Story World — The Social Class Hypothesis.

In our society, that is England of the Twentieth Century, people are generally inclined to one or the other of two hypothetical ‘comfort zones’. These might be regarded as ‘default positions’. Most of the time, we probably do not think much about either position, but under pressure, or in a time of change, we may incline to one more than the other. The reader is invited to examine both positions, and consider which appears the most comfortable, and then to introspect and attempt to discover if there have been times when the default position was different from where it is today.

Default A
An individual should feel obligated to their family, appreciative of their roots, and loyal to their class. Just as it would be a betrayal to attempt to leave the bosom of one’s family, so it is an act of treachery to deny one’s roots and attempt to join a class for which one is not prepared. It is foolishness to believe that one will be accepted by people who firmly believe that they are the product of breeding and an exclusive education. Even if someone from a lower class is not rejected, they will only be tolerated. And, any attempt to imitate the speech and manners of the upper class in order to gain acceptance is duplicitous, insincere, and shallow. It is not being true to oneself. Such a person will be suspected of other types of deception. They will not be trusted. At best, they will be regarded as a joke by those whose company they seek to enter. Tragically, their old associates will regard them as snobs, and their parents will be heartbroken at their rejection. To attempt to be something one is not, is to end up being nothing at all.

Default B
The urge to self improvement, betterment and refinement is as natural as the desire for a safe, happy and healthy environment for oneself and one’s children. Our culture is full of images of a life of plenty, and though there are mixed messages suggesting the contrary, these are generally from people who feel threatened by change, and envious of others’ success. Contrary to what is often imagined, people of the upper classes welcome new members. Despite the myth of ‘breeding’, it has long been recognised that human beings are not race horses. ‘Kind hearts are more than coronets’ and members of the oldest families, not wanting to become inbred, welcome new blood. While it is true that the Royal Family is slow to change in this respect, they are gradually moving in that direction. It is just that Royal protocol changes very slowly. Those who become successful, but attempt to cling too tenaciously to their roots, tend to be perceived as arrogant rebels and may be regarded as ‘inverted snobs’. Parents who love their children only want the best for them, and will be saddened if they become known as rebellious and ungrateful.

Neither of these two defaults is to be considered either ‘ideal’ or representative of reality. Most people ‘get on with their lives’ and do not waste too much time on introspection as to where they lie on the social spectrum. However, many people make decisions about career, education, marriage and so on which affect their perspective. Obviously, we should not in these times be wasting our energy on such empty values as social class, which, with the development of global communications, (such as the Internet) is rapidly becoming irrelevant; (for example, it is increasingly the case that someone living in a trailer park is as likely as anyone to one day make a technical breakthrough bringing wealth and upward social mobility, while someone whose only claim to fame is that they speak an old fashioned dialect of Thames Estuary English, and was educated at Eton could easily find himself living on benefits). It does, however, seem to be the case that people do move to these default positions during periods of change. And, as stereotypes, they are easily recognisable, however invalid they are becoming.

From a writer’s point of view, how prevalent are these defaults and how recognisable are these stereotypes? Are they already invalid? Can they be used as a plot device or part of the worlds that we, as writers, create? It certainly seems likely that both defaults will gradually fade away. It is hard to imagine how either could survive the Singularity, for example, so this could easily be the last century — if not the last decade — in which ideas of social class had any real meaning and relevance to the modern novel.


About Zoe Nightingale

I am a writer of short stories, novels, poetry and non fiction.
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