Poverty Depicted in Literature Analysis

Poverty in African American Literature

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Many African American writers address the issue of poverty in their works, usually as a subtheme. In A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich (1973), Alice Childress uses her main character, Benjie Johnson, to show that a major cause of the behavior of delinquent young black men is the environment in which they live. Benjie is a thirteen-year-old heroin addict who lives in a drug-infested poor neighborhood in New York City. He is eventually given an opportunity to get treatment for his problem, but it is unclear whether he accepts the help.

The Bluest Eye (1970), by Toni Morrison, tells the story of Pecola Breedlove, an eleven-year-old African American girl who becomes pregnant when her father rapes her. The Breedloves are an impoverished family living in a converted store with beaverboard panels serving as interior walls. Both parents work hard, but they are still unable to sufficiently provide for their family. As a result of their frustration with the white world they live in, they are violent toward each other and toward their children.

Both of these novels identify the leading cause of their African American characters’ unfortunate situations to be the history of oppression and domination by the whites, coupled with a cycle of self-degradation and frustration on the part of the blacks, which is a direct result of the oppression and lack of opportunity. These two things lead to a tone of hopelessness and uncertainty as to whether the characters will be able to endure. In Childress’ works especially, the reader is left wondering if the African American characters will be able to break out of their poverty and yet retain their identity. The Bluest Eye also addresses a related tension, which is common in literature about poor African Americans, of a conflict between the African Americans’ desire to raise their standard of living and a revulsion felt for the values and beliefs of the white-dominated society that they seemingly must embrace in order to accomplish this goal.

Poverty in Native American Literature

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

As in African American literature, poverty is often a subtheme in Native American literature. Although the most common theme in literary works which have Native Americans as their main characters is a search for identity, many of these characters are destitute. Often, these characters are in conflict because they realize that if they fully embrace their traditional culture, they will not be able to survive economically—neither as individuals nor as a group. Some works resolve this problem by the characters’ recognizing and remembering their culture through the practice of rituals while at the same time learning about and accepting enough of the white world around them to preserve their economic stability.

Ceremony (1977), by Leslie Marmon Silko, shows this resolution through the mixed-breed cattle that the protagonist, Tayo, a mixed-blood Laguna Pueblo, is able to retrieve from the white rancher who stole them. Tayo’s family is suffering from the effects of a drought that plagues their land. They lost their cattle while Tayo was away fighting in World War II. The drought and the lost cattle cause the family to be in a precarious economic state, which is worsened by Tayo’s battle fatigue and his initial inability to work on the ranch.

The novel ends on a hopeful note, however, as Tayo brings the cattle home and is thus accepted by his family and tribe. The cattle are a mix between the marketable European Holstein and a Mexican...

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Poverty in the Literature of Whites

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Perhaps the most noticeable feature of poor whites who are main characters in North American literature is that they are found less frequently than any other type of poor character. Whites face many problems in literature—from identity crises to dissatisfaction with success— but rarely do they face poverty. When white characters are poor, they are often portrayed as either able to live a happy life in spite of their circumstances, or as only temporarily poor, and on their way to a better life. If neither of these two resolutions is present, then the character may be either mentally ill or simply unintelligent, and thus lacking the necessary resources to rise above adversity.

John Steinbeck is quite possibly the most recognized writer of stories about poor whites. His white characters are generally poor as a result of the Depression. The Grapes of Wrath (1939), for instance, relates the story of a family forced to move from their farm and migrate westward during a drought in the Midwest.

Cannery Row (1945), also by Steinbeck, is set after the Depression, and it describes a small fishing community in California. The people in this novel are poor, but they are also happy, for the most part. The men who live in the Palace Flophouse are lazy and satisfied with their lives of inactivity, and Doc, a marine biologist, seemingly enjoys the freedom his profession affords him, even if he could not be considered wealthy. Even the...

(The entire section is 433 words.)


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Cook, Sylvia Jenkins. Erskine Caldwell and the Fiction of Poverty: The Flesh of the Spirit. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1991. Examines the literary career of the Southern writer. Erskine Caldwell and his works about the poor.

Dee, Ruby. “Black Family Search for Identity.” In Critical Essays on Toni Morrison, edited by Nellie Y. McKay. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1988. Speaks of Morrison’s insistence on showing how her characters came to the situations they are in.

Ford, Thomas W. “The Novels: The Way West and These One Thousand Hills.” In A. B. Guthrie, Jr. Boston: Twayne, 1981. Thorough discussion of both novels, including attention to Guthrie’s focus on the living conditions and progress toward success of his characters.

Jennings, LaVinia Delois. “Blacks in the Abstract Versus ‘Flesh and Blood Niggers’: The Black Bourgeoisie, the Matriarchy, and Interracial Conflict.” In Alice Childress. New York: Twayne, 1955. Discusses the attention Childress devotes to the class system within black society and her frustration with the black bourgeoisie.

Johnson, Charles S. Backgrounds to Patterns of Negro Segregation. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1943. Covers the history of racial segregation in the United States. Helpful in understanding attitudes expressed by African American literary characters and authors.

Timmerman, John H. “The Wine of God’s Wrath.” In John Steinbeck’s Fiction: The Aesthetics of the Road Taken. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1986. Section 2 focuses primarily on the background conflict of rich versus poor.