Constructions Of Working Class Masculinity English Literature Essay

“In recent years sociologists have been shocked to discover that blue-collar men actually spend far more time with their children that their professional contemporaries, and feel far less threatened by the gains of feminism. (This is probably because, as DH Lawrence pointed out a long time ago, the working classes are surer of themselves sexually). Working-class men make natural fathers in a way that other men, obsessed with status and career advancement, just do not. In Beckham’s relentless beauty, never more compete than when looking at his son, we seem to see all that men could be- that toughness and that tenderness combined without conflict or cruelty- if only they stopped trying to control everything so much, if they stopped worrying for five minutes about looking soft” (Julie Birchill on David Beckham in The Guardian).

Masculinity is often determined by a man’s physical appearance and how courageous they are; physical strength and adopting a heroic nature is thus necessary to stand up for oneself and defend ones family. Many of the men in working class literature perform manual labour, such as mining or working in a factory, in order to provide a life for their family. In contrast, although it become more frequent for women to work during and after the Second World War, men did not adhere to this role reversal, and helping out domestically was not something which they carried out. Richard Hoggart suggests that many women would not want their husbands to contribute to the domestic chores, despite their own heavy workload, “for fear he is thought womanish” (35). Moreover, Hoggart asserts that working-class boys soon acquire the sense that “it’s different for men” and consequently they contribute less to household maintenance than their sisters (36). And though a cause for concern, these “rough boys are often admired; the head-shaking over them is as proud as it is rueful–‘[h]e’s a real lad’ people say”. Therefore, although men must be married in order to fully achieve their masculinity, they must also continually stress their heterosexuality, making sure to always behave in the correct manner for their gender.

Alan Sillitoe’s ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’ conveys masculinity chiefly through Arthur Seaton’s assertion of his heterosexuality seen through his treatment of women and heavy drinking, yet also through his ambivalent outlook on marriage. Arthur Seaton appears to despise the idea of marriage, calling it ‘the dizzy and undesired brink of hell’ (156), yet he loves spending time with Brenda and entertaining her children, and by the end of the novel, with Doreen, ‘they spoke of getting married in three months.’ (217) Arthur, however, is extremely judgemental towards other men, ‘Arthur classified husbands into two main categories: those that looked after their wives, and those that were slow.’ (?) He says this as if to justify his affair with Brenda; Jack must be slow and thus not worthy to be Brenda’s husband. Arthur believes the ‘slow’ husbands to be less masculine; they are incapable of pleasing their wives, which is why their wives are ultimately disloyal, ‘There was something lacking in them, not like a man with one leg that could in no way be put right, but something that they, the slow husbands, could easily rectify if they became less selfish, brightened up their ideas, and looked after their wives a bit better’ (41?). Ironically it appears that the less masculine husband is less attentive to his wife’s emotional needs.

A further irony is apparent when Arthur states that despite his using Brenda and doing wrong, ‘If I ever get married, he thought, and have a wife that carries on like Brenda and Winnie carry on, I’ll give her the biggest pasting any woman ever had. I’d kill her. My wife’ll have to look after any kids I fill her with, keep the house spotless. And if she’s good at that I might let her go to the pictures now and again and take her out for a drink on Saturday.’ (145) This scene clearly depicts Arthur as the alpha-male. He wants to take control, and when he does have a wife, he is certain she will do as she is told. Moreover, he is narcissistic and callous, especially when he states, ‘Brenda wasn’t worth the trouble he’d been through to keep her’ (145), despite the fact it was his fault she got pregnant, and his decision to carry on the affair whilst knowing she was married, which conveys Arthur’s irresponsible and cruel nature. Arthur constantly acts how he wants; always aiming to act as a ‘man’, when really, he is portrayed as obnoxious and crude.

We are introduced to Arthur’s stereotypical manly physique early into the novel where he is depicted as a ‘tall, iron-faced, crop-haired youth’ (34?). The use of the word ‘iron’ makes him sound tough, almost unbreakable, and this becomes apparent in the novel through his hard drinking and the fights he gets into. Arthur’s masculinity is asserted from the opening of the novel, through his description of ‘crafty arms around female waists’, conveying his interest in women from the start of the novel. His manliness is conveyed through his drinking habits also, and the alliteration used on the phrases ‘best and bingiest’ and ‘piled-up passions’ (9) emphasises Arthur’s excitement that it is the weekend and he can drink more than usual, whilst adding a colloquial tone. The colloquialism also creates a welcoming tone to the opening of the novel, which encourages us to initially warm to Arthur as a character. The excitement in this opening chapter is starkly contrasted to the monotony of Arthur’s workplace, ‘a week’s monotonous graft in the factory was swilled out of your system in a burst of goodwill’. The juxtaposition within this sentence clearly shows Arthur’s appreciation of his weekends and the sibilance in the latter half of the sentence conveys a tone of happiness and relaxation since this is his time to rest. Moreover, the ‘slow-turning Big Wheel of the year’ highlights the sense of monotony and it mirrors the cyclical structure of working class life.

The opening to the novel also introduces Arthur participating in a drinking competition with a sailor. It is both the ability to drink and the element of competition that are stressed in this particular episode, ‘It seemed an even contest for a long time, as if they would sit there swilling it back for ever, until Loudmouth suddenly went green halfway through the tenth pint’ (11).Arthur’s successful accomplishment in both can be read as an affirmation of hegemonic masculinity.

In contrast to Arthur’s drinking being associated with masculinity, in Walter Greenwood’s novel, ‘Love on the Dole’, drinking appears incidentally rather than prominently. The novel condemns Ned Narkey for his drunkenness and leads us to dislike his character. For example, when Ned confronts Sally about why she will not marry him, he states, ‘ah’ll mek sure that that yellow-bellied rat up street don’t either…not if Ah have t’ swing for him’, referring to Larry Meath. His drunken state presents him as unstable, and we do not want him to be with any woman. (145). Furthermore, when he sees Sam Grundy talking to Sally after he has had a few drinks, his violent nature is conveyed and we see the negative effect which drinking has on him, ‘Blind hate and envy dominated him; his impulse was to snatch at Grundy’s throat, fling him to the floor and kick his brains out.’ (188). This perception of masculinity is criticised and his aggressive language is not applauded, contrasting to the light-heartedness of Arthur’s drinking competition in ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’. Moreover, in ‘Love on the Dole’, Mr. Hardcastle’s resistance to ‘the temptation to go drown worry and misery in drink’ (94) is praised, which highlights that the more manly choice in this case is not going down to the pub to get drunk; Mr. Hardcastle understands this will make no difference to his situation. Thus, in order to be manly is to support ones family, which cannot be achieved through heavy drinking.

Similar to Greenwood, George Orwell does not commend drinking through his novel, ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’, and decides not to include it at all. B. Clarke observes that Orwell, “Does not reproduce images of drunkenness and violence” which appear in Sillitoe’s, ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’. This elevates the miners’ status and conveys their masculinity in a different light. They are still physically powerful, yet Orwell presents them as not feeling the need to assert their manliness through hard drinking, purposefully giving the miners, who are representing the working class, a “stable identity”.

A further construction of masculinity in ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’ is the chivalrous nature of Sam; he is masculine in a different way to the other working class men in the novel since he does not use aggression or vulgar language. His physical appearance is described as ‘a stocky negro with a calm, intelligent face’ (191) which juxtaposes the previous description of Arthur as having a face as hard as iron. Furthermore, he is ‘dressed in a well-pressed khaki’ (192) showing how he takes pride in his appearance. Sam also contrasts Arthur in his approach to difficult situations, for example, when a fight is about to start when they go to the pub for a drink, Arthur accidently spills a small amount of beer on a woman when he is passing the drinks over, and when her husband intervenes, ‘Arthur clenched his fists, ready to smash him’. (194) Therefore, he sees violence as the answer, whereas Sam calmly states, ‘what’s the matter?’ (194) conveying how he is polite and well-spoken; unlike Arthur, Sam uses eloquence over violence.

Labour is made up of either physical work in the factory or office work; the former bears associations with the working class whilst the latter with the middle class. For example, the working class figure of Harry Hardcastle in Walter Greenwood’s ‘Love on the Dole’ despises his work as a clerk at the pawn shop chiefly because he views being ‘a mere pusher of pens’ (21) as having feminine connotations. Thus, middle class work was considered as effeminate, meaning working class men who worked in offices were not considered as masculine as those who worked in manual, physical labour. This is contrasted to Harry’s dream of working at Marlowe’s, which he describes as ‘majestic, impressive…enormous engineering plant…with men, engaged in men’s work’ (19). Greenwood’s vast range of adjectives used to describe Marlowe’s are all what Harry aspires to be, and he associates these descriptions with being a real man.

Similarly, George Orwell, through his novel, ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’ makes the physical work of the miners appear very manly, and as B. Clarke observes, Orwell, “insists that miners are bound together partly by their adherence to a traditional form of masculinity founded on manual labour, physical courage, and endurance”. Orwell thus praises these men’s masculine qualities, such as their physical courage, endurance and solidarity. He appears very passionate about the work they do, portraying them as heroic, stating that mining is a ‘Superhuman job’ (19). Many of the men died whilst doing their job, and Orwell presents the dangers of mining through his narrative; thus emphasising the issue regarding the exploitation of the working classes.

In contrast to the great respect we form for the miners in ‘The Road to Wigan Pier, through ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’, we develop a lack of respect for Arthur’s hedonistic attitude towards his social status ‘And so it was possible to forget the factory, whether inside it sweating and straining your muscles by a machine, or whether swilling ale in a pub…the factory did not matter. The factory could go on working until it blew itself up from too much speed’. The alliteration on ‘sweating/straining/’ and muscles/machine’ are all words connected with physical work, emphasising Arthur’s masculinity. Although his statement about his work-place not mattering seems careless, Arthur’s warmer side becomes apparent when he juxtaposes this to things which do matter in life, ‘But I, he thought…will be here after the factory’s gone, and so will Brenda and all women like her still be here, the sort of women that are worth their weight in gold’. (45) This description of women is beautiful and the alliteration on the ‘w’ sound conveys how Arthur is emphasising his point that his does have some respect for women, and he is not completely brutal and remorseless; he conveys how masculinity does has a softer, more emotional side along with its stereotypical connotations.

Due to the economic deprivations of the post-war period, Sillitoe deliberately presents his characters as aiming to maximise their own pleasure to highlight an escapist tendency behind hedonism; working class men found it hard to face the difficulties of the post-war period. For example, when Arthur is present during Brenda’s gin and hot-bath abortion, he is extremely casual about it, comparing it to ‘watching the telly with no part in what he was seeing.’ (88) Arthur thus conveys no sign of compassion for Brenda’s suffering. Moreover, on the same night, he sleeps with Winnie, Brenda’s sister, ‘he could hardly remember Brenda, thinking that perhaps he had dreamed about her sometime, but nothing more’ (96). This is shocking after he has just watched her abort their baby, and his description of only knowing her through his dreams suggests that perhaps something is wrong with him mentally; this could, however, just be his way of dealing with guilt. If he really feels no guilt, and has no conscience, although extreme, Arthur could well be thought of as a sociopath.

Arthur’s defiance of moral values and negligent attitude is conveyed when Arthur and Fred witness a man throw a pint glass at a shop window, and a female witness ‘held the bewildered culprit by his wrist’ (108) whilst they wait for the police. Arthur’s immorality and horrific nature is depicted through his sexually derogatory description of this woman; he loathes her for not letting the unlawful man escape, ‘She’s a bitch and a whore…a blood-tub, a potato face, a swivel-eyed gett, a Rat-clock.’ (113) This venomous outpouring of misogyny and brutal language portrays Arthur’s dominant, aggressive masculinity, yet Sillitoe is ultimately presenting this form of masculinity in a very negative light.

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