Literature’s Revolutionary Power

Fritz Eichenberg, illus. from  “Jane Eyre”


I’ve discovered a new concept, used by political scientists, that helps me better understand literature’s revolutionary potential. It’s called “unleashing.”

I read about unleashing in an Ezra Klein Vox article about Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein, whose idea it is. Klein observes that unleashing has had both negative and positive effects: it has led to the resurgence of white nationalism but also to women standing up against sexual harassers like Donald Trump, Bill Cosby, Roger Ailes, and, most recently, Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.

Sunstein explains unleashing as follows:

Under the pressure of social norms, people sometimes falsify their preferences. They do not feel free to say or do as they wish. Once norms are weakened or revised, through private efforts or law, it becomes possible to discover preexisting preferences. Because those preferences existed but were concealed, large-scale movements are both possible and exceedingly difficult to predict; they are often startling.

Klein, noting that “we are living through an era of unleashing,” provides examples:

Over the past 24 hours, the New York Times published an explosive story detailing decades of sexual harassment by Hollywood megaproducer Harvey Weinstein, and BuzzFeed published a blockbuster story detailing the way Breitbart built itself into a bridge between the white nationalist alt-right community and the Republican Party. Both of these stories, in their own ways, are examples of unleashing, and the way sudden expansions of what people are willing to say and do in public are rocking American society, for better and for worse. And that’s to say nothing of President Donald Trump: the unleasher-in-chief.

In my Theories of the Reader class, we’ve been exploring how exactly works influence people, and the theory of unleashing should prove helpful. The norms seem much less solid when a powerfully realized literary character violates them.

While one can name countless literary classics that have given aid and comfort to forbidden behaviors, my favorite example is always Jane Eyre. If conservative reviewer Elizabeth Rigby lashed out against the novel, it is because she could imagine it unleashing little girls to speak back to elders, orphans to murmur against their “benefactors,” governesses to aspire above their station, women to undercut men, and people generally to doubt the church. It doesn’t matter that the book concludes with Jane becoming a socially acceptable angel on the hearth. What matters is Bronte’s gripping images of girls and women standing up for themselves.

And indeed, over the following century and a quarter the book would be a lodestar for Victorian governesses organizing unions, suffragettes agitating for the vote, and second wave feminists calling for equality in the work place.

No wonder there has been such suspicion of fiction over the centuries, from Plato on. When authors tell a powerful story, there’s no telling what it will unleash.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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