Mary Shelley on the Courage to Speak Up Against Injustice and the Power of Words in Revising the World
“Words have more power than any one can guess; it is by words that the world’s great fight, now in these civilized times, is carried on.”
By Maria Popova
“To sin by silence, when we should protest, makes cowards out of men*,” the poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox wrote in her 1914 anthem against silence — a line Rachel Carson leaned on in summoning her epoch-making courage to speak inconvenient truth to power as she awakened the modern environmental conscience.
“In becoming forcibly and essentially aware of my mortality… what I most regretted were my silences… My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you,” Audre Lorde admonished a generation later in her blueprint to “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action” — her own courageous and catalytic manifesto for another vital awakening.
One hundred years before Lorde’s birth, Mary Shelley (August 30, 1797–February 1, 1851) — another woman of extraordinary vision, courage, and passion for justice — explored the actionable might of words in social change and the power of breaking silence in a tiny, potent fragment from her enormous penultimate novel, Lodore (public library | public domain).
In a sentiment spoken by a heroine modeled on her own young self — a young woman of radiant intellectual beauty, educated in the classics, a survivor of great personal losses and misfortunes, endowed with a “singular mixture of mildness and independence”; a woman whom one approaches “without fear of encountering any of the baser qualities of human beings, — their hypocrisy, or selfishness”; a woman whose father (like Shelley’s own famous father) had taught her “to penetrate, to anatomize, to purify [her] motives; but once assured of [her] own integrity, to be afraid of nothing” — she writes:
Words have more power than any one can guess; it is by words that the world’s great fight, now in these civilized times, is carried on; I never hesitated to use them, when I fought any battle for the miserable and oppressed. People are so afraid to speak, it would seem as if half our fellow-creatures were born with deficient organs; like parrots they can repeat a lesson, but their voice fails them, when that alone is wanting to make the tyrant quail.
Shelley herself built her remarkable life upon the foundational ethos that words are not only our best instrument of change, but our best conduit of the intimacy and understanding which bind us to one another and from which every actionable impulse toward sympathy and solidarity arises. Elsewhere in Lodore, she writes:
That existence is scarcely to be termed life, which does not bring us into intimate connexion with our fellow-creatures.
Complement with Rebecca Solnit on breaking silence as our mightiest weapon against oppression and some excellent advice to a young activist from Mary Shelley’s father, the great radical philosopher William Godwin, then revisit Shelley, writing in an earlier novel about a world ravaged by a deadly pandemic, on what makes life worth living.
Published July 3, 2020