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July 17, 2013

Theme of Poverty in Literary Works

The two works, “Life in the Iron Mills” and Angela’s Ashes delve into the theme of poverty and gender discrimination. The analogy can be made between the two works. The story of Life in the Iron Mills revolves around a young man who is highly talented.  The tone of the author is sympathetic towards the exploited industrial workers who have become both mentally and psychically worn-out creatures. They are fully fit to embrace their tragic fate.
Indeed, this story is recognized as being the first literary work in America to have delved into the theme of poverty, industrial work, and exploitation of immigrants within the realm of a capitalistic economy.
Hugh Wolfe, along with his father, a Welsh immigrant, and cousin Deborah, live in two cellar rooms of the house, rented to six families. They are ironworkers who do not eke out a well-to-do living due to their low earnings at Kirby & John’s mill making iron for the railroad.  
Hugh and his father are puddlers, working for low earnings at Kirby & John's mill making iron for the railroad, while Deborah works as a picker in a cotton mill for a lower wage. The story is largely based on the impoverished existence of Hugh and Deborah. These two characters represent the predicament of all downtrodden mill workers. Deb, “almost a hunchback” keeps her unrequited love for Hugh and delivers to him every night a supper of bread, salt pork, and ale.
With her basic needs unfulfilled, she longs not only for food but for love and spiritual sustenance as well. She languishes under the impression that Hugh dislikes her appearance, which is not very beautiful or attractive.
At Kirby & John's mill, the grotesque furnaces that Hugh tends are similar to the pits of hell or Dante's Inferno. The severity of his work pulls the rug from under him to an extent that he loses manly strength and vigor. He is reduced to a feminine figure. "his muscles were thin, his nerves weak, his face (a meek, woman's face) haggard, yellow with consumption" (p. 24)

In the story, the class difference between the downtrodden, voiceless, powerless and powerful and well-to-do business man is self-evident. Young Kirby concedes to the fact that his father forces his hapless mill workers to vote for certain political candidates. It brings to light the fact that the immigrants are not merely exploited at work they are used as puppets to nurture the enterprise of political bigwigs. Immigrants are taken advantage of their poor living conditions and compulsions.
Wolfe observes the courteous manners, dress, and speech of the men, particularly of Mitchell. He articulates his observations in a very artistic way.  As Mitchell "knocked the ashes from his cigar, Wolfe caught with a quick pleasure the contour of the white hand, the blood-glow of a red ring he wore. His voice, too, and that of Kirby's, touched him like music;—low, even, with chording cadences" (p. 29). "More and more like a dumb, hopeless animal," Wolfe listens to Kirby, May, and Mitchell and observes their refinement, compared to his "filthy body, his more stained soul" (p. 30). He comes to term with the fact that the massive gulf lies between them.

On the other hand, Angela’s Ashes also deals with the similar themes of food, hunger, and poverty.  The miserable, rootless, and directionless lives are narrated throughout the story. Upon comparison, the predicament of the central character in this story is more intense and so is the portrayal of society.
“Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood', so writes Frank McCourt in his Pulitzer Prize winning novel. This is a tale of utter poverty and hardship that is not for the faint hearted. In fact it sometimes goes beyond the line between entertainment and enlightenment.
Frank McCourt's fascination with hunger and food in Angela's Ashes delves into Ireland's history and its protracted discomfort over food, or more precisely, its lack of food. During the early part of the twentieth century, the shortage of nutritious food was one of the major causes of early deaths in Ireland.
Every chapter, except the last two when Frank reaches America, makes mention of the protagonist's overpowering longing for food. In Clausen Avenue in Brooklyn, Frank needs food but finds only cabbage leaves floating in ice water. In Limerick he observes yearningly as the teacher skins an apple, his mouth salivating for the peeling, the part many throw away. At this point, the line that one man’s garbage is another’s treasure quite befittingly addresses the situation and intensity of poverty.
 At school, he and the whole class search in vain for a raisin in their raisin buns and he makes friends with boys he doesn't like just to be invited home to get a cheese sandwich and a glass of milk. The aromas emanating from the fish and chip shop benumbs his senses. Such is the height of poverty that the author depicts in the story. He rambles across the country stealing food and drinking milk directly from the cow's udder, steals food from affluent neighborhoods, and so on, and so forth. His friend Paddy Clohessy has never had a sandwich, and he's ten years old. The whole memoir is simply rife with references to food. But Ireland has a long history of starvation. It is no accident on McCourt's part that Mr. Timoney introduces Frank to the Irish eighteenth-century writer Jonathan Swift's satirical "A Modest Proposal," which two hundred years earlier suggested the Irish eat their babies to solve their population problems.
It can be said that the latter story is more intense in its treatment of the theme of poverty. Both the stories bring the theme of poverty into play showing the widening gap between the rich and poor.

                                                                     Works Cited
Knight, Densie “Writers of the American Renaissance: an A-to-Z guide” Greenwood Publishing Group, 2003, 234 pages


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