Some real-life servants are treated badly by their rich employers, but many fictional servants are treated nicely by their authors. A small, wish-fulfilling solace for readers in this time of soaring economic inequality.
Literature’s servants and other “hired help” are often smarter, funnier, and more compassionate than their “betters.” Perhaps that’s partly because they have to work hard for a living, while some of the wealthy get their money the old-fashioned way — inheriting it. Ah yes, the merit system…
Servants in literature also help us judge their masters. You can tell a lot about an affluent person’s decency (or lack of) by how they treat their so-called “inferiors.”
Some stand-out servants in fiction? Jeeves, of course, in the engaging and hilarious works of P.G. Wodehouse. That valet is incredibly bright and well-spoken, and helps his congenial but somewhat dim “master” Bertie Wooster out of many a scrape.
Another famous servant character is Nelly Dean, who’s the pragmatic voice of reason in a Wuthering Heights novel filled with hyper-passionate and/or weak-minded people. Nelly grounds Emily Bronte’s superb book, and helps make the hard-to-believe events in it seem believable. Of course, another servant in that novel is boorish religious fanatic Joseph, but we won’t talk about him… 🙂
Nineteenth-century English literature also offers us Nanny from the longish short story “The Sad Fortunes of Reverend Amos Barton” in the Scenes of Clerical Life collection George Eliot wrote before embarking on her astonishing career as a novelist. Nanny is the servant who memorably denounces a freeloading countess who overstays her welcome in the Bartons’ struggling household and even endangers the health of Amos’ kindhearted wife Milly.
How about Lee in John Steinbeck’s gripping East of Eden? That servant is an intellectual guy who cleverly deals with anti-Asian prejudice in the American West of the late 1800s/early 1900s and serves as a surrogate father to the Trask sons when biological father Adam is traumatized by a disastrous marriage.
Then there are the underlings/sidekicks such as Sancho Panza in Miguel Cervantes’ iconic Don Quixote and Samwise in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. In the former book, squire Sancho is a humorous/competent companion to the less-than-practical Quixote. In the latter work, gardener Samwise becomes an invaluable friend to Frodo — who, while admirable and brave, would have been in dire straits without Sam’s help during the Tolkien trilogy’s epic quest.
Speaking of funny characters, and characters named Sam, it’s hard to beat Sam Weller of Charles Dickens’ The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club when it comes to literature’s all-time underlings.
There’s also Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, in which loyal butler Stevens comes to regret a major missed opportunity in his life.
Last but by no means least, we can’t forget the many fictional African-American characters forced into servant work or outright slavery — whether it be in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Alex Haley’s Roots, Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and many other novels. “Uncle Tom” became a derogatory term, but Tom in the book is quite courageous in his turn-the-other-cheek way — and is clearly the moral center of Stowe’s story.
James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans and Rita Mae Brown’s Murder at Monticello are among the numerous other novels that have interesting references to the horrific institution of slavery — the ultimate servanthood.
What are your favorite literary works featuring servants, butlers, maids, valets, and others of that station in life? (The box for submitting comments is below already-posted comments. But your new comment will appear at the top of the comments area, unless you’re replying to someone else’s comment!)
(Thanks to Eric Pollock for reminding me of The Remains of the Day, to Geoff M./hopper250 for recommending the exciting works of James Fenimore Cooper, and to Carolyn L./giftsthatpurr for recommending Rita Mae Brown’s engaging mysteries.)
I’ve written more than half of a book with a literature theme. But in the meantime, I’m still selling my Comic (and Column) Confessional memoir.
In that often-humorous book, I recall 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as Ann Landers and “Dear Abby,” and other notables such as Hillary Clinton, Coretta Scott King, and various authors. On the personal front, the memoir also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my divorce and remarriage, and life in New York City and Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times.
You can contact me at email@example.com to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of Comic (and Column) Confessional — which includes a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson and others.
And for three years of my Huffington Post essays on literature, click here.