic (or even a relatable) story, they would have had to write in those relationships. Pretty much every book we've read this semester has represented a very similar class structure. Even when it's been broken down (Cinderella-esq stories of Evelina and Pamela) or transplanted to an abandoned island (Crusoe and Unka), the same structure remains the same. The higher ranking men have to put their prejudice aside to marry down, and the colonizers take on authoritative, and in some cases, oppressive, positions compared to the natives they find. Thus, I think most contemporary readers would have found a character to connect with, even if they were out of reach in reality.

  2. I completely agree with Taylor. I think all fiction reflects its time period. Even novels that are about different times can't help but add in parts of their present time. You can't escape culture or discourse (it's everywhere!). Obviously, these books wrote about things that matter to society at the time. So class, virtue, national ideology, and sexuality all had a role in the fiction that appeared. It would then be easy for people to relate to a character they read in a novel. We do this today and I think you could learn a lot about our culture from reading novels that are written in present time (although I hope Twilight doesn't get included in this).

    In some ways, some of things that were concerns to 18th century readers can still be applied today. More modern day fairy tales all end with marriage and usually someone from a different class or even species getting together. I think people like to think times have changed, but in a lot of ways, our stories can easily track with the novels we have read in this class.

  3. I think both Taylor and Cara make excellent points. While novels can take creative leaps and provide fairy-tale-esque solutions for the protagonists, the general values and beliefs that the characters hold reflect those of the period. If you look at today's literature like Cara suggests, you can definitely see our values reflected in it. Take Harry Potter, for instance. Our society's belief in the underdog is a particularly modern one (there wasn't a lot of room for upward mobility in the "olden" days).

    I think that the class distinctions in the novels we have read have been a little blurred (Pamela's upward movement, Evelina's shady background, Unca's mixed heritage, etc.) may have served the purpose of creating a broader audience appeal. Instead of appealing to just the lower or upper classes, protagonists were classy "everymen," not peasants and not kings.

  4. I'm entrenched in the camp that would say that most of these characters do infact reflect the social conventions of their time, and with that said, that's what made Orville such an interesting character for me.

    I thought it funny that Keena originally addressed Orville as a character that potentially everyone would like to be like, because for me, that's a particularly accurate observation. I mean the guy is purported to be a figure of high society, but when magnified, he represents very few of the typical conventions of his societal cohorts of the time. The scene that I immediately come back to is the foot race, which I've posted about a few times on here, wherein Orville fails to take the same delight in the idea of two elderly women pushing their physical capabilities as do the rest of the prominent figures of high society that look on.

    It's scenes such as that, that illustrate Orville as a rogue, a maverick of sorts, that I do have to say I think really any given reader, particularly male, would like to be like that. So as opposed to answering for one side or the other, my answer would have to be a universal yes - the characters are representative of their time, but exceptions are also present, such as the case of Lord Orville.