Themes in Literature

Literary Social Class

Social Class

Contemporary and historical studies of varied social structure systems suggest that stratification of wealth and status is inevitable. When people come together to form a community, one of the results is an intricate organization wherein we notice a continuum of wealth and status ranging from the most deprived street beggar to the most privileged administrator of that society. Currently there are many types of these stratified systems in existence, and a cursory understanding of a few of them will give a reader insight into his or her own society’s hierarchical structure. And with a closer look at many postindustrial societies’ class systems, we are better able to understand why and how writers find the inspection of this type of social hierarchy so valuable. Social stratification takes many forms, and the class system with which we are familiar in the United States is only one of many. While there are infinite other divisions that separate groups from one another, we might relate these divisions to three qualities that give a group more privilege than another: power, status, and wealth. A few categories of these stratifying structures are those of the caste, estate, and slavery systems (Schaefer 187–188). India, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan have a long history of the caste system, wherein people’s occupations, earning capabilities, and life opportunities are determined by ancestral background. Once born into a caste, a person will face many obstacles in attempting to maneuver beyond certain stigmas or narrowly defined possibilities dictated by caste membership. Alternatively, the estate system, or feudalism, is based on land ownership, as well as the power and wealth that come with such ownership. Under this system, a lowly serf might serve a life of physical labor with little hope of owning land, while a lordly landowner would pass down property through familial inheritance.

Thus, families maintain powerful status in the feudal system. The slavery system also encourages the power of families in maintaining ownership of land and slaves. Until the mid-19th century in the United States, the slavery system enabled families in the Confederate States to exercise much economic and political power. This power did not wholly dissipate after the abolition of the slavery system. The caste, estate, and slavery systems are all examples of “closed systems” of social ranking (Schaefer 536). Alternatively, an “open system” is one that offers individuals opportunity for greater mobility between levels in the hierarchical social structure. The class system falls under this “open system” category. Max Weber, an influential German sociologist of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, proposed three distinctions for the purpose of analyzing and categorizing people and groups within this system: class, status, and wealth (Schaefer 191). People in this system are stratified into social classes that we normally subdivide based on families’ and individuals’ monetary income. Along with greater monetary income comes the capability to access certain luxuries and amenities that a lesser income may not allow. Accordingly, the stratified levels of this system are labeled along a continuum of wealth, which, as we have seen, is concomitant in most cases with continuums of power and status. W. Lloyd Warner, in his book Social Class in America, recommends a six-level ranking system of social class divided into the (1) upper-upper, (2) lower-upper, (3) uppermiddle, (4) lower-middle, (5) upper-lower, and (6) lower-lower classes (14).

Along with these differing class levels and their respective access to wealth and earning power come capabilities and deprivations closely associated with such rankings. Literature that deals with social class often comments on these capabilities and deprivations. According to Warner, authors who focus on class characteristically give their attention to the phenomena of social inequality—the tragic or comic, but always strained, relations between the members of different social strata, and the rise and fall of individuals and families, particularly emphasizing the strivings of people to climb into the class above and the efforts of those above to keep them out. (231) In conjunction with this type of commentary, an author might focus on divisive group characteristics that are necessarily linked to social class. Gender, race, genealogy, and locality are among some of the characteristics that might affect, at least in part, one’s social class. In their study Women and Social Class, Pamela Abbot and Roger Sapsford ask a question, specifically with regard to women: Are open systems really open? According to these scholars, current theoretical analyses of social class do not thoroughly explain “the subordinate position of women” or “adequately reflect the full range of stratification, social mobility and class awareness” of those living within class systems (1). We can easily expand Abbot and Sapsford’s viewpoint to apply to other groups that are similarly limited in their abilities to move from lower social strata to higher class status. Various authors, poets, and playwrights establish similar perspectives. In William Faulkner’s Light in August, we see the struggles of a young man with a multiethnic background. The protagonist, Joe Christmas, lives in early 20th-century Mississippi and falls victim to a local community’s rumors, prejudice, and violence. He meets one frustrating situation after another in his effort to evade the history of exploitation and hatred directed at him and others of African-American ancestry.

Though coming, in part, from Anglo-European lineage, he cannot evade victimization and prejudice. As a result, he sees no prospects of rising out of the lower class, even though Joanna Burden, his clandestine lover and sympathizer, encourages him to pursue an education. Christmas internalizes the racial “glass ceiling” and sees it at each possible opportunity. Addressing issues of social class has been a pattern in literature for some time, yet facing the realities of the lower class’s plight has been a somewhat recent development in literature. Novels focusing on the lifestyles and scandals of those in the upper classes were common during the Victorian Age (1837–1901) in Europe and the United States. Members of the upper classes steeped in luxury appear in novels such as Henry James’s Daisy Miller and Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations. However, Dickens also focuses on the plight of the lower classes, a focus uncommon in the early 19th century. Dickens’s open-eyed awareness and experience of poverty motivated him to tell tales that depicted the struggles of the poor: a primary theme in many of his novels. The late 19th and early 20th century (sometimes known as the Gilded Age) saw an increase in literary attention on laborers and vagabonds of the lower class. Eric Shocket describes this focus as the “gaze over the divide at the Other” (2), suggesting that those who read these texts are more privileged than those under inspection. Stephen Crane, a popular and groundbreaking author of this period, created works that exposed the reading public to degraded images of the underprivileged. In his works, he paints grim pictures of those who endure many of the hardships associated with ghetto life. He and other writers of the naturalist movement likewise comment on the struggles of similarly deprived groups: those thought to be racially inferior and those from purportedly less-refined gene pools. During the Gilded Age, cultural views of gender, race, and ethnic equality were much less egalitarian than those of contemporary Europe and America, and these dated views are apparent in works of the period. Crane’s short novel Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893) shows the heart-wrenching trials of a poverty-stricken adolescent and the abuse she endures at the hands of her family, and eventually at the hands of seducers.

The lamentable qualities of the living conditions in the San Francisco slums compound our sorrow at her demise. Many works that deal with social class tend to take on a “rags to riches” theme by showing characters striving to move from a lower to higher social stratum. The American media is particularly strewn with this trope. “[M]ass magazines and newspapers print and reprint the legendary story of rags to riches and tell over and over again the Ellis-island-to-Park-Avenue saga in the actual lives of contemporary successful immigrant men and women” (Warner 4). Some might question the degree to which this ideal is attainable, though we may quote multiple well-known examples. By way of challenging this trope, authors such as Theodore Dreiser have shown the damaging effects of such an ideology. Drieser’s novel An American Tragedy shows a young, intelligent, and energetic member of the lower class striving to reach the upper class by becoming a successful businessperson.

Elitist ostracism, spite, and misfortune lead to Clyde Griffith’s eventual downfall after his attempt to climb the social class ladder. Inner turmoil, failed attempts at corporate climbing, and a confusing murder prosecution finally cause Griffith to regret his efforts. In depicting the protagonist’s ruin, Dreiser seems to suggest that one cannot easily abandon the learned tendencies of the lower class, nor climb easily upward in the social hierarchy. Today, fiction focusing on social climbing and plights of the lower and middle classes is very common. Much more than in literature of the 19th and early 20th centuries, we see novels combining issues of class with race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and locality. Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner (2003) is a prime example of a novel which confronts these issues in a tale of a family’s struggle to survive in cold war–era Afghanistan. A Sunni Muslim father and son, after enduring unabated turmoil in Afghanistan, immigrate to California, where they must make a new start, emotionally and financially. Louise Erdrich’s Tracks confronts the desperate situation of a group of Native Americans in northern Minnesota. Her characters must come to terms with a new, dominant culture’s policies of land ownership and commerce. Nanapush, Fleur Pillager, and their immediate relatives must confront troubling changes to their local community; they face difficulty adapting to foreign concepts of property rights and class division. In the novel, the Indians are relegated to a remote area on the banks of a lake, where they attempt to sustain themselves. However, the local authorities confiscate their land because, by an unfortunate mishap, they have neglected to pay property taxes. They resist the foreign concepts of a highly organized class system. The local community subjugates them and eventually pushes them off the land they once inhabited. In the end, we see their way of life vanishing as a newer system takes its place. Partly as a result of these expanded and multitudinous considerations of societal inequality, some theorists question the efficacy of assessing social class as the primary source of stratification.

The postmodernist movement encourages us to see aspects of culture as fragmented and uneasy to categorize or discern. Accordingly, some contemporary sociologists argue that social class is an “outmoded concept” and that we must consider the increasingly “fragmented” quality of social stratification (Devine 1). For these scholars, traditional class stratification concepts are changing and possibly no longer applicable to a postindustrialist society where the majority of people are preoccupied with lifestyle and amenity concerns. However, these theorists are currently on the margins of contemporary sociological study. They focus on a demographic that does not represent the myriad nations and communities characterized by highly varied stratification. Social class remains a prevalent reality for those living within its characteristic open system. Class greatly affects the way individuals, families, and communities prioritize particular ways of living. And where one falls within this stratified hierarchy is closely and irrevocably related to one’s intimate and outward identity.

See also Achebe, Chinua: Anthills of the Savannah; Amis, Kingsley: Lucky Jim; Austen, Jane: Emma; Bellow, Saul: Adventures of Augie March, The; Cao Xueqin: Dream of the Red Chamber; Cather, Willa: My Ántonia; Dickens, Charles: Great Expectations; Tale of Two Cities, A; Dreiser, Theodore: Sister Carrie; Fitzgerald, F. Scott: Great Gatsby, The; Hardy, Thomas: Tess of the d’Urbervill es; James, Henry: Daisy Miller; Lewis, Sinclair: Main Street; Naylor, Gloria: Women of Brewster Place, The; Proust, Marcel: Remembrance of Things Past; Shakespeare, William: Henry V; Merchant of Venice, The; Midsummer Night’s Dream, A; Shaw, George Bernard: Pygm alion; Smith, Betty: Tree Grows in Brooklyn, A; Swift, Jonathan: Modest proposal, A; Updike, John: Rabbit Run; Wharton, Edith: Age of Innocence, The; Woolf, Virginia: Mrs Dalloway.

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