Role Of ?Class? In Evelina Essay, Research Paper
The Role of “Class” in Evelina
What is the definition of “class”? Burney expresses how class is viewed in the eighteenth century society through the novel Evelina. In the novel, Burney exposes to the reader different classes of characters from the aristocrats to the merchants to the commoners and to the prostitutes. Burney also reveals how different character defines the word “class.” Madame Duval thinks money and material are sufficient qualifications to belong to the high society. Mrs. Beaumont believes that a person’s class is set by birth; the social class one is born into defines one’s social status. However, Burney seems to disagree with both of the characters. Through the character of the heroine Evelina, Burney defines what she perceives as the true definition class and the role it plays in society.
Burney points out in the novel that the British in the Eighteenth century is well aware of the importance of class, or the position in social hierarchy. To abase a person’s social status is an insult and the action is frequently used in this novel as a weapon for attack, argument and revenge. Madame Duval and Captain Mirvan incessantly attack each other’s social status. Madame Duval insults the Captain, calling him a dirty low life and only fit as a steward of Lady Howard. The Captain, with his injured pride, insults Madame Duval as a wash lady of Lady Howard. The dislike is mutual and the tactic used to infuriate one another is by making derogatory comments on each other’s status. In another example, Evelina refuses to dance with the “foppish ” Lovell but agreed to dance with Lord Orville, the gentleman who has an air of “mixed and politeness and gallantry.” (Pg. 29) Lovell is extremely offended by her refusal to dance and believes that she refused him because he lacks the title of a Lord. Conscious that he is in a lower rank comparing to Lord Orville, he feels extremely humiliated. He takes his revenge on Evelina as he abashes her in public and accuses her of being ill mannered. Behind her back, he destroys her reputation by calling her a country “nobody”(pg35). Upon another encounter, he twisted her status to “toad-eater” as he deliberately inferiorities her class and describes her as a companion to Miss Mirvan. Being vicious as he is, He believes that by establish the commonality of Evelina’s social status, she will not be able to be accepted by the elite social class. Not only did Burney point out the importance of social ranking, she, at the same time, exhibits the ill nature of those who make use of such information regarding other peoples’ status to their advantage.
Burney seems to be criticizing the double standard treatment of people who lacks “class” and those who has high status. She disapproves the conduct of people in the novel who have the characteristic that appears to be “changing with the tide.” Mrs. Beaumont’s character is satirically described as the “absolute Court Calendar bigot.” (pg. 284) Her idea of class is illustrated by her belief that birth is virtue. Her previous association with Evelina let her to believe that Evelina is a woman of quality. However, she is soon disappointed to find out that Evelina is a “mere country gentlewoman”(pg284). Similarly, Lady Louisa and many other social elites who reside under the same roof as Evelina look down on her with cold aloofness and act as if she does not exist. Evelina appears to be lower in status than the others and is treated as nobody. Interesting, as soon as they discover that Evelina is established as Miss Belmont and now belong to the same class as they do, they treat her with respect. Lady Louisa who has never talked to her nor took interest in her, invites Evelina for the first time to join them for a walk. Evelina notices the change in their attitude toward her and it is all because of the change of status. Sir Clement is another example. He wildly pursues Evelina when she was with the Mirvan’s family, who belong to the gentry. Although he is very straightforward in conveying his passionate love for Evelina, he has treated her with respect and shows good manners that a gentleman pays a lady. However, Sir Clement sees Evelina for the second time and her situation has changed. Sir Clement encounters her with her relatives who, although wealthy, are very vulgar in behavior and notorious. Evelina immediately noticed his change in attitude. To Sir Clement, an alteration of companion seems to “authorize an alteration in manners” of behavior.(Pg. 201) He no longer treats her with respect as he had in the previous encounter and assumes that he is at the liberty to take advantage of her just because she is no longer associating with the upper class. His alteration of manners and opinions towards her lowers her opinion of him.
It is stereotypical to believe that people behave certain ways according to their social class. Burney expresses that many factors shape a person’s behavior, such as education and belief. A person’s character may not parallel with social status. Burney is especially fascinated with the idea of vulgarity and provides the reader with the notion that vulgarity is not necessarily a description of the lower class. The libertines, such as Lord Merton, clearly have a very high social standing in society to receive titles of a lord. However his behavior is discourteous and uncultured. Lord Merton gives offensive stares at Evelina during tea. His eyes are fixed upon Evelina as if she is not a lady, but an object to be admired. Evelina describes his behavior as “low bred” and “deficient in manners”(Pg.106). She almost confirms that he belongs to the lower class and is shocked to find that he is a member of the aristocracy. Lord Merton, although belongs to the top of the society, behaves out of his class. He lacks moral and principles and his behavior serves as a total contrast with his “class”. Captain Mirvan in this novel is described as a comical character. The language he uses is foul spoken and the action he takes is so cruel that it is almost barbaric. He may belong to the gentry but he acts inelegantly and uncouthly. He trembles at the sheer delight in seeing others suffer. From throwing Madame Duval into a ditch to allowing the monkey to bite Lovell’s ear, he shows a character of uncultured crudity and savageness. He seems to be better representing the dregs of the society than the gentry. Therefore, the repulsive behavior of the captain provides another excellent example on the idea that the characteristic may not be congruent with one’s class.
Burney points out that wealth or lack of wealth does not determine a person’s nobility or ignobility. She provides the reader with the examples such as Madame Duval. She was a tavern wretch who has been twice married into wealthy families. As a widow, she is incredibly rich. She proudly believes that her social status is “ just as good as” Lady Howard’s. (pg.51) To her, more money means more prestige. However, she clearly does not belong in the elite class because there is no air of gentility in her nature. Her behavior is unacceptable in the elite social class because she lacks the acquired taste to belong to the gentry. Her showy dress, the makeup she puts on and the way she dances are inappropriate for her age. She abuses the English language and makes her seem like she is uncultured and uneducated. Her lack of refined taste results in her inability to distinguish lower-class prostitutes with respectable ladies. Burney is trying to show that although money can be utilized for many functions, it cannot hide a person’s character. Madame Duval, although rich, is too cruel of a character to be considered a lady. To provide the contrast to Madame Duval, both Evelina and Mr. Macartney appear earlier in the novel to be poor and suffer from financial/social distress. They do not belong to any upper class families and are viewed by others as commoners. However, they both possess an air of gentility and sensitivity. They have refined taste in life, especially Evelina, as she demonstrated that she has a heart of gold. She shows her most notable conduct of virtue by saving Mr. Macartney from his attempted suicide and gives him financial help and encourages him to live. Her genuine compassion and excellence is invaluable. In spite of their lack of wealth and social standing in London, Evelina and Mr. Macartney’s excellent behavior transcends the boundary of class.
As clearly one of the themes of the novel, the word “class” plays a great role in eighteenth century English society. Through this novel, Burney gives the reader a view of the upper, middle and lower class people in eighteenth century England. She presents to the reader that a person’s social status is a sensitive subject at that period of time and it has been the center of many attacks. Burney breaks the stereotype that certain class behaves a certain way. She reveals that the definition of “class” should not be judged solely on a person’s wealth or social standing. Burney sneers at those who flaunts their status and behave odiously. She admires those who show humanity and conveys to the reader that it is through the ethical choice that a person makes, and through his or her conduct and manners that make a person noble. One who is educated and proves oneself to be a man of quality is what Burney believes as truly the person with “class.”
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