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One aspect of diversity in society is the existence of hierarchy; that is, the material and social distance created between those who have and those who do not have money, education, rights, power, etc. In the stories, The White Tiger by Avarind Adiga, Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton and the collection of short stories that are Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner by Alan Sillitoe and A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain by Robert Olen Butler, the audience becomes intimately aware of what hierarchy—social, economic, and/or cultural—feels like to those oppressed by its structural weight. 

Although each story is set in an equally unique cultural environment, a general underlying theme unites them, which suggests that economic luxuries of hereditary wealth and political power equally are a cause of suffering, poverty, and ethnic discrimination, pressing an even greater dilemma to readers led to question the saliency of this modern evolution of a global economy. Are capitalistic societies, which place emphasis upon monetary value and human labor as a commodity, capable of achieving such measures as serving the greater good or is a blind devotion to free market economy just a new version of the same old oppressive hierarchal structures that dominated society like imperialism, colonialism, communism, religious unilateralism, manifest destiny, segregation, apartheid, The Indian Removal Act, and the many other social constructs of inequitable and ulterior design that have oppressively ruled humanity over and into antiquity?

In The White Tiger, the reader finds an Eastern Indian chauffer from a rural village who, faced with a predicament that calls for him to make a decision between killing a fellow human for the chance of gaining upward mobility in Modern India’s cutthroat business world bound by an arbitrary system of socioeconomic hierarchy or adhering to social traditions which would have him live out a labor intensive, dehumanized, economically incapable of advancing but honorable servant existence. The main character, Balram, opts for the former option and sets about re-weaving the circumstances of his murderous act into a tale of entrepreneurial success and triumph over the insurmountable obstacles of poverty. His conclusion like a lost trial at the closing statement makes a final desperate plea of innocence, “Am I not a part of all that is changing this country? Haven’t I succeeded in the struggle that every poor man here should be making—the struggle not to take the lashes your father took, not to end up in a mound of indistinguishable bodies that will rot in the black mud of the mother Ganga?” (Adiga 273) The fact that Balram becomes a successful businessman because of his choice to murder only further begs readers to question the mutually beneficial nature of assumption that surrounds systems where human labor is disproportionately determined to be of lesser value (according to economistic logic.)

The stories collective arrival to this end is not a journey made lightly, but rather presents a very complex and systematic process of human degradation that begins at birth and ends with death and that blurs previously thought unshakable foundations of right and wrong, good and bad, etc. so that the reader discovers how social hierarchy defined by money leaves those on the bottom end struggling forever in a state of impoverished body and mind. Faced with the constant threat of consequences that come with an insatiable need for money, humane existence becomes all but a possible outcome for those who chance to be born into an economically deprived family, a point highlighted by the image of Adiga’s main character, Balram wandering amongst a squalid makeshift work camp thrown up in the middle of Delhi and assigned responsibility for constructing the exclusive surrounding luxury high-rise apartments and shopping malls. Balram observes detachedly as two children who happily splash about in filthy camp waters tainted by human excrement are hastily turned enemies at the sight and prospect of a rare, prized stray dollar.

The slum ended in an open sewer … A hundred-rupee note came flying down into the river. The children watched with open mouths, and then ran to catch the note before it floated away. One child caught it and the other began hitting him, and they began to tumble about in the black water as they fought. (Adiga 223)

Meanwhile, those at the top end of the socioeconomic hierarchy they tend to saturate themselves in delusions of politically correct grandeur that smell of self-entitlement, cultural superiority, and necessary deference to accountability. “Where in New York will you find someone to bring you tea and sweet biscuits while you’re still lying in bed, the way Ram Bahadur does for us? You know, he’s been in my family for thirty years—we call him a servant, but he’s part of the family.” (Adiga 77)

The stark contrast that becomes of glossing over or remaining indifferent to the harsh realities of oppression appears to be a rationalization for maintaining a status quo that might otherwise be at odds with personal values. In the end, what one finds is that what is good for humanity is probably bad for the economy and that appreciating monetary wealth as a measure of success probably means encouraging a world where one must win, one loses, and none shares with the other. This is but a single side to the multi-faceted social conundrum that is the free market. (For how can something be truly free when it exists purely as an object relative to sale?)

This assertion of socioeconomic hierarchy as a social ill further rings true in Cry, The Beloved Country by Alan Paton. This story takes place in twentieth century South Africa where immigrant, pale-skinned, Europeans are coming in with industry that consequently leads to the degradation of indigenous African culture through exploitation of labor, separation of families, and environmental destruction.

However, where Adiga presumes to know only the inner thoughts and intensions of one side of the rich versus the poor hierarchal debate, specifically the poor side, by using a first-person approach to his narrative, Paton presumes to know all sides of the rich versus poor debate, and being a born South-African of pale complexion, such presumptions take on a potential new dynamic that must be considered in interpreting its significance and relation to questions of socioeconomic hierarchy. Regardless of this prospective bias to Paton’s omnipresent narrative approach, both writers make quite clear that money is a cause of suffering and disparity in India as well as Africa.

In Paton’s story, a white and a black South African father become unlikely allies in social reform after the white father’s son dies by the hand of the black father’s son. The overall moral of the story appears to be a do-unto-others message with a little good-will-to-all sprinkled in for measure, but the general state of affairs, an existing chasm between culture and economy that proliferates crime, violence, poverty, disease, addiction, and cultural deconstruction is somehow not unlike that of the one described by Adiga and, thus, becomes all the more difficult to ignore. “For this place of suffering, from which men might escape if some such voice could bind them all together, is for him no continuing city. They say he preaches of a world not made by hands, while in the streets about him men suffer and die.” (Paton 124)

Again, as in Adiga’s tale, human labor appears to become an exploit of wealth, economically forced servitude is the consequence that expresses for one in the context of outside westernized industrialists laying claim to the resources and labor traditionally belonging to indigenous East Indians, the other in the context of outside westernized industrialists laying claim to the resources and labor traditionally belonging to Indigenous South Africans. In the end, the main difference between Adiga and Paton’s settings of socioeconomic disparity is each author’s message as it does (or does not) relate to hope and faith in humanity. While Adiga forms his conclusion with an air of morbidly pessimistic pragmatism, blindly accepting the dehumanizing effects of commerce on society, Paton paints an image of brotherly love that bubbles like cool kindness under the surface of human greed waiting to spring forth its nurturing waters of hope.

In Alan Sillitoe’s The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner the main difference between the oppression described in the former two examples and those illustrated here is that rather than the western industrialists laying claim to resources and labor being of outside they are of inside origins, specifically Sillitoe’s stories speak to the oppressed class of factory workers that oiled the cogs of a burgeoning Industrial age that confirmed England’s place as a world dominating power, and finally, that humbly came to be by the calloused hands of people that worked and lived in the noisily churning and precarious lanes of nineteenth century Nottingham, England. Just as we see Adiga and Paton’s worlds affect cultural and familial depreciating values that fall in direct proportion to the raise in valuing human labor in terms of economic worth, so does Sillitoe create an image of human suffering, destroyed dignity, and insurmountable but fully preventable obstacles of socioeconomic hierarchy.

In his story, The Decline and Fall of Frankie Buller Sillitoe highlights the caveat and bitter irony that those who do manage to transcend the socioeconomic divide despite all odds must likely face in attempts to come to terms with a sense of self-identity torn and alienated by haunted memories and a burden of guarded fear determined to hide the shameful truth of one’s socioeconomic origins lest a member of one’s newly adopted class find out and be a cause for non-negotiable social rejection, “Often I would like to rip them away from me, [memories/experiences] extract their shadows out of my mouth and heart, cut them neatly with a scalpel from my jungle brain. Impossible. You can’t wind back the clock that sits grinning on the marble shelf. You can’t even smash its face in and forget it.” (Sillitoe 156)

Exploring another dynamic and personal perspective relative to impoverished life, The Disgrace of Jim Scarfdale, describes a world where people routinely and indifferently go to jail for acts of,

burglary, deserting, setting fire to buildings, bad language … poaching, trespassing, driving off in cars that didn’t belong to them, trying to commit suicide, attempted murder, assault and battery, snatching handbags, shoplifting, fraud, forgery, pilfering from work, bashing each other about, and all sorts of lark that don’t mean much. (Sillitoe 154)

This cold existence of life and crime where morality appears to be less than the weight of oppressive need for basic survival confronts the reader with grim realism and unapologetic apathy that seems to be a common attitude among both the rich and the poor characters alike (across discussed books and authors) who each apparently find it easier to accept his and/or her lot than to forgo the unfair fact of social convention, invention, tradition, and that may or may not be described as being at odds with a character’s and/or author’s personal moral values. It seems that no matter what the intentions may be in each Adiga, Paton, and Sillitoe’s stories they all speak to a similarly distinct human condition that finds principles of economic gain reduces people to suffering, and is a causal force that helps lead to the overall degradation of human society.

Although money appears to be the object that binds these stories of oppression together, there are still other forces at work in tandem and that contribute to the overall oppressive effect. For one there is the recurring issue of socioeconomic discrimination founded upon ethnic associations, especially ones defined by color of skin so that it would seem that even the most economically advantageous individual of a dark complexted nature would have less opportunity than that of his or her economically deficient but lighter skinned counterpart.

Secondly, with rare exception, in most cultures, it seems there is a protocol designed for cultivating a code of respect for one another. However, when it happens that two cultures should intersect in the context of money, there is a tendency for the culture exhibiting the upper economic hand to disregard customs of formality that imply an association of cultural equality where socioeconomic constraints insist there not be. Such realizations become apparent in scenes like that of the one that develops between the black South African village priest and the neighboring white South African farmer’s son in Paton’s Cry, The Beloved Country which reminds readers despite one’s place of respect in one’s own cultural group, socioeconomic status always takes precedence over custom even where it may seem accordingly an act of undeniable disrespect. In other words, the black priest (and reader) is well aware of the potential repercussions for attending to disciplining (in the hypothetical sense that the story called for it) the white South African farmer’s son in the same manner he might a village youth.

On the other hand, the culture with the weaker economic standing likewise tends to move toward over emphasizing customs of respect in interacting with those deemed to have greater socioeconomic standing so it seems that both sides carry some responsibility of blame. For example, in comparing and contrasting the situations and characters in Sillitoe’s collection of short stories, we see a pattern of socially acceptable violence being committed against women born and raised in the factory class, that, in the context of the story The Disgrace of Jim Scarfdale, which tells of a socioeconomically unbalanced marriage forged between a working class man, (and eventual pedophile) Jim Scarfdale and his mysteriously found upper-class born and raised wife whom the narrator describes as having a manner of speech that was, “so posh as if she’d come straight out of an office., ” (Sillitoe 144-145) we see that even such ingrained hierarchal and often cross-cultural customs that value men over women is rarely strong enough to overcome the power of one’s socioeconomic standing regardless of gender.

In Sillitoe’s story we see a socioeconomically held superior woman set her husband’s newspaper on fire while he is reading it because he does not pay attention to her and in response, rather than commence to strike her in the customary fashion readers come to associate with Sillitoe’s rough English male characters brought to life by The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner the story offers a somewhat unexpected image of a helpless Jim describing to his mother how he, “got a fright,” (Sillitoe 150) from his wife’s defiant behavior, further demonstrating how commanding the authority of economic power is compared to even the most archaic and rigidly maintained customs of social hierarchy like assignments of gender.

Similarly, in Adiga’s The White Tiger we see how money trumps another seemingly all-powerful determinant of social status, ethnic heritage. Despite the overwhelmingly obvious division existing in modern India that decides often by color of skin whether a person will find social opportunity or be subject to government-sanctioned oppression. Again, not cherished tradition or virtuous morality defines ultimate authority. In the end, it seems wealth conquers all. This becomes clear as the reader realizes that it is no secret that Adiga’s anti-hero, Balram, is a known murderer amongst his entrepreneurial allies of Bangalore, India. Rather, it is by the fact of the blood money obtained by his choice to murder that protects Balram from being gripped by the no less unjust clutches of the Indian judicial system and he knows that once such money runs out, “a man in a uniform may one day point a finger at me and say, Time’s up, Munna.” (Adiga 276)

In contrast, there does not appear to be a similar example of money trumping ethnic hierarchy in Paton’s Cry, The Beloved Country, a fact that is not altogether surprising, considering the implied intent of the book which means to inspire brotherly love and, thus, demands purposefully deemphasizing storytelling on the part of the author so as to avoid the chance that the targeted audience interpret a tone of accusation and react defensively rather than thoughtfully to Paton’s pleas for socioeconomic peace on earth.

Finally, we come to the socioeconomic questions of hierarchy posed by diverse voices characterized in Robert Olen Butler’s collection of short stories, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain. Here, it seems the discussion is not so much a concern of correlating the gradual process and consequence of assimilatory socioeconomic oppression that similarly defines the previous three books and authors discussed as it is a different means of exploring the immediately devastating properties of war, specifically, the effects of the Vietnam war and its effect upon Americans, Vietnamese and those caught in between both worlds, Vietnamese-Americans.

Butler’s intent to writing A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain appears to be not unlike that of Paton’s mission in composing Cry, The Beloved Country, which is to apparently find a common ground that equally appeals to all side’s senses of humanity for the purpose of inspiring human kindness or at the very least, to encourage each to treat the other with equal regard no matter what one’s socioeconomic status and/or ethnic heritage.

However, where Paton’s message aims at its audience like an intentionally blaring beacon of hope, Butler’s bridge builds its common ground to humanity not by faith but by the subtle gloom, and yet no less powerfully connecting and affecting thread of human experience which appeals to a common human understanding of loss, suffering, survival, and possibility for redemption. This message of hopeful resolution becomes most evident in the story Fairy Tale where we see how two people equally affected and damaged by the Vietnam War, but existing at opposite ends of the sociocultural spectrum being an American veteran man and a Vietnamese-American woman brought to America as a refugee of war find peace and comfort in one another’s companionship due to their shared experience of suffering caused by the Vietnam War.

What these four authors’ diverse literary voices come together to reveal about socioeconomic hierarchy is that across divides such as those fashioned by land, culture, and time, social divisions caused by money consistently appear to be a cause of unnecessary and widespread human suffering and that however an oppressing group may seek to justify its inhumane actions there is no acceptable reason that excuses subjecting fellow humans to lives of misery simply for the prospect of gaining material wealth.

In reading the stories, The White Tiger by Avarind Adiga, Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton and the collection of shorts that is Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner by Alan Sillitoe and A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain by Robert Olen Butler and coming to the know the rich depth of each character lovingly drawn by each respective author’s creative hand and life experiences, there is a common thread relative to hierarchy that draws these different stories immersed in and shaped by cultural experience and identity together that warns readers to be mindful of conditions that encourage socioeconomic disparity and to stay equally attentive to conditions that induce and/or maintain unnecessary systems that lead to human suffering.

Whether it is Adiga’s sleek, defiant and murderous Balram, a do-it-yourself entrepreneur of Bangalore India born into a poor caste of sweetbread makers with a rickshaw puller of a father; Paton’s reluctantly oppressive, pale-skinned second generation South African farmers who mean to only achieve a modest life of comfort and legacy of land; Sillitoe’s rash salt-of-the-earth English industrial laborers, with their violent spark and loyal sense of duty to labor and family that oiled the cogs of modern industrialized society; or Butler’s displaced victims and survivors of war that are torn by trauma, loss, memories, politics and culture that the reader finds a personal connection corresponding to his and/or her own experience and understanding of hierarchy, the single plea that unites these stories and characters into one voice calls for us to above all else treat each other with dignity and decency In other words, if what does not kill us does not either make us stronger; it should, at the very least, make us wiser and therefore more sensitive to its causes.

Works Cited

Adiga, Aravind. The White Tiger. Simon & Schuster: Free Press, 2008. Print.

Butler, Robert Olen. A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain: Stories. New York: H. Holt, 1992. Print.

Paton, Alan. Cry, the Beloved Country: A Story of Comfort in Desolation.New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1948. Print.

Sillitoe, Alan. The Lonliness of the Long-Distance runner. New York: Plume, 1959. Print.


 

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