Social Class Structure and Power

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In modern day American culture, class structure is as greatly divided as its ever been. For the first time ever, there is not a true middle class, with the majority of the people categorized in two classes: the upper or the lower. Because of this growing trend, American realist authors analyze class structure in different ways with each author reaching a similar point. Some authors effectively use the difference in rights and opportunities to express the difference in class structure, while others use the amount of power the upper class has over the lower class.

American realism is a literary movement that became part of the mainstream American literary culture in the 19th century. This created a stark shift in tones from the optimistic romantics to the realistic, although sometimes negative, realists. Unlike romantics, realists view the world in an accurate, although sometimes unpleasant tone. Realists, also challenge the reader to look past social norms and see what is actually happening in society. American realist literature can take part in many forms, such as novels, short stories, and poems. Authors such as Mark Twain, Rebecca Harding Davis, and Vachel Lindsay are all known for their American realist work.

In Mark Twain’s The Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Hank magically wakes up in England in the time period that King Arthur is on the throne. While trying to return to Connecticut, Hank realizes the differences between the nobility and the peasants. The nobility have almost all of the power, while the peasants have very little. Hank also uses ‘magic’ to gain the trust of King Arthur. He uses his knowledge to predict a solar eclipse and use dynamite to create explosions, which results in him gaining the trust of King Arthur. They go on an adventure together which helps Hank to realize how the peasants live. In “Life in the Iron Mills”, by Rebecca Harding Davis, Deborah brings her cousin Wolfe his supper on a daily basis. Wolfe works in the Iron Mills in town, a very low paying job.

One day Deborah steals the wallet of a coworker. She gives it to Wolfe, and when he gets caught they both go to prison. While in prison, Wolfe hangs himself and Deborah becomes depressed. Davis analyzes the lack of power that the people had and the lack of opportunities to improve socially and mentally in American society. In the poem, “Abraham Lincoln Walks at midnight”, Vachel Lindsay elaborates on how Lincoln is a paternal figure to American society. She explains how Lincoln is uneasy about how American society, and especially social class, functions. Through American realism, these authors analyze how class structure affects the American character. American realist authors analyze class structure through the American character with the portrayal of rights, opportunities, and power.

Although, American realist authors analyze the differences between classes, the actual perceived differences are minimal at best. Vachel Lindsay portrays this notion: “It is portentous, and a thing of state that here at midnight, in our little town a mourning figure walks, and will not rest, / Near the old court-house pacing up and down”(1-2). She attests that there are difference between social classes, but the difference are not as major as first thought. She believe that the differences between social classes is a mental conjuring of a select few individuals. The upper class tries to narrow the difference between themselves and the lower class.

The lower class, meanwhile, is also trying to narrow the difference, but could help by stop arguing with each other. In The Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Mark Twain backs up Lindsay’s point by writing “They were the quaintest and simplest and trustingest race; why, they were nothing but rabbits” while interacting with the the people in 16th century England (55). Twain generalizes the people, regardless of social class, to rabbits. This shows that the difference between social classes is minimal. Generalizing the people to rabbits exemplifies the similarity between all people.

In his article on The Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court titled “Mark Twain on Democratic Statesmanship: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court”, Beth Maclay Doriani compares “The nobility are coarse and superficial, live in filth,” to the poor, who also live in filth (1). Because both classes live in ‘filth’ the difference between the classes can be reasonably assumed to be small. The living conditions are not vastly different, which most people assume when thinking about the difference in social classes. Even though there is a change in social structure, the actual difference is not as great as the majority of American realist authors make it out to be.

In American realism, the American character and class structure is developed through the notion of the regular man not having the same rights as the wealthy or upper class. In Mark Twain’s The Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Hank, the protagonist, notices the extra rights the nobility, or the upper class, has over the peasants. After waking up in 16th century England, Hank quickly earns the trust of King Arthur and runs errands for him.

Towards the end of the novel, Hank and Arthur both go “undercover” around the peasants to learn more about them. While interacting with Arthur and the peasants, Hank realizes that “in a country where they have ranks and castes, a man is not ever a man, he is only part of a man, he is only part of a man, he can not ever get his full growth. You prove your superiority over him in a station, or rank, or fortune and that’s the end of it”(232). Hank explains that in a society with nobility and ranks, the average man can never have the same rights as the nobility. This affects the commoner in a mental and social way.

If one has less rights than another based on something as random as birth, full growth can not be reached and will not be aspired to. Rights empower the average person to grow. After Morgan le Fay, King Arthur’s sister, executes a servant, Hank delves into the American character’s metaphorically: “Anybody could kill somebody, except the commoner and the slave; these had no privileges”(115). Morgan le Fay is empowered to kill because of the extra rights she has compared to the average person due her royalty. With social classes, the common person, does not have all the rights or privileges that a member of the upper class would. Twain argues that the average person does not have all the rights and privileges that one needs to survive; only the upper class does.

Twain metaphorically compares the act of killing to a basic right that only the upper class has. In “Life in the Iron Mills”, Rebecca Harding Davis analyzes the lack of rights that the average person faces. She describes the main character, Deborah and her daily ritual of bringing her cousin, a factory worker, his supper: “It was far, and she was weak, aching from standing twelve hours at the spools. Yet it was her almost nightly walk to take this man his supper, though at every square she sat down to rest” (6). The lack of worker rights affects Deborah in a life-taking and negative way. Because she works 12 hours a day, she can not reach full growth socially. Deborah suffers because of her lack of rights which is a result of the large disparity between the social classes.

Cite this paper

Social Class Structure and Power. (2021, Mar 28). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/social-class-structure-and-power/

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