In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Human Rights and Literature

  • Introduction
  • Figurations of the Human
  • The Literature of Human Rights: Surveys
  • Dehumanization/Infrahumanization
  • Witnessing and Testimony
  • Affect, Empathy, Identification
  • Of Perpetrators

Literary and Critical Theory Human Rights and Literature
Pramod K. Nayar
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 April 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0096


The field of human rights (HR) and literature has expanded in the last two decades. Fiction, poetry, memoirs, and graphic novels with HR themes have been examined, and also cognate fields like popular culture and HR, humanitarianism, and the history of HR itself. The literary, with its emphasis on the human ‘subject,’ the formation of this subject, and the hurdles that confront its formation, is appropriate for the study of how humans are conceptualized as deserving (or not) of rights, and the conditions in which the human loses her humanness. Victims, perpetrators, and bystanders are characters in literary texts that critics study as models of subjectivity. The literary text asks us to imagine the nature of the human person, the universal state of human vulnerability, and the situations in which this vulnerability is prised open for exploitation. The entries here consist of those that engage directly with literary texts but also with frames, contested and debated, that define the human, and without which a rights regime cannot be put in place or modified. Forms and aesthetics that are central to the documentation, witnessing, and communicating the urgency of HR themes in various genres are also necessarily a part of this bibliography. Various forms and genres in literature—across ages, geocultural formations, and nations—have addressed the theme of HR, explicitly or implicitly. The war novel, for instance, is more concerned with mass HR violations such as genocide, rape, and continuing trauma. The child-abuse novel is focused on individual HR. Plays by authors like Ariel Dorfman, (e.g., his Resistance trilogy) use theatre to speak of unspeakable horrors like torture. In the late 20th century, especially in the wake of Art Spiegelman’s pioneering Maus, numerous graphic novels, comics, and pieces of comics journalism have sought to document atrocity and HR. Testimonial texts and fiction by victims have constituted a globally visible genre, again since the last half of the 20th century.

Human Rights: Contexts, Backgrounds, Frames

The campaign, discourse, and politics of HR can be explored in the literary field once we establish its ‘frames.’ The works in Historical Studies and Genealogies and Human Rights and the Contemporary address particular concerns in history that give rise to, or inform, discussions about the nature of the human (e.g., Barnett 2011) while others historicize present-day HR discourse within geopolitical developments such as globalization and cosmopolitanism.

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