Novels About the Individual vs Society or Authority

These novels have characters who are being oppressed by authority or society, or are dealing with the pressures that society puts on them to conform.

See also Dystopias

See also Revolution

Theme: Individual & Society

The French Lieutenant’s Woman | John Fowles

A gentleman, Charles Smithson, is engaged to Ernestina Freeman, a pretty woman of suitable class. While walking along the harbour in their town of Lyme Regis, they see a woman, Sarah Woodruff, looking out to sea. She was seduced and then left by a French officer, so she is an outcast in the area. Charles finds himself drawn to her, which makes him reconsider his feelings for his fiancée.

I Am the Cheese | Robert Cormier

Adam is a teenage boy riding his bike from Massachusetts to Vermont to bring a gift to his father. Another narrative is a transcript of an interview of Adam, as well as his thoughts. The interviewer is trying to get Adam to remember his past. He remembers some unusual things about his family.

The Fountainhead | Ayn Rand

Howard Roark is a burgeoning architect who has just been expelled from his class. He doesn’t fight the expulsion; he moves to New York and works for Henry Cameron, a brilliant but commercially unsuccessful architect. Meanwhile, Peter Keating is the school’s valedictorian. He is a conformist, and is hired by a prestigious firm run by Guy Francon. Their lives become entwined with the life of Dominique Francon, a beautiful pessimist. The narrative follows the men’s careers, propelled by their differing philosophies for living.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest | Ken Kesey

Chief Bromben tells the story of a few weeks from his insane asylum. Randle McMurphy is admitted to the asylum, feigning insanity to avoid a work camp. Nurse Ratched runs the institution strictly, exerting control over all the residents. McMurphy proves to be a disruptive influence and challenges Nurse Ratched’s authority.

Read “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”

The Caine Mutiny | Herman Wouk

Willie Keith joins the U. S. Navy and is assigned to the Caine, a rusted out, dilapidated vessel with a reputation for being undisciplined. Captain Queeg takes over the vessel, but his men don’t respond well to his unusual behavior and obsessive discipline.

Atlas Shrugged | Ayn Rand

New York is in a state of decay and economic collapse. Dagny Taggart tries to keep Taggart Transcontinental, a railroad, running despite government rules that make it difficult for businesses. She has some capitalist allies fighting with her, but one by one, they have been disappearing. It seems to be related to a person named John Galt.

In the Time of the Butterflies | Julia Alvarez

The Mirabal sisters narrate their family’s story in the Dominican Republic from 1938 to 1994. Rafael Trujillo is the cruel dictator who exercises control over all his citizens. The sisters become involved in revolutionary activities against Trujillo.

All Quiet on the Western Front | Erich Maria Remarque

Paul joins the army (WW I) along with several of his classmates. He realizes that neither school nor basic training have prepared him for war. The diary-like entries intersperse episodes of mundane life, including his leave, with the horrors of war.

Read “All Quiet on the Western Front”

The God of Small Things | Arundhati Roy

The Kochammas are a wealthy Christian family in a small Indian village. Rahel returns to her childhood home to visit her twin brother Estha. The narrative gives us the events of their childhood’s that have affected the whole family.

The Tree of the Red Stars | Tessa Bridal

Magda returns to Uruguay after an exile. We’re taken back to her childhood; she grows up in a male-dominated society, and with building political unrest. The revolution gets closer to her when she finds out some neighbors are involved, and Che Guevara comes to speak at a local event.

Darkness at Noon | Arthur Koestler

Rubashov is in solitary confinement. He remembers some foreign missions he undertook in support of the USSR Communist Party. He is taken before Ivanov, the examining magistrate, and charged with planning an assassination attempt on No. 1’s life. Rubashov is urged to partially confess to ease his sentence, but he is scornful and resistant.

The Age of Innocence | Edith Wharton

Newland Archer is engaged to May Welland. Her cousin Ellen is in town, causing some scandal due to her leaving her husband in Europe. Newland finds her interesting, partly because she flouts society’s conventions.

Read “The Age of Innocence”

The Bride Price | Buchi Emecheta

Ezekiel Odia, the patriarch of the family, is dying. His daughter, Aku-nna, is thirteen and aware of her role: to marry and bring a good bride price and then have many sons. When Ezekiel dies, the mother brings her family back to Ibuza, their ancestral village. Aki-nna meets Chike and they develop a friendship. He is a descendant of slaves, so a relationship between the two is forbidden.

The Clan of the Cave Bear | Jean Auel

Ayla is a young orphan living in prehistoric times. She is eventually found by a woman named Iza, from the Clan. The group finds a large cave to make a new home after an earthquake destroyed their area. Ayla grows up with these new people, learning her role and how to contribute. She rebels against the traditional role for females and is punished for it.

On the Road | Jack Kerouac

Sal Paradise, a young man working on his first novel, and Dean Moriarty, a charismatic con man who lives in the moment, travel across America seeking pleasures and rebelling against society’s standards.

The Pearl | John Steinbeck

Kino and Juana are in a panic when their baby, Coyotito, is stung by a scorpion. They take him to the doctor, but are turned away. Kino is intent on securing more money, so he goes pearl diving; his wife prays for a big find. Kino uncovers the “Pearl of the World”, and Coyotito seems to be improving.

Read “The Pearl”

The Giver | Lois Lowry

Jonas lives in a futuristic society that is peaceful and regulated. He is nearing the Ceremony of Twelve, where a child is given their profession. He sees his friends receiving normal assignments, but his abilities cause his selection as the new Receiver of Memory. This will mean leaving his normal life and also undergoing severe pain.

Read “The Giver”

Seize the Day | Saul Bellow

Tommy Wilhelm is in his mid-forties. Years earlier he had tried to become a movie star, but now he is unemployed, poor, and separated from his wife. He argues with his father, who is ashamed of him. Tommy put his last bit of money into stocks, and he’s worried about losing it.

The Jungle | Upton Sinclair

Jurgis and Ona move to America, eager to make a good home for themselves. They buy a house, but the payments are higher than they expected. The whole family take hard, menial jobs connected to the meat industry. Their financial situation worsens, necessitating further indignities and inciting Jurgis to violence.

Read “The Jungle”

Anthem | Ayn Rand

Equality 7-2521 lives in a state-controlled, collectivist society where individual thoughts are forbidden. One day, he found a shaft leading to a remnant of the old times. He uses this secret space to conduct experiments and learn as much as he can. He notices a woman, the Golden One, and they fall in love, which also puts them at risk.

The Dew Breaker | Edwidge Danticat

The narrative consists of nine related stories about either Haitian-Americans in New York, or in Haiti under dictatorial rule. It begins with Ka, who is traveling to Florida with her father to sell a sculpture to a collector. Her father derails the plans and reveals a secret. Next, a man in New York is reunited with his wife after seven years apart.

Cold Sassy Tree | Olive Ann Burns

Rucker Blakeslee is dealing with the death of his wife, Mattie Lou. After she has been dead only three weeks, he makes an announcement that shocks his family – he is going to marry Miss Simpson, a northerner who is kind and free-spirited. There is disapproval from the family and the town. Will Tweedy, the narrator who was fourteen at the time, remembers his grandmother, particularly her final days and funeral. Will has always liked Miss Love; he asks her about the marriage.

Anna Karenina | Leo Tolstoy

Stiva’s household is in an uproar after his affair is revealed. His wife, Dolly, is devastated, while Stiva excuses his actions. His friend Levin loves Kitty, a beautiful woman who is also being courted by Vronsky. Stiva’s sister Anna visits to help reconcile his marital problems. She meets Vronsky, and they feel an immediate attraction.

Read “Anna Karenina”


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