Study Guide

Serena Society and Class

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Society and Class

Pemberton knew other aspects of Serena's appearance helped foster Buchanan and Wilkie's obvious surprise—pants and boots instead of a dress and cloche hat, sun-bronzed skin that belied Serena's social class, lips and cheeks untinted by rouge, hair blonde and thick but cut short in a bob, distinctly feminine yet also austere. (1.28)

Notice how—even with the focus on Serena's gender—her class is still mentioned. When we first meet her, we're told about her social class just to make sure we don't get confused about where she hails from. Something tells us we never would have second guessed her, though, no matter her class origins.

"You're a lucky man then," Serena said to Harmon. "You'll not find a better sire to breed her with. The size of her belly attests to that." (1.58)

The word "sire" jumps out at us and makes us think of dogs. As Serena tells Rachel how, um, lucky she is to have slept with Pemberton, we can't help but notice how much of her comments are classist. Rachel's only lucky because she's lower class and landed a rich upperclassman.

"Here," Serena said, holding the knife by the blade. "By all rights it belongs to my husband. It's a fine knife, and you can get a good price for it if you demand one. And I would," she added. "Sell it, I mean. That money will help when the child is born. It's all you'll ever get from my husband and me." (1.86)

How kind of Serena… not. She tosses the knife to Rachel as charity so she can afford to eat and feed her baby. Again we're asked to think about the class distinction between these two women here. Serena and Pemberton can afford to buy new land, while Rachel considers pawning her dad's knife to survive.

She wrapped Jacob in his bundlings, and they crossed a pasture whose barbed wire now kept nothing in, empty for the first time in her life. Rachel saw the trees they walked toward had all their fall colors now, their canopy bright and various as a button jar. (7.2)

Rachel has to sell everything to make ends meet, including her livestock. She struggles to feed Jacob sometimes, and even goes without food herself on occasion so the little guy gets fed. Characters in this book live in one of two extremes—rich or poor.

"We expect nothing more than to be treated like other wealthy landowners," Serena said. (14.39)

Her snarky comment to the Secretary of the Interior shows just how greedy and manipulative Serena is, but it also highlights how much the rich social classes benefit from being rich. They can demand higher prices for land—and get them—whereas the lower classes get denied an extra fifty cents a week.

Campbell had chosen the gifts with a wide sympathy of taste and imagination, ordering what he could not find in Scott's General Store from the Sears, Roebuck catalogue and a Soco Gap moonshiner, so the workers had much to choose from with their fifty-cent allowance. Those with children came up first. Because Campbell wouldn't allow it otherwise, these men spent at least half their portion lightening the shelf that held licorice whips and oranges. (17.1)

Campbell is so considerate and thoughtful, especially when he buys gifts for the workers. Even though he could get in trouble with the Pembertons, Campbell purchases the gifts so it will feel like Christmas. We get a glimpse of what it's like to be poor in this time from these descriptions.

"It's got to be them," he fumed. "No one else has that kind of money. Why can't they just play king and queen in their goddamn castle and keep out of other people's business. All of them, from Webb to Rockefeller, they're nothing but Bolsheviks. They won't be satisfied until the government owns every acre in these mountains." (17.9)

This discussion between Harris and Pemberton about who is backing the park is telling. First of all, there are only a few people who are rich enough to be able to afford it. It's also interesting that the men feel slighted by how rich other people are, when they are comparatively wealthy themselves.

Men seeking work came to the camp in a steady procession now. Some camped out in the stumps and slash, waiting days for a maimed or killed worker to be brought from the woods in hopes of being his replacement. These and others more transient gathered six mornings a week on the commissary porch, each in his way trying to distinguish himself from the others when Campbell walked among them. (21.1)

As the novel goes on, more and more people are out of work. We get these passages to remind us that the country is really hurting for cash during this time. With so many people out of work, the higher social classes only benefit: They don't have to increase wages and get their pick of the litter.

One thing's sure and nothing's surer. The rich get richer and the poor get— children. In the meantime, in between time. (24.87)

This song tells us all we need to know about the society depicted in the novel. Too bad it's true. We watch as the Pembertons line their pockets with extra cash while the workers go hungry. Fair? No way. Historically accurate? Absolutely.

"We had to feed our families," Henryson said.

"Yes, we did," Ross agreed. "What I'm wondering is how we'll feed them once all the trees is cut and the jobs leave." (35.17-18)

The workers know the Pembertons are greedy, manipulative murders, but they work for them anyway. Why? They need the money. It's the Great Depression and jobs are hard to find, which puts them in an unenviable position when it comes to their employers' morals.

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