You Don’t Need Historical Fiction to Get a History Lesson in Fiction

Fiction offers readers many things: emotion, excitement, entertainment, etc. (The four “e’s”!) It also can offer readers a bit of a history lesson.

I’m not just talking about historical fiction (which I covered in this 2011 post) but the way many other novels can give us clues about the past in passing. The plot and characters are often in the forefront, but nuggets about the past (which might be the books’ present) are part of the background. Those nuggets can include references to inventions, social mores, and more.

An example would be some of the content in Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, a wrenching post-apocalyptic novel I read last week. Published in 1957, the excellent book reflects Cold War fears of nuclear disaster as it focuses on how its Australia-based characters psychologically deal with the knowledge that a bombing-caused wave of radiation from the north will soon kill them all. But we find here and there, amid the main story line, tidbits of 1950s behavior and “values”: casual sexism (one male character frequently calls a female character “honey”), gender constraints (a highly intelligent woman’s only work opportunity seems to be secretarial), constant social drinking, etc. Kind of the Mad Men mentality.

There’s also some authorial sexism, racism, anti-Semitism, and/or other “isms” in certain works by Charles Dickens, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, James Joyce, Jack London, Margaret Mitchell, and other writers of many years ago. (Sometimes casual background “isms,” sometimes not-so-casual background “isms” — even while the authors might be very enlightened in other ways, as Dickens was with his anger at poverty.)

Occasionally, novelists of bygone decades and centuries expressed clear opposition to those negative “isms” — as did George Eliot in Daniel Deronda, Kate Chopin in The Awakening, Harriet Beecher Stowe in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Alexandre Dumas in Georges, Richard Wright in Native Son, and Harper Lee in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Of course, there are still negative “isms” in today’s world, but authors tend to be more careful about not allowing the biases they might have to overtly appear in their writing. A case in point is Orson Scott Card, who has publicly been quite homophobic in his opposition to same-sex marriage but has not really shown that in his novels. And authors can obviously have their fictional characters be biased while they (the authors) are not biased themselves.

Then there’s interracial marriage being portrayed as not unusual in the background of relatively recent novels such as Octavia Butler’s Kindred and Zadie Smith’s On Beauty — showing that times are changing somewhat for the better in certain ways.

Also in the tapestry of many novels are references to inventions, the urbanization of society, and other signs of progress or alleged progress. For instance, the railroad age is the canvas on which Emile Zola’s The Beast in Man is painted, horse-and-buggies are being replaced by cars in Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons, and a long plane ride in aviation’s relative infancy is part of the mosaic in James Hilton’s Lost Horizon.

And novels from the 19th-century or earlier often show (as secondary elements) characters devoting whatever leisure time they have to reading, painting, playing a musical instrument, putting on shows, engaging in outdoor games, and/or doing other low-tech things when radio, TV, movies, and/or the Internet had yet to be invented. That can be seen in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, Leo Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata, Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, and countless other works.

Meanwhile, the use (and sometimes abuse) of computers and other digital tools is a prominent background presence in more-recent novels such as Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy.

A poignant background element in some of James Fenimore Cooper’s “Leatherstocking” novels (which include The Last of the Mohicans) is the encroaching of “civilization” on the verdant woods of 18th-century America. The way-back stirrings of feminism are felt in works such as Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. The U.S. as a nation of immigrants is a subtext in novels such as Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex. And America’s increasing Hispanic presence is felt in many novels — including some, such as John Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat, published many decades ago.

What are your favorite fictional works in which you learn a bit about long-ago social mores, inventions, and so on — even though the focus is on the plot and characters?

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I’m writing a literature-related book, but still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as Ann Landers and “Dear Abby,” and other notables such as Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.