The Pen Is Mightier Than The Sword: How Authors Change The World Around Them

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Throughout the years, many different changes have happened in modern society. Protests, wars, and injustices have all contributed to making the world what it is today, yet no other means of change have impacted as much as literature. Influenced by the powerful words, carefully chosen by authors to cater to certain ideologies and thoughts, communities and groups have risen to what they are today. Through simple books and poems, writers have used their imaginations to blow the wind into the sails of many different movements such as feminism, anti-racists, and much more. Authors such as Margaret Atwood, Langston Hughes, Wilfred Owen, and many more have all supported the different ideas that they resonated with, and with their words, have brought the masses as well.

War has always been a subject of debate, some believing in it’s necessity, and others claiming that it is an unnecessary practice. Some authors, such as Alfred, Lord Tennyson, praise the courage of soldiers who give their lives for their country, sacrificing everything in the name of war. A notable poem written by Tennyson, “ The Charge of the Light Brigade” describes the suicide charge a British light brigade, composed of 600 men, made against the Russian army during the battle of Balaclava in the Crimean war. He contrasts the fact that the light brigade is composed of simple soldiers armed with horses and sabers, to the defending army, sitting in wait on all sides of the 600, readying their cannons. This comparison is used in repetition, accompanied by allusions to valley of death, which can be linked to the Psalms 23 in the Bible. These clues cement the fact the Lord Tennyson supported the war, and praised the soldiers for their courage. He even uses the lines “Honour the charge they made! Honour the Light brigade, Noble six hundred!” clearly positioning him in the pro-war camp. This poem is also interesting in another way, because it links up to Florence Nightingale, a social reformer and nurse who also changed the with her writing. It has direct link since Florence Nightingale served as a nurse in 1854-56 during the Crimean War and her experiences there led to pioneering work in improving medical care in the army and the professional training of nurses. She even came aid of the Light Brigade Relief Fund, created for the survivors of the suicidal charge. Nightingale laid the foundation of professional nursing and even now, modern nurses must take the Nightingale pledge. Her social reforms included improving healthcare for all sections of British society, advocating better hunger relief in India, helping to abolish prostitution laws that were harsh for women, and expanding the acceptable forms of female participation in the workforce. Though she wrote more in medical works, her words still improved the lives of thousands, if not millions, and her impact on the world as an author is remarkable.

On the other hand, authors such as Randall Jarrell, Timothy Findley and Wilfred Owen directed their literature in a more anti-war stance, expressing their disapproval of the many acts of violence and horror done in the name of war, and the consequences they have on society. Jarrell wrote the poem “ The Death of the Turret Ball Gunner” a poem denouncing the youthfulness of soldiers and the empty promises told by the State, in hopes of acquiring more cannon fodder for their wars. This poem also reveals the lack of care displayed by the State when it comes to it’s soldiers, writing “When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose”, clearly showing how much the generals and higher ups think little of their troops. These horrible things are also denounced in “ Dulce et Decorum Est”, written by Wilfred Owen. Owen emphasizes on the physical decimation of the soldiers, comparing them to old beggars under sacks. He also describes an awful instance in which a squad is assaulted by a gas attack, vividly explaining the pure evil of such an act, and the mental and physical wounds that such an event could and does have on such young soldiers. It is clear the what Owen is saying through this disgusting description of the horrors of war is that war is completely wrong and that unlike his title, it is not sweet and becoming to die for one’s country. Another anti-war writer, Findley, wrote “Stones”, the story of an army deserter, who was once an incredibly proud family man, and upon his return from the war, became an aggressive mentally unstable shell. Findley wrote this story to denounce the physical and the much deeper mental scars that war causes. He tells that equating a good man to a good soldier is a ridiculous practice, and it does much more harm than good. Based on this poem alone, it is clear that although Findley doesn’t directly attack the practices of war, he is still very much an anti-war partisan, and like the others, believes that war should be no more. These three authors are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to people who believe that war is wrong, yet I’m sure their words have moved the anti-war movement in a more heard position.

The feminist movement is quite new in a historical perspective, having started in 1848, and reaching it’s second wave in the 1960s, but it has since exploded, demanding equal rights for women, and denouncing the patriarchal society that was prominent in those times. Even now, after all primary goals that the original feminist movement sought out in modern society, the feminism movement is still strong, trying to get these same equal rights in all the parts of the world. Feminist authors such as Margaret Atwood and Charlotte Perkins Stetson supported and allied themselves with this important movement, writing works of art demonstrating the inequalities between men and women and showing us the negative impact of the patriarchy. Stetson wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper”, a short story dedicated to demonstrating the unfair power men had over their wives, and the unjust arrangements made to keep women docile and under men. The story is of the descent into madness of a woman kept completely isolated and subjugated by her husband. This madness isn’t all that bad though, because the main character comprehends that she is this way because of the patriarchal society she lives in. As she claws at her wall and breaks the yellow wallpaper, she frees women, a visual image of the uprising of feminism in her life. It is sad though, because she is held in this situation because of a misdiagnosis of temporary nervous depression, because in reality, she has postpartum depression. In the end, the woman held in such a confined life “conquers” the patriarchy in her life, by making her husband faint.

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Although the woman loses her mind, there is a clear link between this short story and the feminist movement. Stetson wrote many works involving women, and “The Yellow Wallpaper” is but one of many works in support of this incredible movement. Margaret Atwood wrote many feminist pieces, but two notable ones are “ A Woman’s Issue” and “Helen of Troy does Counter Dancing”. The first one explains the many horrors women had to experience in history, as well as today. Historical elements such as chastity belts are brought up to remind the constant oppression of women throughout history, and more modern practices such as the Muslim Burqa, worn to prevent “temptation” in men, or anti-rape pegs worn by these same Muslim women, the utter disgraceful way that prostitutes are treated, and even drawing attention to the horrible practice that is female genital mutilation, which by the way, is still done today. She equates them all as being the fault of the patriarchy, and the insatiable lust of men. The second one, which is in my opinion one of Atwood’s more important ones, “Helen of Troy does Counter Dancing” demonstrates the cyclical nature of the objectification of women and the dangers of history repeating itself. The Helen in the poem is a direct link to Helen of Troy of Greek legend, who was the most beautiful woman in the world and the cause of the Trojan war. In the poem, the paradoxical nature of Helen is displayed, as she holds power over men, yet she is in a position of submission. In the poem, Helen escapes from the entrapping patriarchy through dancing. Atwood, like other female revisionist writers, use their works of art such as “Helen of Troy does Counter Dancing” to challenge phallocentric myths, and challenging submission in itself. In this powerful poem, Atwood affects the conscious and subconscious and she alters the readers cultural memory, creating a new myth from an old one. And so, Atwood’s works not only encourage and support the feminist movement, but make a real change in the view of the world when it comes to history itself.

Another prominent feminist writer, Marge Piercy, also wrote two notable poems, both denouncing the patriarchy and the injustices performed against women and young girls. “Barbie Doll” tells about the extreme oppression faced every day by young girls about their interests and looks. In the poem, the young girl is influenced to love stereotypical feminine activities, and shes is judged for her appearance and defects, even though she is in good shape and healthy. The girl is advised to compensate for her defects. Shes ends up understanding and believing the she is the opposite of the “perfect” woman, or a Barbie, and so she kills herself. In the end though, she gets what she wants, since she is pretty in death. Her defects are fixed is by the mortician, and she is finally beautiful and nonliving, like a Barbie doll. The lines “Doesn’t she look pretty? everyone said. Consummation at last. To every woman a happy ending.” perfectly represent the harsh world that young girls and women live in. This poem accurately depicts what the feminist movement is trying to fight, as well as the never-ending judgment of society. The other poem, “Work of Artifice”, equates a gardener tending to his bonsai, a small tree praised for it’s beauty, to a husband grooming his wife to his liking. Like a husband in a patriarchal society, the gardener is stunting the tree’s growth, just like a man keeps his wife in check, denying her personal growth. The parallel is perfect since just as a bonsai is being imposed an unnatural form to hinder and stop its incredible growth, a conditioned wife is completely moulded by her husband, stopping her from doing anything that isn’t what he wants. All these powerful poems written by equally incredible women have a major impact on the feminist movement and its importance all across the world. These female authors have brought as much change, if not more than other important feminists like Oprah Winfrey or Ruth Baber Ginsburg.

Racism is another issue tackled by many authors, to end it’s presence in modern society and to bring light to historical injustices. Just like feminism, racism is almost a never-ending battle, where segregation and division still occur today, in activities such as politics, where black voters are suppressed, police brutality towards black youth, or even the intercultural divion in Rwanda, between the Hutus and the Tutsis. Humans must learn to love one another, and authors like Dudley Randall, Kate Chopin, Langston Hughes and Martin Luther King have all fought the good fight to end segregation and to unit all humans in equality and peace. “ Desiree’s Baby” written by Chopin demonstrates the prejudice and segregation that blacks were submitted to in the South of the United States. Desiree is of unknown origin, with her skin being completely white. She marries a Slave owner who he himself is also white, but their child is half black. Immediately, the baby seems unwanted, and Desiree herself, even though the husband is the one with black origin, is thrown out the door by her husband. This story represents accurately the lack of respect and the unfortunate situations people of African American origin faced back then, and still today. These issues have improved over time, yet they never seem truly solved. Langston Hughes expressed this same idea in his short yet very powerful poem “Harlem”, which expresses the possible outcomes of the excruciating gradualism that is faced by black people, native americans, women, and other segregated groups. Hughes writes that the dream of equality might lose it’s life, or that it might become something unattractive or unwanted, or that the segregated might accept the small doses of what they were promised, but in the end, he states that when ignored to long, the dream explodes. This explosion is one of violence, explaining the many riots caused by for example by the deaths of Trayvon Martin or Jonathan Ferrell, victims of racial profiling. This example is quite recent, but all across modern history, segregated groups have exploded into violence if their reasonable demands are not yet in time. A concrete example of gradualism would be the fact in the United States, African Americans were promised equal rights almost 100 years ago, and it was only recently that on paper, they were absolutely equal to Caucasians. Even now, after all is set in stone, some racism is still very much observed in many parts of the United States. Another example of this poem that is even closer to home would be linked to the discrimination against the native Americans in Quebec, and their reaction, the Oka crisis. This standoff between the Quebec population and the native Americans resulted in military attention, illuminating how unjustly the natives of Canada were and are still treated. These explosions of violence, strengthened by the will to have equality also have direct consequences to the everyday life of the population. In the “Ballad of Birmingham”, written by Dudley Randall, a light is shined upon the effects these riots and acts have upon ordinary people.

This sympathetic, very simple, contemporary ballad shows the influence movements like anti-racism have on the youths and how much it is important to steer their conviction in the right direction. The young girl in the poem is eager to go march in protest for equal rights, but her mom tells her to go sing in the church choir instead. In the end, the protests are dangerous even if the girl isn’t there, since because of the violence, the church of mainly black attendance, a place of worship and safety, is bombed and destroyed. Maybe the most important piece of work that revolutionized racism in America, “I Have a Dream” written by Martin Luther King gives the whole story when it comes to ending racism and being done with gradualism. His repetitive and convincing speech hold biblical references supporting his message of equality telling the world his passion for anti-racism. His powerful speech demanding racial justice and an integrated society became a leading point for the black community and is as familiar to subsequent generations of Americans as the US Declaration of Independence. His words proved to be a useful tool for understanding the social and political upheaval of the time and gave the nation a vocabulary to express what was happening. The key message in the speech is that all people are created equal and, although not the case in America at the time, King felt it must be the case for the future. All in all, the works that have fuelled the fight against racism in literature are powerful, yet they are not nearly enough. In modern society, racism, albeit much better than before, still runs rampant in several parts of the world, and it is yours as much as it is mines duty to accept and treat every different human being with the same respect we treat our mom :). 

Some authors have influenced the world not by supporting certain ideologies, but by advancing modern literature and other fields of human comprehension. William Butler Yeats for example, who was the first Irishman to ever win the Nobel Prize for literature. William Yeats was a groundbreaking poet whose work ushered in that portion of the Celtic Revival, a movement that brought Irish writing to the world. His use of symbolism within traditional poetic style inspired generations of other writers. His poem” The Second Coming”contains many powerful and now-famous uses of Christian imagery in its social criticism. Yeats believed that history is comprised of interlocking gyres that swap every 2000 years. “The Second Coming” expressed the coming of a new gyre, marked by the birth of the anti-Christ, and to be an era of violence, evil and strife. The commencement of this new gyre would be heralded by events of violence, such as world war 1, the Irish war for Independence, and the many wars happening in Russia. Another important author would be Carl Jung, the founder of analytical psychology. His theories and studies gave rise to theories such as the one of different archetypes used to explain different behaviours in people, or the collective unconscious, even referred to in Yeats poem above, “The Second Coming”. A popular psychiatric assessment tool came from Jung’s theories, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Another important psychology writer would be Sigmund Freud. He founded the field of psychoanalysis and gained notoriety for his theories about how sexual desire was the main driver behind human action. He published a multitude of books and papers on psychiatry, including “The Interpretation of Dreams”and”Beyond the Pleasure Principle”. His theories revolutionized psychiatry and had a lasting impact on the field.

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