Tag Archives: social class

The Issue of Civility and Social Class

Heart of Darkness (1899): The novel takes place in the context of the “civilized” English expanding their presence in “uncivilized” Africa.

Mrs. Dalloway (1925): The novel takes place in the core of civilized city life; London. Complications arise when characters have difficulty adjusting to civilized life (Septimus)

As I Lay Dying (1925): “Uncivilized” country folk make a journey into the “civilized” town.

Untouchable (1935): The caste system in India forces social statuses among citizens; separation of classes. Untouchables practically considered uncivilized.

These four novels all take place in drastically different places with characters confronting different social/economical standings; yet they all share the common issue of division of civility. Heart of Darkness in 1899 was written about a time when the English led an imperialist mission to Africa and considered the native Africans wild. 26 years later this issue is presented in a different setting; Mrs. Dalloway showed a thriving metropolis, yet within that civilized life existed people like Septimus, who had trouble adjusting to that kind of life. That same year came As I Lay Dying which showed an opposite world in the deep south of America. The Bundrens were “uncivilized country folk” attempting to enter a “civilized” world (the town) unlike their own. In Untouchable in 10 years later, the same issue arises across the world in India where the caste system forces civility and incivility among its people. The theme of social class crosses all cultural and temporal borders.

Class and Social Status

Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad (1899): Conrad’s novella focuses more on the separation between civilized and uncivilized, the matter of colonization looming in the background.

Whose Body?, Dorothy Sayers (1923): Sayers novel focuses on the upper class through its protagonist, Lord Peter Wimsey.

Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Wolf (1925): Similar to Sayers, Wolf’s novel focuses on the upper class as told from the point of view of Clarissa Dalloway. Clarissa realizes the importance and thus only wants to associate herself with people of the same class. For example when she expresses her dislike toward Mrs. Kilman and Ellie Henderson.

Untouchable, Mulk Raj Anand (1935): Anand steps away from English social stratus and introduces readers to the caste system of India. Unlike the English class system, where one can change class through education and work, the Indian caste system is much more rigid in the fact that one is predestined to a certain caste.

Literary-Historical Trajectory: For the most part, the literary-historical line for these 4 novels remains the same except for the novels at the beginning and towards the end. Conrad’s novella doesn’t really focus on social class but more of the question of what it means to be civilized. While Anand brings a new perspective to social class by breaking away from the English class system to demonstrate the caste system of India.

Social Class in Mrs. Dalloway, Untouchables, Their Eyes Were Watching God, As I Lay Dying

“Worshipping proportion, Sir William not only prospered himself but made England prosper, secluded her lunatics, forbade childbirth, penalized despair, made it impossible for the unfit to propagate their views until they, too, shared his sense of proportion–his, if they were men….” (Woolf 99)

Notes: separation of classes, order, upper class’ view on society

“‘Keep to the side of the road, you low-caste vermin!’ he suddenly heard someone shouting at him.  ‘Why don’t you call, you swine, and announce your approach!  Do you know you have touched me and defiled me, you cock-eyed son of a bow-legged scorpion!  Now I will have to go and bath to purify myself.  And it was a new dhoti and shirt I put on this morning!'” (Anand 46)

Notes: order, ostracized, lower class, dregs of society

“Joe Starks was the name, yeah Joe Starks from in and through Georgy.  Been working’ for white folks all his life.  Saved up some money–round three hundred dollars, yes indeed, right here in his pocket.  Kept hearin’ ’bout them building’ a new state down heah in Floridy and sort of wanted to come.  But he was makin’ money where he was.  But when he heard all about ’em makin’ a town all outa colored folks, he knower dat was de place he wanted to be.  He had always wanted to be a big voice, but de white folks had all de says where he come from and everywhere else, exceptin’ dis place dat colored folks was buildin’ theirselves.  Dat was right too.  De man dat built things ought boss it.  Let colored folks build things too if dry wants to crow over something’.  He was glad he had his money save up.  He meant to git deer whilst de town wuz yet a baby.  He meant to buy in big.  It had always been his wish and desire to be a big voice and he had to live nearly thirty years to find a chance.  Where was Janie’s papa and mama?” (Hurston 28)

Notes: segregation, blacks no power, not in control of their lives, poverty

“‘All right,’ he says, going away.  ‘She looks pretty good for a country girl,’ he says.”

“‘Wait,’ I says.  He waited and I went and peeped through the crack.  But I couldn’t tell nothing except she had a good leg against the light.  ‘Is she young, you say?’ I says.”

“‘She looks like a pretty hot mamma, for a country girl,’ he says” (Faulkner 242).

Notes: poverty, prejudice, class distinctions

Historical Line: Mrs Dalloway was published in 1925; As I Lay Dying in 1930; Untouchables in 1935; Their Eyes Were Watching God in 1937.

Comments:  For all these novels I see the stark contrast between the rich and the poor.  Not much has changed in the twelve year period between Woolfs novel and Hurston’s novel.  It suggests that there will always be huge gaps between poverty and wealth no matter the time period and the upper classes will always impose their power on the poor.