Joyce Dignam explores the role art and literature has played and continues to play in challenging societal issues.
When Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery was published in The New Yorker in 1948, the publication and author received a slew of hate mail. Even Jackson’s mother expressed concern, famously writing to her daughter to ask; “Why don’t you write something to cheer people up?”. Jackson’s controversial short story held a mirror to society in such a visceral way that it shocked readers into reflecting on how they lived. This type of writing was not unusual, and Jackson was by no means the first writer to do this. In fact, Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four was written the same year. Literature has arguably always been used as a method of voicing protest. Thus, the role of literature in challenging social oppression is clear and its impact can be seen throughout history, as it constantly adapts to contemporary issues.
Thus, the role of literature in challenging social oppression is clear and its impact can be seen throughout history, as it constantly adapts to contemporary issues.
Irish writers in particular always have strived to push the boundaries of what was “acceptable” literature and write in a way that challenged Catholic Ireland, so much so that we have a long history of censorship in literature. Last year’s One City One Book was Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls, a book which was famously banned for sexually explicit content and publicly burned by a parish priest. Modern readers will turn the pages of this book, waiting for the scandal and will more than likely be disappointed. This is because what was deemed inappropriate in 1960’s Ireland was something as simple as two girls moving away from home to pursue nightlife, love and freedom. This storyline does not seem radical to us today because writers like O’Brien challenged how society viewed young women at the time. In the 1930’s, Kate O’Brien wrote Mary Lavelle, a story which followed a young girl moving to Spain before marrying her fiancé. The book was banned for immoral content, but not before enjoying number one bestseller status in Eason. This demonstrated that the public were interested in reading about a society different to the one they were living in, a society where a woman like Mary Lavelle could “cease being a daughter without immediately becoming a wife”, a radical act in 1930’s Ireland. When literature is banned, it often creates controversy and excitement about the book. Therefore, when writers challenge society in such a way only to become banned, they often end up exciting the reader and piquing their interests in such social issues, even if they had not been interested in this before. To look back on both of these banned Irish books as a woman in 2020, I recognise their importance in shaping the society we currently live in. Without drawing attention to how Catholic Ireland treated women in their literature, would we have arrived at the society we live in now?
To look back on both of these banned Irish books as a woman in 2020, I recognise their importance in shaping the society we currently live in.
The dystopian fiction genre has always been used as a way of challenging societal issues. According to M. Keith Booker, the dystopian novel is “the epitome of literature in its role as social criticism”. One of the most famous contemporary dystopian novels, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, has made a huge impact on society and remains just as relevant today. Interestingly, Atwood once said that she always wrote about things that have already happened in real life. But it is when she puts these real-life events into a context that really shocks us. People tend to live their lives on autopilot, not questioning the society they live in or their role in it – these writers force us to question our ignorance and challenge how we view the world.
Theatre takes this concept further by creating a more visual response to societal issues. Irish theatre company THEATREclub has a simple mission: “to change the world through great art” and they do this through interactive, documentary style theatre. Their production The Game was a verbatim style piece which highlighted real-life stories from Irish sex workers. The production took its layout from classic television game shows and each night three male members of the audience would volunteer to be part of the production and play “the game”. At times, these audience members would say the lines of real-life abusers and the affect this had on the audience was incredibly impactful it forced us to accept that these experiences happened in the city we lived in.
Clearly, literature has always challenged and will continue to challenge social oppression, we must ask ourselves then, as readers and audience members, how can we utilise art to challenge society?