Class and Characterization within Early Novels
Since feudal times, class has played a distinctly formative role within social structure in England. Whether a person resided within the upper class, middle class, or lower class could determine political influence, economic success, and social freedoms alike. In early novels, characters were expected to follow these cleanly cut societal rules in a way that mimicked a perfect class ruled pseudo-reality. This meant carefully adhering to the expectations of the class and acting in a way that did not overstep the boundaries set in place. In some ways, this adherence to societal norms created specific archetypes which minimized realism, as 1700’s European society contained many individuals leading vastly contradictory double lives. If unacknowledged, this could cause a failure on the author’s part to produce novelistic characters who feel true to life in a modern sense. Truly realistic characters are produced from a balance of rejection and submission to the expectations of class, and attention to how these rejections and submissions affect the character’s perception of the world he or she exists in. Critically considering how this balance affects the character’s actions and interactions can uncover a complexity not clearly seen upon first glance.
The novel Fantomina by Eliza Haywood begins to discuss this dynamic of social status rejection playing a role in characterization. Presented as a lady, Fantomina begins the novel dressing herself as a prostitute and venturing to a show unaccompanied to garner the attention of a man she had seen about. The readers are unsure what motivates her to do this, but can infer that oftentimes humans want what they cannot obtain—other walks of life seem quite appealing from the other side. Fantomina is young, curious about how the other half lives, and naturally fascinated by the male gaze and attention a prostitute receives for her favors. With this in mind, Fantomina does not fully understand the expectations of a prostitute and the freedoms she relinquishes in order to receive this type of attention. At one point, Haywood states that Fantomina “rejoic’d to think she had taken that Precaution of providing herself with a Lodging, to which she thought she might invite him, without running any Risque, either of her Virtue or Reputation” (Haywood 45). Here, Fantomina still believes she can save her honor, or her virginity as women of a higher class understand honor as, from a man who believes it is her profession to offer him pleasure for a price.
Her adherence to the role of a lady, even when dressed as a prostitute, shows realism and develops a character paradox, which in turn creates an underlying complexity. Her true character, whether motivated by social standing or an intrinsic moral system is deeply torn between want for affection, courtship, and love but not wanting to lose her honor and regress to the treatment of a common prostitute. Beauplaisir “believ’d her a Mistress” and based his interactions and expectation of her off of that fact, only concerning himself with the thought that she “would be much more Expensive than at first he had expected” due to her wit and seemingly intelligent demeanor (Haywood 45). Overall, by playing prostitute, Fantomina loses some of what societally makes her a lady, creating another layer to her fascinating persona. She is both a fallen women and a perfectly preserved lady because the persona of Fantomina offers her a concealed identity which in turn awards her freedom from responsibility for her sexual promiscuities.
While Fantomina’s social fluidity aids in creating an interesting internal conflict, Gulliver’s distance from social structure due to his travels within Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift enables him to see the barbaric and sordid nature of humans, thus adding complexity and interiority to his character. The satirical elements implemented within Gulliver’s Travels establishes the greatest difference between the two works, so the realism of the characters is not really comparable in a traditional sense. However, both of these characters gain character intricacy due to their rejections of social constraints. Analyzing Gulliver at the beginning of the work, he represents middle class consumerism and social privilege. Swift establishes Gulliver in the very beginning as a well educated middle class man from good family lineage. Despite this information’s relative randomness, it establishes a clear voice and creates a kind of false credibility due to his higher social ranking.
Like Fantomina to a certain extent, and most certainly Moll Flanders within Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe, Gulliver concerns himself a great deal with material possessions. Oftentimes he attempts to trade money for things such as protection (like when in Brobdignag) and grows thoroughly confused when the giant holds it to no special value. Gulliver “took a Purse of Gold” from his pocket and “humbly presented it to him” then continued to do this even after the Brobdignagian seemed to have no understanding of the items Gulliver presented (Swift 74). This shows Gulliver believes that money holds some type of intrinsic value beyond purchase of material goods and services, as if money could bring peace or happiness, a distinctly consumerist idea. Even in Lilliput, Gulliver perfectly logs each possession the Lilliputians take from him upon his landing on the island, and brags about his ability to keep some of the items by asserting he had “one private Pocket which escaped their search” (Swift 31). This consumerist nature is displayed again when Gulliver is offered an official title within Lilliput, increasing his ranking and social standing.
During Gulliver’s time in Lilliput, he grows very little as a character. He stays within the mold of a bumbling middleclass man gaining the prestige he thought he earned by birth, questioning very little, and adhering stringently to code. It is not until the very end of his time with the Brobdignagians and his time with the Houyhnhhnm people that he begins to gain insight into human nature’s pettiness, thus gaining awareness pertaining to himself and gaining complexity and interiority. It is in Houyhnhnm that he realizes the incompetency of human nature. Gulliver states that he “had neither the Strength or Agility of a common Yahoo” and “could neither run with Speed, no climb Trees” and that “Yahoos were known to hate one another more than they did any different Species of Animals” (Swift 219). This recollection knocks Gulliver from the high pedestal he sits upon in Lilliput down to the lowest scum of the Earth. He does not even have the practical characteristics of a Yahoo that provide means of protection and functionality. Instead, he realizes humanity’s capability for destruction, ascribing mankind with the capability to cause Civil War. Gulliver’s master also states that “There was nothing that rendered the Yahoos more odious, than their undistinguishing Appetite to devour every Thing that came in their way” which displays the massive need for humans to consume goods just for the sake of consumption (Swift 220). Here, Gulliver realizes his mediocrity and ignorance and materialism. Here, he gains insight and can no longer adhere to the societal norms set in place to constrict him. Gulliver has the capacity to change: to grow aware and have a very physical reaction due to that awareness. This consciousness places him on a higher level of believability as a character and forces him to break from the archetypal bumbling middle class man stumbling through adventures blindly.
Though Fantomina and Gulliver’s Travels explore the concept of class relating to interiority in different ways, they both explore it in a way that makes them more complex, novelistic characters. Fantomina simultaneously wears the hat of a lady and a prostitute, but is held to the societal norms present within a prostitute/gentleman interaction. This interaction and many others existing within the novel cultivate internal conflict between the morals taught to her as a young lady and her want for the attention and affection of Beauplaisir. Whether this want stems from his ability to afford her stability or because he took what she deems valuable (her virginity), it causes her to question herself and scheme accordingly. This leaves readers questioning what characteristics the real Fantomina possesses, and if she is truly clever enough to outwit and trap Beauplaisir within her feminine clutches. We only see faint glimpses of her true identity later in the book, (mostly through letters) as she begins to rely more upon her different identities.
Gulliver begins his journey so sure of himself and his station within society. He checks all his boxes in the introduction, offering the readers enough information to foster trust of character and assure that he feeds into the societal norms of the time. It isn’t until after several formative experiences that he is able to shake away the rosy glasses and understand more deeply the faults within human nature, within class, and within political structures contemporary to his own society: heavy topics that only a intrinsically interesting character could begin to contemplate. So, despite the societal expectations affecting each character quite differently, both are left struggling with internal strife from experiences that made them question their own identity: an identity deeply constructed by birth and common luck.
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Since feudal times, class has played a distinctly formative role within social structure in England. Whether a person resided within the upper class, middle class, or lower class could determine […]