Tomorrow, September 5, is Labor Day in the United States. (Workers are also celebrated in many other countries on May 1 each year.) I thought I’d mark the American occasion by mentioning just a few of the many memorable workers in literature.
One of the most famous is Jurgis Rudkus — because he and other characters in The Jungle, and the descriptions of horrid workplace conditions in that 1906 Upton Sinclair novel, spurred President Theodore Roosevelt to push Congress to improve sanitary conditions in meat-packing plants. Of course, the better-than-nothing-but-inadequate legislation was more about making food safer for consumers than about also improving things for workers toiling under greedy/rotten bosses, but… The beleaguered Rudkus is a first-generation immigrant, representing how some of the most exploited employees are new to the country.
Speaking of people doing very difficult jobs under very difficult conditions, we have the French mineworkers Etienne Lantier and Catherine Maheu in Emile Zola’s novel Germinal (1885). A strike against bad ownership, a tragic mine disaster, and more place the admirable, likable characters in dramatic situations.
The titular English carpenter of another 19th-century novel, George Eliot’s Adam Bede (1859), is hardworking, strong, smart, stoic, and moral — but a bit holier-than-thou and not always the best judge of character.
Philippa Gregory’s Earthly Joys, a 20th-century (1998) historical novel set in the 17th century, stars another hard worker: royal gardener John Tradescant — partly based on a real person.
When you’re a 20th-century physician in the 18th century, the work is often much more challenging given the primitive state of medicine. Such is the case with Dr. Claire Fraser in Diana Gabaldon’s time-traveling Outlander series (the first novel published in 1991 and the ninth in 2021, with one more to come).
Being a waiter/waitress is usually a demanding job, and one example of such a character is Samad Miah Iqbal of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (2000).
Then there’s Violet Brown — the delightful, brainy, resourceful, ultra-efficient secretary to the novel’s main character in Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna (2009).
I’d like to conclude by thanking labor unions, which — while not always perfect — have done so much for employees in the face of too many less-than-caring supervisors and companies.
Any memorable workers in literature you’d like to mention?
My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.
In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — about the start of school and a wasteful planned hiring — is here.