Race, gender and class are socially constructed ideologies that shape the experience of individuals. The first social hierarchy is racial oppression which focuses on a specific race with cruel restraints. This social form of oppression includes mistreatment or exploitation which is socially supported. The second social oppression is class oppression which involves the discrimination based on social class; the socio-economic status of an individual determines how society will treat that individual. The third social hierarchy is gender oppression which is gender norms society has adopted. The gender norms are that masculinity and femininity are polar opposites, with masculinity being dominate and femininity is inferior. These forms of oppression society and culture have created. Socially constructed issues are depicted in literature through stories, novels, poems etc.
Thus, literature is a mechanism used among authors to make us conscious and aware of how these forces or social constructs shape us. Authors address multiple oppressions related to race, gender and class for readers to reconsider and question the formation of society. Two important literature texts, Beauty and the beast or the enormous wound by Clarice Lispector and Lucy Jamaica Kincaid address the forces that shape us as individuals. “Beauty and the beast or the enormous wound” is a short story about a very rich woman because her husband is part of the upper class. She finished from the salon and waited outside on the street for her driver to come, which was something she has never done since she was always surrounded by people. As she waited for a beggar with an enormous wound in his leg approached her and asked her for change, she was shocked because she meets a homeless person. She did not have change, she only had five hundred cruzeiros and gave it to the beggar. As she thought to herself, she wanted to kill the beggar because he is a “beast” and the ugly truth of reality. Afterwards, she began to contemplate about her life and the situation she is in; she realized and became aware that she has pretended that there were not beggars or starving people and that the beggar and she are both equal. She is a beggar for her husband’s love who has two mistresses and she begs god that people accept her. She became aware that she was actually the devil and that the beggar was Jesus. In addition, she concluded that her life is soft as a leap of a cat and that the enormous wound in the beggar’s leg is the harsh cold reality.
The second story, “Lucy” by Jamaica Kincaid is about a young woman named Lucy who left Africa and travelled to America to become a nanny. When she arrived in America she worked for a woman named Mariah who had four children. After quite some time Lucy was working for this white family, spring was approaching and Mariah decided to show Lucy a field of daffodils which are her favourite flowers. For Mariah spring makes her feel more alive and happy however, for Lucy she sees them the complete opposite. Rather Lucy wanted to kill the flowers, because of colonial injustice. When Lucy was fourteen years old in Africa she had to memorize a European poem about daffodils. She however at that age did not know how daffodils looked like not until she moved to America and became a nanny at nineteen that she knew how they looked like. Lucy tried to explain to Mariah what the daffodils mean to her but she did not understand. Afterwards, Mariah decided to take the family on a train to the Great Lakes. As they were on the train, Lucy thought about the setting of the train. That all those who were eating dinner looked like Mariah’s relatives; in other words, they were all white. As for the waiters they looked like Lucy relatives since they were all coloured. The novel fast forward to present day and Lucy does not work Mariah anymore, she instead works independently. These texts convey certain truths, however, whereas both literature text, Beauty and the beast or the enormous wound by Clarice Lispector and Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid portray class, gender and serve as a powerful mechanism to make individuals aware about the forces that shape us as human beings. However, they’ve diverged in race and colonization as demonstrated through characterization. I choose this topic because I wanted to have greater knowledge of the forces such as race, gender and class how they shape us as individuals.
The common social constructs both literature text share is gender and class ideology. In the novel, Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid presents women and femininity. Mariah tries to aid and understand Lucy’s situation. Mariah discussed women based upon her culture which does not correspond to Lucy’s situation. In Jamaica Kincaid’s novel Lucy, Lucy claims “Mariah wanted to rescue me. She spoke of women in society, women in history, women in culture, women everywhere. But I couldn’t speak, so I couldn’t tell her that my mother was my mother and that society and culture and other women, in general, were something else in general” (131) Lucy is a black working class woman, by society she is seen as inferior who lacks privileges and equality, since her culture were oppressed by the Europeans. As compared to Mariah who is a white upper-class woman and she is part of the European culture. As for that, she has privileges and her voice is heard. In the short story Beauty and the beast or the enormous wound by Clarice Lispector, she shares the same concept feminism in her story. Carla is a woman part of the upper class because of the last name she holds; her husband is a wealthy man who works as a banker. In the short story, Beauty and the beast or the enormous wound by Clarice Lispector says, “she had a name to uphold: it was Carla de Sousa e Santos. The “de” and “e” were important: they denoted class and four-hundred-year-old Rio family”(602) As shown in this quote that Carla holds an upper-class last name and that she is wealthy because of her husband, making Carla dependent on a man to live an upper-class lifestyle. However, if she wanted to divorce her husband she would have to marry another wealthy man to continue being upper class. If she did not then she would go back to being part of the middle/lower class and work as a secretary for a bank. Therefore, making her dependent on men and is unable to make an upper class living on her own.
These two literature texts diverge in the ideologies of race and colonization, this is portrayed in Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid. At the beginning of the story, Lucy was describing Mariah as being blessed with beauty, “Mariah, with her pale yellow skin and yellow hair, stood still in the almost celestial light, and she looked blessed, no blemish or mark of any kind on her check or anywhere else” (26) Mariah is a beautiful white woman had no mark or blemish on her skin this represents that she has never been struggling in her life. As being a white she would not have to be working her way up, she was privileged and was living a simple and stress-free lifestyle. Compared to Lucy who has been struggling her whole life; she struggled with living in Africa with the colonization of Europeans, afterward travelling to a different country as being a nanny. Africa was colonized by the British Empire therefore, the British colonial curricula were enforced onto the children. This created a love/hate relationship with English literature. English writers such as Shakespeare, Wordsworth or Milton are the ‘daffodil gap’ and they had to be studied by the African students. The ‘daffodil gap’ this idea came from the short story Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid. In the story when the protagonist Lucy was fourteen years old she had to study and memorize an English poem that discusses daffodils. She doesn’t know how they looked like since there were no daffodils in Africa, they existed in remote areas, like Europe and America. Lucy says, “It wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t my fault. But nothing could change the fact that where she saw beautiful flowers I saw sorrow and bitterness”(31) as she claims that Mariah saw the flowers as beautiful and they reminded her about spring because she is white and her country was never colonized, Lucy’s perspective was that her country was colonized by the British and she could not separate the daffodil’s from the injustice of colonialism. Therefore, both Mariah and Lucy’s experiences and understandings of the world are completely different. Their race, unfortunately, determines the privileges and the opportunities that they receive by society.
These two literature texts are used as a powerful mechanism to make us aware of the forces that shape us as human beings. The two texts portray the social constructs gender, race and class; those forces shape our experiences and our perspectives in life. Without reading literature we wouldn’t be conscious about these social constructed forces since we all consider it to be normal. Authors that write literature reveal truths and topics that would not be discussed on a daily basis. Rather, people would not discuss these topics and suppress these ideologies in order to avoid the truth. Literature acts a way to discover more about the self since it reaches the hidden or unconscious part of us and it gives us an understanding of the world around us. Personally for me after readings literature works I had an in-depth insight of the society were are in. I became more aware of the forces that shape us as individuals that I have never thought about before. I understand in depth more about the way society perceives those who are othered such as those who come from the third world, part of the lower class and women. In my perspective, I believe literature defines humanity. It serves as a reflection of society and opens up to insights of knowledge and wisdom. Without literature we as individuals would not understand the way the world operates it is important that we learn and understand from characters experiences in stories, therefore if we don’t it would make life very chaotic and society would be unorganized. For example, from my experience, I learned about gender inequality, social class; upper, middle and working class and racial oppression through literature I was more aware of these ideologies after I began to read more literature. I learned through the characters experiences and how they dealt with these challenges. It made me reconsider and question the formation of society. Fortunately, I gained my awareness of these social constructs at a young age and understood them more as I kept reading different stories.
In conclusion, both these literature texts portray class, gender and discussed certain truths that made us conscious about our society, however, they have diverged in race and colonization. This was all demonstrated through the use of characterization. As we the reader learn from the characters experience and how they faced these issues aided us to understand these forces that shape us as human beings. For an in-depth understanding of the texts, some further questions to consider such as, Why is Lucy constantly thinking about her past life in Africa? How does the first person perspective affect our reading of the story? Why does Carla sit on the floor?
- Kincaid, Jamaica. Lucy Desclee De Brouwer, 1997. 26-133
- Lispector, Clarice. “Beauty and the Beast or The Enormous Wound.” Literary Hub, 20 Mar. 2019, lithub.com/beauty-and-the-beast-or-the-enormous-wound/.
- Sparknotes. SparkNotes, SparkNotes, www.sparknotes.com/lit/lucy/symbols/.
- Shmoop Editorial Team. “Lucy: A Novel Theme of Women and Femininity.” Shmoop, Shmoop University, 11 Nov. 2008, www.shmoop.com/lucy-a-novel/women-femininity-theme.html.