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In this novel, class has more to do with breeding and background than it does with simple wealth. Class is a complex concept, and this has made it very difficult to negotiate shifts and changes in one's class status. The Great Gatsby illustrates that class is capable of producing deep-seated prejudices that cannot simply be altered by external factors like money.
Another very famous novel that affirms these class divisions and the barriers to class mobility is Jane Austen's Emma. The main character thinks of herself as a very good matchmaker, and one of the many conflicts in the novel involves Emma trying to match her friend Harriet up with Mr. Collins, and dissuading her from her romantic feelings for the farmer Mr. Martin. Emma foolishly believes, simply because she likes Harriet as a friend, that Harriet will be accepted into the upper reaches of the eighteenth century British class system despite her dubious birth. This is another instance of class being determined by birth and birth alone, and of class dictating romantic relationships. In many ways, Emma's attitude towards Harriet is somewhat ironic, as much of the novel deals with Emma's snobbish behavior and high level of judgment based on class. In a way though, it is this supreme deviation to the ideals of the class system that blinds her to the truth of Harriet's doubtful situation.
Emma's snobbishness conflicted with her desire to keep her newfound friend, Harriet, with the result that she decided Harriet was of the same class as she herself was, as she basically explains to Harriet: "Dear Harriet, I give myself joy of this. It would have grieved me to lose your acquaintance, which must have been the consequence of your marrying Mr. Martin...I could not have visited Mrs. Robert Martin, of Abbey-Mill Farm" (Austen, 48). She does not think of this as snobby, of course, but it reveals her attitude towards both class and Harriet quite clearly.
In this instance, class also dictates friendship. The stricter the hierarchies of class are, the more class begins to control interpersonal relationships and even personality, to a degree. Most of the characters in Emma are revealed to be kind and well-intentioned, despite some of Emma's initial suspicions, but at the same time they all perpetuate the highly prejudicial class system, revealing themselves to be products of that very system.
Class mobility in these literary works -- and often in life -- is rarely possible, and it is not always truly desirable, either. In John Steinbeck's the Pearl, the protagonist is a pearl diver who has found a large and perfect pearl that promises to save his family and change his life. Kino sees the pearl as a means for class change in the system that the foreign colonizers have forced on his people, which has also caused the poverty and many other problems that Kino and his family and people face. The pearl becomes incredibly important for its transformative powers; as Kino says, "This pearl has become my soul... If I give it up, I shall lose my soul'" (Steinbeck, 76).
Kino's identity -- indeed, his very soul -- became bound up in the opportunity provided to him by class; an opportunity that would not have existed and would not have mattered had the foreign class system not been imposed upon him and his ancestors to begin with. This is one of the great ironies of class; it often creates self-fulfilling -- or self-failing -- policies. The idea of class is to keep people separate, and attempts to change that separateness often result not only in failure and disappointment but in greater destruction as well. Class by definition is a separation of society, and for Kino this separation is completely insurmountable, as he eventually realizes.
Class is arguably the most important factor in shaping individual identity. This survey of class as it appears in literature shows that it influences almost every element of our daily lives and even our relationships. The degree and complexity with which class constrains an individual changes with time and place, but it is a universal phenomenon. Luckily, finding our place in the world today can be as easy as picking up a book.
Austen, Jane. Emma. New York: Bantam, 1984.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. Mew York: Scribner, 1995.
Shaw, George Bernard. Pygmalion. Mineola, NY: Dover, 1994.
Steinbeck, John. The Pearl. New York: Penguin, 1992.
Twain, Mark. The Prince and the Pauper. New York: F.F. Collier & Sons,…[continue]
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