Reading and Revolutions

Yesterday, I read this article called “The Gatsby Curve: How Inequality Became a Household Word.” I initially clicked on the link on Twitter because it mentioned The Great Gatsby, and since I’m a nerd, I’m a sucker for when people use literature to explain things in society (see original tweet below).

Essentially Brendan Greeley points out the disparity between rich and poor, first recapping Obama’s recent speech in which he brought up the fact that currently, the richest 1% of America “has more than 288 times the wealth of the median family.” Greeley continues on to point out that income inequality shrank during the “golden age of growth,” but that since the 1980s, inequality has risen again, and in 2007, “income share of the top 1 percent had reached a level not seen since 1928, the Jazz Age of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby.”

So, hurray for the use of literature to help explain economic inequality.

Except not. I don’t want to turn this into a commentary on the current economic situation – but to ignore it given what I do plan to write about would be irresponsible. I decided to use the article as a segue into an examination of Donald Sutherland’s month-old interview with The Guardian, along with some other things.

In his words, “…it’s getting drastic in this country.” Citing several issues, including “[d]enying food stamps to ‘starving Americans,'” Sutherland states quite openly that he wants young viewers (and hopefully readers) of The Hunger Games to begin an “uprising against injustice.”

Really, he “wants young audiences to respond to the allegory. ‘Hopefully they will see this film and the next film and the next film and then maybe organise. Stand up.'”

This of course begs the question of what he wants them to “stand up” to, and being the educated and well-read man that he is, he understands that The Hunger Games “is a coded commentary on inequality.”

Well, hey now, isn’t that the trend with dystopian literature in general? There’s always some sort of inequality against which the main character and his or her compatriots struggle. Especially lately…just in the past few years, the following books have enjoyed enormous popularity with young readers:

The Hunger Games – Katniss et al. struggle against the oppression and, frankly, barbarism of the Capitol. The (mostly poor and hungry) districts send tributes to fight to the death in an arena while the rich elite watch, binge eat, and enjoy the spectacle.

Divergent – Beatrice and her cohorts are pitted against a controlling agency which deprives groups of people of normal human rights in order to try and determine the most effective way to establish a perfect society. There are underground groups of “factionless” who are outside of the “experiments” and generally viewed as a threat to the success of the controlling agency.

Matched – Cassia Reyes is “matched” at the age of 17. All of the Society’s citizens are matched based on their qualities and attributes, and all members of society have a routine that structures them – and their lives – for the best performance possible. There are “Aberrations,” lower members of the Society, with whom no one can be matched.

Those are just three of many of the recent dystopian offerings…others include Maze Runner, Legend, Delirium,…the list could go on for quite some time. Authors keep churning out “YA dystopian fiction” faster than I can read it.

Then there’s also 1984…and Brave New World, Animal Farm, Handmaid’s Tale, Fahrenheit 451, The Giver…again, I could go on for quite a while. We’ve had generations of Americans – and people around the world – reading these “coded” allegories about how a society that exerts unchecked control from an ivory tower – almost always – fails. Somehow, someone always succeeds in bringing at least a portion of the controlling entity to heel.

At about the middle of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire movie (forgive me for not remembering if the quote is in the book and probably not quoting correctly from the film), Katniss’ younger sister Prim says, “Since the last games, something is different, I can feel it…Hope.”

Being the reader (and wife of a reader) I am, I’m starting to see some interesting trends that make me think that maybe Prim is right. Maybe something is a little different. After all, the Pope has weighed in on the issue of inequality, much to the chagrin of, well, a lot of rich people.

Not only that, but more people have started to note the difference in treatment for the rich and poor thanks to some glaringly obvious examples of inequality. Take the recent news fury over the teenager suffering from “affluenza” who was sentenced only to probation after killing four while driving drunk (oh and he stole stuff first). There’s no arguing that the sentence would have been different had the boy not been a member of the “elite” Texas society. I know that if one of my students – poor and Latino – had committed the same crimes, the judge would have issued a far more harsh sentence.

I think it’s interesting, too, that people like The Wire writer David Simon are commenting on disparities in America, as are “normal” Americans.

Not only that, but the trailer for the new Captain America movie features Robert Redford, in his kind and avuncular way, letting a distraught Captain America know that “…to build a better world, sometimes means tearing the old one down…and that makes enemies.”

So it seems that a lot of people – both in the humanities field and otherwise – are attempting to draw attention to something. Isn’t that what literature is about? Orwell didn’t write 1984 for his health. Huxley didn’t dream up the fate of John the Savage just for dramatic effect. Hugo’s Les Misérables wasn’t just written as entertainment, it was written to call attention to injustices and inequalities. Books teach us things. Books give us ideas. Books manage to spread messages that would, in some cases, be otherwise impossible. I suppose Hugo said it best in his preface to his novel, and so I’ll leave it to him to make my final point for me:

SO long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilization, artificially creates hells on earth, and complicates a destiny that is divine, with human fatality; so long as the three problems of the age—the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night—are not solved; so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.

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