The word “class” comes to English from the Latin classis via the French classe. It first appears in Thomas Blount’s Glossographia (1656), where he defined it in the language of the times as “an order or distribution of people according to their several Degrees.” Citing Blount, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) traces the term’s origins to its use by Servius Tullius who, seeking to raise funds for the Roman military, conducted a census for the purpose of taxing citizens according to their means. He created six categories or classes, based on property or net wealth (Kostick 2005). In spite of the strong resonance of its etymology with contemporary socioeconomic understandings of class, when it first entered the English language classe had greater purchase in reference to a division of scholars or students, and later as a natural history term. According to the OED, its use in regard to a social division or grouping does not reappear until 1772. Until then, “estate,” “order,” “rank,” and “degree,” terms that originated in medieval times, continued to be used to describe social positions. The use of word “class” is therefore historically associated with the Industrial Revolution and the rise of capitalism, making it somewhat anachronistic to apply it to earlier systems of class division that appear in children’s fiction.
According to Raymond Williams (1983a), the trigger that led to “class” superseding earlier terms was the recognition that “social position is made rather than merely inherited,” indeed, increasing consciousness that particular social systems “actually created social divisions.” The notion that social position is made is particularly important in children’s literature, which abounds in rags-to-riches and triumph-of-the-underdog stories, from Joseph Jacob’s 1890 version of “Jack and the Beanstalk,” to Horatio Alger, Jr.’s Ragged Dick (1868), Struggling Upward (1890), and other books for boys, to Louis Sachar’s Holes (1998). It informs modernized variants of the Cinderella story, including the feature film A Cinderella Story (Rosman 2004) and Shannon Hale’s novel Princess Academy (2005). These tropes bear witness to a notion of class as a hierarchical system of social classification—or as E. P. Thompson (1963/1980) puts it, a relational category evident in the notions of upper, middle, lower, and under classes—that nevertheless offers the potential for social mobility that is usually upward in children’s texts, although occasionally downward for privileged protagonists, as in Lauren Child’s Hubert Horatio Bartle Bobton-Trent (2004).
Children’s fiction is less straightforward in representing the unequal distribution of social and economic resources, or how power and privilege inheres in class structure and impedes social mobility. This may be because, as Williams (1983a) points out, “class” is a “difficult word” when it comes to the actual basis upon which social divisions are understood and thus represented. Its ambiguities are a product of the national and historical variations in usage, as well as the different empirical criteria and conceptual models used to measure and theorize it. These competing genealogies result in understandings of class that alternately overlap, occlude, and contradict each other.
Williams identifies the source of confusions about class in the late eighteenth century. In addition to referring to a system of ranking according to social status—implicit in Blount’s glossing of the term—it begins to be used to differentiate “productive” and “unproductive classes.” Coining “class” as a verb in The Wealth of Nations (1776), Adam Smith states, “‘I have classed artificers, manufacturers, and merchants among the productive laborers’” (OED). Class thus begins to become an expression of an economic relationship, a model brought to fruition by Karl Marx as a relation to modes of production. Although clearly linked, status and economic models of class do not exactly coincide. The former is a hierarchical ranking based on social distinction; the latter is a fundamentally binary split based on the division between those who own the mode of production and those who sell their labor (Marx 1859). Historical and contemporary constructions of the middle class make this tension explicit: grouped with the working class according to the economic model—middle-class people work, after all—they are ranked more highly than the working class according to the status model.
The status model of social stratification reflects, but is not reducible to, economic inequality or material productive forces (Williams 1983a; Wright 1985), a fact made apparent in images of genteel poverty in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868–69) and Ethel Turner’s Seven Little Australians (1894). Marx’s model is economically determinist, but it offers a mode of class analysis that explains class inequality and offers the potential for revolutionary change (Connell 1983). These two systems sit in an uneasy relation in children’s literature and its scholarship, not only because in literary theory class is inextricably linked with Marxist criticism, but because of children’s perceived relation to production.
At the same time as notions of productive and unproductive classes gained currency, children and their literature began to acquire special status. Didactic and utopian in sentiment, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century children’s fiction came to reflect a belief in the myth of childhood as lying outside of the injustices of the social order and the world of work. The result, according to Fred Inglis (1981), is that in children’s fiction the reading of class is “always and endlessly capable of being relocated in the classless paradise.” Pointing to the likes of Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons (1931), Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows (1908), and E. Nesbit’s The Railway Children (1906) as “stabilizing fictions,” Ian Wojcik-Andrews (1993) asks, “[W]hat better way to control and assuage class struggle and class conflict in reality than through classless utopias in fiction?” However, to the extent that class consciousness and struggle centers on a recognition of the exploitation of labor, this is problematic, since, as Maria Nikolajeva (2002a) points out, “children don’t work.” Although, as she acknowledges, this is not historically true, children cannot have an occupation as such. When labor is depicted in children’s literature, it tends to be transformed into “play,” “an evil,” or “distanc[ed] to the historical past,” as in Robert Cormier’s Fade (1988). In contemporary fiction showing the exploitation of labor, such as Cynthia Kadohata’s Kira-Kira (2004), or the effects of poverty, such as Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007), issues of class are often overwritten by race or ethnicity. This does not mean that Marxist criticism is irrelevant to children’s literature, but the project it enables may in fact occlude the pertinence of status models to the genre.
Certainly, Marx saw a direct correspondence between the economic base or mode of production and the social, intellectual, and political superstructure as an ideological vehicle of the class status quo. Refined by Louis Althusser (1971), class ideology is a system of representation, making literature a potential means for disseminating and normalizing values in the service of the interests of the dominant class—or resisting them. Thus, the Marxist critic of children’s literature Jack Zipes (1983) shows how the folk tales of the common people were transformed into literary fairy tales that reflected and subverted the values of the aristocracy. Writing about English children’s literature, Bob Dixon (1977) emphasizes the corollary, arguing that “until very recent times, working class characters, if they appeared at all, appeared invariably in minor roles and in very few categories. They could be objects of charity (but only if loyal and obedient workers); repugnant characters, often criminals, who posed a menace to the social structure; or menials who were usually funny.” However, here again the tension between productive and unproductive classes comes to the fore, since in spite of the persistence of inherited class positions in Britain, the opposition underpinning Dixon’s analysis is between the working and middle classes. Children’s literature has long been middle class in it consumption and production, and from this perspective, class division is necessarily informed by status.
If the opposition between productive and unproductive classes suggests an economic relationship, it also encodes value judgments, including those of moral and other worth such as Dixon’s observations about the British working class suggest. In The Making of the Modern Child: Children’s Literature and Childhood in the Late Eighteenth Century, Andrew O’Malley (2003) shows how the demonization of the rich and stigmatization of the poor in children’s literature under the rise of industrial capitalism reflected a preoccupation with the construction of the middle-class subject. This subject embodies the values of individualism, such as “thrift, self-denial, industry… and education,” and achieves social mobility through personal merit, virtue, and hard work. Thus, the child protagonists in the English-American author Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Little Lord Fauntleroy (1886) and A Little Princess (1905) are rewarded for their virtue by being rescued from their penury. Obscuring the structural inequality created by the mode of production, such tropes locate class positions and their transcendence as a function of individual dispositions, rather than the collective struggle associated with working-class consciousness in Marx’s model.
Although Max Weber (1922) argued for an opposition between class and status, and Williams treats them as separate entries in Keywords, their connectedness is particularly important in relation to the representation of class in children’s literature, especially in contemporary texts. Clearly, the two are intricately linked, as demonstrated by Pierre Bourdieu’s (1986) theorization of the nexus between economic capital and the symbolic, social, and cultural capital that underpin the status model. Indeed, children’s literature typically depicts class difference through symbols of status, rather than relations to labor. It also resolves class conflict through the status model: characters such as Charlie in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964) or Ryan in the U.S. teen television series The OC (2003–7), who perform (or learn to perform) behaviors and express values appropriate to the middle class, are rewarded with social mobility (Bullen 2007). However, insofar as the “language of status” displaces the “language of class” in these texts, it dissipates the radical aspects of class consciousness by “appearing to cancel out class in the sense of formation or even broad group, and [by] providing a model of society which is not only hierarchical and individually competitive but is essentially defined in terms of consumption and display” (Williams 1983a). To the extent that children’s narratives reduce class to a status model, they serve the interests of capital.
This is even more acute in American children’s literature, informed as it is by the myths of a classless society, the American Dream, and a descriptive model of socioeconomic status that identifies up to 70 percent of Americans as middle class (Gilbert 2002; Thompson and Hickey 2005) in spite of economic inequality. As Eric Lott (2007) points out, in the United States, class is “[c]losely related to such categories as ‘station,’ ‘status,’ ‘group’ and ‘kind’” and “resonates with implications of value, quality, respectability, and religious virtue,” and that it is thus “difficult to pry capital loose from rectitude.” Similarly, middle-class values are difficult to “pry loose” from social mobility, as is social status from consumerism and display. The contemporary heroine of Meg Cabot’s The Princess Diaries (2000), Mia, may be a modern-day Cinderella, but her political-activist sensibilities reflect the values of the contemporary middle class. She also performs its consumerist values—an ethos that is even more overt in mass-market young adult fiction series such as Gossip Girl (Von Ziegesar’s 2002) and The Insiders (Minter 2004), which conflate class status with the conspicuous consumption of luxury goods, excluding those who fail as consumers of taste and distinction.
However, it is not only in America that class awareness is weak. Some argue that the late twentieth century witnessed the “death of class” (Pakulski and Waters 1996). It also saw a decline in the use of class as a category of analysis in children’s literature (Wojcik-Andrews 1993) and, with the shift towards identity politics, in cultural and literary studies more generally (Eagleton 1996). This does not mean that class is no longer relevant. In its continued promotion of middle-class values, children’s literature seeks to socialize readers into values and ways of being that may facilitate social mobility. At the same time, in using the language of status, it obfuscates those structural inequalities in the capitalist class system that impede social mobility. The core conflict in children’s literature analysis of class, then, is how the critic employing the concept understands its reference points in terms of Marxist class analysis, the Weberian status model, or a Bourdieuan synthesis of the economic and non-economic capital. The application of these approaches is also highly dependent on the historical period in which the narrative is written and/or set, given that class demarcations have changed dramatically with the rise of consumer capitalism, globalization, and expansion of the middle classes in the contemporary West. Current children’s literature research and scholarship will need to be responsive to the changing class structures of the contemporary world.