Social Stratification Essay

1658 words - 7 pages

In the novel, “Not without Laughter,” Langston Hughes uses the narrator's voice and the thoughts and dialogue of the character Sandy to explore social stratification. Specifically, the class relationships in American society through Sandy's experiences with the 3 sisters of the novel: Annjee, Tempy and Harriett. The sensibilities, style and intuitive feel of these 3 characters communicates to the reader that each one represents a different means of living, reflective of three prominent social strata in American society: the working-class, the petit-bourgeois middle class and the declassed.

Annjee is Sandy’s mother and a main character throughout the novel. She typifies the life of a ...view middle of the document...

54). This incident at the Rice home demonstrates for Sandy, for the first time, that the necessities of life (food, shelter, water, etc.) are often acquired through loss of respect, dignity and control over one’s own destiny. This lesson is reinforced when Annjee quits her job at Mrs. Rice’s home and moves to Detroit and then Toledo to follow her husband Jimboy. Through the letters sent home, she relates that the conditions of work and difficulties making ends meet remain constant despite moving to another state and into a larger city. This is repeated when she and Jimboy move to Chicago (Hughes 1930, p.232). The perennial influence Annjee’s working condition has on Sandy lead him to feel constricted and suffocated by full-time waged labor; a feeling of being trapped and the opposite of being a free man (Hughes 1930, p.289). This revelation at the end of the novel demonstrates that Annjee has accurately communicated the present and future of an individual of the working-class: bound to work for someone else with barely enough money to live.

Aunt Tempy is the oldest of Hager’s three daughters. Through dedication to her boss and strong feelings of ambition, she begins as a waged laborer in the service of Mrs. Barr-Grant but inherits property (one house) on the boss’ passing. Tempy proceeded to buy more residential properties with her savings (Hughes 1930, p.237). Her affluence is a stark contrast to the relative poverty of her immediate and extended family. Unlike her sister Annjee who works for a wage, Tempy lives off of the rental payments made by tenants in her residential properties. Her husband, Mr. Siles, also owns residential properties that he rents in addition to a civil service position he holds with the railroad. Their social status and relationship to the means of production places them in-between the working-class and the capitalists. Rather than investing their money into productive industry creating new value as the capitalists do, they support themselves largely on the rent payments made by their tenants (making them part of the rentier strata of society), directly consuming the money generated by renting out their properties. Sandy moves in with Tempy and Mr. Siles after his grandmother Hager’s passing, where he is expected and forced to adopt the mannerisms and habits of the middle class (Hughes 1930, p.235). He reflects on the lifestyle of his aunt and uncle, feeling constrained by their fixation on social standing, grace and manners. It is the petit-bourgeois, middle class values of his aunt Tempy that intrude on his natural values, such as forbidding him from seeing a girl that he likes in school because of what her mother does for a living (Hughes 1930, p.262-263). While Sandy appreciates the opportunities afforded by wealth, such as feeling free of the natural needs of food, water, clothing and shelter and the ability to study and engage in intellectual pursuits, these social habits and values repel him. Despite the comfort...

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