Great books about honest people struggling against a corrupt society?
April 23, 2013 6:40 PM   Subscribe

I have in mind two (fiction) classics on the subject: An Enemy of the People (Ibsen) and The Winter of Our Discontent (Steinbeck). I would appreciate it if you could guide me to other valuable works on this issue.
posted by Basque13 to Writing & Language (27 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: It's not quite what you're looking for in that no one stays clean (and that's sort of the point) but Robert Penn Warren's All The King's Men is an excellent study of how corruption develops.
posted by ifjuly at 6:45 PM on April 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

And of course a go-to classic here is To Kill A Mockingbird.
posted by ifjuly at 6:45 PM on April 23, 2013 [3 favorites]

I, Claudius by Robert Graves.
posted by tomboko at 6:46 PM on April 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

The Jungle
posted by Fichereader at 6:51 PM on April 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

I kind of think Our Man in Havanna by Graham Greene fits the bill.
The Smiley series by John Le Carre would.
Oliver Twist and A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.
posted by brookeb at 7:01 PM on April 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I don't know what your political or religious beliefs are, but there are some people-- including me-- who would say that both the New Testament and the history of the American Revolution are tales of honest people struggling against a corrupt society.
posted by seasparrow at 7:07 PM on April 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If your definition of "classic" is malleable, this is what a lot of great noir/detective fiction is essentially about—a flawed, tired, but basically good and honest man refusing to give up on his moral code when the rest of the world is decaying into greed, materialism, and corruption around him. Raymond Chandler is who really comes to mind for this—Farewell, My Lovely and The Long Goodbye are both good.

If your definition of "classic" is even MORE malleable, there's also Batman.
posted by honey wheat at 7:08 PM on April 23, 2013 [3 favorites]

Hardboiled detective fiction has this. Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, for example. Raymond Chandler wrote about noble detectives: "down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid," as he put it. Everyone Philip Marlowe meets is venal or corrupt, but he stays honest no matter the cost. Try The Big Sleep. There's a long line of novelists descended from these two, writing about people trying to stay honest in a corrupt and criminal society. (In noir novels, on the other hand, everyone is corrupt.)
posted by wdenton at 7:09 PM on April 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

(In noir novels, on the other hand, everyone is corrupt.)

See: Hammett's own Red Harvest, which is awesome.

I don't guess, from your examples, that you're looking for fantasy, but The Trial and Invitation to a Beheading certainly pit honest men against bad worlds.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 7:34 PM on April 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

1984, by George Orwell
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 7:51 PM on April 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Mikhail Bulgakov's wonderful The Master and Margarita. And if you're willing to consider nonfiction, Solomon Volkov's St. Petersburg: A Cultural History — which I rec on here all the time — is an extraordinary story of the city's history through the eyes of its writers and painters and musicians. It's full of stories of brave artists struggling to record their world in secret, and it's tragic and touching and wonderful.

In 1948, when Shostakovich’s music was denounced and banned, Mravinsky put the disgraced composer’s Fifth Symphony on the program of the Leningrad Philharmonic. The performance was a great success; the curtain calls would not stop. In response to the applause, Mravinsky held the score high over his head. The audience stood, realizing that this was a challenge, a desperately brave act. Mravinsky was risking a lot, perhaps even his life. His defiant gesture became part of the history of Petersburg culture.

and on Anna Akhmatova:

The new mythos of the martyr city was being created, as befits a mythos, in deep secrecy, underground. At first only her closest friends knew about the existence of Akhmatova’s Requiem. For many years she did not commit it to paper but secreted it in the memories of several trusted friends. They were to be the bearers of that still hidden mythos until such time as the secret could be revealed. Lydia Chukovskaya, one of those living depositories, recalled meeting with Akhmatova in her bugged apartment: Suddenly, in the middle of a conversation, she would stop, and looking up at the ceiling and walls, she would pick up paper and pen; later she would say something quite social very loudly, “Would you like some tea?” or “You’ve gotten quite a tan,” and write on the scrap of paper in a quick hand and give it to me. I would read the verse, memorize it, and silently return it to her. “We’re having such an early fall this year,” Akhmatova would say loudly, strike a match, and burn the paper over the ashtray. It was a ritual: hands, match, ashtray—a beautiful and bitter ritual.”
posted by you're a kitty! at 8:06 PM on April 23, 2013 [3 favorites]

I suppose the difficult part is finding the honest man. The first thing that comes to mind is The Crito.

Also, seconding Red Harvest as very awesome.
posted by rakeswell at 8:35 PM on April 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

The book and the author are not for everybody, but Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead is a classic of this genre.
posted by willbaude at 8:57 PM on April 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Serpico by Peter Maas (non-fiction)
posted by Bokmakierie at 9:01 PM on April 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

On this front Howards End by E.M. Forster changed my life. But, BUT, if the models you are using here are Steinbeck and Ibsen you may be looking for stern and bleak where Forster is, well, not that. Read him anyway! Good luck!
posted by onlyconnect at 9:08 PM on April 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

Every Man Dies Alone, by Hans Fallada. A working class German couple, completely outside of and unaware of organized activism, slowly start performing their own acts of resistance against the Nazi state during World War II.
posted by TheLittlestRobot at 9:16 PM on April 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

A Man of the People by Chinua Achebe.
posted by jb at 9:56 PM on April 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


Maybe Yossarian isn't honest in the sense I'm getting from your use, but he's certainly struggling and the society he's trapped in is damn well corrupt. Anyway, it's funny. And sad.
posted by carsonb at 11:44 PM on April 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

Growth of the Soil by Knut Hamsun, which won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1920. It's hard to describe - it's not as black and white as some of the other examples mentioned here - but there's definitely a very honest man who is struggling with society and change. I think this analysis covers it pretty well, although does have some mild spoilers.
posted by Athanassiel at 12:31 AM on April 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


posted by philip-random at 12:43 AM on April 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

We, which in my opinion, far outshines 1984.
posted by General Malaise at 5:47 AM on April 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

You may have already read it, since you mention another Steinbeck book, but the Grapes of Wrath might apply.
posted by lettuce dance at 6:13 AM on April 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Les Misérables
posted by DanSachs at 7:12 AM on April 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

I haven't read it myself, but The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born by Ayi Kwei Armah sounds a lot like what you're looking for.
posted by Senza Volto at 9:00 AM on April 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Atlas Shrugged! A ha ha ha not really.

The Idiot by Dostoyevsky might be what you're looking for. The protagonist isn't 'struggling' against society per se, but he is so fundamentally ethical and good that his presence causes disruption among the venal and cynical.
posted by The Notorious SRD at 9:00 AM on April 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

Judge on Trial by Ivan Klima
posted by dstryrk at 1:39 PM on April 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Plenty of apparently excellent texts suggested here. I'll be checking them out. Thank you all for the guidance.
posted by Basque13 at 6:44 AM on April 27, 2013

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