The Role of Socioeconomic Status in Adolescent Literature

Article excerpt

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. …