7 literary human rights heroes to celebrate

Featuring central characters with a strong social conscience who stand up for a range of human rights issues, to protagonists who champion the importance of strength and courage in the face of adversity, it’s time to shake up your reading list with these inspiring novels.

The Color Purple by Alice Walker: Celie

Set against a background of extreme poverty in Georgia in the 1930’s, Celie’s story is one of inner strength and ultimately survival, despite years of mental, physical and sexual abuse. Her personal struggle is mirrored throughout by the novel’s unflinching look at the obstacles women face, both in America and Africa, in gaining recognition as individuals who are deserving of equal treatment.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak: Liesel

Raised by a foster family in 1930-40s Germany, avid reader Liesel is quick to recognise the potentially controlling and destructive power of language when Hitler’s propaganda machine swings into force. As the Nazi party tightens its stranglehold on the country, she channels her frustration and anger into a strong sense of justice. Liesel continually questions the status quo, creating a moral code to live by rather than blindly following what society dictates. As she matures, and starts to write her own books, she dedicates herself to giving a voice to the voiceless.

A page from The Book Thief, Markus Zusak
© Flickr/Kelly Garbato

Cider House Rules by John Irving: Dr. Wilbur Larch

Challenging anti-abortion legislation and championing women’s reproductive rights, Irving’s hero campaigns for social change throughout the first half of the 20th-century.

Dr Larch’s desire for “a better-informed world” leads him to write to Eleanor Roosevelt in a bid to raise government’s awareness of the dangers presented by illegal abortions, and continually he questions what a truly democratic society should really look like.

1984 by George Orwell: Winston Smith

Set in an authoritarian regime where government surveillance and media manipulation are commonplace, the unlikely hero of Orwell’s dystopian novel struggles against being brainwashed by the all-powerful Big Brother. The state’s totalitarian control ends up defeating Winston’s bid for independence, but the book’s message remains just as relevant today ­– urging us to stand up to any organisation that has a callous disregard for truth, freedom and individual rights.

To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee: Atticus Finch

Tolerance, integrity and respect. Atticus’s life lessons to his children have made him one of literature’s more inspirational characters. Never sugar-coating the truth, his insistence that we face injustice head on and strive to protect people in desperate situations has resonated with generations of readers. Fittingly, Scout remembers her father as a man “who hated guns and had never been to any wars, was the bravest man who ever lived”.

Actor Gregory Peck played attorney Atticus Finch in the film adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” © Flickr Galaxy fm

The Trial by Franz Kafka: Josef K

Inspired by the author’s interactions with law authorities, this haunting parable is a warning of what can happen under a corrupt judicial system whose self-servitude forfeits the rights of the very people it is supposed to protect. Repeatedly arrested and prosecuted by an unknown authority, neither Josef nor the reader learns what he is supposed to have done. Josef’s tragic fate serves as a cautionary tale, illustrating the restriction of freedoms that occur under an overbearing governmental system.

North And South by Elizabeth Gaskell: Margaret Hale

Adding a strong female voice to the call for economic reform in Victorian England, the value Margaret places on the rights of the individual leads her to reject a class structure that fails to protect those most vulnerable and become a staunch advocator of humane business practices and social equality.

By Helen Alexander

Amnesty International Australia is leading the way in protecting and defending human rights. Over the next five years, we’ll strive for systemic change on the human rights issues that are vital to our allies, partners, and the people of Australia. Our vision is to sustain the ground so many fought hard to and take purposeful action to further advance human rights. View our Australian campaigns.

Want to make headlines?

Support a Human Rights Act so all Australians are treated equally and justly