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Social Novel

The social novel is exactly what it says on the tin! It is a novel that highlights different issues within society. Authors use the social novel to critique occurrences in society they do not agree with. The social novel has a rich history and there are many well-known examples from the 19th century such as the works of Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, and George Gissing.

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The social novel is exactly what it says on the tin! It is a novel that highlights different issues within society. Authors use the social novel to critique occurrences in society they do not agree with. The social novel has a rich history and there are many well-known examples from the 19th century such as the works of Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, and George Gissing.

Social novel: definition

A social novel (also known as the social problem novel) is a novel that explores different issues in society, ranging from political to economic. It is a type of narrative that explores, portrays, and critiques the societal structures and conditions of the time period. The authors of social novels use the medium of fiction to voice their concerns about certain social issues and to criticise the society that they live in.

These novels are typically characterized by their realistic portrayal of characters and environments and their emphasis on societal reform or change. They are designed to create awareness and spark discussion about societal issues, with the intention of influencing public opinion or prompting action.

In English literature, it's prominently seen during the 19th century with novels such as Hard Times (1854) by Charles Dickens and North and South (1854-55) by Elizabeth Gaskell. These works often address themes such as poverty, class disparity, gender inequality, and social reform. For example, Charles Dickens' Hard Times criticizes industrialisation's impact on human life, drawing attention to the dehumanizing effects of factory labour, lack of education, and the wider societal consequences.

Social novels in English literature

The social novel in Britain put the spotlight on the working class.

Charles Dickens is considered to be the 'father' of the English social novel. Dickens used his novels to examine the lives of the working class and to expose their struggles in Victorian England. These novels would sometimes depict characters overcoming the difficult circumstances they were born and raised in as a result of them being working class and poor. The novels also, however, sometimes showed how people could very easily remain trapped in such abysmal circumstances.

Through his novels, Dickens encouraged readers to consider what the working class in Victorian England was going through and the injustices in society related to this.

History of the social novel in English literature

The origins of the social novel in Britain can be traced back to the Industrial Revolution (1733-1913). It was a period that saw rapid advancements in manufacturing. Before the Industrial Revolution, hand-crafted products were the norm and the economy was an agricultural one. This had been the way of life for many years. As a result of the Industrial Revolution, large-scale manufacturing in factories took over and many new machines were produced to keep up with demand.

During the time of the Industrial Revolution, Britain was also expanding its Colonial Empire in countries like India and regions like the Caribbean. Examples of machinery that were essential at this time were steam-powered cotton mills and iron machinery. Technology was created to work with materials like silk, which were acquired during colonial expansion.

Although the industry was rapidly improving, life for most people, especially in the working class, did not improve at the same pace. Living standards for the working class only improved in the mid-late 1800s. Before this, wages remained extremely low, unemployment and wealth inequality were very high, and people lived in appalling conditions. Child labour was also prevalent and children often had the dangerous task of putting their hands in hard-to-reach areas of the machinery. Poverty and disease were rife due to the poor living conditions and pollution. Social novels that are set in this era show the experiences of people at the time.

Social novel, A picture of a city in sunset with plumes of dark smoke and smog rising into the clear night sky. StudySmarterFig. 1 - The social novel primarily began in the 19th century and often addresses themes such as poverty, class disparity, gender inequality, and social reform

The types of social novel

The social protest novel and the proletarian novel are types of social novels that are concerned with the experiences of the poor, working-class people in society.

The social protest novel

The social protest novel encourages readers to change the society that they live in for the better. Social protest novels acknowledge injustices in society and offer inspiration for social change.

Elizabeth Gaskell's novel Mary Barton (1848) explores the struggles of the working class in Victorian England.

The proletarian novel

The proletarian novel is an even more direct call to social change than the social protest novel. The proletarian novel discusses the possibility and the need for a revolution which could lead to the upheaval of the current social and political system.

Proletarian refers to anything that is related to the proletariat (the working class).

Charles Dickens' Hard Times (1854) is about working-class characters in a factory in Northern England. The factory workers form a union because this is a way for them to make a change in the structural systems of the factory business.

Elements of a social novel

The elements of a social novel include:

  • Social issues
  • Realism
  • Criticism and commentary on attitudes
  • Call to action
  • Impact on society

Realism

Realism is a literary genre that presents the reality of everyday life. It shows the struggles of ordinary people in society as they are. In the social novel, realism is used to address the reality of life under a certain social and political system.

Social determinism

Social determinism is the idea that a person’s behaviour is determined by their experiences in the society they live in. In the social novel, the societal conditions people live under mean they can have limited options in the decisions and actions they take.

Charles Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist (1837) is an example of a social novel that explores social determinism. The protagonist, Oliver Twist, is a young, poor orphan in Victorian England who initially lives in a workhouse, where he must work to earn his keep. Oliver Twist is eventually pushed into a life of crime to be able to have food and shelter.

The novel shows the reality of life for those who were poor and resided in workhouses under the 1834 Poor Law. These workhouses provided them with food and shelter, but these provisions were often minimal, the conditions were awful, and the rights of the residents were limited. Most workhouses did not equip people with skills for them to improve their social and economic standing.

1834 Poor Law: A law that stated that poor people could be provided with food and shelter in exchange for their labour in a workhouse.

Social criticism

Social criticism is an important feature of a social novel. The critique may not always be explicit. Instead, a critique can be as simple as highlighting issues that trouble the average person in society. These issues could be considered inappropriate to talk about in society or the viewpoints that the authors took could be seen as inappropriate at the time.

Social attitudes

Social attitudes that are prevalent in society are explored and critiqued by the author. These attitudes can be reflected through characters who represent specific attitudes. Characters in a novel can be in a society that is a mirror image of the society the author lives in. This creates a novel that is a direct reflection of society, applicable to the time the author lives in. Common themes that are explored in social novels are wealth and class.

Examples of the social novel

Two classic examples of social novels in English literature are David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, and The Nether World by George Gissing.

David Copperfield (1850) by Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens' novel David Copperfield details the life of the protagonist, David Copperfield, and how he develops with time. Copperfield lives at the mercy of his violent stepfather, Mr Murdstone. When Copperfield is eventually able to leave home, he has big dreams of becoming a lawyer. This would bring him a stable income and good wealth and respect in society.

During his apprenticeship at the law firm Spenlow and Jorkins, he falls in love with Spenlow's daughter, Dora. This pushes him to succeed even more, as he wants to provide Dora with a life she would feel comfortable about leaving her father's home.

Copperfield successfully completes his apprenticeship and marries Dora. The two live happily for a time, but then Dora becomes sick and passes away. Copperfield travels abroad after this and then marries his childhood best friend, Agnes, upon his return to England. He achieves great success as a writer during their marriage. Copperfield ultimately obtains wealth and the respect that comes with it. Despite a troubled upbringing, he has the opportunity to become successful in a lucrative career.

The Nether World (1889) by George Gissing

George Gissing's novel The Nether World is set during the early 19th century. It is an exploration of the struggles of lower-class families living in Victorian slums. In the novel, Gissing conveys how the poor feel like they are kept poor and they are trapped in these conditions. Although some characters in the novel have aspirations to explore more in life outside of the slums and the poor environment they are living in, there are many who find themselves right back in the slums. Their low social class and the poverty that accompanies it can feel inescapable. This was a bleak reality for many in the 19th century.

The social novel today

The social novel today is still a medium of critique for authors. The themes which are increasingly explored are gender, sexuality and race. Novels like Boy Meets Boy (2003) by David Levithan and White Teeth (2000) by Zadie Smith respectively explore these themes. Today, there is a greater opportunity for open dialogue on these topics, though they remain complex.

Social Novel - Key takeaways

  • A social novel (also known as the social problem novel) is a novel that explores different issues in society, ranging from political to economic.
  • The social novel in Britain put the spotlight on the working class.
  • The 2 types of social novels are the social protest novel and the proletarian novel.
  • Characteristics of the social novel are realism, social determinism, social criticism and a portrayal of social attitudes in the themes of wealth and class.
  • Charles Dickens is considered to be the 'father' of the English social novel.

Frequently Asked Questions about Social Novel

A social novel (also known as the social problem novel) is a novel that explores different issues in society, ranging from political to economic. The authors of social novels use the medium of fiction to criticise the society that they live in.

The two types of social novel are the social protest novel and the proletarian novel. 

Charles Dickens is considered to be the 'father' of the English social novel. 

An example of a social problem novel is Oliver Twist (1837) by Charles Dickens. 

Characteristics of the social novel are realism, social determinism, social criticism and a portrayal of social attitudes in the themes of wealth and class. 

What is the meaning of social novel? 

A social novel is a novel that addresses key social issues in society. These issues vary from society to society and authors use their novels to comment on these problems. The types of issues discussed in social novels are the political, social and economic struggles in society.  

What are the two types of social novel? 

The 2 types of social novel are the social protest novel and the proletarian novel. 

How can you describe the social protest novel?

The focus of the social protest novel is to inspire people to think about how their lives can be changed for the better in the society they live in. It shows people the injustices in society and inspired them with a story of these injustices being righted. This helps people see that their lives can improve- they only need to see that social change is possible.  

How can you describe the proletarian novel?

The proletarian novel has a similar focus to the social protest novel. However, the proletarian novel is a more direct call to action. It encourages physical action or revolution that involved an upheaval of the social/political system, citing that these are the best ways to effect change.  

What is an example of a social protest novel?

Elizabeth Gaskell's novel Mary Barton (1848) is an example of a social protest novel. It highlights the hardships that those of the working class in Victorian England endured.  It questions the way society functions, encouraging others to do the same. 

What is an example of a proletarian novel?

Charles Dickens' Hard Times (1854) is an example of a proletarian novel. It features the perspective of working class characters in a factory in a fictional region of Northern England. The workers want to effect change through the structural systems of the factory business. 

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