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Economic inequality is a result of the large gap between social classes. The novels, Poor Things by Alasdair Gray and Dreams of my Russian Summers by Andrei Makine, portray a distinction between the wealthy and the poor and how it impacts different characters’ lives and their social standing. Gray depicts this by comparing and contrasting the life of Archibald McCandless to most of his peers in medical school, including Godwin Baxter. In Dreams of my Russian Summers, the dissimilarity between the life of Charlotte Lemonnier and that of the disabled soldiers also demonstrates the effects of economic inequality. Both books explicate the powerlessness associated with poverty, which is a direct result of the lack of political authority and exploitation the poor receive from society. Many poor people are left infinitely waiting while the rich succeed to accomplish their dreams. Nonetheless, this is a generalization, and there are wealthy who help the poor, as seen through the experiences of Bella Baxter in Poor Things, and Charlotte Lemonnier in Dreams of my Russian Summers.
In the book, Poor Things, Gray portrays the discrepancy between poverty and riches by introducing characters from each social class. The novel is told through the eyes of Archibald McCandless, the narrator, who describes the surgical creation of a woman named Bella Baxter who ultimately matures into a feminist and socialist doctor. The reader experiences McCandless first-hand struggle with poverty throughout the novel. He is of “farm-servant origins” and battles with that particularly early on in life. When his mother dies, she tells him “her life-savings were in a tin trunk under the bed and muttered, ‘take it and count it’” (Gray, 1). McCandless decides to use the money that his mother leaves behind to pay for medical school. Unfortunately, within the first semester at the university he finds himself excluded from the majority of wealthy students in the class due to his lower economic standing. McCandless expresses, “at University my clothes and manners announced my farm-servant origins” (Gray, 1). He is constantly isolated from the rest of the students in his class because his appearance does not meet their standards of someone they should associate themselves with. One day, his professor calls him into his office and advises that he change his style in order to achieve the future he dreams of. His professor believes that it would allow the other students to see him as a more approachable peer, enabling him to develop better social skills necessary to be a trustable and successful doctor. McCandless responds to his professor by saying, “my money could pay for no more than my fees, books, instruments and keep” (Gray, 1). Evidently, lack of money affects McCandless and separates him from the majority of the students in the university.
The difference between the wealthy and poor is represented in the contrasting social standings of Godwin Baxter, “the rich heir of a mighty noblemen” and McCandless, “the bastard bairn of a poor peasant” (Gray, 14). Godwin Baxter is the son of a notorious medic, referred to as Sir Colins, who is known to be the first medical man knighted by Queen Victoria herself. While Baxter is considered one of the best students at the institution, his hospital work is not as successful due to his poor social skills. Therefore, Baxter does not graduate the university but instead becomes a research assistant. Before McCandless and Baxter become friends, McCandless speaks about him with an envious tone. He describes Baxter with, “clothes of expensive grey cloth” (Gray, 14). McCandless is jealous of Baxter because he cannot afford those types of luxuries in his life. While McCandless struggles immensely with money, Bella Baxter is very generous to help him because as she says, “Candle is very poor” (Gray, 53). When Bella tells Baxter she is moving out to elope with a lawyer she met, Duncan Wedderburn, she tells him to invite McCandless to live there to be in a lavish home with food, showers, and a bed, which would also give Baxter some company.
The inequality between economic classes is also illustrated through the experiences of Bella Baxter. Not only does she help McCandless with his poverty struggle, but also throughout the novel her knowledge of socialism increases as she learns the importance of helping those in need. Bella is raised in a wealthy home and does not understand the notion of class distinctions until she observes them with her own eyes. When she travels to Germany with Wedderburn, she visits a casino for the first time and is amazed by the little chips that people are throwing around. She meets a Russian gambler and tells him, “at first I didn’t notice any poor (the obviously poor were not let in) but then I saw some clothes that were not quite clean, or fraying at the cuffs…The poorest people staked the smallest coins, or stood and stare…” (Gray, 112). She recognizes the difference between the poor and the rich gamblers, and how both types of gamblers can come into the casino one way and leave as different people. The way they leave, either poorer or richer, can have a drastic impact on their life, as she sees with Wedderburn who gambles all of his money away. When the couple first arrives to the casino, Wedderburn wins big at Roulette. The Russian gambler tells Bella to take and keep as much money from him as she can get; that way, if he gambles it all away, they can still leave the casino with some dignity. The following morning, Wedderburn goes back to the casino and Bella decides to make a bet with him. She tells him to give her some of the money that he earned the previous night, and if he comes back richer she will return it and marry him, but if he loses the rest, they both are to leave. Wedderburn ends up losing all of the money in one hour, going from a rich man to a poor one. He has to beg Bella for food, cigarettes, and even to pay for their travel fares for the duration of their trip. Bella learns more about socialism when she and Wedderburn go on a ship (to avoid any more gambling problems) and meets Mr. Astley and Doctor Hooker. While Dr. Hooker views the world in a religious sense with the belief that god will save those in poverty, Mr. Astley believes that the poor shouldn’t exist because there is no need for them. He follows a more Malthusian view stating, “the better you feed the poor the more they breed” (Gray, 157). His “bitter wisdom” and cynical disposition influence Bella to feel more passionately about helping the poor (Gray, 157). Dr. Hooker and Mr. Astley take Bella to a hotel in Alexandria where she observes peasants begging for money. The wealthy people sitting at tables throw money on the ground and watch the peasants fighting each other to get the money, mocking and laughing at them. Bella tries to help a blind girl with a baby by handing them her purse, but someone else snatches it. She ultimately leaves the hotel in disgust with the wealthy people who so obviously and carelessly discriminate against the lower class citizens. She says,
I clenched my teeth and fists to stop them biting and scratching these clever men who want no care for the helpless sick small, who use religions and politics to stay comfortably superior to all that pain: who make religions and politics, excuses to spread misery with fire and sword and how could I stop all this? I did not know what to do (Gray, 176).
Bella finally learns of the envy and resentment the poor and exploited feel toward the wealthy. As she experiences more episodes like the one in the hotel with Mr. Astley and Dr. Hooker, Bellla discovers more about the class distinctions in society and yearns to reduce the horrendous gap separating the wealthy and the poor.
Similarly, Dreams of my Russian Summers depicts the harsh lifestyle in poverty compared to the lavish luxuries of the wealthy. In the novel, Makine touches upon certain realities of the Soviet life through the stories of Charlotte Lemonnier. Charlotte is born in France and moves to Russia as a child. During the Revolution in Russia, she becomes a nurse for the Red Cross and witnesses the horrors of the war and famine, as well as the dehumanizing development within the country. The two main outcomes of the Russian Revolution of 1917 include increased poverty, and exploitation of the poor by the nobility. In the book, Charlotte witnesses many disabled soldiers from the war whom she calls “Samovars.” The soldiers would wait outside the market, “trundling along in their boxes…they confronted people at the exit, asking them for money or tobacco. Some people gave, some hurried past…Charlotte stopped…” (Makine, 180). Charlotte takes money out of her bag and gives it to one of the disabled soldiers. After she does this, the “samovars” begin crowding her, asking her for more money and trying to steal it. She notices one of them heading her way with a knife between his teeth, which results in a bloody fight between the disabled soldiers over the money. Most people do not acknowledge the disabled soldiers; they ignore the poor state of others and continue shopping in the market. Charlotte, like her father, is different, and wants to help those less fortunate. Charlotte’s father is a respectable and wealthy doctor. One day, he hears from one of his patients about a large demonstration by workers that, “would be met at one of the crossroads with machine-gun fire” (Makine, 68). Right after his patient leaves, the privileged doctor goes to warn the workers. When Charlotte tells her grandson, the narrator, this story, he is surprised to hear about a wealthy man helping the poor. He says, “we were accustomed to seeing the world in black and white: the rich and the poor, the exploiters and the exploited – in a word, the class enemies and the just” (Makine, 68). Evidently, it is unfamiliar to the narrator to see this because his society is so clearly divided. From Charlotte, the young boy also learns about a Russia he never knew existed. She teaches him about the soviet society, including the famine, the cruel injustice, the misery, and the endless chaos of war. As he grows older, his relationship with his grandmother changes and he doesn’t visit her as often. Towards the end of the book, the narrator (grandson) is living in France and quits his job at the radio station. He runs out of money fairly quickly and has to seek shelter in a family tomb in a cemetery, which he calls home. He begins having suicidal thoughts because he does not think that the poor life he is living is even worth it. He reflects on what he considers a worthless life:
And even the idea that one day I must quit this life, that I must make a break with what little still bound me to those autumn days, to that city, kill myself, perhaps – even such a notion soon became habitual… And then one morning… the idea seemed to me like a marvelous way of leaving the game (Makine, 209)
The narrator ultimately writes a book about Charlotte’s life and does not commit suicide. He is extremely blessed that his published book earns him enough money to resume his life and escape his suicidal feelings. Undoubtedly, poverty impacts individuals beyond what is in the wallet and can truly change someone’s character.
In both novels, the poor are constantly isolated from the wealthy and are unable to find a way to fit in because their socio-economic status prevents them to do so. In Poor Things, McCandless is excluded from the rest of the students in his class because his appearance does not fit the standards of a typical wealthy person. Similarly, the disabled soldiers in Dreams of my Russian Summers are left on the curb outside the market because the wealthy ignore their state and give them no money. Nonetheless, there are kind and respectable people who help the poor, like Bella Baxter, but they do not realize how much they can do until they witness a firsthand account of the poverty struggle. The grandson in Dreams of my Russian Summers also does not realize that helping the poor could have such a large impact on the lives of individuals until he hears the story about his grandfather helping the workers. Wealthy individuals have the capacity to help the poor, but it is typically overlooked. Therefore, most impoverished individuals suffer from discrimination, which traps them in poverty, resulting in a vicious economic cycle of deprivation.
Poverty results from the, “lack of the means of providing material needs or comforts” (Parrillo, 192). This is observed in Poor Things and Dreams of my Russian Summers through the examples of social exploitation due to economic differences between classes. In the novels, there are incidents where the wealthy manipulate those less fortunate in order to amuse themselves, or they isolate the poor because they do not appear worthy enough to be associated with. Both novels demonstrate a clear separation between the poor and the wealthy and how it affects the lives of individuals and their society.
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