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social problem novel


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A phrase used to describe mid‐19th‐cent. fiction which examined specific abuses and hardships which affected the working classes. These included many of the topics which were simultaneously being exposed by non‐fictional writers on social issues. Largely written from a middle‐class perspective, it sometimes sought to stimulate legislation, and on other occasions (as in E. Gaskell's Mary Barton, 1848, and North and South, 1854–5) promoted understanding between masters and men on the basis of shared humanity, and shared material interests, as a way forward. Other notable examples include C. Kingsley's Alton Locke (1850) and Yeast (1848), and F. Trollope's Michael Armstrong, the Factory Boy (1840) and Jessie Phillips (1842–3).

Thomas Carlyle coined the phrase ‘Condition of England’ in the opening words of Past and Present (1843) to describe the social and political inequalities in what Disraeli, in Sybil (1845), was to term the ‘Two Nations of England, the Rich and the Poor’; and the subject was further developed by Carlyle in Chartism (1839). (See also Chartist movement.) Whilst Dickens's fiction is usually regarded as more complex in its focus than many of these novels, much of his writing, especially Oliver Twist (1838), The Chimes (1845), Bleak House (1852), and Hard Times (1854), deals very directly with poverty, inequality, and their consequences. The term can be extended to include writing about ‘fallen women’ and prostitution (as in Gaskell's Ruth, 1853). In its search for resolution, whether practical or emotional, the social problem novel differs from later realist fiction by writers like Gissing and Morrison.

Subjects: Literature.


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