Les Miserables

Depictions of Social Climbing in 19th Century French and English Literature College

Throughout most of human history, it has been difficult or even impossible to change social classes. Those born into poverty tended to remain there as slaves or peasants, and wealth tended to remain concentrated in the hands of the hereditary social elite. Although there have always been exceptional individuals who rose from obscurity to prominence, most people lived and died in the same classes to which they, their parents, and their grandparents were born. Large-scale social mobility did not become possible until the Industrial Revolution, when the technological innovations developed in the last half of the 18th Century led to the creation of vast wealth from mercantile and manufacturing enterprises. Suddenly, land that land—which had been the primary means of production since antiquity—no longer played as vital a role in the economy, and hereditary landowners—the aristocratic and noble class—lost a great deal of their legal and economic power. By the early 1800s, the old social order was in tatters throughout Europe as “new money” threatened to dominate or even eclipse traditional forms of authority. Yet the way in which contemporary authors discussed and described social climbing behavior was heavily influenced by the...

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