Friday, July 8, 2016

The Social Compact

"Those who wish to live in a civilized society must have a social compact by which everyone abides for the good of the community." The Book of Rhino

If the concept of a civilized society is expanded to include any group of individuals who share the same values and pursue common goals, then every group has a social compact.  Even zombies have a social compact because they all value human brains and pursue a common goal of eating them.  A social compact is a set of principles that governs behavior.  I find social compacts interesting for two reasons: (1) virtually every novel has a social compact and (2) virtually all of the conflicts in novels involves the social compact. 

Consider the novels To Kill a Mockingbird, Heart of Darkness, or Pride and Prejudice.  Each one has a unique social compact that governs the behavior of the characters.  Social compacts can be explicitly defined or implicitly revealed.  The first time I read Sense and Sensibility, I could not understand why Mrs. Dashwood did not ask her daughter Marianne whether she was engaged to Willoughby.  (According to my mother, no question is considered off limits where her children are concerned.)  I finally concluded that it must have been the manners of the time period.  It was in the social compact.

The social compact of a story sets the stage for conflict.  It provides a context for the reader that makes the conflict and the actions of the characters meaningful and valid.  Imagine Romeo and Juliet without the social compact that the Capulets and the Montagues are enemies.  

Conflicts can also occur when two communities have two different social compacts.  A example of this is in Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey, who shows it in this exchange between Lassiter, gunslinger and Tull, a Mormon elder.

"Where I was raised a woman's word was law.  I ain't quite outgrowed that yet."
"Meddler, we have a law here something different from woman's whim–Mormon law!... Take care you don't transgress it."
"To hell with your Mormon law!"
Classic grounds for a conflict!

I find it intriguing to analyze the social compact in a novel, to tease out its parameters and implications, and to see they way in which it is the foundation of the conflict.  In the Bennett family, "it is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a large fortune must be in want of a wife."  With that brilliant opening sentence, Jane Austen invites the reader into a delicious social compact and the conflict it inspires.

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