Obligation Without Capability: The Consequences of Responsibility in Depression‐era Literature

Yifan Sun, Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering


The Great Depression was a time of financial ruin and societal suffering. Many wealthy and self-sustaining countries, governments and communities now found themselves inexperienced and unable to respond to cries of poverty, decadence, and starvation. Despite this, Depression-era literary works focus more on the value of individual responsibility, rather than the failures of the government body. When placed in difficult situations, characters rarely find comfort or sympathy, but are instructed to continue struggling, forced to survive without charity, regardless of how harmful it may be. More often than not, however, such advice provides more harm than help, and the intense focus on individual responsibility distracts them from recognizing the practical limitations of the situation itself. If these literary themes are to reflect the atmosphere of the time, they suggest that societal failure may be aggravated not only by bad governmental policy, but also by an innate human need to be personally responsible—regardless of capability.