Microcosms, as the name infers, are smaller versions of something relatively large. This literary device can be used to represent the whole world and certain aspects of society, as seen in stories like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey and One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. Or, they can be used for something a bit smaller, like in George Orwell's Animal Farm, where the farm portrays the events in Russia during the Russian Revolution. Although that is still quite a large event to encapsulate in a small setting, these examples are just some of the most power uses of the literary device. But why use a microcosm?
As mentioned previously, this literary device is used to represent one quite large topic, setting or situation through something on a smaller scale. It could be an event, a country, a political movement, the world or society as a whole. Generally, the way microcosms have been used in literature is to focus on an aspect of humankind and represent it on a smaller scale to bring awareness to the reader. In my years of reading, I don't think I have seen anything largely positive represented in a microcosm although I'm sure they're out there (if you know of any, please let me know because I would love to read one!).
To use the device means you're likely looking to educate your readers about something you deem important. For example, you might deem the representation of females in the modern world as a topic that needs to be addressed. It is a large concept since females are represented very differently all over the world, so you might make it more specific. Now, you need to hone that into a much smaller setting... like maybe a high school. You then build your characters to portray these different representations, thoughts and opinions. Slowly you're microcosm of female representation in the modern world has been written for people to read, take notice and learn something. Your stance on the subject is now out there for people to take on board. It's quite an intriguing literary device, is it not?
Although the concept might seem quite simple, it certainly is not. I mean I could write the example above and carefully place my opinions and thoughts into that story. However, how do I know it will be translated to mean the same for you? Everyone has their own interpretations, so to create a story that people can identify and interpret to mean the same situation, issue or topic is a difficult goal to achieve. If I want to write a story that uses a microcosm of a historical event, I'm going to need to do a lot of research and ensure what I'm writing has clear connections to the said event.
Good examples of this are Animal Farm by George Orwell and One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. Orwell's classic takes the Russian Revolution and sets it on a small English farm. Completely different settings but the connections are clear. The quotations, actions and events all point to what was happening at that time. There really is no other interpretation... as one might say, it's written all over it (haha, I'm not funny). Márquez's text is similar in this way. However, the style and language can be a bit more challenging to read, so the meaning behind the story can be easily lost. Nonetheless, it tells of the many people who enter and leave the village, leaving their own mark in some way. The events that occur, the fighting and the repetitive names all point to not only the topic of revolution but portray a microcosm of colonialism in Colombia and the consequences it had.
Those seem pretty straight forward in their uses of microcosms once you start to notice the themes and historical connections. However, another example I mentioned above was Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Although published in the 1960s and set in the 1950s, the microcosm of the world and society is not based on historical events. The themes of women in power being dangerous or societies need to fix whatever is not deemed 'normal' does not point to a historical moment in history. Rather, this microcosm is created through crafted characters in a unique setting. To tackle the task to portray humankind and human nature through patients in a mental asylum is one I couldn't possibly fathom doing myself, but Kesey does it in such a way that a majority of the people who have read the text can interpret it as exactly that.
Like any literary device or technique, if it's not done right it can be a mess. However, if it's done well, the result can be very powerful.
So, this is why writer's use microcosms. To draw attention to a subject and educate the reader on it without explicitly retelling history or saying 'this isn't good for reasons A, B and C'. They use them to create beautiful but haunting settings, and if it's got you questioning society and the world... well it's definitely succeeded.
What are some stories you have read that have used microcosms of something? Do you know of any that focus on positive parts of history or humankind? Please let me know as I'd love to delve into more in the future!
Charlotte is a reading and writing lover who has completed a creative writing intensive course at the University of Oxford and is a current university student studying a double degree in journalism and creative writing. If you are curious to learn more, check out the 'About' page.