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The role of socioeconomic status in adolescent literature.

An important theme in adolescent literature is how the socioeconomic status (SES) of a character or characters acts to reinforce the author's moral purpose in writing the novel. Central to this idea is the presumption that SES plays an important role in the lives of adolescents, that the awareness of differing levels of SES strongly influences adolescents' self-perceptions as well as their perceptions of the external world. According to Rosenberg and Pearlin (1978), "Both children and adults learn their worth, in part, by comparing themselves with others . . . both children's and adult's self-attitudes are influenced to a large degree by the attitudes of others towards themselves" (p. 72). Authors of this literature are aware that adolescents are extremely aware that the SES of their literary characters greatly influences the perceptions readers form about these characters.

Four adolescent novels, To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee, The Catcher in The Rye by J. D. Salinger, The Pigman by Paul Zindel, and The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton reflect this influence. In each of these novels, the characters' relative SES plays an important role in the moral progression of the story and in the main characters internal growth. Because of adolescents' concern with this factor, a character's SES dramatically affects the way he/she is perceived by the adolescent reader.

How Relative SES of Adolescents Influences Their Levels of Self-Esteem in the United States

The findings of a number of studies on the relationship between adolescent SES and self-esteem level in the United States concur that in most cases, there a strong positive and replicable correlation between these two variables. One study by Kohr, Colderon, Skiffington, Masters, and Blust (1988) for the Pennsylvania Department of Education examined Pennsylvania public school students' levels of self-esteem. The self-esteem indicators were based on three categories: relationships with their teachers, relationships with peers, and their self-image in school. From 1981-84, 35,000-50,000 5th-, 8th-, and 11th-grade students were interviewed. The schools in the study were located in both high and low SES areas.

In this study, a "consistent pattern" emerged at all three grade levels. It was found that "self-esteem increased as SES level increased for students attending low SES as well as high SES schools. In fact, SES accounted for the highest percentage of variance in student levels of self-esteem" (pp. 477-9).

Another study by Richman, Clark, and Brown (1985) corroborates these findings. "A significant main effect of SES was found for the Rosenberg [scale

b. Low SES students had lower general self-esteem scores than the middle or high SES students" (p. 559).

Demo and Savin-Williams (1983) argue that "The ascribed nature of social class among young adolescents makes it a weak determinent of their self-esteem, but that with increasing age socioeconomic position becomes more meaningful and thus consequential for self-esteem" (p. 763).

Authors of adolescent literature, aware of the strong SES consciousness among adolescents, incorporate characters in their novels with differing SES levels in order to create plots which have a more realistic appeal to their impressionable young readers.

In To Kill a Mockingbird, the principal emphasis of SES is on social status and cultural affiliation rather than financial position. The story takes place in the rural South during the Great Depression. Atticus, the principle adult character, respected for his honesty and educational acumen, teaches Jem and Scout that a person's worth is measured by his/her character and not by his/her power of acquisition. The two youngsters also learn that self-esteem is predicated upon these same principles. While some of the members of the community, the Ewells in particular, are viewed by most of the townspeople as "trash," there are others in similar financial straits, such as the Cunninghams, who do not inherit this defaming label (Lee, 1960, p.126). This phenomenon is best expressed by Scout's description to her teacher of the "Cunningham tribe."

The Cunninghams never took anything they can't pay back - no church baskets and no script stamps. They never took anything off of anybody, they get along on what they have. They don't have much, but they get along on it. (p. 25)

In another dramatic scene, Scout is given a sound scolding by Calpurnia, the family's black cook, when she criticizes Walter Cunningham's decision to pour molasses syrup over his entire dinner.

"There's some folks who don't eat like us," she whispered fiercely, "but you ain't called on to contradict 'em at the table when they don't . . . Don't matter who they are, anybody sets foot in this house's yo' comp'ny, and don't let me catch you remarkin' on their ways like you was so high and mighty! Yo' folks might be better'n the Cunninghams but it don't count for nothin' the way you're disgracin' 'em." (p. 29)

There does seem to be, however, a certain minimum SES which separates the "honest folk" from the "no-goods," but this has more to do with the conscious decision of certain families to either avoid or engage in "honest work."

Scout finds herself extremely disturbed one day when she learns that Robert Ewell is permitted to hunt and trap out of season while she, being "of the common folk," cannot. Calmly, Atticus explains that ". . . when a man spends his relief checks on green whiskey his children have a way of crying from hunger pains. I don't know of any landowner around her who begrudges those children any game their father can hit". (p. 35)

Jem and Scout maintain high levels of self-esteem throughout To Kill a Mockingbird. They are not exposed to wide variations in SES, as many children are today, and are able to fall back upon a rich family heritage and the honorable name of Finch to buoy their level of self-esteem.

While wealth and acquisition are not primary to a character's sense of SES in To Kill a Mockingbird, the same is not true to The Catcher in the Rye where a clearly inverse relationship exists between Holden Caulfield's SES and his level of self-esteem. All indications in this novel point to the fact that Holden comes from an affluent family. His father is a corporate lawyer who can afford to buy his son a private education. Holden, in turn, squanders money throughout the course of the novel, preferring taxicabs to subway trains and fancy nightclubs to ordinary restaurants. Yet, in spite of his wealth, Holden is an extremely confused and unhappy young man who, as it quickly becomes apparent, is unable to purchase higher self-esteem.

While Holden is quite fixated on money, he is well aware, on an unconscious level, that money cannot buy him love or higher self-esteem. Throughout the novel, Salinger takes special care to have his character size up his surroundings, his friends, his family and his situation in general in monetary terms. The love, support, and attention which Jem and Scout have come to expect from their father, Atticus, in To Kill a Mockingbird, are nowhere evidenced in The Catcher in the Rye. The only real love Holden receives comes from his little sister, Phoebe. Unfortunately, she is powerless to solve his problems. In The Catcher in The Rye, Salinger does not discount the idea that SES has an important impact upon self-esteem. He does, however, challenge the notion that there is always a positive correlation between SES and self-esteem.

In The Pigman, Paul Zindel acknowledges that differences in SES between people do exist, but he does not make it more prominent than other influences in an adolescent's life. Mention is made throughout the novel of the value of money and how easily it can be wasted, namely Mr. Pignati's, as well as the relative SES positions of John and Lorraine and their friends. These inclusions, however, function mainly as springboards to other, less material objectives. While alluding casually to SES differences in the neighborhood where John and Lorraine live, Zindel is careful not to emphasize such disparities throughout the course of the novel. "Many of the houses were interesting as far as middle-class neighborhoods go. In fact, I suppose you'd say it was a multi-class neighborhood because both the houses and the kids ranged from wrecks to rich" (p. 10). Self-esteem, then, as a function of SES, does not play a primary role in the lives of John and Lorraine, the two main characters in this novel.

The Outsiders places great emphasis on SES and continuously draws a positive correlation between SES and self-esteem level. The foundation of the novel is predicted upon the conflict between two rival gangs of youths, the "greasers" and the "Socs." (It is interesting to note that Hinton capitalizes the "S" in "Socs throughout the book while the "g" in greaser is invariably lower case.) The most striking difference between these two groups is that the greasers come from low SES families while the Socs are from high SES families. Numerous comparisons throughout the novel have a direct bearing on the positive correlation between SES and self-esteem level.

While describing Dallas, a fellow gang member, the main character in the novel, Ponyboy, early on expresses his feelings about being a member of a low SES group.

And you can't win against them [Socs] no matter how hard you try because they've got all the breaks and even whipping them isn't going to change that fact. Maybe that was why Dallas was so bitter. (p. 13)

Not only is Dallas bitter about the Socs, he is bitter about a system that ranks him at the bottom. Only three pages later, Ponyboy manifests this attitude while thinking about girls.

Still, lots of times I wondered what other girls [not greaser girls] were like. The girls who were bright-eyed and had their dresses a decent length and acted as if they'd like to spit on us if given the chance. (p. 16)

Ponyboy is initially impressed by the Socs, who have Mustangs and Corvairs, and until he meets Cherry Valance, one of the Soc girls, he figures that the Socs have all the advantages. It is through his interaction with Cherry that he realizes the Socs also have problems in spite of their high SES. Unfortunately, as a consequence of this and other discoveries, Ponyboy is the exception to the rule in a scenario dominated by SES. This is a fact which becomes clearer as the novel progresses. Because he is more academically minded than his peers, Ponyboy is able to judge seemingly intractable situations in a more objective manner. His sense of self-esteem is not wholly predicated upon his SES, as is the case with most of his peers, but in some measure upon his academic abilities and insight. He is therefore able to act as a bridge between the greasers and the Socs and foster a reconciliation between the two groups at the novel's close. Ponyboy recognizes, with Cherry's help, that people can relate to one another on terms other than SES - that self-esteem does not have to be solely a function of SES. In this way, he becomes the novel's hero.

Novels in Socioeconomic Terms

Stern and Soaring (1976) have proposed that adolescents, as they become more fully aware of their "social environment," learn that a "stratification system" applies to them as well as others. "They thus gather information about variations in speech, dress, and residence and report uneasiness in encounters with people from different backgrounds, preferring instead class homogeneous social relationships. In this way, stratification knowledge can reduce ambiguity, minimize surprise and help avoid discomfort in everyday life" (pp. 194-5). Given this observation, identification with certain characters in adolescent literature based on their SES would seem both logical and natural. Although all but one of the primary characters in each of the four novels can be placed, in today's terms, at the middle to low end of the SES scale, what is most important is the way each character perceives his/her own position with respect to SES. Some of the characters are unaware that disparities in SES may result in disparity in self-esteem, as suggested by Jem and Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, while others are keenly cognizant of the way other members of their society interpret and judge them, as in The Outsiders. When an adolescent reader identifies with a character, this identification is often of a very personal nature. SES can and often does play an important role in the bonding between character and reader. Attributing a particular SES to his/her character is an important way for an author to enhance the reader's perception of the character as a realistic human being, one with whom the reader can form a strong identification.

While Jem and Scout, in To Kill a Mockingbird, do not occupy positions of high SES, the adolescent reader is able to identify with them in non-SES ways, furthering the moral objectives of the author and increasing the likelihood of positive identification with the two characters among a wide range of adolescent readers. Jem and Scout's relative poverty juxtaposed against that of their cousin Francis Hancock, a spoiled tyrant, demonstrates that judging a person by his/her SES does not always result in an accurate evaluation. Aunt Alexandra views Jem and Scout as uncultured, uncivilized young urchins possessed of none of the old family values she has endowed upon cousin Francis. "Talking to Francis gave me the sensation of setting slowly to the bottom of the ocean," thinks Scout. "He was the most boring child I ever met" (p. 85). Francis, as well as being boring, is overly concerned with the entrapments of the higher SES groups. At Christmas, he receives just what he has asked for: a pair of knee-pants, a red, leather booksack, five shirts, and an untied bow tie. Scout, on the other hand, spends most of her time in overalls, attire that drives Aunt Alexandra almost mad and causes her to accuse Atticus of raising his children to be commoners instead of "Finches."

Jem and Scout are characters who express anti-establishment sentiments by championing their relatively low SES. These are sentiments with which adolescent readers might easily identify, especially those from lower SES households.

In The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield also expresses anti-establishment sentiments. However, these sentiments emanate from one who has been inundated with establishment values. Confused about his value system, Holden's disillusionment with the establishment is much less certain than that of Jem and Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. Holden is both product of and revolutionary against the high SES he has known all his life. He is, in fact, a paradoxical "high SES underdog," a character with whom the reader might identify if for no other reason than a shared recognition that adolescence is a tumultuous time regardless of SES. While Hoden's uncertainty and unhappiness overshadow any specific class consciousness, Salinger stresses this point. Indeed, Holden is almost apologetic throughout the novel about his affiliation with members of the higher SES community, but conversely he proves that the easy access he has had to money has had a strong influence upon his perceptions. It is therefore, a bitter pill for him to swallow at the end of the book when he is forced to use his little sister's Christmas savings for his trip out West, a journey which he imagines will not only relocate him geographically but socioeconomically. Try as he might, Holden is a prisoner of his SES, a fate which is more than likely shared by other real-life adolescents.

The Pigman presents two characters, John and Lorraine, who, ultimately find a way to transcend the prison of a relatively low SES. John's father is lower middle-class, an alcoholic and workaholic, while Lorraine's mother is a disenchanted single parent as well as a conniving petty thief. As in the two novels already discussed, SES becomes the vehicle rather than the cause of the reader's positive identification with the main characters. It is John and Lorraine's ability to rise above the limited vision of SES stratification through their emotional involvement with Mr. Pignati, a man who cares nothing for money, which endears them to the adolescent reader. They, like Scout Finch and Holden Caulfield, find value in things that are not measurable with a monetary yardstick. The subject of their affections, Mr. Pignati, as well as being an exceptional character in his own right, is the catalyst for the transformation. Mr. Pignati is the only person John and Lorraine have ever met who is totally unconcerned with how other people spend his money, money which he freely invites them to spend. It is only the happiness money can bring that is important to him. John and Lorraine's growing compassion for Mr. Pignati reveals the true nature of their characters - characters which rise from the loneliness and chaos of an SES-dominated world. In this way, adolescent readers can identify with them as they assume the roles of the "unlikely hero and heroine."

Ponyboy, in The Outsiders, another character held captive in the psychological quicksand of the SES system, is at the lower end of the SES scale. He has grown up hating and resenting those of higher SES, but has in some way vindicated himself by achieving the status of scholar among his peers, which he recognizes may one day lead him to a brighter future and higher SES. "We're poorer than the Socs and the middle class," he acknowledges, easily identifying himself with those of low SES. ". . . I'm supposed to be smart; I make good grades and have a high IQ and everything. . . ." (p. 7). Ponyboy is the archetypal underdog, the misfit member of an undeserved low caste. This circumstance alone would be reason enough for many adolescent readers to have a positive identification with him, but his attractiveness goes beyond this. He, like John and Lorraine in The Pigman, is able to transcend his position in life - to understand that there are many ways to judge a person other than by SES. His relationship with Cherry Valence, the Soc female, bears out this ability. Cherry says, "You read a lot, don't you Ponyboy? I'll bet you watch sunsets too." In response to her queries, Ponyboy reflects, "It seemed funny to me that the sunset she saw from her patio and the one I saw from the back steps was the same one. Maybe the two worlds we lived in weren't so different. We saw the same sunset" (p. 38).

Ultimately, this ability to see beyond his SES is what enables him to function as a character with whom adolescent readers from a wide range of SESs can identify.

Inclusion of Issues Relating to SES as an Affective Learning Device for Adolescent Readers

SES and the awareness of SES stratification function as effective learning devices, providing a means for adolescents to compare themselves to their peers and society as a whole. According to Stern and Searing (1976) "before leaving secondary school, most adolescents are well aware that society is differentiated between the 'haves' and the 'have-nots.' They are [members of] families with class concepts and are capable of applying them to their immediate situation. They collect information about variations in speech, dress, and residence and recognize differences between blue- and white-collar workers. In this way, adolescence awakens social awareness and permits youths to anticipate experiences in the actual world" (p. 200).

The authors of adolescent literature recognize these ideas and use them to express their own values. What adolescent readers learn in much of today's adolescent literature is that judging others solely on the basis of SES is not only wrong, it is unrealistic. They learn that accepting the reality of a society stratified into SES groups is not only an artificial way of perceiving reality, it is also harmful. Critical to these authors' reasonings is that adolescents attitudes toward their place in society are still open, and they can be influenced regarding the role of SES in shaping - or not shaping their lives. The heroes and heroines of adolescent novels are characters who revolt against the prevailing adult order and are able to transcend SES positions, thereby finding meaning and self-actualization in their own values. In To Kill a Mockingbird, it is the feisty Scout who successfully defends Atticus from a gang of Cunninghams by appealing to Mr. Cunningham's sense of guilt with respect to legal favors Atticus had granted him in the past. She emerges as the heroine by refusing to allow the adult parameters of race and SES to influence her opinion of others. Holden Caulfield, in The Catcher in the Rye, becomes living proof that a high SES does not guarantee happiness, that one must search for happiness through other means.

John and Lorraine, in The Pigman, learn quickly that compassion and sharing are the keys to fulfillment, not money as they had originally thought. Throughout the novel, each swear that he/she will not end up like his father and her mother. It is Mr. Pignati who becomes their role model.

Finally, in The Outsiders, the reader learns that even "greasers" of low SES can be respected by the community for their heroism. John, Ponyboy, and Dallas prove this to be true when they all work together to save a group of schoolchildren from a burning church. The three greasers present a poignant example that there are other ways to achieve recognition and honor.


Demo, D., & Sevin-Williams, R. (1983). Early adolescent self-esteem as a function of social class. American Journal of Sociology, 88, 763-74.

Hinton, S. E. (1967). The outsiders. New York: Viking Press.

Kohr, R. et al. (1988). The influence of race, class, and gender on self-esteem for fifth- eighth- and eleventh-grade students in Pennsylvania schools. Journal of Negro Education, 57, 467-81.

Lee, H. (1960). To kill a mockingbird. New York: J. B. Lippincott.

Richman, C. et al. (1985). General and specific self-esteem in late adolescent students: Race + gender + ses effects. Adolescence, 20, 555-66.

Rosenberg, M., & Pearlin, L. (1978). Social class and self-esteem among children and adults. American Journal of Sociology, 84, 53-77.

Salinger, J. D. (1970). The catcher in the rye. New York: Little, Brown.

Stern, A., & Searing, D. (1976). The stratification beliefs of English and American adolescents. British Journal of Political Science, 6, 177-201.

Zindel, P. (1968). The pigman. New York: Harper and Row.
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Author:Pearlman, Michael
Date:Mar 22, 1995
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