Class and Caste

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Class and Caste


In literature dealing with race and prejudice, class is often intertwined with race and ethnicity; those who are discriminated against due to race are more likely to be trapped in a lower level of society. Conversely, those who exist in the lower classes are more likely to be discriminated against by those in the upper classes. This creates a vicious undertow that can trap victims of racial or ethnic prejudice, making it extremely difficult for them to attain a higher social status. However, literature dealing with social class prejudice and conflict shows that such treatment frequently exists without regard for race or ethnicity.

Born Unlucky

One of the most observant chroniclers of Victorian England's class struggles is novelist Charles Dickens. In Oliver Twist (1838), one of the great author's most famous works, a young boy named Oliver is born into England's harsh workhouse system. Dickens spends much time satirizing the "benefits" of this system and its treatment of the poor; for example, he notes that lawmakers granted poor people substantial freedom, allowing them to choose between "being starved by a gradual process in the [work]house, or by a quick one out of it." He also illustrates how an essentially good person like Oliver can be tempted to perform criminal acts by those willing to take advantage of his desperation. Although Oliver ultimately receives a substantial inheritance and a life that will continue happily-ever-after, Dickens's searing portrait of working-class existence in nineteenth-century England is just as heartrending today as when it first made the Victorian public aware of the desolation in their midst.

Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina (1992), also portrays class issues not rooted in race or ethnicity. The story focuses on the relationship between Ruth Anne Boatwright, nicknamed "Bone," and her too-young mother Anney in 1950s South Carolina. The Boatwrights are a close-knit lower-class family known for fighting and drinking. Anney gives birth to Bone at only fifteen; the birth certificate is marked with undeniable evidence of her lower-class roots: the word "Illegitimate" stamped across it.

Anney eventually marries an abusive man Bone calls Daddy Glen, who is from a middle-class family. His father owns a dairy, one brother practices medicine, and the other practices law. Allison suggests that it is Glen's failure to meet his family's middle-class expectations that result in the rage and violence that he focuses on Bone throughout the novel. Ultimately, Anney chooses the cruel and abusive Glen over her own daughter. Before she leaves, however, she gives her daughter an opportunity to escape the social stigma she was born into by obtaining a new copy of Bone's birth certificate—one without the cruel "Illegitimate" stamp.

Haves and Have-nots

In Katherine Mansfield's short story "The Garden-Party" (1921), class distinctions are revealed in layers as the story progresses. At the start, the Sheridan family estate is described in an almost idyllic manner. The estate is being prepared for a lavish lawn party the Sheridans are hosting for all their wealthy acquaintances. It soon becomes clear, however, that the people doing all the actual work—and shouldering the blame for any missteps that occur—are the working-class servants and tradespeople who cater to the Sheridans' whims. The Sheridans themselves appear comfortable with this distinction, though one of the daughters, Laura, seems to have a dawning awareness of the differences between her family and the workers who serve them.

When she hears that a working-class neighbor has died, Laura wonders if the party should take place at all. Her family does not understand why she would even consider canceling it after all the trouble they have gone to; Laura relents, and the party goes on. Afterward, Laura's mother makes her take the leftover food from the party to the grieving family. Laura feels such a gesture is inappropriate, but does as her mother insists. Once there, she is so affected by the sight of the dead man and his family that she seems fundamentally changed. It is left to the reader to decide if Laura has truly overcome her family's condescending view of the lower classes.

The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck, (1939) tells the tale of the Joads, an Oklahoma farm family who lose their land during the Great Depression. Like countless other Midwestern families, the loss of their home is the loss of their livelihood. To the farmers, the villain is the upper-class banker, he who extends credit, then calls their debts and forecloses when they cannot pay. Steinbeck even describes the banks themselves as hungry beasts: "They breathe profits; they eat the interest on money. If they don't get it, they die the way you die without air, without side-meat."

When they hear of farming opportunities out west in California, the Joads sell their possessions and make the grueling journey across the parched, dusty landscape. When they arrive in California, they discover that the only opportunities available are for migrant laborers—a thankless, low-paying, and temporary occupation. Other Californians contemptuously call these displaced Midwesterners "Okies." Singled out as "others," they are treated as second-class citizens, and rarely find basic shelter or even enough food to survive. When some of the workers attempt to organize for a better wage, they are harassed and arrested. Steinbeck makes a clear distinction between the classes: the dispossessed Okies are the downtrodden lower-class heroes, while the bankers and landowners are upper-class villains intent on squeezing every last penny of profit from a desperate labor force. It is this dichotomy—between the haves and the have-nots—that fuels the narrative. As one character comments:

The whole United States ain't that big. It ain't that big. It ain't big enough. There ain't room enough for you an' me, for your kind an' my kind, for rich and poor together all in one country, for thieves and honest men. For hunger and fat.

Thankless Jobs

Upton Sinclair's The Jungle (1906) and Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed (2001) both offer accounts of the hazards and tribulations of lower-class occupations. In the novel The Jungle, the Rudkus family leaves Lithuania for the promise of prosperity in America. After arriving in Chicago, however, they realize that such hopes are false empty. They encounter greed and discrimination and are forced to take dangerous jobs that pay little. Young newlywed Jurgis finds work in a slaughterhouse, the filthy conditions of which—based on the author's real-life investigations—appalled readers upon its publication. Unfortunately, Sinclair's attempt to shed light on the class inequalities of capitalism instead focused world attention on the failures of the U.S. meatpacking industry. As Sinclair noted afterward, "I aimed for the public's heart but by accident I hit it in the stomach."

Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed is a nonfiction account of one woman's attempt to live off minimum-wage earnings at the turn of the twenty-first century. Though the author's methods are unscientific, and her perspective is as biased as Sinclair's, she nonetheless draws an alarming picture of the state of America's lowest-class citizens: the work they perform is back-breaking, the pay is low, and job security is nonexistent. As one of the author's coworkers says about corporations, "They don't cut you no slack. You give and you give, and they take." Like Sinclair, Ehrenreich hoped to call attention to class distinctions and inequities. Unfortunately, like Sinclair, her main message was nearly overshadowed by what many readers viewed as an expose of franchise housecleaning services.

Indian Caste

Of all modern world literature, the literature of India is especially focused on the theme of social class. Traditional Indian society is divided into rigid social classes known as castes; a person born into a certain caste is unlikely to ever become a member of a higher-level caste, which means that individuals retain the social status of their ancestors. As India has become a more modern and independent nation, these class issues have become a fertile subject for Indian literature.

"Untouchables" are a group so low that it is not even considered a caste. Members of this lowest class are tasked with jobs such as disposal of waste and the dead and are consequently considered impure or dirty by members of the higher castes. Mulk Raj Anand's Untouchable (1935) is the first novel to feature a member of India's lowest social class as a hero. Bakha, the main character, is an eighteen-year-old who spends his days cleaning latrines. Although Bakha evokes sympathy for the injustices he must endure, Anand does not offer any sort of ultimate vindication or resolution for his main character. His message, perhaps, is that as long as India retains its caste system, there will be no happy ending for the untouchables.

Although Salim, the hero of V. S. Naipul's A Bend in the River (1979), is far from an untouchable—he is Indian only in ancestry and runs a business in a troubled region of Africa—he also witnesses firsthand the devastation visited upon the lowest classes of society. As the region undergoes a revolution led by a violent anticolonialist dictator, many of the very people who work for the region's poor are murdered because they represent a colonial past. This chaos affects the lowest classes most directly, though by the end of the novel, Salim realizes that no one who stays in the region is safe.

Nectar in a Sieve (1950), by Kamala Markandaya, and The God of Small Things (1997), by Arundhati Roy, offer two more views of India's social structure, one from the perspective of a farmer's wife and another from the perspective of a wealthy family. Nectar in a Sieve tells the story of Rukmani, a woman whose husband in an arranged marriage, Nathan, is a tenant farmer in a rural village. The Hindu villagers in the tale are largely depicted as illiterate yet sympathetic, while the landowner is shown as wealthy and uncaring. Likewise, the Muslims who run the newly built tannery in the village consistently display their lack of respect for the lower-class farmers. Over several decades, Rukmani's family is torn apart as her children turn their backs on rural life and industry forces the aging couple off their farmland.

In The God of Small Things, the Kochamma family owns a successful pickle and preserves business. Although the family suffers its fair share of hardships, the primary class conflict occurs when young wife and mother Ammu Kochamma begins a love affair with Velutha, an untouchable who works in the family's factory. This scandalous act is at the core of the family's subsequent disintegration. The worst fate, however, is reserved for the untouchable who dares to behave as if he belongs to a higher class: he is arrested and beaten for a crime he did not commit, and dies in jail before the truth becomes known. His treatment by the police indicates their view of untouchables:

If they hurt Velutha more than they intended to, it was only because any kinship, any connection between themselves and him, any implication that if nothing else, at least biologically he was a fellow creature—had been severed long ago.

Knowledge is Power

In the modern world, people can rise to a higher class than the one they are born into, and education is one of the surest ways to achieve such a change. Those denied adequate education are the ones that suffer today. Martin Espada's poem "Public School 190, Brooklyn 1963" addresses the inferior opportunities for members of marginalized classes. Espada's poem takes place on the day John F. Kennedy is assassinated; he describes the abysmal conditions of a public school that serves working-class Brooklyn children. "The inkwells had no ink," he writes, noting the utter lack of necessities in the school. The descriptions make it clear that many of the students are members of minorities, and imply that such conditions would not be considered acceptable for wealthier, white children. The day's national tragedy is far removed from the reality of the students at Public School 190, who do not fully understand the event; these students, after all, live their own tragedy every day, regardless of Kennedy's death.

In contrast, E. R. Braithwaite's To Sir, With Love (1959) takes the reader's expectations about class and race and turns them upside down. In the novel, which is based on the author's own experiences, a black man from Guyana accepts a teaching position in London's impoverished East End. The white students are the troubled products of working-class families, and at first resist any effort to better themselves through education. By overcoming barriers of race and class, the students and teacher together learn important life lessons. This "racial reversal" of the classes illustrates that the struggles of the individual are often more universal than they might appear.


Literature dealing with social class issues is nearly always a reflection of the society in which its author lives. Themes of social class conflict usually result from the author's own experiences or observations and most often reflect the author's dissatisfaction with the way a certain class is treated. In that way, themes of class struggle parallel themes of race and prejudice in literature. While race and class do not always go hand-in-hand, mistreatment on the basis of either arises from fear, ignorance, and prejudice. Literature about both serves to assure the afraid, enlighten the ignorant, and inspire the victims as well as the victimizers to reject the prejudice that burdens them both.


Dickens, Charles, Oliver Twist, Signet Classics, 3d Reissue Edition, 1961, pp. 34-35, originally published in 1838.

Ehrenreich, Barbara, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, Metropolitan Books, 2001, p. 22.

Espada, Martin, "Public School 190, Brooklyn 1963," from Imagine the Angels of Bread, W. W. Norton, 1996, p. 25.

Roy, Arundhati, The God of Small Things, Random House, 1997, p. 293.

Sinclair, Upton, Introduction, The Brass Check: A Study of American Journalism, University of Illinois Press, 2003, p. x, quote originally published in Cosmopolitan, October 1906.

――――――, The Jungle: The Uncensored Original Edition, See Sharp Press, 2003, p. 97, originally published in 1906.

Steinbeck, John, The Grapes of Wrath, Penguin Books, 1997, pp. 35, 121, originally published in 1939.