Working class representation in literature

When Mr Darcy falls in love with Lizzy Bennet, he tries to fight it, as she is of a lower class than he is, though she is still in the landed gentry. Austen depicts the domestic concerns of this social strata and ‘Pride and Prejudice’ is an exploration of class snobbery within the upper classes, but the majority of people are never depicted in her writing. She is not alone.

George Orwell claimed that ‘the ordinary town proletariat, the people who make the wheels go round, have always been ignored by novelists’. Lack of educational opportunity is a fundamental part of maintaining our class system, and as such it becomes a vicious cycle in our historical canon that there are few famous working class characters. Historically, the lower literacy levels of the working people made it impossible for their stories to be written from lived experience, which means that those few examples we do have are often bourgeois parodies or stereotypes.

So, where can the literary working class be found?

Well, there is something to be said for Dickens, whose family struggled with debt and faced pecuniary struggles for much of his youth. His characters are sentimentalised caricatures – this is true of all of them, and not exclusive to the working class. He, along with Elizabeth Gaskell, raised the bar in presenting socialist realist versions of class. Just before World War One, when socialism was beginning to gain ground in Britain, a painter pen-named Robert Tressell wrote ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’, a critique of capitalist society which follows an early 20th century workman trying to stave off the workhouse for him and his young family.

The term ‘Angry Young Men’, applied to John Osborne by a critic of his play ‘Look Back in Anger’, soon categorised a type of play characterised by frustrated male characters, on the boundary between the working and middle class, struggling to establish themselves. At the same time, playwright Shelagh Delaney wrote ‘A Taste of Honey’, saying “I had strong ideas about what I wanted to see in the theatre. We used to object to plays where the factory workers came cap in hand and called the boss “sir”.”

And has it improved since then? Working class characters rarely tip their hats and say “Sir” in contemporary literature, but there is still a certain elitism to the aesthetics that spring from many popular novels (see ‘The Secret History’ and Dark Academia). But the drive for intersectional representation of all kinds may have sparked a greater appreciation of working class experience, and, with Douglas Stuart’s ‘Shuggie Bain’ winning the 2020 Booker Prize, we see a definite positive trend towards working class stories being told.

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Molly Phillips

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July 2022
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