Great 20th Century Political Novels

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Fiction and politics are common and compatible ingredients in recipes for good novels.  Political philosophy, politics, and politicians are a major collective influence on the lives of real people in all societies.  Most of what politicians say is fiction.  These not-at-all-strange bedfellows are a natural breeding ground for novels that reveal the good and evil of a place and time, real or imagined, past, present, or future.  Some of the very best political commentary is to be found in works of fiction rather than newspapers or electronic media. 

Authors of political novels create fictional worlds that may or may not resemble real worlds, populate such fictional worlds with believable, sometimes recognizable, characters, and apply literary style and technique, all with a purpose of exposing, commenting on or analyzing real-world political and social issues.

The novel may describe an historical, future, or contemporary time and place in order to present an understanding of where a society has found itself, or what the author believes it is destined to become. 

Much political fiction published long ago is relevant to contemporary times (e.g., Gulliver’s Travels, 1726; Hard Times, 1854). A good deal of 20th century political fiction has proven amazingly prescient (e.g., Atlas Shrugged, 1957).

Here are a few of the best political novels of the 20th Century that have great literary merit as well as predictive validity.

  1. 1984, George Orwell (1949)

This novel is Orwell’s warning about the future of civilization. It is set in a dystopian world where free will, thought, and love are prohibited. The protagonist lives in Oceania, which is ruled by Big Brother – the omniscient controller of all. The dictatorship has created a new language, “Newspeak” to enforce political correctness and conformity and to suppress public resistance.  Control of language permits control of opinion and thought.  “Thoughtcrime” includes any thought, let alone expression, of prohibited ideas or concepts that are inconsistent with that which is officially permitted. Thoughtcrime is a grave and potentially capital offense. The ruling party commands what is to be read, written, and spoken by the people of Oceania. In case of disobedience, the trial of “Room 101” awaits the offender.

  1. All The King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren (1946)

The novel portrays the rise and fall of Willie Stark, a charismatic populist leader of South Louisiana. The story is narrated by the fictional Jack Burden, a political reporter who works as Stark’s assistant. The backgrounds, lives, and character of the two men are polar opposites.  The politician, born poor and attracted to populism as his salvation, worked hard to become the most powerful man in Louisiana.  The narrator, born to an aristocratic family, had no defined meaning or purpose in life. Upon becoming governor, Stark employs corrupt methods to achieve his goals and in the end, is murdered by his own security staff.

  1. Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess (1962)

Set in dystopic England, the novel ridicules the contemporary political system and its concept of appropriate human character. The Nadsat language is a distinctive element of the author’s fictional world – a mix of Russian slang and English. The main character, Alex, is a violent young man who leads a group of lawless youths known for their extreme violent crimes committed with seeming impunity.  However, after murdering an elderly woman, Alex is apprehended, sentenced, and subjected to aversion therapy, an effort to cause objectionable behavior to become disgusting to the perpetrator.  The novel ends with when Alex attempts suicide, which results in reversal of his intended conditioning.

  1. Brave New World, Aldous Huxley (1932)

The novel is set in a future era denominated AF (After Ford).  The government, called the “World State,” is in complete control of all aspects of life.  Technology, the tool of control, is also the engine of growth, “progress,” and “emotional stability.”  Individuality and romantic or emotional relationships are taboo, and promiscuous casual sex is the norm. The mood-altering drug “soma,” that elevates happiness and represses instincts for non-conformity, is available always and everywhere. Outside normal civilization lies the ‘savage reservation,’ that is technologically backward and populated by throwbacks to the old mores and rituals of work, substantive relationships and family. The novel ends with the death of the savage Linda, mother of John (fathered by a government official), who becomes a sideshow oddity of the old ways and who, in despair, hangs himself.

  1. Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury (1953)

In a future America, there is one radio station (“Seashell Radio”) that sedates the population.  Continuous news and entertainment is displayed on the interior walls of homes, an uncanny omen of modern social media.  People know everything and nothing at all.  The main character, Guy Montag, is a fireman, whose job it is to incinerate prohibited books. Secretly, Guy is curious to know what lies within those covers. His curiosity gets the better of him when a group of firemen burn down a house that contains a secret library of books.  The old lady homeowner refuses to leave, preferring to be consumed by the flames along with her beloved books.  Guy retrieves a book, the first of his surreptitious collection secreted in his home.  Betrayed by his wife, he is ordered to burn down his own house.  Instead, he escapes to the country and joins a band of other survivors, the Book People, who seek to rebuild a literate community.

  1. Lord of Flies, William Golding (1954)

A group of boys survive the crash landing of a small aircraft on an isolated tropical island.  Ralph is chosen as the leader of the group to formulate plans for survival on, and escape from, the island. In the beginning, the boys enjoy the freedom of having no parents or superiors to tell them what to do.  Soon after, a rumor of a monster terrifies the entire group. Eventually the monster is discovered to be the body of a dead pilot of a disabled plane, still in the harness of his parachute.  As the boys create a social order that suffers from all the defects of the civilization they had left behind, persecution, superstition, idolatry, and violence surge.  The boys divide into to two groups that become deadly rivals.  The warring factions cause the forest to catch fire and the resulting smoke attracts a rescue ship.  The rescuers are dismayed by the decline in civilization displayed by schoolboys.

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