In studying literature, the literary theory of Marxism views a work of literature as the product of the historical forces and the conditions in which it was written in. A Marxist can analyze a work by examining these conditions and comparing the work with the social reality of that particular society. In V.S Naipaul’s Miguel Street, he tells the story of a young boy named Elias who aspires to be a doctor, but continues to fail the exam required to study medicine. In this vignette, he continues to lower his standards and find different ‘callings’ until he settles for becoming a cart driver. This story takes place during the time of the British colonization of Trinidad, and the history of this country reflects the clash between the dominant classes and the repressed classes of the society. Through the lens of Marxism, the reader can examine His Chosen Calling as a product of the historical forces that existed in Trinidad at that time. The social conditions in Trinidad during the 1930s through the 1950s had a great influence on the outcome of Elias’s story and the way in which Naipaul depicted his troubles.
During the period of the 1930s through the 1950s, the living conditions in Trinidad had deteriorated as a direct result of the worldwide Great Depression. And because of these weakening environments, if a person was not British, wealthy, or of any high social class, it was quite common that they would be living in poor settings or slums. In the vignette His Chosen Calling, the reader is introduced to Elias, a young boy living on Miguel Street, which due to it’s conditions and the time period, was considered a slum. The best job available to its residents was to be the driver of one of the scavenger-carts that collected the litter on the street. The workers “were aristocrats”(Naipaul 36) and the work itself “certainly [had] a glamour to [it]” (Naipaul 36). Many of the young men of the street aspired to drive the blue carts.
However, Elias’s ambition was to become a doctor, a dream that if anyone else had desired, the residents of Miguel Street “would have all laughed. But [they] recognized that Elias was different, that Elias had brains” (Naipaul 37). Everyone believed that Elias was capable of achieving such a dream, however because of the social reality that existed at that time, the truth of his situation was that he did not have the financial means nor the status to receive the education necessary to study in this particular line of work. As a consequence of these social conditions, Elias was doomed to have to lower his standards and choose a new calling, becoming the most he could be – a cart driver.
From 1802 until 1962, Trinidad was a British colony. The British had a heavy influence on the education system in Trinidad. During Britain’s rule over Trinidad, “an education system began to emerge that reflected the dominant European culture and bore very little relationship to the characteristics and needs of the non-European population” (Gordon). The country’s schooling system was entirely modeled after “the British system – even to the use of British textbooks and examinations” (Meditz & Hanratty). Education in Trinidad “consisted of three types: education abroad on private initiative; education in the islands in exclusive schools designed for local whites lacking in the resources for a foreign education; and education for the academically able of the intermediate groups of non-whites” (Meditz &Hanratty).
Because Elias was not white, nor was he elite, the school applicable to him would have been the type meant to educate the academically able of the intermediate groups of non-whites. Although students were expected to study the British curriculum through these schools, most schools would teach only what they could afford or were able to. The school run by Titus Hoyt, although a part of Britain’s education system, would not have offered the same sets of skills or the teachings as a school run by the British or British – Trinidadians. “Who correct the papers? Englishmen, not so? You expect them to give Elias a pass?” (Naipaul 40). In taking the Cambridge Exam, Elias would have been expected to have been taught at the British standards, however because of the unfortunate conditions of his time, Elias did not have the wealth, status, or ethnicity required to receive the proper education. The inevitable failure of his exam was predetermined by the circumstances he lived in.
The novel Miguel Street is told from the perspective of an unnamed narrator whom the reader can assume is the author V.S Naipaul. Naipaul was raised in Trinidad, living in the country’s social reality from 1932 until 1950, when he left the country on a scholarship to study at Oxford University in England. He was born into a society that was recovering from a worldwide depression, only to be later thrust into the Second World War. However, he left the country to study abroad, and in doing so separated himself from that society and immersing himself in a new one. He was able to mature and gain an education in a much healthier and much more fortunate environment. When a person is pulled out of a particular situation and placed in a new environment, with time this person will be able to reflect on their previous circumstances and see them differently and more impartially. By living and studying in England, Naipaul was enabled to see the conditions of his youth with more clarity.
He was able to disconnect from these circumstances and view his past more objectively. Case in point, in Naipaul’s reflection on Elias’s story, he remembers how “in Elias’s mouth litritcher was the most beautiful word [he] heard.” (Naipaul 41) and how unfair it was “making a boy like Elias do litritcher and poultry” (Naipaul 41). He realizes how uneducated they had been in his deliberate misspelling of literature and poetry. Therefore, Naipaul’s manner in depicting Elias’s story may have been influenced by his exposure to a different society, which allowed him to view his past in a new light. The novel Miguel Street is very much rooted in history, and it depicts and accurate representation of the social reality of the time. Through the lens of Marxism, the reader can analyze His Chosen Calling by looking at the social conditions it was written in. Trinidad was under the rule of a foreign influence, and the country, during this time, found itself in deteriorating living conditions. The education system existent in that society favored the dominant culture over the locals, and it was these historical forces that held a great influence over the outcome of Elias’s story and the way in which Naipaul chose to portray this tale.
Naipaul, V.S. Miguel Street. New York: Vintage, 2002. Print.
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