This Gap Is Not a Clothing Chain

The economic chasm between the wealthy and the rest of us is sadly quite pronounced in the U.S. and various other countries — and of course reflected in some literature.

Reading such fare can raise our blood pressure but be quite revealing of how the rich get rich (often by inheriting a fortune and/or exploiting workers) and stay rich (often by “buying” political clout and paying less than their fair share of taxes). Meanwhile, the non-affluent see their wages rise slower than inflation (if they rise at all), face many barriers to forming unions, etc.

Sometimes fiction has ruthless wealthy characters and corporations deservedly get their comeuppance — a wish-fulfillment scenario that happens more in books than in real life. In those cases, authors are thankfully the ones “rigging the game.” ๐Ÿ™‚ But there is not always a happy ending.

I just finished John Grisham’s The Appeal, and I’ve seldom read a novel that more strongly depicts the obscene economic gap between the haves and have-nots. Grisham’s book might be a bit heavy-handed at times, but readers can’t help but fume as a huge chemical company deliberately dumps tons of toxic waste (to save money on disposal) that pollutes a small Mississippi town’s water supply to the point where dozens of low-income people die of cancer. One resident who lost her husband and young child manages to win a $41-million verdict against the company with the help of an admirable local mom-and-pop law firm that goes broke fighting the case.

The company appeals, of course, and its merciless billionaire owner secretly pays millions to a shady firm that will try to elect a right-wing, corporate-friendly judge who would be the potential deciding vote overturning the verdict. That plucked-from-obscurity candidate is supported by a blitzkrieg, vicious, lie-filled ad campaign painting his incumbent-judge opponent as an ultra-liberal despite her being a moderate. Meanwhile, the loathsome chemical exec enjoys a jet-set lifestyle that even includes spending $18 million on a piece of art.

While economic inequality is rampant in the 21st century, it’s certainly not a new phenomenon. John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath really makes us feel the 1930s version via the Joad family — who were sharecroppers on Oklahoma land they used to own before being forced to go to California, where they are again victimized by agribusiness and other wealthy forces.

Also taking place in the 20th century, Arundhati Roy’s India-set The God of Small Things features an affluent family and an impoverished “Untouchable” as major characters. Meanwhile, socialist forces are at work trying to make income distribution a little more fair. The police, almost always more deferential to the rich than the poor, take the “Untouchable” into custody andโ€ฆ

There’s also quite a financial contrast in Richard Wright’s Native Son, in which the low-income Black protagonist is offered a job as a chauffeur for a white millionaire. Disaster ensues.

Going further back, into the 19th century, we have rich mine ownership and underpaid/overworked miners in Emile Zola’s Germinal. A strike happens, andโ€ฆ

Or how about Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist? It stars an abused orphan near/in a city (London) where some are very wealthy, and many of us know the famous “please, sir, I want some more” line uttered by the hungry boy when he wants more food. (Oliver doesn’t get it.) When there’s so much poverty, some turn to crime — and Dickens’ book certainly has its share of colorful lawbreakers.

I’ve cited just a few examples. Any novels you’d like to mention in which the income gap is pretty pronounced?

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 every Thursday. The latest piece — about a very delayed bridge, a local Starbucks union action, and Thanksgiving — is here.

94 thoughts on “This Gap Is Not a Clothing Chain

  1. This blog post inspired some great comments and interactions, Dave! I went to a fancy prep school (on a partial scholarship) and became classmates โ€” and occasionally friends โ€” with some super wealthy people. Somehow this quotation (shared in a comment) never came up for discussion in any of my classes! โ€œBehind every great fortune is a great crime.โ€โ€“ Balzac

    Liked by 2 people

  2. John Grishamโ€™s The Appeal sounds like fact more than fiction ๐Ÿ˜• Taylor Caldwellโ€™s Captains and the Kings is a fine read about how the rich become – and then stay – rich, influential and powerful . I read it many decades ago as a twenty-something and never saw the world the same way again. Thanks so much for the follow! And I am glad to have discovered your blog as well…

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  3. Family books, now ours – include Disraeli’s The Two Nations. The ‘ One End Street trilogy -for children, by Eve Garnett, allows seven children from a poor family to meet and socialise with the rich. – presumably as the ‘ deserving poor’

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  4. Hi Dave. Some excellent suggestions here for your theme. My first thought was Dickens as mentioned by Robbie. So Iโ€™ve gone to my reading list for this year. On a more lighthearted note I thought of Mrs Harris Goes to Paris by Paul Gallico – a tale of a London char lady who buys an haute couture dress (plus itโ€™s a lovely movie with Lesley Manville).

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  5. Dickens and Steinbeck are both good sources. “Cannery Row” comes to mind. An example from my (original) neck of the woods is “Out of This Furnace” by Thomas Bell. It’s set in the late 19th and early 20th century in Pittsburgh. It could be the story of some of my relatives.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Dan! Yes, Dickens and Steinbeck both had a strong social conscience — one of the reasons so many love their books. I really liked “Cannery Row” (also a funny novel at times) and its excellent sequel “Sweet Thursday.” And a great mention of “Out of This Furnace”! I haven’t read it but have heard good things about it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I often wonder what those two would write about today. โ€œOut of This Furnaceโ€ was re-released when I was in graduate school. It was promoted at the college bookstore in the “About Pittsburgh” section. I was commuting by bus several days a week, so I was always looking for reading material I wasn’t going to be tested on.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. You have identified what disturbs me the most about certain novels: social injustice. Allan G. Johnson wrote: “Difference is not the problem – it is privilege and oppression based on difference.”
    My list of rich-poor inequity novels includes “Game of Thrones,” “The Tontine” by Thomas Costain, “The Bonfire of the Vanities” by Thomas Wolfe, and the Robin Hood series by Stephen Lawhead. A friend recently gave me “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison. I couldn’t get past the second chapter – just too grievous to read.

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    • Thank you, vanaltman! I totally agree that novels spotlighting social injustice/economic injustice can be painful to read. We already see so much of that injustice in real life. But, as you know, some painful novels can be very compelling.

      I appreciate the various examples! I read the first “Game of Thrones” book and liked it a lot, but decided not to continue with the rest of George R.R. Martin’s series. Just so many other novels to get to by other authors. ๐Ÿ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: Roberta Writes – Can you guess the book: Quotes from books that include poverty or mistreatment of others as a theme or sub-theme

  8. Good morning Dave, your topic of this week gives me some headages! If I look back at my childhood I don’t see very rich people, but a lot of farmers and consumerism wasn’t born yet, so, we more or less felt all the same in our simple ways. What we however did have was pure air and a lot of space to play in the nature! Even though I absolutely agree that there are to many too rich people and too many in catastrophical situations, your post and the books mentioned here, show me also that many of the characters were maybe poor, but achieved more happyness in life than the rich ones. I would here also like to add “Remarkable Creatures” by Tracy Chevalier in which we meet a very poor girl, who can’t write and is completely excluded from high society, but has a passion to collect fossils and finaly becomes the first paleontologist, with the help of another well educated lady in the 19th century England.
    Thank you very much for your very interesting post!

    Liked by 3 people

  9. Hi Dave, I think that this particular theme features as a sub-theme to many novels. Off hand, it features in A Christmas Carol by Dickens (as well as Oliver Twist), Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (I’m thinking about Helen Burns), I am David by Anne Holm (when David lives with Maria’s family), Anne Shirley’s experiences with the Hammond’s who abuse her so badly, 1984 features the Proles, the lowest social class in that society, A Brave New World features the Savage Reservation where the people are poor, Hans Christian Anderson wrote The Little Match Girl which still makes me cry. There are so many stories and books that aimed at highlighting the plight of the poor. Even Great Expectations revolved around Pip’s desire to leave his poorer beginnings and become a gentleman. An interesting topic, DAve.

    Liked by 5 people

  10. Going further back, into the 19th century, we have rich mine ownership and underpaid/overworked miners in Emile Zolaโ€™s Germinal. A strike happens, andโ€ฆ

    Actually….. if I am not mistaken, the novel’s point was that the mine was not owned by a distant greedy oligarch – but rather by a pair of spinsters who raised cats and lived modestly on an annuity, oblivious to where their money was coming from.

    Quite a few years ago, while doing a little research, I discovered that the largest shareholder in Exxon was the New York Teacher’s Pension Fund. They have since divested their holdings.

    I note that my pension fund has several times the wealth of Bill Gates.

    This is not to contest the gap between rich and poor, but rather to emphasize Emile Zola’s point.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Almost Iowa! It has been about 20 years since I read “Germinal,” and I neglected to refresh my memory of it by reading a online summary of that novel when writing this post, so I might indeed have remembered some things wrong. Still, owning a mine makes a person or persons wealthy whether they’re directly involved or not, and the pretty-near-impoverished miners (including protagonist Etienne) did strike for a reason. But I probably should reread that great novel — my favorite of Zola’s.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Okay, first… The Gap (the crap) is not a place I buy clothes from. The parent corp also has Old Navy (old gravy) and other retail outlets. Their clothing, the impetus behind it all is the 2nd most prevalent polluter on the planet. “Fast Fashion” is killing us.

    Whew! As usual I do know some of these books.

    I’m empathetic on the subject, being as I am the poorer of the category.

    Thanking my mom’s secret closet ahead of time – The Carpetbaggers –

    Jonas Cord is a disagreeable young tycoon who’s building planes, directing films, and catting around on the corporate make in 1930s Hollywood.

    I suppose this is why I like rags to riches tales. David Copperfield, Jane Eyre, even Cinderella.

    Then there are riches to rags to riches stories… Gone with the wind…
    Rags to riches to rags to riches. -even the rags living on in the minds of the newly rich – The Good Earth.

    One thing for sure is that the rich and powerful have abused the proletariat since forever.

    A great topic, Dave. Thank you!

    Liked by 3 people

  12. Reading novels about rich and powerful characters who exploit their workers does, indeed, raise my blood pressure. Nevertheless, in a world where justice is often delayed or denied, across generations, such stories of “wish-fulfillment scenario[s]” are essential in reminding us that we have the power to overcome the seemingly all-powerful Goliaths of our times.

    Liked by 5 people

  13. Hi Dave! I’ll add Lawrence Osborne’s “The Forgiven.” With it he’s great at showing the disparity between Moroccan boys selling fossils for subsistence and decadent Westerners, with a literal crash/clash. The other which comes to mind is “A Fine Balance” by Rohinton Mistry.

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  14. Another excellent post, Dave. John Grishamโ€™s writings highlight the inequalities that are rampant. Regrettably, these inequalities were present in every age of humanityโ€™s narrative.

    What came to mind as I read your post and the follow-up discussion was the enduring mythologies surrounding Robin Hood. Over the past centuries, the outlaw from Nottinghamshire has had many iterations on the theme, โ€œrob from the rich and give to the poor.โ€

    The economic gap never brought joy or peace to a society – rich and poor are losers. For there will come a time when a disruption will occur to โ€œadjustโ€ the status quo. I think of the famous quote by Adam Smith, โ€œNo society can surely be flourishing and happy of which by far the greater part of the numbers are poor and miserable.โ€

    Many thanks for giving me something to think about in the week ahead.

    Liked by 6 people

  15. Hi Dave, such a timely blog, looking at real life around the World and this Country !
    I am surprised at myself to have missed John Grishamโ€™s The Appeal book.

    As I have mentioned, I just finished Child Brother’s latest Jack Reacher thriller, ” No Plan B ” .
    A man with no possessions , goes around the Country with just a toothbrush in his pocket.

    Liked by 4 people

  16. The income gap is very pronounced in The Beans of Egypt, Maine because it is a gritty, in-depth, study of how this particular family lived. Where the gap seems to be the most telling is with one-star reader reviews who passed moral judgments instead of trying to understand how poverty had affected them.

    Liked by 3 people

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