Characters Who Are Among Literature’s Laboring Luminaries

Upton Sinclair

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.

104 thoughts on “Characters Who Are Among Literature’s Laboring Luminaries

  1. Dave as you have mentioned ” White Teeth “, a complex Novel by Zadie Smith.
    I still have the book on my bookshelf , I remember after I finished the book I found it exhausting.
    It involves race, culture , gender in which several North London families lives were turned upside down.
    Ms. Smith turned the tragic life into her humorous routine.
    It`s been a while i might reread the Novel again

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  2. Many books were written (fact & fiction) about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911 (NYC) that killed 146 immigrants, mostly women & 17 men.
    I read everything I could get my hands on.
    I was fascinated by this tale, as I worked in a pant factory when I was 17.
    The practices there and then are now practiced in 3rd world countries, and all for cheap clothes.

    The book that comes to mind is “East River” by Sholem Asch – NY Times best seller in 1946.

    Then there is O-Lan, the wife in “The Good Earth”, by Pearl S. Buck.
    I’ll never forget how she worked the fields while pregnant, then the day she gave birth she simply went into the house, gave birth, strapped the baby to her and returned to work in the fields.

    I’m a proud member of Canada’s largest labour union, UNIFOR. I get my 25 year pin in a couple of months.

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  3. Nosing around the interwebs (for what proved to be an apocryphal story about Theodore Roosevelt and sausages), I discovered a cache of correspondence between Upton Sinclair and President Roosevelt which developed over the course of the president’s reading of “The Jungle” and his practical responses to the horrifying conditions then (and now, to some extent) common throughout the American meat-packing industry.

    What a happy surprise! The president works closely with Sinclair in uncovering those conditions, sending investigators and corresponding with industry reformers, disregarding the finer feelings of plant owners and management.

    Roosevelt read Gorky! Zola! Tolstoy! and made arguments based on his readings– not in favor of the conclusions he derived from these authors– no socialist he, but rather a man convinced that individual volition would right most social wrongs. Still, it’s obvious from the letters that Roosevelt had an active intelligence, and was at ease discussing the leading intellectual currents of the time.

    Best of all, Roosevelt made things happen, and made them work. Safety and sanitary conditions improved greatly, and federal inspection of meatpacking plants began. And they might never have, had Roosevelt not read Sinclair’s book.

    Have a look! https://wwnorton.com/college/history/foner2/contents/ch18/documents05.asp

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    • Thank you, jhNY! I guess while the Roosevelt-pushed legislation wasn’t all it could have been, it was significant. And it feels almost shocking to think of a vigorous, intellectual, well-read U.S. president — one even willing to engage with a left-leaning author — when a number of recent presidents have been so awful or mediocre.

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      • TR was a colonialist,a white supremacist and a racist, but also a reformer, such as he saw things. See also national parks.

        And an unbridled egotist, as his daughter Alice Roosevelt Longworth described him: ” My father always wanted to be the corpse at every funeral, the bride at every wedding and the baby at every christening.”

        It does feel shocking, whatever his conclusions, to see an American president so willing to engage intellectually, and so well-informed.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I submit “Moby Dick” as an example, though its laborers toiled in a nearly extinct industry to secure an oil that was eventually superseded by petroleum products.

    Like a great many old industries, and not a few current ones, the work was filthy, hot, stinky and physically demanding. And that’s after the sailors had harpooned the object of their hunt, during which time they may well have taken a Nantucket sleighride, a ride which occasionally took those inside the whaleboat down to the watery depths, never to return.

    Another example, though a bit of a reach: Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” character the Mad Hatter. The processes of cleaning and prepping materials for the manufacture of hats– I believe in this case silk hats– exposed workers in the trade to chemical fumes that over time did neurological damage, manifesting in odd behavior and mental confusion.

    “Let’s drink to the salt of the earth”: to all who struggled and wrecked their health, even sometimes lost their lives, in industries that no longer exist to produce goods nobody wants anymore, or by means of industrial processes and products that are no longer employed.

    And of course, to everybody working then and now, barely getting by, under awful conditions, wherever they are.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, jhNY! Great mentions! Yes — the “Moby-Dick” crew, and sailors in general of that time and other times, and not just on whaling ships — worked incredibly hard under really tough conditions.

      Of course, as things became more automated and technology grew more sophisticated, some jobs disappeared or became less physically difficult. Yet those advances (“advances”?) sometimes made the jobs incredibly mind-numbing, as was the case with assembly-line workers.

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  5. “The Jungle” was the absolute first book that popped into my head as soon as I saw the title for this week’s post – so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised it’s your first mention as well! 🙂 I have a funny story about that book. It got a mention in so many of the history books I read, since it had a huge impact on society at the time. So I really, really wanted to read it. Even though I was still quite young, perhaps a bit too young for some of the material in it. But I was determined. So the next time my parents took me to the bookstore, I convinced them to buy it for me. “It’s a classic,” I said. “Like the Jungle Book!” But it’s nothing like the Jungle Book, Dave. LOL. Perhaps they saw through my shenanigans and perhaps not. But somehow they ended up buying me the book anyway!

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  6. Jack London. He labored as a coal passer doing the work of two men, an experience that had a lifelong effect on him- physically and intellectually. He wrote about this experience but I can’t recall where.

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    • Thank you, Doug! Great mention! You’re absolutely right that Jack London had some experiences in the working class/doing manual labor — also reflected in novels such as “The Call of the Wild,” “The Sea-Wolf,” and “Martin Eden.”

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      • The there’s Count No-Count, William Faulkner, who claimed to have written “As I Lay Dying” in longhand on a board over a wheelbarrow between shovels of coal directed at a furnace in a MS power plant.

        He was also doing the work of at least two: coal shoveler and author, and possibly three: fabulist.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Hi Dave, injustice in the work place is close to my heart and I write about it myself. I noted the comment about The Radium Girls by Kate Moore which is one of the resources I am using my my book, The Soldier and the Radium Girl. There is another non-fiction book about the radium girls which focuses more on the trial. It’s called Radium Girls: Women and Industrial Health Reform by Claudia Clark. I have also written about the chimney boys, the baby farmers, and child labour in the mines. There are a number of books about the forced labour in the concentration camps during WWII and Mahoney by Andrew Joyce has a big section on the Irish who built the railway lines in the USA. I have also read a series by G.J. Griffiths about children working in the mills during the Victorian era. Does Oliver Twist count? Oliver worked in the workhouse, then for the undertaker, and later for Fagin the thief. Pip from Great Expectations also worked as an apprentice to Joe the blacksmith. I have also read Dolores Claiborne by Stephen King. It was quite weird in parts so I didn’t like it that much. It crossed lines for me. Thanks for this interesting post. I shall reflect further.

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    • Thank you, Robbie! So many examples of injustice in the workplace. 😦 I appreciate all the excellent, depressing examples you offered in your comment, and it’s great that this topic is among the interests of yours that you’re illuminating in your writing.

      Forced labor in the WW2-era concentration camps was also depicted in all its tragic horror in novels such as Erich Maria Remarque’s “Spark of Life” and Herman Wouk’s “War and Remembrance.” And of course there was the devastating forced labor in novels about American slavery such as Alex Haley’s “Roots,” Octavia E. Butler’s “Kindred,” and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

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  8. Hi Dave. Richard Russo’s novels typically feature blue collar workers and small business owners like”Empire Falls” and several others. “Angela’s Ashes” by Frank McCourt is good. “Coal River” by Ellen Marie Wiseman is about children working in coal mines. It was fantastic! And let’s not forget all the novels re: English servants like “Remains of the Day” by Kazuo Ishiguro about people who literally forego (forewent?) any kind of personal life in the line of duty. There must be several novels about merchant marines or fishermen like Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea.” In addition to Gabaldon’s series, there is the Winson Graham “Poldark” series about all kinds of laboring.

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    • Hi, Mary Jo. Thank you! Great Richard Russo mention! I loved “Empire Falls,” whose protagonist was, as you know, a very hard-working manager of an eatery. And “Sully” in “Nobody’s Fool” did difficult manual labor at times despite his physical troubles. Also, excellent mentions of several other books! I just put “Coal River” on my to-read list. 🙂

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  9. I have to agree on Adam Bede. He was a bit too goody two shoed for me. But talking farms, I’ll mention Chris Guthrie in Sunset Song. whose love of the land leads her to stay on it instead of leaving for a teaching job, just before WW1. when the land bled young men and these communities became little more than war memorials. She’s a resilient cipher for all the societal changes–the book is part of a trilogy–but the business of being one with the land never leaves her. Talking other books that gave a very comprehensive picture of what it was like working where the leads did, I return to two old favs, Mildred Pierce–waitressing–and A Pin to See the Peepshow–working in a dress shop. Both leads had the hard-nosed ability to rise up in both situations and make things of themselves, but ultimately lose everything. Great post

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    • Thank you, Shehanne! George Eliot definitely had a knack for creating characters with a good deal of complexity and nuance. And I appreciate the mentions of those other books — working the land, working in a shop, and waitressing ain’t easy.

      Now I’m starting to think of some of the jobs I had in high school and college — including standing eight hours a day one summer on an assembly line in a factory that made lighting fixtures. Yikes! I was very lucky that job had an end date for me; most of the other workers were there indefinitely. 😦

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      • I know, which is why I tried to think of books that were more ‘laboring’. I mean my dad, who came out–for family reasons–of a good, worked his way up into position in the army, living the life in HongKong at that time, to stand 8 hours a day on an assembly line in the NCR. His only way of getting there when I was wee was to get up at 5 and cycle, and cycle home at night in all weathers. Everyone who lived beside us was in a similar job. I also chose books therefore where the work was a big part of the story and a time capsule of what these jobs were like at that time, down to how they got there, the tips, customers, etc. In each of these books too, stepping back the leads had, or had had other dreams, goals and abilities at the start but each were subject to abrupt change.

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    • To mention yet another novel in rural and soil tilling setting: Knut Hamsun’s Growth of the Soil (1917), which led to his winning the 1920 Nobel Prize for literature. It’s been a long time since I read it, but I remember it as immersive and rich in the incomparable Hamsunian art of describing scenes not with humor but in a way to connect the reader directly to the humor that is implicit in them. This ability to register and then ‘hand over’ a situation for the reader to own it is very typical of most of Hamsun’s literary work.

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  10. This example is from drama rather than from a novel, Alfred Doolittle from George Bernard Shaw’s comedy “Pygmalion”, on which the musical “My Fair Lady” was based on, was a dustman (British English for garbage collector).

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  11. You’re very kind. And yes, fixes are perfect. I consider myself in able hands for any fixes you’d care to make anyhow.

    I hope you enjoy Joel Dicker! I just started on his L’Affaire Alaska Sanders, right after I finished À Vous by Catherine Cusset, another favorite francophone author of mine). Incidentally, Cusset’s latest novel La Définition du Bonheur is much about the gaphically described hardscrabble life of a working woman in Paris.

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    • Glad the fix was okay!

      I’m only on page 10 — will read more soon — but I can tell I’m going to find this Joel Dicker novel compelling.

      And thank you for the mention of Catherine Cusset! Another author now on my list. 🙂 There are many French authors I like a lot (Balzac, Sand, Zola, Hugo, Dumas, Colette, Camus, Le Clezio, etc.) but I’ve read very few contemporary ones.

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  12. Just an Odd Job Girl by Sally Cronin immediately comes to mind. It’s about a middle-aged woman whose husband has traded her in for a younger model. She needs to find a way to support herself but all she’s had is a series of odd jobs, including working various stints in retail, managing a bar, and working in a funeral parlor. Rather than diminish her, these odd jobs give her both “transferable skills” (as they say in the biz) and personal resiliance.

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  13. My father appreciated Upton Sinclair and his determination to talk about injustice. He changed our world with his 100 books and other writings. I confess that I have difficulty in reading these novels, Dave, because of the emotional and harrowing nature of the content. I think that is why I defer to non-fiction in these areas. For example, “Triangle, The Fire that Changed America” by David Von Drehle is unforgettable and described events that occurred in the time of Upton Sinclair. This is from the front cover: “On March 25, 1911, as workers were getting ready to leave for the day, a fire broke out in the Triangle shirtwaist factory in New York’s Greenwich Village. Within minutes it spread to consume the buildings’ upper three stories. Firemen who arrived at the scene were unable to rescue those trapped inside: their ladders simply weren’t tall enough….” You can imagine the outcome.

    Labour Day is significant for me and goes beyond a long-weekend holiday. It is a time to remember great courage and sacrifice of those who worked hard for their children and communities.

    Thank you for your most excellent post, Dave. I look forward to returning to follow this conversation.

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  14. Thomas Bell’s 1941 novel “Out of This Furnace: A Novel of Immigrant Labor in America,” paints an unforgettable portrait of Pittsburgh steelworkers and their families. Another book I love is Maxim Gorky’s “Autobiography,” in which he recounts his youth, working at all kinds of jobs: rag picker, errand and stock boy, junior clerk, bird catcher, cabin boy on a Volga steamer, apprentice in an icon factory, baker, watchman and freight handler at railroad stations. It’s very novelistic, and not mainly about himself.

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    • Thank you, Jean! “Out of This Furnace” sounds terrific. And I’ve read Maxim Gorky’s autobiography, and agree that it’s a terrific book — including the memories of all the jobs he did. I think I still have that book somewhere on one of my living-room shelves. 🙂

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  15. Not a literary work per se, but definitely the work of one of the 20th century literary giants: The Road to Wigan Pier, by George Orwell. Not unlike Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex in its poignant description of labor conditions in early Detroit automotive industry (and so many other writing of course), it unearths the grizzly foundations of the exponential economic and technological growth in the past 75 years or so.

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    • Thank you, Dingenom! George Orwell was definitely an expert at depicting working people in his fiction and nonfiction — partly because he was a great writer and partly because he had firsthand experience reporting on working people and being a non-writing working person himself at times during his life.

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      • Very true, Dave! As I re-read my comment, I noticed that intending to replace “second half of the 20th century” by “the past 75 years”, I ended up amalgamating the two. And that I (or rather the android autocorrect feature) misspelled Eugenides. A little annoying that WordPress doesn’t allow one to edit comments. But there you have it 😏

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        • WordPress allows me to edit comments on my blog, so I just fixed yours. If I did anything wrong with the edit, let me know. 🙂

          BTW, I just started a Joel Dicker novel (“The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair”) after you recommended his work. It looks like it will be an amazing book.

          Liked by 2 people

  16. Dave, I love the way you present works of fiction in ways that are relatable to our lives. Sad to say, I haven’t read any of the great novels you’ve mentioned. The most recent novel I’ve read that features a worker as its main character is The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee (USA 2019). Set in Atlanta, 1890, seventeen-year-old Jo Kuan works as a lady’s maid for the cruel daughter of one of the wealthiest men in Atlanta.

    Liked by 4 people

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