Throughout protect the privileges of the snooty upper class

Throughout history, social hierarchy is constantly
changing and can be seen through modern and contemporary British literature
especially pre and post war British literature. In particular, two novels that
give examples of such is The Secret Agent
by Joseph Conrad and In pursuit of
the English by Doris Lessing. While both novels are quite different in
content, one taking place in the 1880’s and the other taking place in 1940’s-50’s, the both
however have a dominant theme of social class in their time period. Throughout
time and even now, class is a key factor in one’s experiences. It affects one’s identity and sense
of belonging, which as humans we crave for, and ultimately affect one’s experiences
and opportunities. In The Secret Agent the
main character Mr. Verloc lives a double life as a shop owner anarchist by day
and a secret agent for a foreign government by night. His boss Mr. Vladimir who
is an upper class man, at the expense of the lower and middle classes, wants to
protect the privileges of the snooty upper class people. Mr. Verloc himself is
within the middle class but believes he is protecting the hierarchy from the “filthy masses”. During this
time, social change was being demanded from the anarchist.

Mr.

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Verloc surveyed through the park railings the evidences of the towns opulence
and luxury with an approving eye. All these people had to be protected. Protection
is the first necessity of opulence and luxury. They had to be protected; and
their horses, carriages, houses, servants had to be protected. (2.1)

 

On the other hand, in In Pursuit of the English, takes place
after World War II and is a self documentary. It gives a snap shot of everyday
life in a working class boarding house full of “real English” Londoners
mainly the women of the time. The characters are what drives the novel and the
view from a foreigner’s perception of a different social class.

In The
Secret Agent Conrad shows us that society is not organized fairly.  As
a descendent of hard working parents, Mr.

Verloc has an easy life.

“Born of industrious parents for a life of toil, he had
embraced indolence from an impulse as profound, as inexplicable and as
imperious as the impulse which directs a mans preference for one particular
woman in a given thousand. He was too lazy even for a mere demagogue, for a
workman orator, for a leader of labour. It was too much trouble. He required a
more perfect form of ease…” (Conrad).

 The
author drills into our head that he is a very lazy man, but somehow seems to
make a good life out of doing practically nothing. He makes his money by deceiving
people and selling porn. Verloc is more cynical than others of his social class,
which by shucking his morals he can make more money.

“Verloc trod the pavement heavily with his shiny boots, and
his general get-up was that of a well-to-do mechanic in business for himself.

He might have been anything from a picture-frame maker to a locksmith; an
employer of labour in a small way. But there was also about him an
indescribable air which no mechanic could have acquired in the practice of his
handicraft …”

(Conrad).

 

He has a strong sense of entitlement that
he goes as far as planting a bomb, or at least planning to plant a bomb. Verloc
ends up giving the bomb to naive Stevie instead of doing it himself. Stevie
trust Verloc completely and listens to him loyally, and ends up blowing himself
up. Nothing will come between him and his comfy middle class life! Verloc does
not deserve the life he has, being immoral and deceptive he managed to keep a
strong hold on it, until his untimely death at the end. Conrad believes and
shows us that humans are naturally cruel and selfish. The ultimate crime is how
Stevie is treated. He is constantly getting taken advantage of, especially by
Mr. Verloc. Through Mr. Verloc we can see the middle class through Conrad’s eyes; how they
love and are attached to their lazy lifestyle and will do anything, even
murder, to protect it.

 

In In
Pursuit of the English, Lessing focuses English identity, more specifically
on middle class society and their everyday struggles and their lifestyle. After
world war II the snooty upper class aristocrats defined what English was
suppose to be. However, they (literally) did not lift a finger to restore Britain,
it was the hard working class people that truly rebuilt the nation. They also
suffered the most as well, suffering from rationing, housing shortages, and the
lost of loved ones. Thus, as exhibited in the novel, the working class holds
resentment towards the aristocrats and what is apparently suppose to be “the English”. With the fall
of the empire and global dominance as well as not wanting to be associated with
the “old
English”,
the working class do not really have an identity to hold on to. Trying to get
out of this limbo, they are searching to define this new English identity, as
well as our main character is as well. In
pursuit of the English itself gives the account of life living in a working
class rooming house and the characters finding themselves and their
Englishness.  

“…I have been thinking for some time of writing a piece called: In
Pursuit of the Working-Class. “My life has
been spent in pursuit. So has everyone’s, of course.

I chase love and fame all the time. I have
chased, off and on, and with much greater deviousness of approach, the
working-class and the English. The pursuit of the working-class is shared by
everyone with the faintest tint of social responsibility: some of the most
indefatigable pursuers are working-class people. (Lessing)

 

The novels in question have similarities
and differences in the main female characters. In The secret agent the wife of Mr. Verloc, Winnie Verloc, is a loyal
and devote wife although we find out that her devotion is only there to ensure
that her husband helps take care of her mentally challenged brother Stevie,
which is her ultimate goal. Winnie Verloc goes with the gender roles of the middle
class during the Victorian era; quiet and emotional.  We find out later in the novel that Stevie was
what “connected with what there is of the
salt of passion in Winnie’s tasteless life—the passion of indignation, of courage, of pity, and even of self-sacrifice” (8.122). Winnie is portrayed in the novel as objectively
attractive and younger then her husband. She sacrifices her true love of a
butcher boy who wouldn’t be able to provide for her family for someone, Mr. Verloc,
who could. She prides herself on the decision she made for her family. Even
though her efforts to protect her brother fail in the end, her “self-lessness” is shown to be
not all that great. Winnie, as well as Mr. Verloc, never bother to look beneath
the surface however she intentionally keeps herself ignorant, which ends up
getting herself killed.

            The female characters in In pursuit of the English, we see social
class norms at the time. Our main character, Doris, is a stranger to the social
hierarchy of the British. Through the narrator, we get a glimpse of how social
class effected the stereotypical and expected gender roles for woman to follow.

First, we have Flo, the typical housewife, who owns and runs the rooming house
with her husband. She does what she is expected to do and her life consists of
doing household duties, watching the children and chores as well as spending
hours in the kitchen cooking meals and constantly trying to please her husband
Dan. She is a lonely woman who constantly needed to be around other people and
felt cooped up in the house. Flo is the perfect example of the class gender
norms of the time.  Even how little how Londoners
are aware of things that are outside their own space,

            “Flo’s London did not even include the West
end, since she had left the restaurant in Holborn. It was the basement she
lived in; the shops she was registered at; and the cinema five minutes’ walk away. She
had never been inside a picture gallery, a theatre or a concert hall. Flo would
say: “Let’s go to the rive
one fine afternoon and take Oar”. She had no seen the Thames, she said,
since before the war. Rose had never been on the other side of the river. Once,
when I took my son on a trip by river bus, Rose played with the idea of coming
too for a whole week. Finally, she said: “I don’t think I’d like those parts, not
really. I like what I’m used to. But you go and
tell me about it after” (Lessing)

Rose on the other hand is an unmarried,
working woman whose happiness depends on her hope to marry a man named Dicky,
who practically ignores her for the entire novel. She hypocritically judges the
other women in the house if their marriages aren’t going according to plan as well. She
projects her fear of weakness of married life to fulfill the expected duty that
women of the time had to satisfy onto characters like Mrs. Skeffingtion, who is
stuck in an unhappy and abusive marriage who most likely married for the same
reasons as Rose wishes. In a time that woman did not have the freedom as their
male counterparts, Rose is a symbol of the typical working class woman during
the war. She is described as outspoken and intelligent as well as always being
the voice of reason. When the men left to go off and fight, women had to step
up to fill in the roles that men traditionally did. For the first time women
had a taste of freedom, of what could be before having it ripped from their
hands and shoved back into sex objects and housewives. Despite all this, Rose
wants to settle down and marry and succumb to the pressure of the traditional
femininity of the time. While In Pursuit
of the English does try to get away from the stereotypical gender roles of
working class society, women were still expected to be good little housewives
like in The Secret Agent as well.

 

            The
Secret Agent portrays the Victorian Era, a pre war Britain, and In pursuit of the English portrays the
start of the modern era, a post war Britain. In the Victorian era, Men were
seen to be superior to women, physically as well as mentally, and thought to be
the head and provider of the household. In upper and middle classes, drilling ‘manliness’ into boys early
on was taken very seriously; having several rituals to complete the transition.

Public schools back then were all male environments and had virtually no girls
Woman on the other hand, were expected to be the homemaker. They were expected
to be obedient towards their husbands.

            Such is the case in The Secret Agent which takes place near
the end of the Victorian era. Mr. Verloc is lazy and corrupt and by all means
is no upstanding citizen, but at the end of the day he wants to provide and
take care of his family. Just like men at this time were expected to do. Winnie,
just like her husband, fits snuggly into the women role of gentle and
compassionate housewife.

By the 1950’s, when Lessing’s novel takes
place, a lot of the old thinking was still in place. Women were not expected to
have careers and only worked for a short while before getting married and
having children, they normally did not work afterwards and the man was still
considered the head of the household and the breadwinner (mostly). If a women
found herself in an abusive or loveless marriage, such as Mrs. Skeffington, she
was stuck for she had no money or career as in the Victorian Era. However,
divorce was easier for women. Young girls were allowed to go to school but it
was still unusual for them to go to a university, particularly for the working
class. Even so they were lessoned in cooking, sewing and everything to fulfill
the stereotypical feminine roles.

As discussed before, in In Pursuit of the English, Flo and Rose
both fit into these structures. Flo being the dutiful housewife and Rose being
a working woman waiting to get married to fulfill what society expects of her.

“It’s a fact that men of all nations are convinced that men of any other
nation are no good for women. I’m sure a statistically significant number of
women would be able to vouch for this. And
listen how you talk. You are bitter already. When I hear a woman use words like
statistics, I know she is bitter.” (Lessing)

 

            It is interesting to analyze how
each Conrad and Lessing addresses social hierarchy and class in their novels. By
comparing The Secret Agent and In Pursuit of the English, which both
written from two different time periods, we can better understand the similarities
and differences in narration between pre war and post war literature. While it
is not homogenous, especially the gender roles, both novels give insight to the
social norm at the time they were written. The
Secret Agent addresses class through Mr. Vladimir using Mr. Verloc to
exploit the lower classes in order to protect the privilege of the upper class.

This is relevant during the time Conrad wrote the book due to the very real tensions
in society at the time. While on the other hand, In Pursuit of the English addresses class through the eyes of the
main character Doris and every day life of the working class, their struggles
and their identity via the hierarchy. The working class ended up getting a lot
of strength after the war which helped reform class in Britain. These two
novels differ from each other in relation to plot, but there are a lot of
themes that are common ground for both. Even if they are expressed or defined
in a specific way by each author, at the end of the day the point the author is
trying to get out is that people are identified and wrapped up in their social
class.