Public Opinion in Literature

Public Opinion in Literature is the title of the legendary series of Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann’ seminars at the Johannes Gutenberg-Universität in Mainz (Germany). I became attracted to this interesting approach visiting those seminars during my study time in Germany. Later on, while writing my dissertation under her mentorship, I had the opportunity to help Prof. Noelle-Neumann in the preparation and direction of this landmark at the German academia.

Literary fiction proves to be an excellent field to explore the nature and effects of public opinion on individual and society, to study its contents and dynamics. The writer, like any other artist, presents a hypertrophied personality, and is thus, much more sensitive to any form of social or institutional pressure that tries to set limits to his/her expressive necessities or to compel him/her to conformism. Public Opinion frequently appears as a further protagonist of literary fiction.

I have studied the role of public opinion in a broad variety of literary genres, authors and time periods. I have analyzed, for instance, the role of public opinion in Virgil’s Aeneid and the Homeric poems, in the Spanish picaresque novel, and on the honor dramas of the 16th and 17th century. American literature gives us excellent examples, perhaps for the unusual omnipresence of public opinion in all matters of life that Alexis de Tocqueville observed and described. As a form of social control, public opinion is present in American pioneer works, like Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter”, in classic authors like Sinclair Lewis, whose “Main Street” shall be regarded as a detailed description of the molding effect of public opinion, and also in contemporary writers like Philip Roth.