Literary and Critical Theory Humanitarian Fiction
Rob Breton
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 November 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0068


The term “humanitarian fiction” means different things to different people and has had its meaning modified many times since it was first used by literary critics in the 1940s and 1950s. The term described compassionate, socially engaged literature and appeals to emotion in the industrial novel and the abolitionist fiction of the Victorian and pre-Victorian eras. Since the 1990s it is more commonly associated with postcolonial world literatures that critique what are largely interpreted to be colonial impulses or structures in humanitarian efforts to bring aid to developing countries. Here the study of postcolonial fiction interprets even well-intended international humanitarianism as a form of colonial privilege where altruistic desires to better the lives of less fortunate indigenous populations reinscribe or reinforce unequal power relations. Neocolonialism has emerged as a more specific term to describe the postcolonial continuation of colonial practices in a new, often humanitarian guise of developmental aid. Neocolonialism tends to see the deployment of humanitarian ethics as part of a system of imperialist privilege, identifying a tendency of making ideological and cultural differences an opportunity for appropriation at best. Globalization in this context often concerns itself in the way that the study of world literature, despite its humanitarian intentions, may still include a Western agenda. It should be understood that the criticism of humanitarianism in this context was mostly written prior to the swing toward populist, anti-refugee movements in the late 2010s. The scholarly use of the term “humanitarian fiction,” however, continues to connote a critical response to any expression of human sympathy and human rights in literature and the politics that surround them. As such, it can cover a wide variety of literatures from the abolitionist fiction of the 18th century to contemporary struggles to ensure that the humanities do not get removed from university curricula. For this reason, critics also speak of a humanitarian tradition in literature, to sentimentalism and affect, or to protest and social fiction, though each of these categories has their own special attributes. The critical approach to humanitarian fiction is not reducible to debates over liberalism, but it might be thought of as debating the value of ethical liberalism or liberal approaches to economic and social inequities both globally and/or locally.

General Overviews

Because the term “humanitarian fiction” does not have a single usage, there are relatively few “general overviews” of it, as distinct from the numerous overviews available on “postcolonial fiction” or “neocolonial fiction.” However, Nussbaum 1997, on ethics, emotions, and the value of a liberal education, is often seen as especially important in contextualizing the debate over humanitarian fiction. Slaughter 2007 more directly addresses the relationship between the study of literary genres and the languages of humanitarianism. Dawes 2007 is a similar kind of analysis written at approximately the same time as Slaughter. Sklar 2013 addresses the issues raised in Slaughter 2007 and Dawes 2007. Finally, Gregg and Seigworth 2010 provides a broader context for the issues raised in Slaughter 2007 and Dawes 2007.

  • Dawes, James. That the World May Know: Bearing Witness to Atrocity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007.

    DOI: 10.4159/9780674030275

    Looks at the complex motivations behind humanitarian aid but deals explicitly with the ethical implications of narrativizing atrocities and humanitarianism.

  • Gregg, Melissa, and Gregory J. Seigworth, eds. The Affect Theory Reader. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010.

    Often getting beyond affect theory, this is a useful collection of essays on the emotions that drive aesthetic and political projects and the way they can be socially or historically constructed.

  • Nussbaum, Martha C. Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.

    A significant defense of a liberal—humanist and humanitarian—university education, this book by a law and ethics professor outlines a need for the continued devotion to canonical literature because of the way it cultivates empathy.

  • Sklar, Howard. The Art of Sympathy in Fiction: Forms of Ethical and Emotional Persuasion. Amsterdam: John Benjamin, 2013.

    DOI: 10.1075/lal.15

    A theoretical examination of narratives that attempt to construct humanitarian or sympathetic responses in readers.

  • Slaughter, Joseph R. Human Rights, Inc. New York: Fordham University Press, 2007.

    DOI: 10.5422/fordham/9780823228171.001.0001

    Explores the way international legal conventions adopt and manifest in literary forms so that the norms of human rights are made more familiar and are more readily legitimized. It is also popular for the way it looks at connections between human rights and the Bildungsroman.

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