Elitism as Literary Theme Analysis

The Issue

The belief in the superiority of an elite (the word “elite” comes from a French word for “select” or “chosen” and is related to the English word “elect”) affects nearly every type of group identity. Sexism, racism, and ethnocentrism, for example, may be considered subcategories of elitism that are based on sex, race, or ethnicity. In its usual sense, however, elitism is a function of class identity. A sense of elitism usually occurs when an aristocratic or noble class regards itself as deserving special privileges or influence because of its exalted status. In North America, elites may also be defined in terms of wealth (the business elite), power (the political elite), or natural ability (the intellectual or cultural elite). Elitism in literature involves the portrayal of the merits or personality of a character as deriving primarily from that character’s membership in a privileged class.

Influence of Classical Ideas

As Greek and Roman values spread throughout Europe, the belief in the innate superiority of an elite became common. During the Middle Ages, kings and aristocrats constituted an elite believed to rule through divine right. Characters displaying heroic traits in medieval literature—including Beowulf, Charlemagne, Siegfried, Arthur, and Roland—were almost always members of the social elite. Even individuals who protected the disfranchised, such as Robin Hood, tended to be kings in disguise or from an aristocratic background. As late as the Renaissance, in Il libro del cortegiano (1528; The Book of the Courtier, 1561) by Baldassare Castiglione, an aristocratic elite is depicted as possessing talents and virtues not found in other social groups.

In England, where the tradition of a stratified society was very strong, literary identity is influenced by elitism in all periods. Several of the Barsetshire novels written by Anthony Trollope during the 1850’s and 1860’s concern the possibility of marriage between a person who is a member of the elite and a person who is not. Although Trollope’s novels usually have happy endings, class identity is established so firmly that the characters act as if even social interaction were impossible except between equals. An extreme example of this attitude appears in Tom Brown at Oxford (1861), the sequel to Thomas Hughes’s popular novel Tom Brown’s Schooldays: By an Old Boy...

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Elitism in North American Literature

In 1776, the Declaration of Independence affirmed that “all men are created equal.” The United States government, based on representative democracy, was constituted soon after. The goal of the founders of the United States was to minimize the influence of social, religious, and governmental elites. To some extent, these efforts were successful. Alexis de Tocqueville notes in De la démocratie en Amérique (1835, 1840; Democracy in America, 1835, 1840) that citizens of the United States rarely denigrated “peasants.” Americans, he notes, did not live in a society in which the coarse habits and simple graces of rural laborers were distinctly different from those of a literate urban class. Several decades later, Henry James affirms in Life of Hawthorne (1880) that Americans lacked such things as sovereigns, courts, aristocracies, country gentlemen, palaces, castles, manors, old country-houses, and the sporting class: all the physical manifestations of elitism in its European form.

Select groups are still seen in North American literature. As the political philosopher Herbert Marcuse indicates in One-Dimensional Man (1964), the rich and poor in America share many tastes and experiences. Marcuse does not mean, however, that elites had vanished from society, but that the values of the elite had come to dictate those of other social groups, as Marx also indicates. One reason that elitism remains a factor in the New World is that many North...

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Antielitism in Literature

As Twain’s and Hemingway’s writings indicate, there has been a strong tendency in North American literature to argue that the true elite is something other than the aristocracy. This point of view has a long heritage. Servant characters, such as the slaves Palaestrio and Pseudolus in the comedies of the Roman playwright Plautus, the factotum Figaro in Le Barbier de Séville: Ou, La Précaution inutile (1775; The Barber of Seville: Or, The Useless Precaution, 1776) by Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, the gentleman’s gentleman Jeeves in the novels of P. G. Wodehouse, and the title character of Sir James Barrie’s The Admirable Crichton (1902), all form a servant elite. These servants prove to be smarter and more capable than their aristocratic superiors. Likewise, the novels of John Steinbeck frequently suggest that the compassion and innate heroism of the marginal classes are superior to the shallow lives of the social elite.


Suggested Readings

Bachrach, Peter. The Theory of Democratic Elitism. Boston: Little, Brown, 1967. A social scientist analyzes the phenomenon of elitism in democratic societies.

Field, G. Lowell. Elitism. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980. The best general study of elitism as a social, artistic, and intellectual phenomenon. An excellent starting place in the study of elitism.

Fiske, John. Power Plays, Power Works. New York: Verso, 1993. Discusses the relationship between elitism and popular culture in twentieth century American society.

Henry, William A. In Defense of Elitism. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1994. Argues that elitism should not be defined as the possession of undeserved privileges and respect but as the appropriate reward received for hard work and intellectual superiority. Highly controversial but informative.

Kadushin, Charles. The American Intellectual Elite. Boston: Little, Brown, 1974. Argues that the intelligentsia in America fills the same role as the aristocracy in Europe when it establishes tastes and values for all social classes.

Lasch, Christopher. The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy. New York: Norton, 1995. The author examines the new social elites in American society and suggests that they are having a destructive effect upon a shared system of values.

Miles, Peter, and Malcolm Smith. Cinema, Literature and Society. New York: Croom Helm, 1987. Although focusing primarily on Britain in the period between World Wars I and II, this work provides a fascinating discussion of the relationship between high culture, as defined by the elite, and mass culture in literature and film.

Sontag, Susan. Under the Sign of Saturn. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1980. In such essays as “Fascinating Fascism,” Sontag suggests that the tastes and values acceptable in an elite would be destructive if accepted by the mass culture.

Sowell, Thomas. The Vision of the Anointed: Self-Congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy. New York: BasicBooks, 1995. A conservative analysis of the “new elites” (intellectuals, the media, politicians) and their influence in American society.

Taylor, Roger. Beyond Art: What Art Is and Might Become If Freed from Cultural Elitism. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1981. A philosophical study of the destructive impact of elitism upon the arts.