During the 1850’s, different countries around the world, especially the US and European nations, were undergoing industrial revolution as new ideas and inventions sprung up. This meant that industries and companies manufacturing goods in different fields emerged with the discoveries on availability of raw materials. Of course, the companies relied on manual workers before the invention of machines to replace the human force, and so it employed as many workers as possible. Most American citizens by then were educated and did not need to do the manuals, or they would ask for bigger cash for the jobs, so the firms had to seek cheaper manual labor. Around the same time, America was experiencing an influx of immigrants from almost all over, but most specifically Irish, German, and British (Davis, 2004) who were hoping for a greener life away from their native land. These then were an easy target for the American companies, and they employed many of the foreigners for meager wages. The immigrants did not anticipate their quest to be the worst nightmare as life in the US headed for worse everyday.
Social classes and the differences
The book Life in the Iron Mills, by Rebecca Harding Davis (1831–1910), outlines the different classes of life in the society and unveils the problems of the poor and disadvantaged. A ‘class’ can be defined as the economic and social status of people, mainly rich and poor, thus the upper and lower classes respectively. There is also the middle class, which represents those who have the means to survive and are moderately comfortable, but cannot afford the luxurious spendthrift life as the upper class. Industrial revolution created class division among the people evident by the riches of capitalists and industrialists who stole their way up the ladder. They represented the first or high-class group and owned big bungalows with modern designs of architecture, when the manual workers shared the small, crowded and disorderly apartments they could afford with their little pay. These poor people held the position of the lower-class status, and this kind of life pushed them to many idle pastimes like alcoholism and smoking.
Davis’ story focuses on the effects of capitalism, industrialization that resulted in the exploitation and poverty of immigrants. It is a story of Hugh Wolfe, a man working with his father as a furnace-tender at a rolling mill that made iron for the railroad, and who has spent thirty years with his family in a house rented by more than five other families. They lived a very poor life, eating rank pork and molasses (Davis, 2004, p. 183), and drinking part of their wages to block their minds from stress. They were occasionally in and out of jail for drunkenness, and used the little money to bail them out. Their poor status is also shown by their sleeping condition and the food they take, for instance Wolfe sleeps on a ‘heap of straw, wrapped in a torn horse-blanket’ (Davis, 2004, p. 184). Wolfe’s cousin, Deborah, who works as a picker at a cotton mill, stays in the same shanty, eats cold boiled potatoes for her supper after eating nothing since breakfast.
In the story Maggie: A girl on the streets, by Stephen Crane, the street life is the main issue. It starts in the streets where two rival groups of street boys, the Rum Alley and Devil’s Row gangs, are fighting and pelting stone at each other. A very dirty and untidy environment is evident in the story; he streets littered with buckets, bottles, rags, brooms, and jobless women with unkempt hair, gossiping and screaming the day away for lack of work to keep them busy. Unemployed men also sat aimlessly in the open smoking pipe at chosen corners and watched time eat the day out. The people lived in poor and careless conditions, with the walls of houses cracked, obviously due to overcrowding and over-weight. The unattended children have no means to go to school, probably because of lack of school fees as their parents struggle to look for food (Crane, 2004).
This story mainly focuses on Maggie, a young girl who has lived in the streets and knows how to go about the hardships of the slums. She has two siblings, Jimmy and Tommy, the former who gets in street fights day after another. They too live under the same conditions as the other people in the neighborhood, and have a number of things showing their status as the low class in the society; her mother reacts very violently when a plate is broken, probably it would cost her a fortune to get another. She lays her small kid Tommy to sleep in old faded-color bedding. The old woman living close to their home would sit at a corner in the city and beg for money all day, but would only get pennies by the end of the day. Jimmy’s father drinks beer any chance he gets because he thinks his home is intolerable, ‘Cause home regular living hell!’ Life got rougher after their father and smaller brother died, with their mother seemingly on the way too, and Jimmy resorted to the corners of the streets again. It is in the same situation, watching the sunrise and set everyday, that he develops hatred on the well-dressed and well-off people he sees in the streets, including Christians. He believes the smartness and ironed clothes they wore showed their weakness and the clean coats hid their soft hearts. He yearns to be like them though, to live their kind of life and because he likes money, but not dress as they did. He is forced to get a job driving a team of horses and likes the idea riding on horses and looking down on everyone, as it elevates him to a higher position than others.
As Maggie grows up, she turns out beautiful and boys suddenly acknowledge her presence. She had completely grown out of the dirty life in the streets and nothing was noticeable that she was raised in the mud and dirt of every kind. Jimmy encourages her to look for a job and she gets one at a shirt company where she earns some wages. This betters their lives and they quickly move from the lower class position to middle class. Maggie compares her job with Pete’s and envies him. She watches him closely for some time, their broken furniture, dirty walls and untidy house comes to her attention and vows to do something before Pete’s next visit. He was definitely on a different class from theirs. Apart from that, she has matured enough to know she needs a male company, a boyfriend and Pete is an easy catch. Nevertheless, even after being taken to many places to have fun, Maggie still feels empty and discontented with her life, and admires the dress code of other women in the streets, as if she still lives in the same social life as before (Crane, 2004). She needs someone to talk to about her problems but Jimmy and their mother are always drunk, with him coming late everyday.
Maxim Gorgy’s Twenty-six men and a Girl exposes the plight of twenty-six men who refer to themselves as living machines because of the wary work they do. They knead dough and roll it into kringels everyday from five in the morning. They cry of their working environment, where there is little ventilation and light due to the accumulation of flour on the windows. They are imprisoned in the room and forbidden from giving out bread even to hungry ones passing by. Their enclosure shows how helpless they were in addition to the exploitation of the poor and helpless by the capitalists. Just like alcohol numbed the characters in the previous two stories, the inmates sing to put their minds in a different state and they find solace in that. They feel tied down and powerless but their songs create the comfort they need in their minds. The other major relief is the girl who collects their products daily as she instantly connects them to the outside world because she seems to be the only one who knows of their existence. They are always eager for the next time she would come to collect the kringels.
This story is slightly different from the others, in that the social class is not entirely defined by the amount of money the characters have, but freedom and power. The inmates take the lowest position, which is the most powerless and defenseless, while Tanya symbolized the middle class who have the freedom off the cells but not from her employers. The new chief baker held the high-class position because he felt he could get anything he wanted, including the girl to satisfy his needs (Ferguson, 1981). The prisoners adore and idolize Tanya, until she was misled by her sexual desires because of corruption, and gave in to the baker’s demands. The twenty-six men then lack something to give them hope in life as their goddess is destroyed.
There are many things to learn from these stories; the lower class people did not just wake up and find themselves underprivileged, they must have come from a poor background, which means they did not even afford to pay for their education. This implied that they are not learned, as in, they do not hold any papers choose the jobs they want let alone to look for any job, so they are easy prey to capitalists who use them for any kind of job. Wolfe’s job was too heavy for him and he wears out slowly over the years to reshape his manly muscles to a thin woman’s body, ‘his muscles were thin, his nerves weak, his face, a meek, woman’s face,’ (Davis, 2004, pp 24). They are not exposed to equal opportunities with the educated; they do anything for the day, even if it earns them a meal. These social classes are first noticeable at work places before they come out because the tiny wages offered directly translates to the cold boiled potatoes. The exploitation of the poor is also seen when Clark, the son of the owner of Kirby and John’s mill, confesses that his father pressurize the workers at his company to vote for specific political candidates.
There are certain small but dirty work that the first class group do not take as their place, for the reason that they are too expensive for the jobs and would rather the sections with desks, rocking chairs and television. The lower positions are left vacant and the only option is the people begging for any job to do. That is how the likes of Wolfe fit in the positions of messengers, security guards or grass-trimmers. There are no privileges in these sectors, no breaks, any tea or coffee, no entertainment like the radio or television. There is no job security here, absence or sickness can cost them their jobs and this happens without warning or notice. People with different talents do not get the chance to use them in any way, no one recognizes their potential and they just disappear in the poverty. That is the irony of it all, more work load and toil for the lower lot, but the least salaries.
Some people had the opportunity to learn but only up to certain levels, maybe for lack of interest or the education got more expensive as it got higher so they dropped on the way after earning some certificates. This is the middle class group and they could get jobs in companies, good jobs but not the best. Their qualifications allow them to work in certain categories and they can enjoy the privileges of working in an office. They are valued as important assets and their decisions regarding the company are not taken lightly. These employees are entitled for promotion to positions above them, based on the experience and individual work output. Their pay is moderate and they are not considered poor as they can afford to live in good houses, not shared with others. In most cases, they sign work contracts which shows how long they are wiling to work for the company, this offers security, as they are sure of their work duration. Some of those in the middle class with smaller families and less expenses can save money and afford to buy a ride (Ferguson, 1981).
The owners of the industries and the managers who run the business represent the upper class, and control their companies from afar. They drive the most expensive cars with reserved parking space and own businesses and houses in the city and not the outskirts. They are the ones who know how the business runs and take more than half of the profits it makes for them. They do the least, almost nothing in the company but get fat checks because they own the business and are the majority shareholders. The life they live is the complete opposite of the lower class, for example when they drink fruit juice to ease their bulgy bellies the other class take untreated water to quench their thirst.
People form different economic backgrounds have different attitudes towards work. Most of the people from poor locale are hard working, and keep to the rules and requirements of the job. They treat the opportunities they get as the only ones ever meant for them, so they will tend to respect and keep the regulations governing the success of the companies. In many cases, the few individuals who quality for leadership positions do very commendable work in leading the rest to achieve their goals. The ones from luxurious environment have a tendency of not taking their jobs seriously. Because of their previous spoon-fed kind of life, they would like to continue with the same relaxed and comfortable life and for instance take their obligations for granted, although not all of them. For example, Jimmy in Maggie: A girl on the streets, comes from a very poor setting, but has the urge to look for a job to carter for his needs (Crane, 2004). He also sees the point of his sister getting a job, which helps her refurnish their poor house. Therefore, class affects work negatively and positively as outlined in this paragraph. The society has discovered that people do not have to wait to be employed, because we can create our own jobs and employ ourselves. This has been achieved by forming small organizations to fight back agents of famine, and by starting local projects to educate people on basic knowledge in areas like irrigation in farming. People have come together to abolish the differences like tribalism and gender discrimination that hinder economic growth, and those who have adhered to this call have seen the outcome.
Crane, S. Maggie: A Girl of The Streets . Pontiac, IL: Kessinger, 2004.
Davis, R. H. Life In The Iron Mills . Pontiac, IL: Kessinger Publishing, 2004.
Davis, R. H., & Olsen, T. Life in the iron mills, and other stories . New York, NY: Feminist Press, 1985
Ferguson, M. A. Images of women in literature . Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1981