Themes in Literature

Literary Work


The concept of work is notoriously difficult to define. The payment of wages cannot be the sole criterion in determining whether an action counts as work, since men and women throughout history have often labored without compensation. The physical efforts expended by a slave in ancient Greece, for example, or by a homemaker today certainly qualify as work even though neither worker would be paid. Additionally, an individual can undertake many demanding tasks with little or no hope of payment: A would-be writer might spend weekends working diligently on his novel, while a hobbyist could spend evenings in her workshop making furniture that only her family will use. These examples might suggest that physical or mental exertion in pursuit of a goal, whether paid or not, is sufficient to qualify an activity as work. But not all purposeful action—exercise and recreational sports, for example—is considered work. While it is true that we call vigorous exercise a “workout,” a sense of fairness suggests that there is an essential difference between lifting weights in a gym and loading boxes onto the back of a truck. Many people detest work and avoid it whenever possible, but these subjective attitudes are useless in forming a definition (such as “work is activity we find unpleasant”) since just as many people find pleasure in their work; “workaholics,” in fact, find labor more attractive than leisure.

Keith Thomas, editor of The Oxford Book of Work, provides a definition that, while necessarily limited, covers many activities that we recognize as work: “Work has an end beyond itself, being designed to produce or achieve something; it involves a degree of obligation or necessity, being a task that others set us or that we set ourselves; and it is arduous, involving effort and persistence beyond the point at which the task ceases to be wholly pleasurable” (xiv). We might abbreviate this definition to say that work is productive, necessary, and difficult. Work, so broadly defined, has long been a theme in literature, but rarely is it the main theme of literature written before the 18th century. The work done by soldiers—who labor to achieve victory or exact revenge, engage their tasks under obligation, and persist under the most unpleasant conditions—is one of the subjects of both Homer’s The Iliad and Virgil’s The Aeneid. Mythical heroes frequently endure difficult tasks: Hercules accomplishes 12 labors to atone for killing his children and later joins Jason in his arduous search for the golden fleece.

These battles, punishments, and quests, however, differ from what we normally consider work, such as toiling in fields and households. Ancient writers, like their counterparts in philosophy, would have considered such manual laborers unworthy of serious attention. In fact, the negative attitude toward manual labor is echoed in Genesis 3:16–19, where hard work is depicted as punishment for humanity’s sinfulness in the Garden. Adam’s transgression earned men a lifetime of “painful toil,” while Eve’s earned women “pains in childbearing.” After the Fall, humanity would survive only through very hard labor. When laborers do show up in classical literature, they are often little more than stock characters, such as shepherds, used to idealize rural life, a literary custom continued in medieval literature, where workers serve primarily as allegorical symbols meant to encourage humility, patience and devotion to Christian principles. In The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer’s Plowman, “a true worker .╯.╯. living in peace and perfect charity,” exemplifies that tradition, but unlike his predecessors and many of his contemporaries, Chaucer describes his working characters in highly realistic terms. His company of pilgrims, all of them identified by their occupations (even the Wife is a professional of sorts), are drawn in exquisite and differentiating detail. With Chaucer, workers in literature have faces and personalities. Although the tales’ prologue includes a number of themes regarding work (our words should be matched by our actions; the most honorable labor is done in the service of humanity), the poem is not about work. Work as a central subject in literature was still very rare at this time, and while writers after Chaucer were more inclined to portray workers as individuals rather than as symbols, the portraits were often dismissive and unflattering. Writers, who tended to come from the educated and moneyed classes, seldom looked with much empathy on manual laborers. In the 18th and 19th centuries, writers in England and America begin to devote more attention to the lives and experience of workers (maids, shepherds, stable hands, miners, factory workers, and so on). One cause for the foregrounding of work is a change in attitude toward the nature and value of work, which came to be seen as both a blessing and a curse. For perhaps the most prominent philosopher on labor, Karl Marx, work could be a liberating activity.

Freely chosen productive labor would lead to self-realization and fulfillment for both the individual worker and the laboring community. A farmer’s well-tended fields reflected his discipline and knowledge, and in working those fields, the farmer might feel a sense of connectedness to the land and a sense of purpose in providing food for his family and neighbors. People who worked the land collectively would also see their social cooperation mirrored in the results of their work. This concept of self-realization was important for Marx primarily in how it is violated in work that is not freely chosen, especially in work done under capitalism, in which self-realization and fulfillment are replaced by what Marx termed alienation. Alienation is especially evident when human beings are forced to sell the only thing they own— their labor—in a system imposed upon them by those who own the means of production (land, factories, machinery, etc.). A migrant worker on a huge corporate farm hardly sees her best qualities reflected in the backbreaking, miserable, monotonous work she does; she may be scorched by the sun, exhausted by the pace and physical movement, unable to talk to her fellow workers during her shift, and paid so little that even the crop she picks would be a luxury. In Marx’s terms, she is alienated from nature, her community, the product of her labor, and especially from herself. Her work satisfies no intrinsic need or desire; she works only to satisfy other needs. In contemporary terms, she might say of her work, “This is not who I am.” It is easy to see how a production-line worker or anyone toiling for low wages in a dangerous, tedious job may be considered alienated from himself, but even an office worker suffering through a dehumanizing job that strips him of his identity and makes him feel out of sorts can be considered a member of Marx’s exploited, alienated class.

These two concepts—the blessings of work as a path toward self-realization and the curse of toiling in an exploitative system—provide the themes for many works of literature written in the mid-19th century and later. Whether a work of literature includes only passing mention of workers and the laboring life or takes work as its central topic and theme, it might examine any number of specific concepts: the struggles of immigrant, African-American, and female workers; the dangers of manual labor and the effects of work on the bodies and psyches of laborers; the way in which work infiltrates and affects domestic life and leisure; the ethical and moral issues associated with slavery and with other forced labor; the camaraderie and interdependence in the working community; the struggle to unionize and the battle between collective and individual values; the personal and psychological rewards of freely chosen labor; and the degree to which a worker is alienated from himself, his work, his community, and the natural world. And while some popular literature, treating useful toil as empowering, preaches a gospel of self-improvement and celebrates the work ethic of committed laborers, much serious literature centers on the exploited worker and the miserable conditions endured by individual workers and by the working class. The so-called industrial novel, a genre that includes works by Elizabeth Gaskell (North and South) and Charles Dickens, depicts the harsh conditions endured by factory workers in Victorian England. Thomas Hardy reveals in Jude the Obscure the many forces that appear to be allied against members of the working class. Poverty and exploitation among workers has drawn the attention of numerous American writers, including Herman Melville; Walt Whitman; Rebecca Harding Davis (Life in the Iron Mill s); and, perhaps most famously, Upton Sinclair, whose The Jungl e exposed the poverty, injustice, and unsanitary conditions of life in the slaughterhouses of Chicago.

The “proletarian novel” of the 1930s in America promoted Marx’s notion that only a socialist revolution could bring about a system conducive to selfactualizing labor, while John Dos Passos (U.S.A. trilogy) saw nothing to be gained under socialism, a system as destructive of individual identity as capitalism. In The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck strikes a few astounding notes of hopefulness that result from collective values and individual resilience. And without overlooking the profound damage done by Willy Loman’s personal lapses in judgment and morals, readers of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman cannot help recognizing that his status as a lowly worker in a coldhearted alienating business has contributed greatly to his downfall. Although few writers today take work as the main setting or plot of their stories, the theme has by no means disappeared from literature. In addition, scholars interested in cultural studies, labor studies, and feminist theory have in the past few decades unearthed the literary accomplishments of many laborers whose poems, songs, stories, and essays provide an insider’s look at the world of work. And the plight of the struggling employee continues to be told, often very comically, in film and television.

See also Amis, Kingsley: Lucky Jim; Chekhov, Anton: Seagull , The; Dickens, Charles: Oliver Twist; Emerson, Ralph Waldo: “Self- Reliance”; Frost, Robert: poems; Gaines, Ernest J.: Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, The; Haley, Alex, and Malcolm X: Autobiography of Malcolm X, The; Hawthorne, Nathaniel: “Birth-mark, The”; McCullers, Carson: Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, The; Melville, Herman: Bill y Budd, Sailor; Orwell, George: Animal Farm; Solzhenitsyn, Alexander: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich; Thoreau, Henry David: Walden; Washington, Booker T.: Up from Slavery; Whitman, Walt: Leaves of Grass.

2 thoughts on “Literary Work

  1. The Devil in Silver! Hello, my literary lovelies! I’m back — what have you all been reading these past few weeks?

  2. articles coming soon on the best literary pilgrimages, best booky locations in blackheath and why did the 50 shades phenomenon happen?

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