Using Fiction to Deal with Harsh Reality
Over the past two days we have seen J.K. Rowling take to Twitter — but this time, instead of giving us some juicy tidbits about her beloved Harry Potter books, she wrote about the Israeli cultural boycott conflict. Rowling has never been one to shy away from giving her opinions on politics. In fact, she even used TwitLonger to share a more in-depth explanation about her opinions (tweets can be read at these two links: Tweet 1 – Tweet 2) because 140 characters simply isn’t enough to have a proper conversation.
After releasing the first tweet — which went into more depth about her position and received a lot of negative feedback — Rowling released a second tweet and used Snape and Dumbledore to back up her position.
This calls to question a very serious subject: Is it appropriate to use fiction/fictional characters to deal with the harsh realities of the world?
To say fiction can’t have an impact on culture is ludicrous. Uncle Tom’s Cabin shifted the way Americans viewed slaves and slavery. Fairy tales such as Hansel and Gretel and Goldilocks and the Three Bears were written to teach children life lessons. Even looking back to texts such as the Bible clearly shows Jesus telling parables, a type of fictional story used to get a message across. Fiction holds a lot of power.
Harry Potter is a perfect example of a series that can be used to point readers to understanding the world around them a bit more than they did before. There is the obvious example of prejudice. Readers see Draco Malfoy call Hermione Granger a Mudblood because she was not born into a wizarding family like himself. This prejudice extends to the wider wizarding world in both wizarding wars, bearing clear resemblances to World War II with Hitler and the Nazis persecuting the Jewish community. Much like the Jews, Muggle-born wizards and witches are questioned about their legitimacy, and this reflects the inhumanity and cruelty that exists in the world. Another smaller plot that holds just as much weight in the Potter books is Neville’s tortured parents. Although we first see them in Order of the Phoenix, we hear about them first in the previous book, Goblet of Fire. Harry learns what happened to Neville’s parents and reflects on the brutality Voldemort has brought to the world that extends beyond his own loss.
It was Voldemort, Harry thought, staring up at the canopy of his bed in the darkness, it all came back to Voldemort…He was the one who had torn these families apart, who had ruined all these lives…” – Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (607)
Harry is suddenly forced to see the world beyond himself. He wasn’t the only child to lose something because of Voldemort. While he is usually the only one acknowledged purely based on the fact that he survived the Killing Curse, Harry suddenly realizes he is one of many still carrying the baggage Voldemort dumped on multiple doorsteps.
Other popular texts can also reflect the harsh realities of the world. Take a look at George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones. When the book was adapted as an HBO series, the world was in shock when Lord Eddard Stark lost his head. How could this have happened? Why is there no justice for the Stark family? Why did our hero have to die? The weight of that scene has changed the way many view television and storytelling. But it also speaks volumes to justice in our own world. Good people die. It is an unfortunate truth to recognize, but that is just the way of the world.
Another example can be taken from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. The main character, Scout, watches as her father defends Tom Robinson, and after the reader witnesses a trial that clearly points to Tom’s innocence, he is still found guilty. There is no sugarcoating the fact that racism exists. Scout, much like the reader, expected there to be a happy ending and expected the world to be fair, but the harsh reality is that it is not.
One final example comes from Thailand, when protesters used the three-finger salute from the popular Hunger Games novels by Suzanne Collins to symbolize their resistance to a military coup. The three-finger salute is used in the books and films to show opposition to the totalitarian government. Clearly, it has had an effect since the Thai anti-coup activists believe it shows resistance to authority.
Yes, it is clear that fiction/fictional characters are an extremely appropriate tool to deal with jarring issues. The question still remains: Why is fiction this powerful? Fiction helps readers empathize with their fellow man. By reading about another’s experience, whether that is fictional or not, one (as Atticus Finch so elegantly put it) can step into another’s shoes and begin to understand human complexity a bit more than they did before.
As Julian Barnes so finely puts it,
When you read a great book, you don’t escape from life; you plunge deeper into it.
Featured image courtesy of Amir Cohen/Reuters on Twitter.