Social novel: what it is, origin, most important characteristics, representative works and authors


What is the social novel?

Often referred to as the Novel of the 1950s, the social novel arose within the framework of social realism, a trend and type of literature that emerged in the 1950s after a series of social and political changes that were taking place in Spain. Among the processes facing Spanish society were the economic recovery from the reopening of activities such as tourism, which also led to the creation of marginalized areas.

What is the social novel

In this sense, the social novel comprises a series of narrative texts that express a series of changes to what many texts called the post-war novel, which began with the publication of the work of Camilo José Cela, called La colmena (The Beehive), from which a significant production of works by other authors began.

Origin of the social novel

The most widely accepted data on the origin of the social novel takes place in Spain around the 1950s; however, there are those who say that its emergence dates back to the 19th century, close to literary naturalism or close to proletarian literature, of which very little research has been done.

However, what does take shape is its detachment from social realism, in which features also appear in other literary genres such as social drama and social poetry. In particular, the novel becomes the most reproduced format within social realism, precisely because it has elements that facilitate the transmission and expression of the authors of the time, especially linked to the descriptions for the construction of scenarios of which they wanted to give an account, as well as the use of characters, dialogue and the narrator’s gaze, aspects that will develop very well within the current.

Development of the social novel

It is important to recognize that under this text format, the authors sought, mainly, social denunciation, among other key objectives. In this sense, the focus shifts from the main character to society in a much broader sense. However, it is necessary to mention that these works are still marked by the Tremendism previously generated in relation to the central axis that on this occasion is presented as a kind of collective protagonist.

Among the aspects in which the authors of the social novel coincide is the feeling of solidarity that they experience and that is reflected in the development of their stories and characters, as well as a compassionate look in front of the marginalized beings within the social scale. To all this is added a critical view of the organization of society and a desire to bring about change.

On the other hand, it is necessary to emphasize that similar to social realism, the social novel stands out in objectivism to the extent that the writer is in charge of portraying reality without implying a direct judgment, but does so from a description through which the reader can “observe”. Its second modality includes social and critical realism, where the writer, in addition to portraying reality, also denounces and explains the injustices of the society in which different social groups of the lower echelons are marginalized.

Most important characteristics of the social novel

Among the main features of this type of text, we find the following traits that will allow us to have a much deeper look at how these creations were structured, as well as allow us to identify later books of this same style:

Recurring themes

We begin this enumeration of features with one of the most important axes of the social novel and it has to do with the themes it deals with. Often the authors explore precisely the areas of the human being and his development within social life, therefore it includes themes such as work, forms of government and the governed, marginalization, among others that will be built on a large scale as the condition of women in society, the difficulties of the proletariat, the clash between rural and urban life, racism, labor exploitation, strikes, injustice, political corruption, crime, among others.

A distanced view

A central aspect in the development of social novels has to do with the way in which the stories are told. In them, the authors apply a distanced gaze that allows to contemplate how the actions are executed, which allows to build a kind of cinematographic camera focus. This aspect makes sense insofar as the social novel and social realism were influenced by cinema.

Narrative time

Within the social novel, the events occur in a linear time, this is a structure that contributes to the simplicity of the text in which there is also a reduced number of descriptions. Thus, the use of this linear temporality in the work facilitates the understanding of the text introduced by a time and place that rarely change.

Collective protagonist

One aspect that stands out in the social novel is the construction of the protagonist of the stories. In this case, we no longer speak of a protagonist in his individual figure, but of a collective protagonist, in which, despite being a person, he is able to achieve the representation of a group of people. Thus, this protagonist is often presented as an allegorical character or as a representative of a people, a relevant figure within the communities, etc.

Generic addressee

Another key element following the idea of the protagonist and the collective representation, is the idea of a general addressee that the author seeks to reach in a clear and concise manner. Avoiding any difficulty in the narrative, the authors are formulated to reach any person, so that anyone can understand without problems the approaches that builds the social novel.

Social Criticism

During its beginnings, especially in its development in Spain, the social novel constituted a strong criticism of Spanish society at that time. Thus, it highlighted among its mentions the political immobilism and frequently expressed denunciations of the conditions of the proletariat, accusing, among other things, the immorality of the bourgeois class.

Importance of dialogue

Following social realism, the novel takes dialogue as one of the important elements in the development of the story. In this way, dialogue becomes an essential aspect that replaces the frequent voice of the narrator and makes it easier for the reader to understand the characters from their actions and oral expressions. It should also be mentioned that the construction of this dialogue is not excessive and there is no abundance of decorations; it is a colloquial dialogue with interventions that readers will be able to understand without complications.

Carefree and simple language

As we anticipated, the use of language and in particular the concern for aesthetics in it is really reduced. The authors seek the use of a simple language that is concrete with the ideas it expresses through dialogues and descriptions, especially. In this case, we are talking about novels in which the artists prioritize content over form, which is why the use of the collective character and what he represents is one of the most important axes.

Objective narrator

Another feature that we must consider in this type of works is that the authors, although they reduce the role of the narrator, when he appears he usually has an absolutely objective dye within the descriptions. However, this aspect in many cases is truncated by the author’s stamp as well as his intentions, which strengthens the social novel. It will be used for the minimal presentation of the characters as well as the setting.

authors of the social novel

Works and authors of the social novel

As for the most outstanding authors of this type of text we can find Juan Marsé, Luis Guytisolo, Camilo José Cela, José Suárez Carreño, Charles Dickerns, Gabriel García Márquez, Philip Roth, Robert Walser, Victor Hugo, Charles Bukowski, Anton Chpejov, Milan Kundera, Emile Zolá, Miguel Delibes, Rafael Sanchez Ferlosio, among other authors also belonging to posterity.

Among the main works of the social novel or Novela de los años cincuenta, we can highlight La Colmena, written by Camilo José Cela, El camino by Miguel Delibes, Las últimas horas by José Suárez Carreño, La noria by Luis Romero, El Jarama by Rafael Sánchez Ferlosio, El fulgor y la sangre by Ignacio Aldecoa, Los Bravos by Jesús Fernández Santos, Tiempo de silencio by Luis Martín-Santos, Juegos de Manos by Juan Goytisolo, Pequeño Teatro by Ana María Matute, La muerte del corazón by Elizabeth Bowen, Nana by Émile Zola, La perla by John Steinbeck, El coronel no tiene quien le escriba by Gabriel García Márquez, Tiempos difíciles by Charles Dickens, among others.

To learn more about other movements, currents, genres and aspects of the literary world, we invite you to review the Literature section that you will find in Types of Art. There you will be able to access a great amount of information about this artistic expression through which you can continue learning.