THE TENSIONS THAT result from the friction between socioeconomic disparities and status have derived not only in social conflicts, but have also built the narratives of some amazing works of literary fiction (and of other- partly fictitious but not as amazing- more complex narratives. We’re looking at you, Marx and Bakunin).
What follows is a list of literary works in which the narrative is fuelled by class warfare, and like many other lists on the Internet, it is whimsical, arbitrary, not based on empirics and potentially incomplete.
To some, the book by Kathryn Stockett wasn’t necessarily interesting until its star-studded adaptation hit the big screen, starring Emma Stone and Academy Award winner Octavia Spenser. The book dives, in ways that come across as somewhat comedic, into the racial conflict of the sixties between the southern upper classes and their African-American help. It is narrated in the first person using three different voices: that of Skeeter, the recent college graduate and aspiring writer; Aibileen, a housemaid and nanny; and Minny, Aibileen’s friend, who has no qualms in speaking her mind about her employers- which results in many job terminations.
Though it might be tempting to peg the conflicts in The Help as racial conflicts, they are, in reality, class conflicts: the relationship between the help and the helped are all but friendly, but through Skeeter’s eyes the audience is able to explore a paradigm shift among the young, that specially underlines the importance of allies in the fight for civil rights.
This classic by Victor Hugo comes across as an obvious choice for a list like this, since the narrative is pretty much fuelled by how class divisions condition choices for all of the main characters, having their destinies determined by the class they belonged to. Jean Val Jean becomes a bridge over the socioeconomic abyss, since when he’s finally able to get back on his feet, he uses his newfound wealth to help those who remain at the bottom. Using Val Jean’s conversion as an example, Victor Hugo sends an important message about the roles that individual choice and personal responsibility play in breaching gaps in inequality.
The story of the upper-class girl that loses everything upon her father’s death and is destined to a life of serfdom to pay off her family’s debt, describes in a tear-jerking manner the suffering of the poor and highlights how much belonging to one socioeconomic class or another is determined by chance and not choices. The author, Frances Hodgson Burnett, uses the protagonist to teach a lesson on character: taking the high road should not depend on the information that appears on someone’s bank statements: it is a choice. In the way the different characters move the narrative forward, such as the wealthy neighbour, the unpleasant boarding school headmistress, the fantastic Becky or the awful baker, Hodgson also shows that no class holds a monopoly over either generous or repulsive actions.
It is highly possible that the main reason this book made it into this list is how it is impossible to not be in awe at the fact that S.E. Hinton wrote it when she was barely 16 years old. Wrote from the point of view of the protagonist, Ponyboy, a lower-class orphan, this novel is the story of friendship marked by class conflict between lowly gang members (or greasers) and the upper-class jocks living on the other side of town. The best line in the novel Hinton borrows from the classic American poet Robert Frost, when Ponyboy reflects on how the best things in life are ephemeral: “nothing gold can stay”.
The everyday conflict between classes becomes dramatic when an innocent fight ends accidentally with a dead body: a gang member kills one of the rich kids, trying to defend himself. The final conflict makes Ponyboy reflect on deeper themes, such as suffering and death, which have no regard for social class. This realization leads to an unlikely friendship with Sherri Valance, an iconic upper-class beauty, and to realize that at the end of the day, their differences are far fewer than their similarities. To top off this masterpiece, the 1983 cinematic adaptation is chockfull of familiar faces, back when they weren’t as familiar or ubiquitous as they are today. How many can you recognize?
Written by Cristina Lopez G, a professional eye-roller disguised as a lawyer and policy-wonk who writes. She co-edits Wondrus, an Internet depository for cultural and scientific curiosities and fun facts for Spanish speakers. Article and picture credits taken and translated from Wondrus,
image credits: US embassy Canada, Rick Payette, mgstanton, junibears