English Literature student Harry Tidby discusses the faces of capitalism in four 19th, 20th and 21st century literary texts.
Read time: approx. 12 mins
The acceptable face of capitalism in Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad
Colson Whitehead’s depiction of South Carolina in the novel The Underground Railroad gives us a glimpse at a more acceptable face of the horrendously exploitative capitalist powers at work in 19th century America. Through this portrayal of the smiling façade of friendly capitalism, a mirror is held to our own society, in which those who are trying to sell to us are no longer as distinguishable as they once were.
We’re on your side
When Cora and Caeser arrive in South Carolina, they appear to have landed in anti-slavery haven, where they’re given jobs by the government, a roof over their heads, and proper food. It seems like a true refuge for them, but the reality of the situation is aptly summed up in the final sentences of their first chapter in SC:
“It was the softest bed she had ever lain in. But then, it was the only bed she had ever lain in”Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad, 2016, p.112
The pseudo-freedom of South Carolina’s friendly capitalism pulls the wool over the eyes of these runaway slaves, who believe they have escaped the machinations that have kept them in chains all their lives. They spend literal months here, unknowingly toiling on behalf of the same system of capitalistic greed as they had been when captive, albeit one that is less overt. The cracks first begin to show for us when Cora is transferred to work at a museum of American history, where she must alternately play a plantation worker, a captive aboard a slave ship, and a free African woman in the ‘Scenes from Darkest Africa’ display. These supposed ‘true’ experiences of African and slave culture are wildly racist in their stereotyping, and are our first glimpse into the true nature of South Carolina. After this, as Manisha Sinah writes in her review of the novel,
“The insidious reality soon emerges–the good teachers and doctors in the state are ardent eugenicists and scientific racists, trained in the best universities and hospitals of the nation and interested in preventing the propagation of an ‘inferior race.’”Manisha Sinah, ‘The Underground Railroad in Art and History: A review of Colson Whitehead’s novel’, The Journal of the Civil War Era, 29 November 2016.
The haven is in fact, a smiling front for the horrendous actions of those capitalists who wish to keep these people enslaved, and to perform horrendous scientific tests on them under the guise of looking after them. This betrayal reminds me of the modern state of advertising, where companies are utilising manipulative, alternate methods of advertising, such as ‘relatable’ personalities being crafted on social media (though obviously, this is a far less serious issue). Ian Bogost summarises this predicament succinctly in his Atlantic article on this trend –
“Social media has made it easier than ever for companies to connect with people. These new, personal bonds between companies and customers feel uncanny—the brands are not real human friends, exactly, but neither are they faceless corporations anymore.”Ian Bogost, ‘Why Brands Are Friendly on Social Media’, The Atlantic, October 2018.
Intentionally or not, Whitehead is holding a mirror to the current methods of capitalist manipulation, and it is truly not a pretty comparison.
The capitalists of The Underground Railroad are out and out evil, enslaving others (be that overtly or subtly) for their own means, and Whitehead’s decision to include differing representations of them evokes a deeper sense of injustice as a result.
Capitalism’s degradation of culture in T. S. Eliot’s poetry
The fragmented worlds in Eliot’s poems betray to us very distinctly the poet’s beliefs regarding the capitalist forces of his world. The cultural degradation and shift away from morality that Eliot describes represent side effects of the economic situation unfolding in front of him; in this post, I’m going explore how that thread binds ‘Preludes’, ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ and The Waste Land together.
Throughout the poems, we see a continual degradation of ‘high’ culture in the face of the capitalistic machinations running society. In ‘Prufrock‘, we are instantly thrust into a world of ‘restless nights in one-night cheap hotels / And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells’ (‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, 1915, ll.6-7).
A seediness emanates from these lines, suggesting the high society of the city has decayed a great deal, and the accompanying refrain in the poem bolsters this further: ‘In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo.’ (‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, 1915, ll.13-14). Later repeated, this refrain may not immediately appear to be a signifier of cultural degradation, but when considering Eliot’s attitudes towards women, the point becomes clearer. As Louis Menand puts it in The Women Come and Go,
“[Eliot] ascribed […] the decline of France to the influence of women and Jews, whom he held responsible for the corruptions of individualism, romanticism, sensuality, and irrationalism.”Louis Menand, ‘The Women Come and Go: The love song of T. S. Eliot,’ The New Yorker, 23 September 2002.
Eliot was a misogynist, and so for two women to be talking of such a master as Michaelangelo suggests that high culture is no longer ascribed such value as it was previously, to the point that women now speak freely of it. While his attitude here is deplorable, it does further evidence his belief that this increasingly capitalist world is forgetting what Eliot holds to be the sacred parts of our culture.
Likewise, in the fourth stanza of Preludes, we are presented with a clear cultural degradation with the lines ‘His soul stretched tight across the skies / That fade behind a city block’ (‘Preludes’, 1917, ll.40-41). With Eliot’s religiosity – a history of which can be found here – it is no stretch to suggest that he saw Britain’s increasing secularity as degradation of its culture, one specifically brought about by capitalist image of the obstructive city block; the phrase ‘stretched tight’ suggesting peoples’ strained relation to God in an increasingly profit-driven world.
Finally, we come to The Waste Land, where I want to highlight a passage from ‘The Fire Sermon’:
“The nymphs are departed.
And their friends, the loitering of city directors;
Departed, have left no addresses.”T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land, 1922, ll.178-181
The invocation of the nymph, synonymous with natural prosperity, to represent a prostitute is a searing inversion representing the shift away from the forces of nature on the Thames, to male desire. The men referenced here are capitalists by inheritance, and represent further degradation through their leaving no address in case of an unwanted pregnancy. To Eliot, these trust-fund reliant, morally bankrupt young men, twisting the Thames into their immoral playground are a personified example of the effect capitalism’s cultural degradation is having on wider society.
While these examples scratch the surface of the links between these poems, I believe they provide some proof for this particular line of questioning in Eliot’s works.
Exploitation of labour in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations
Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations is, fundamentally, a novel about class structure. We follow Pip’s ascent through the class system, from poverty in Kent, to sudden gentlemanly status through his unknown benefactor’s donations, through to discovering his benefactor’s true identity. Throughout this journey, we see his growing class consciousness brought about by his unusual circumstances, and it is through this consciousness that Dickens conveys his feelings towards capitalist society.
Earning through the labour of others
There are elements of the silver fork novel in Miss Havisham’s arc in the novel, showing her sophistication and the height of society which she occupies. In this sophistication, there is a lack of any labour on her part for the earning of her wealth, which she earns through her rental properties, passed down by her father. Here Dickens sets up the social standing of labour succinctly: those who earn their money through the labours of others are the upper class. Immediately upon meeting Pip, as C.H Newell points out in his article Marxist Dickens: Money and Class Mobility in Great Expectations,
“Miss Havisham begins negatively shaping Pip’s conception of his own social status as a ‘common labouring-boy'”C.H Newell, ‘Marxist Dickens: Money and Class Mobility in Great Expectations‘ (no date).
Pip transforms this view of himself to some degree, but there is still a distinction between himself and those of Miss Havisham’s class: Pip’s elevation of status is not due to his exploitation of others’ labour for his gain. As a result of this, he is already alienated from the capitalist society at large:
“Pip makes his way using money he did not earn. There is no personal meaning to his capital. He is alienated even from the money through which he enters into a higher class. […] Pip is dependent on this gifted money for everything, robbing him of personhood.”C.H Newell, ‘Marxist Dickens: Money and Class Mobility in Great Expectations‘ (no date).
He comes to learn class consciousness through this experience, as when Magwitch’s identity as Pip’s benefactor is revealed, Pip feels wildly disgusted. The idea that Magwitch has earned money through his own labour is repulsive to Pip – a wild contrast to the way he looks up to Miss Havisham and Estella for their wealth. Pip’s interactions with these two in the beginning of the book lead to him striving towards a wealthier lifestyle, so for his ascension to have been so parallel to theirs is unacceptable to him. The whole ordeal leaves him feeling at odds with the world, but by the end of the book, Pip is not the only character feeling this way. As Gareth Jenkins puts it in his article for the Socialist Review,
“Estella […] whose contempt for such a common, labouring lad spurred his youthful desire for advancement, has become as dehumanised by gentility as he.“Gareth Jenkins, ‘Dickens the radical’, Socialist Review, February 2012
Even Pip’s shining example of upper-class life finds herself unhappy, which begs the question: is it all really worth it? For Jenkins, the answer is no:
“This is a novel with no confidence that anything humane can be salvaged from bourgeois society.”Gareth Jenkins, ‘Dickens the radical’, Socialist Review, February 2012
I strongly agree that nothing humane can come from a society where exploitation of others is not only an accepted norm, but the favourable method of earning one’s fortune, and by the novel’s end, I feel Pip would agree too.
Different readings of capitalism in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
The act of reading Shelley’s Frankenstein in relation to capitalism has long been established, and with good reason. The Creature’s exclusion from wider bourgeois society places him as a proletariat figure within the story, and the struggles he faces become a mirroring of those of the lower classes. Of course, the Creature can also be seen as a metaphor for capitalism itself, created by the hubris of man and ultimately bringing misery upon those around them, as Dr Scott Loren talks about in this short clip. While these viewpoints may seem contradictory, the fragmented nature of the Creature’s existence actually gives them both a good deal of credence, with the Creature’s lack of a fixed identity allowing different readings to be simultaneously valid.
The Excluded Proletariat
Whilst observing the de Lacey household, the Creature begins to learn what it means to be human. He learns how to speak, how humans live their lives, and reads great works of literature like Milton’s Paradise Lost and Goethe’s The Sorrows of Werter. He begins to understand his place within society, and articulates his understanding to be that:
“the possessions most esteemed by your fellow-creatures were high and unsullied descent united with riches. A man might be respected with only one of these advantages; but, without either, he was considered, except in very rare instances, as a vagabond and a slave, doomed to waste his powers for the profits of the chosen few!”Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, 1818, page 93
The Creature thus spirals into misery upon the realisation of his class status, wishing he had not left the woods and entered into a society that will not accept him. He begins to see the family as his only protectors, and endeavours to advance up the class rankings by means of introducing himself to them, only to have his efforts thwarted by Felix’s violence towards him. This representation of a proletariat unable to progress within a capitalist world is what I believe informs much of the pathos for the Creature throughout the rest of the novel, leading to his violent actions being somewhat excused, as the horrors of the social situation have forced their hand in some way.
A Metaphor for Capitalism
Shelley’s alternate ‘Modern Prometheus’ title comes to mind when considering the Creature as a metaphor for capitalism. We see Victor consumed by his foolish need to create life, and as a result creates something he becomes enslaved to:
“I was the slave of my creature, I allowed myself to be governed by the impulses of the moment”Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, 1818, page 118
As Judy Cox puts it in her article Frankenstein at 200 –
“Educated, bourgeois Victor Frankenstein attempts to create something beautiful, […] but instead conjures up a monster which he cannot control”Judy Cox, ‘Frankenstein at 200’, Counterfire, 16 January 2018.
Victor’s creation wreaks havoc on not just the impoverished de Lacey family, but also the upper-class Frankenstein family, beyond the realms of control by any that suffer at its hands. Much like the capitalists of the time, Victor’s hubris in believing he could simply become the master of this new life due to his conception of it has dire consequences for those around him, and leaves the world permanently changed, and not for the better. Whichever reading you take, it is clear Shelley’s portrayal of capitalism is one of strife for all involved.
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This blog was originally posted at https://rosefragment.wordpress.com/ as part of a coursework assignment for an English Literature module.