One of the most interesting things a writer can look into is the evolution of the social contract. Put at its simplest (though it can be a very complex subject indeed) we agree to live, if not in harmony, at least without harming one another. I won’t throw my garbage into your space, and you won’t enter my house and help yourself to my things.
Then there is the matter of social control.
I’ve long felt that obligation, when defined as expectation of gratitude is one of the most pernicious weapons of social control. (The worst, I think, is the use of pain.) This is not the obligation you freely agree to as part of a contract.
With regard to family life as well as life among those one knows, for a very long time, women were denied power and had to use every weapon they had, and obligation/gratitude was one, by being teamed up with shame. “Look what I did for you! You owe me!”
This isn’t just historical. I knew someone who felt that friends should keep careful tabs on who owed what to whom.
The most extreme case I came across was a person who made a big thing about how she martyred herself in service to her friends, even though she didn’t particularly like them. Whether they wanted it or not, she was going to tell them what was wrong with their lives, and because (she felt) her motives were pure, and because (she felt) her insights were better than anyone else’s, her recipients were (she felt) obligated to listen.
When they inched away from this toxic form of emotional and social control, she criticized these decamping ex-friends as superficial, undiscerning, and selfish.
What a terrible thing when gratitude, which can be such a powerful, wonderful rush of emotion, becomes a weapon! But some social groups are tightly wired together by built-in reins of gratitude and obligation…and the emotional fallout of people straining against those reins can be sad, and terrifying when it builds decades of repressed anger.
In real life, I’ve seen the tension when people talk about how to deal with the overlapping of professional and friendship roles online. How to handle it when your family decides to helpfully mix it up with your professional colleagues, because though people can create filters, no one can control what gets linked or retweeted? Or you end up in a situation where your new boss is your ex, or your significant other ends up on the other side of the bargaining table?
The inner and outer details of guilt and gratitude can infuse novels with the horrible fascination of a trainwreck. We want to see transgressors get what they deserve, and while in real life, that so seldom happens, the desire for emotional or social justice can be the stronger. That is, if we understand the invisible rules.
In older books, the obligation, the guilt and gratitude, are so much a part of the social fabric that no one is aware of them—and modern audiences need a historical perspective in order to understand the dynamics.
Books that examine the to-us-moderns hidden layers of expectation, obligation, and gratitude can be fascinating. But they can also be opaque, or read entirely differently than the writer intended, out of ignorance of cultural mores of the time.
Readers of historical novels who know period history roll their eyes at the errors of usage that modern writers not as well versed in history are unaware of. These hidden layers can extend to any period of history, or layer of society or profession: the labyrinthine layers of legal custom between solicitors and barristers; the intricacies of Church of England politics in Anthony Trollope’s novels; the fascinating glimpses of vast change gotten from the Russian novelists before the Revolution and after, just to point out a few.
We think we understand layers of cultural obligation in history, at least in countries where our home language is spoken, but we can be vastly mistaken.