The Disruptive Nature of Subversive Literature

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People are brought into this world being told the right and wrong way to think, believe, and act. They find comfort in familiarity and knowing there’s a system that establishes order, but this system takes advantage of people by playing on their dependency. Subversive literature challenges authority by exploring, questioning, and analyzing the truth, and refusing to accept things at face value. Mary Shelley, who wrote “Frankenstein,” Charles Dickens, who wrote “Hard Times,” and Franz Kafka, who wrote “The Metamorphosis,” are all novelists who challenged the established authority with their work. With “Frankenstein,” Mary Shelley, a young female novelist, brings her audience on a journey that depicts the so-called ‘monster’ as a curious and thoughtful creature, making her readers ponder on the idea of how people are treated without being first understood. With “Hard Times,” Charles Dickens exposes his audience to the truth about social inequality through the depiction of Coketown and its residents, initiating a cause for change within the institutional order. With “The Metamorphosis,” Franz Kafka sets a horrific sense for his readers, and much like Shelley, he challenges readers to critically think about the way society has made it acceptable for people to judge others based on the surface without further understanding.

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During the 19th century, society was much different than it is now. Men and women were living in different spheres of life. Men were working and women were typically homemakers. When Mary Shelley published “Frankenstein,” she completely disrupted the culture both as a female writer and through her writing. It is part of human nature to view unpleasant-looking creatures as being associated with some form of negative behavior. Shelley, however, defies this subconscious belief within readers by characterizing the Creature as intelligent, innocent, and most of all humane. The Creature “admired virtue and good feelings and loved the gentle manners and amiable qualities of [his] cottagers,”. The Creature embodies the idea of being different in a world that finds comfort in similarity. People fear what they do not understand, and “Frankenstein” is completely outside most people’s scope of understanding. “Frankenstein” takes on the conflicting beliefs involving science and religion at the time. The novel explores human arrogance through Victor attempting to play God, toying with the boundary between life and death. Mary Shelley challenges the social norms of not accepting what is different and provokes the established system in her work.

During the Victorian era in England, the people were blind to the reality of class inequality. Through “Hard Times,” Charles Dickens helped change the culture through every aspect of the novel, whether it was the setting, the themes, or the depiction of each character. Dickens uses Coketown to ridicule the industrialization of England during that time period. Coketown exemplifies the division of the three social classes: the upper class, the middle class, and the lower class. The lower class, consisting of the ‘Hands,’ takes on the majority of Coketown. Coketown was dirty, dark, and “inhabited by people equally like one another, who all went in and out at the same hours, with the same sound upon the same pavements, to do the same work…”. By describing Coketown as uniform and unsanitary, Dickens enlightens his readers to the fictional embodiment of an industrial mill town, built with a sense of practicality rather than creativity. Dickens also develops themes of parenting and adolescence in his text. The parent-child relationships displayed through the Gradgrinds and the Jupes, as well as how ‘successful’ those relationships were, showcases Dickens’ belief that parents should not prohibit their children from love, freedom, expression, and exploration, as Mr. Gradgrind did with Tom and Louisa. Each character has an important role in this novel, and Dickens utilizes their position to embody qualities for his audience to interpret. Mrs. Sparsit embodies the superior, pretentious rich class who, despite her loss of status and power, treats or views everyone around her with disdain. Dickens partly uses the character, Rachel, to contradict this representation as Rachel is among the working class. Rachel embodies all that is good, specifically the quality of humbleness in the comparison between the two, and everything that Mrs. Sparsit is not. With the different characters and the setting, readers are given the opportunity to think critically about current societal issues and understand Dickens’ implications throughout the novel. This novel goes against the power dynamic set in place by the wealthy, allowing for readers to question the institutional order of the society they live in. Charles Dickens used his influential position to point out the flaws of the current status quo, thereby challenging the current state of affairs.

Franz Kafka’s writing style in “The Metamorphosis” is very subversive and discomforting to readers. The ubiquitous use of horror in this novel is anything but genteel. Kafka shows the struggle of human existence, living in modern society, through the main character, Gregor Samsa. The way Kafka characterizes Gregor’s family makes it clear that human nature has its limits, even when it comes to family. Gregor’s father takes the most apparent form of renunciation towards Gregor. His frustration is clear when he “clenched his fist, as if to drive Gregor back into his room…”. Gregor’s metamorphosis completely separates him from his family, both literally and emotionally, especially because they are unable to communicate with one another. He became wholly isolated from everyone around him. The theme of alienation is explored in depth with this novel. Although Gregor’s outer appearance transformed, his character did not, but his family changed their attitude towards him once he became a nuisance rather than a successful provider that they could take advantage of. Once Gregor became useless to them or something other than what the family needed him to be, they abandoned him. Kafka uses this idea to criticize society’s inability to wholly accept or embrace anyone who strays from their preconceived idea of normal, and instead, those people are treated as less than human. Kafka questions every presupposition of life through Gregor’s metamorphosis in terms of success and appearance. Gregor is stripped of every aspect of his life, leaving him only his existence, forcing every issue of identity to surface. Everyone develops a sense of propriety by learning from their surroundings, and Kafka allows his readers to challenge this sense and to think critically about their own identities. Through his subversive writing, Kafka enlightens his audience to the corrupt values due to conventional society’s ineptitude to look beyond the surface.

Subversive literature challenges the system and creates an upheaval against injustice. It rebels against societal norms and the status quo. Through this branch of literature, novelists create awareness against social injustice, obsolete beliefs, and controversial morals. Mary Shelley, Charles Dickens, and Franz Kafka all utilize this, urging readers to think for themselves and to question what they’ve been taught to believe. Through “Frankenstein,” Mary Shelley provoked the established power dynamic and defied several normative beliefs set in society about judging who or what is different. Through “Hard Times,” Charles Dickens brought awareness to his audience regarding the prevalence of class inequality. Through “The Metamorphosis,” Franz Kafka, much like Shelley, challenged the preconceived belief that what is unfamiliar is unacceptable. These novelists successfully created timeless pieces of literature that criticize dependence on authority and dare readers to think for themselves.

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