Economic Status as Literary Theme Summary


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 582 words.)


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

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 audience. The novel form also allows the writer to provide lengthy descriptions of thoughts and reactions, something that is out of the range of many literary genres.

The novel became the dominant literary mode in the United States after the Civil War. Whereas English novels often celebrate the possession of wealth, good taste, and manners, many American realist writers were skeptical about the effects of riches in a blatantly commercial economy. Perhaps the best-known of these antimoney novels is Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). Huck Finn refuses to be bound down with social concerns such as money or to allow his character to be defined by wealth. The price of such a choice is his inability to be assimilated into the economy of manners, rules, and cash. Huck would rather be floating down the Mississippi on a raft with his companion, the escaped slave Jim. At the novel’s happy conclusion, Huck is planning to light out for the territories, away from civilization, one more time.

A subtle study of the effect of economic status on character is Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady (1881). At the beginning of the novel the heroine, Isabel Archer, lives a comfortable middle-class life in upstate New York. A wealthy uncle dies and leaves her an enormous fortune, and overnight Isabel changes from a girl to a highly eligible lady. She rejects two wealthy suitors and instead marries a poor but titled Italian,...

(The entire section is 757 words.)