The Greek philosopher Aristotle made original and famous statements concerning the economics of identity in literature. In the Poetics (c. 334-323 b.c.e.) Aristotle describes a tragic figure for Greek drama. The tragic hero needs to be an upper-class male Greek citizen who sees himself as a leader. Notably, the tragic character cannot be a Greek female (forbidden from holding property), a member of the lower class, or a slave. Dramatists who did not adhere to Aristotle’s precepts, such as Euripides, were criticized for what Aristotle claimed to be a lack of dramatic skills. Aristotle’s insistence that the tragic figure could only be a male of high position has been taken as a description and as a prescription. Lower-class figures have more often than not been relegated to the status of comic figures since then.
Roman literature, based on a more fluid class system, presented, relatively, a more flexible approach to the question of economic identity. It was not unknown in Roman society for slaves to be granted their freedom, and for them subsequently to gain great wealth. Roman comedy, especially the works of Plautus, frequently features narratives concerning escaped and freed slaves and their rise in good fortune. Even in these works, however, the characters are little more than caricatures, stock figures whose primary role is the advancement of often outlandish and obscene plots.
The medieval period in Europe brought about a great change in the treatment and idea of self-image. Literature became much more a method of instruction, and character became a means to an end, a way of relating moral precepts and standardized theology. The popular medieval play Everyman (first extant version, 1508) shows the change in philosophy and presentation. The teachings of the Christian church hold that poverty is a virtue, and thus Aristotle’s classical precepts are turned around or ignored. The character of Everyman is a universal figure, and not intended to represent a particular class of people, such as the nobility. Furthermore, since Everyman is meant to be the average man, he has the characteristics of any man involved in redemption. As an allegorical figure, however, Everyman can hardly be said to represent an individual, changing character.
Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron (1349-1351) and Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (1387-1400) mark an advance in literary depictions of economics and identity. Each work involves a storytelling contest among a group of people. The Decameron features a group of wealthy young people from the Italian city of Florence who seek to escape the plague by fleeing to the country. The Canterbury Tales features a cross-section of English society.
The contribution of each of these two works has to do with the use of a new idea of character, one concerning the tension between belief in a universal ideal of behavior, such as that found in Everyman, and examination of the effects of economic status on a character’s self-image and behavior. The wealthy characters in The Decameron are castigated by Boccaccio in the introduction to the text for their selfish behavior. They abandon their city and surviving relatives in the midst of a deadly crisis. Their wealth allows them the freedom to detach themselves physically and emotionally from the suffering of their fellow citizens. The Canterbury Tales, on the other hand, presents characters from almost every English class, from bakers and millers to clerics, a knight, and Chaucer himself, who was a high-ranking commoner. Each character’s tale reflects upon economic status and aspiration.
The novel is arguably the genre that places the greatest emphasis on wealth and self-image. The discursive form of the novel allows ample room for the description of clothing, surroundings, and furnishings, all of which serve as signs of economic status. As a genre associated with the middle and upper-middle classes from its inception, the novel in many ways reflects the concerns of its...
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