Literature of Social Distancing

This project takes the constraints the Covid-19 virus has placed on our own sociality as a through line, collecting scenes of isolation in novels, essays, and short stories from the eighteenth century through the present day.

Our examples range from scenes of solitary confinement on deserted islands and spaceships, in nunneries and prison cells, to literary celebrations of private space. How does reading “A Room of One’s Own” alongside Robinson Crusoe inform our current experience? Where do we get by describing Snow White and the seven dwarfs as social distancing with roommates? Our project aims to identify a common language of isolation across literary genres and historical periods, while simultaneously drawing attention to a number of key differences across the corpus. For instance, are socially distanced women portrayed differently than their male counterparts? Are they more likely to be confined against their will? Does voluntary isolation look substantively different than involuntary? Does solitary confinement share a lexicon with the practice of social distancing as a family?

In particular, our project combines quantitative and qualitative methods to investigate social distancing and the novel of isolation. Does the way that we describe isolation in literary contexts change according to the gender of the characters, whether it is voluntary or not, or whether the distancing happens alone or in groups? How has it varied over the course of literary history, or across genres? By exploring the ways in which novels have confronted the experience of social distancing, we seek to gain a better understanding of our own moment.

Literature of Social Distancing is a project of the Literary Lab.

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