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Raymond Williams called ‘community’ ‘that warmly persuasive word’. Explore the way that one or more texts represent the idea of community as either inclusive or alienating.
Both A Taste of Honey and U and non-U represent the idea of community as rather alienating. Whilst Shelagh Delaney aims to portray this in a way that brings to light under-represented minorities, Alan Ross writes an essay defining language in relation to society and social hierarchy.
A Taste of Honey addresses societal issues like race and sexuality in order to give a voice to the voiceless. In this case, the working-class who experience marginalisation at the hands of their community. The tone of the play is set from the start when we see Jo and her single mother Helen, move into their new ‘home’ that’s “falling apart” (Shelagh, p.7). It is logical to assume that these are circumstances they have not chosen as they seem to openly resent their poverty, seen when Helen is invariably financially dependent on men. From this, we can argue that the play is very much about working-class men who shape the lives of working-class women. Throughout the play, there is a lack of ‘community’ between genders. For women it can be claustrophobic and for men it can be much more freeing. However, Delaney attempts to challenge conservative values by reversing and blurring sexual, racial and gendered roles. She does this by highlighting oppressions of identity in the 1950’s and uses a generational divide to bring her message to life. Not only does this show Helen and Jo to be the products of two very different generations, but it also shows a divide between a community, how a cultural transformation that is becoming more diverse is unaccepted by some people. This can be seen as Jo is an open-minded and inclusive teen where Helen adopts more conventional attributes towards social diversity. As a play, it is very dialogue driven about the dynamics of relationships and elicits sympathy with characters burdened with contemporary culture and social pressures. When Jimmy asks Jo “Afraid someone’ll see us?”, her response is “I don’t care” (Shelagh, p.22). This shows Jo’s nonconformist personality and her willingness to break the community’s boundaries. Interestingly, Jimmie is simply referred to as ‘a coloured naval rating’ in the stage directions and is only given the name ‘Boy”. Again, the reader is exposed to the generational shift as Helen expresses distaste towards Jimmy’s ethnicity “you mean to say that…that sailor was a black man?” (Shelagh, p.86). This reinforces the notion that community can be alienating to those deemed as insignificant.
Delaney also explores sexuality through the character of Geof and uses Jo to be the perfect example of someone who accepts and embraces his sexual orientation, rather than seeing it as a source of shame. However, aside from Jo, Helen and Peter continually criticise Geof’s presumed homosexuality when they make remarks such as “bloody little pansy” (Shelagh, p.79) and “that little fruitcake…Can’t stand em” (Shelagh, p. 68). These stereotypical and pre-conceived views of displayed through such derogatory and insensitive terms categorise him as a taboo demographic and thus show their compliance to society’s expectations. This further links to gender and the rigid categorisation of males and females, and how it is engrained into communities how they should behave. Helen’s comment that Jo should have found someone more manly because of his depiction as an effeminate art student and his optimism to help Jo reveals the unwavering prejudice present in the 1950’s and how Geof’s feminine qualities are used as a mechanism for challenging societal, and therefore, the communities gender norms at the time. This further manifests itself when we see Jo’s desire for independence: “I’m everything to myself” (Shelagh, p.57) when she refuses to take money from her mum, alongside her awareness of female subservience. Delaney’s representation of a head strong modern teenager links to the mind set encouraged by the first wave feminist movement in the 1960s and 70s. This attitude towards society taps into moral panics in a revolutionary way as Jo’s character questions the many social tensions in Britain. She is aware of the misogyny prevalent in society and the social norms women were expected to uphold, and even goes as far as to say “I don’t want to be a woman” (Shelagh, p.75). Simply put, men went out to work and for women it was enforced upon them to fulfil domestic related functions. Peter supports this when he implies that women are only good for one thing by saying “Ah! Yes, number thirty-eight. A charming little thing” (Shelagh, p. 32). The use of the word ‘thing’ shows how he sees women as possessions that can be cast aside when he is finished with them. Such an outlook like this conveys the difficulty in people’s acceptance of social change in terms of idealised constructs of binary sexes whereby the woman is undoubtedly inferior to the man. This makes Jo’s character that much more fascinating as she is not blind to a society that hinders and inhibits the autonomy of women. In this way, Jo is seen to invert traditional gender roles when she says Geof would “make somebody a wonderful wife” (Shelagh, p.55). This subversion suggests that anyone can take on any role that personally suits them instead of being alienated by a community if you do not conform. Perhaps Jo reflects Delaney’s hope that communities can live in harmony without being confined to pre-existing roles. Hugh Corbett makes the argument that ‘the author has unmistakably conveyed the girls yearning to escape from her circumstances and her serene resignation to the impossibility of escaping from herself’ (Books Abroad, p.180). This is certainly interesting as it is clear Jo feels alienated, as well as Jimmie and Geoff who are subject to society’s rejection to their race and sexuality. Jo’s emotional outbreak develops the idea that she wants to escape when she says “We don’t ask for life. We have it thrust upon us” (Shelagh, p.71). Here, we are exposed to Jo’s inner thoughts, how in reality she is unhappy in a society that excludes anyone who differs from the norm.
Jo is also aware of the hypocrisy present in society’s standards as seen through her mother who chooses alcoholism and men over values like love and family. Even though Jo is a white teenager she is still isolated from communities because of her working-class status, as well as being abandoned by her mother. Helen challenges the archetype of motherhood which leads us to believe that neither Jo or Helen want to be middle-class and conform to men’s desires, but at the same time, they don’t want to be a part of any working-class community (seen when Helen chooses to live with Peter, a man with money), and so we can ask…do they alienate themselves? Although this is something to consider, I would argue no given that there is a ‘stickiness of labels’ in communities meaning that Helen and Jo’s poverty places them at the bottom of the social hierarchy, and once you have been labelled working-class, it becomes difficult to transcend your class background, leaving many alienated and unable to mobilise in society. Even at the end, Geof and Jo still endure seclusion as he is kicked out the house and she is left alone when her mother leaves. Michael J. Collins stated that “their tastes of honey do not seem sweet enough to balance their pain’ (Theatre Journal, p.545). It is interesting to acknowledge the title itself, and its meaning. A Taste of Honey is a reference to the Book of Samuel where it is said “I did but taste a little honey”. This suggests that everyone is entitled to happiness but in the play, even if they experience the slightest bit of happiness, it still results in alienation and suffering. For example, Helen equates happiness with money and Jo is happy with her boyfriend Jimmie for a little while until she falls pregnant and he never returns to see her again. Perhaps Collins is arguing that the social issues Delaney is concerned with cannot result in happiness, it is ‘not sweet enough’. They can only have a brief chance of happiness, but that does not take away their pain.
U and Non-U addresses social mobility through the means of language and whether or not changing how you speak creates the possibility to change your class. It is known that in the 1950’s (post-war Britain), voice was epitomised by the politics of class, art and literature – boundaries put in place by society, and so the words you chose to speak were an indication of your social class. Alan Ross states that ‘TODAY, in 1956, the English class-system is essentially tripartite – there exist an upper, a middle, and a lower class. It is solely by its language that the upper class is clearly marked off from the others.’ (Ross, p.9). This assertion shows Ross’ grip on class snobbery and suggests that classes only differ in language, not in people’s capability or the quality of what they do. Thus, there is a sense of alienation within communities where there are linguistic differences. It forces us to become aware of the fact that there is an inherent assumption of inferiority towards working class speech and leads us to question, if we don’t want to sound common, what words should we be saying? This alone introduces us to Ross’ query: ‘Can a non-U speaker become a U-speaker?’ (Ross, p.29). Although Ross believes ‘an adult can never attain complete success’ (Ross, p.29), it should certainly be considered that ‘Abandoning one’s social class roots and moving “up”…has always been risky business…the distance is rarely covered without leaving someone or something behind’ (Susan Harman, Language Arts, p.392). Here, we are exposed to the idea that even if someone consciously tries to make themselves sound more refined, they are still alienated as learners from their communities as they have not acquired such language from birth. They would be alienating themselves from their background, as well as being alienated by those born into a middle/upper, dominant group. It is important to notice that in some ways, the very art of language controls the world we live in. For example, Julia Snell argued that ‘while social class “has its basis in social realities to do with authority, control, poverty and life chances […] meanings linked to class are also created in discourse”. These meanings change over time and are a function of how language is locally contextualised.’ (Social Class and Language p.8). Language can be a means for people to shape who they want to be or how they want to be perceived, but at different stages, the idea of what sounds fancy or fashionable changes. It is merely a way for individuals to construct identities, perhaps in order to achieve social mobility. The act of social mobility tells us that it is possible to enter a different class and ‘move up’ therefore, indicating that communities can be inclusive. However, the rarity of this comes with ‘only high aspiration and strong determination’ according to Afroza Rahman (Online, p.53). There is a difficulty to transcending ones own class background and it is possible that Ross is critiquing social divisions based on language. Further to Harman’s argument, ensuring a more luxurious life, supposedly through class, comes hand in hand with ‘leaving someone or something behind’. This emphasises a disapproval of the social class system and how in order to dispose of our roots, we must be willing to be torn between the class we were born into and the class we choose for ourselves: a rather alienating concept.
Ross points out that ‘today, a member of the upper class is, for instance, not necessarily better educated, cleaner, or richer than someone not of this class’ (Ross, p.9), and this makes it that much more difficult to comprehend that language, something that comes so natural to us has the power to alienate people’s participation in certain communities. A member from the upper class and a member of the working class could finish with the same grades. However, simply because of their voice, their economic conditions are inferred. Even today, in the 21st century, there is still a value and or seriousness placed on language. For instance, if we attend a job interview, it is felt that we should put on an accent to come across in a more desirable and professional way that will encourage the interviewer to favour us in a particular regard. Words as straightforward as sofa (U) and couch (non-U) (image 1), foolishly determine people’s perceptions of one another. Afroza Rahman made the case that ‘A businessman can never use a beggar’s accent while talking with his partner. We can easily identify who belongs to which level’ (Online, p.8). It seems that language has become such a massive factor in distinguishing a person’s position in society that we assume someone is of a much lower class if they do not speak in Standard English. This means that their words are treated as isolated items of language. They are alienated. In this way, ‘it will never be wrong to say that linguistic inequality and social inequality are closely tied together.’ (Rahman, Online, p.53). It has become a traditional practice where is is acceptable to alienate someone based on their chosen speech.
To conclude, both A Taste of Honey and U and non-U display a focus on English class consciousness and they both remain acutely aware of the disparities between different segments of society. Although they both underline this differently, their message that alienation in communities exists is the same. It is possible that they’re advocating a change in social behaviour. Shelagh through themes of race and sexuality to show society’s most marginalised, and Ross through the power of language and the powerlessness it can stimulate.
- Collins, J. Michael. Journal Article Review. Theatre Journal. The Johns Hopkins University Press. Vol. 33, No. 4 (Dec., 1981), p.545. Accessed: JSTOR
- Corbett, Hugh. Journal Article Review. Books Abroad. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma. Vol. 34, No. 2 (Spring, 1960), p.180. Accessed: JSTOR
- Harman, Susan and Edelsky, Carole. Language Arts. Journal Article, The Risks of Whole Language Literacy: Alienation and Connection. National Council of Teachers of English. Vol. 66, No. 4, Negotiating Our “Curriculum” (April 1989), pp. 392-406. Accessed: JSTOR
- Rahman, Afroza, The Influence of Social Classes on Language Variations: A Study on the people of Dhaka city. BRAC University. Accessed Online: http://dspace.bracu.ac.bd/xmlui/bitstream/handle/10361/3551/10103019.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y
- Ross, Alan, U And Non-U: An Essay in Sociological Linguistics. Taken from Noblesse Oblige: An Enquiry Into the Identifiable Characteristics of the English Aristocracy, ed. Nancy Mitford (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1960), pp. 7-32
- Shelagh Delaney, A Taste of Honey, 1959. Bloomsbury Student Edition. Edited by Glenda Leeming and Elaine Aston. Methuen Drama 2008.
- Snell, Julia, Social Class and Language. Accessed online: http://www.snell.me.uk/wp-content/uploads/HoP-Snell_-Social-class-and-language_updated_changes-accepted.pdf
- Image 1
‘The 2017 U and Non-U List’
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