• Thu. May 30th, 2024

Literature and its Influence on Protest

ByFreddy Lowe

Feb 15, 2023
Stage performance of Les Misérables

One of my English Literature role models is a Cambridge academic named Dr Jason Scott-Warren. I have met him twice (once by fluke coincidence when we happened to be interrailing simultaneously in Madrid), and he is phenomenal.

He is known in the headlines for his Extinction Rebellion activism.  On May 1 2021, he sat in the middle of a Cambridge road wearing a sandwich board sign that read, “I’m terrified for my children and my students because of the climate crisis.” He has been arrested and faced fines but remains a proud environmentalist and believer in the power of activism.  

He has spoken about the influence of English Literature on his activism. Although he confesses that academic conformism makes it difficult for him to break rules (preach), he also says that English Literature is “quite a rebellious discipline.” 

“You spend your whole time reading literary texts which are always very politically engaged, and which are very often about analysing the position of rule breakers and outsiders,” he said. Teaching King Lear, for example, conveys “a sense of the potential cataclysms that can open up in human life,” hence his hyper-tuned awareness of the potential catastrophe of climate change.

The Crown Prosecution Service dropped their case against him, citing freedom of protest. He is a triumph for freedom of speech, the power of activism, and – importantly – how you can be an English Literature academic and still be rooted in real-world topics.  He makes our subject relevant, dynamic, and (most importantly) very cool.

His analysis of how literature cultivates the rebellious spirit may be accurate. Almost all literature is driven by protagonists who rebel against norms or dominating forces. That is certainly the case for much of the first-year Edinburgh curriculum.

Universities and institutions across the UK are currently engaged in a heavy period of industrial action. The University of Edinburgh, as we students know, is no exception. As opinions range about the efficacy of strikes or where our student frustrations should be directed, it seems pertinent to examine the literary presentation of protest.

It is, in my opinion, portrayed viscerally but favourably. In an art form so focused on rebellion, outsiders, and the feelings of an event rather than the event alone, it is unsurprising that this is the case.  Think of one of the most famous books in the canon: Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, named after the ‘downtrodden’ or ‘underdogs’. It memorialises the otherwise minor, two-day skirmish that was the 1832 June Rebellion and provided the inspiration for Broadway songs such as Do You Hear the People Sing?, a protest anthem if ever there was one. 

What about the presentation of strikes specifically? Again, it has received diverse and striking literary attention. John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is an obvious example, chronicling the fight for farmers’ rights during the Great Depression. Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle (about immigrant workers in the meat industry) and Marc Blitzein’s musical The Cradle Will Rock are lesser-known examples.  However, to cite these three alone would be a disservice to the wealth of literature written about strike and protest action, including poetry.

These works are almost exclusively told from the workers’ perspectives; that is what they have in common. These perspectives are thus endowed with authenticity and power.  

Opinions are diverse on the efficacy, impact, and implications of strikes, and it is wrong to say that everyone agrees with them.  However, literature seems to focus heavily on the cataclysm of the outsider and the underlying emotions provoked by norm-breaking.  As Dr Scott-Warren exemplifies, this can have an inspiring effect.  Perhaps that is literature’s ultimate power: the power of outsiders knowing that they are not, in fact, alone.

Image Credit: Les Misérables 2014” by Hale Centre Theatre is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

By Freddy Lowe

Former Literature Editor Writer and Editor for the 2023 Edinburgh Fringe Writer and Editor for the 2023 Edinburgh International Book Festival