Academic journal article Papers: Explorations into Children's Literature

A Sporting Chance: Class in Markus Zusak's the Messenger and Fighting Ruben Wolfe

Academic journal article Papers: Explorations into Children's Literature

A Sporting Chance: Class in Markus Zusak's the Messenger and Fighting Ruben Wolfe

Article excerpt

The final decades of the twentieth century saw a shift in popular attitudes to class. Class location came to be viewed as a product of individual merit and self-responsibility, obscuring the role played by social structure and power. As a consequence, social disadvantage has come to be variously attributed to a poverty of civic values in poor communities, or to the failures and flaws of character of individuals. This ideological inflection of class promotes a culture of blame by endorsing the notion of an undeserving poor and a perception of the working poor, the unemployed and never employed as 'Other' to the middle class. As such, class oppression is not simply a question of economics, but class prejudice and its effects. The question this paper asks is, to what extent do Markus Zusak's young adult novels, Fighting Ruben Wolfe (2000) and The Messenger (2002), reflect and contest such understandings of those living on the social margins? To answer this question, this paper focuses on the interrelationship between the characters' class consciousness and the potential for individual agency.

Pierre Bourdieu's concept of positional suffering, which concerns low social standing, is one function of the culture of blame, and provides a means of discussing the characters' understanding of their class identity. In Bourdieu's (1999) view, the dominant classes tend to view poverty in terms of economic hardship and hence empathize only with the material suffering it creates. They tend to ignore the subjective experience of hardship and the social marginalization it creates. Bourdieu terms this petit misere--the ordinary everyday suffering which produces disappointment, disaffection, and low self-worth. Positional suffering concerns one's status within one's own class, but it is also relative to the class hierarchy and, thus, the perceptions and misperceptions of those whose standing is higher. It seems to me that what Bourdieu is talking about here is point of view. Needless to say, literary texts are able to provide insight into positional suffering via point of view, focalization and reader positioning. Both The Messenger and Fighting Ruben Wolfe are first person narratives and thus written from the perspective of characters whose lives are shaped by positional suffering.

Positioning the players

Fighting Ruben Wolfe tells the story of Ruben and his younger brother, Cameron, and concerns the effects of their father's unemployment on their working class family. The novel reproduces the class-coded language, signifiers and sensibilities of 'the world within the world' (p. 83) of which the narrator, Cameron, is both observer and actor. The novel offers an insight into what it may be like to experiences one's class location as both self and other; to define one's identity from the point of view of the world and its measure of one's worth. According to Cameron, most of their 'neighbours think that Rube and me are kind of hoodlums' (p. 18), and he describes himself and his brother as 'vandals, backyard fighters, just boys' (p. 141). They live with the knowledge that they could easily become 'another couple of boys who amounted to nothin' but what people said we would' (p. 55). They know 'what' they are, but not 'who' they are or where they are going.

The difference between 'what' and 'who' the boys are is elaborated through Cameron's reflections on the public and private. When he walks the streets of his neighbourhood, he 'wonders about the stories inside' the tiny houses (p. 23). He wonders why houses have windows, asking

  Is it to let a glimpse of the world in? Or for us to see out? Our own
  place is small perhaps, but when your old man is eaten by his own
  shadow, you realise that maybe in every house, something so savage and
  sad and brilliant is standing up, without the world even seeing it.

  Maybe that's what these pages of words are about: Bringing the world
  to the window. … 
Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.