5 Working Class Heroes From Books

With the toff at Number 10 capping benefits whilst trying to raise their own wages, it's about one of these literary anti-heroes leaps from the page and starts raising hell...
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With the toff at Number 10 capping benefits whilst trying to raise their own wages, it's about one of these literary anti-heroes leaps from the page and starts raising hell...


The sight of the Prime Minister giggling with his millionaire pals in Parliament while announcing sweeping cuts on the poor, is surely the final indicator that we are governed by a bunch of toffs who have no respect for any of us. It is time to look for heroes who have cocked a snook at the establishment, and can inspire us to do the same, and literature is where they can be found.

Here are just five who can inspire a new generation of malcontents.

Frank Owen from The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists

First up is Frank Owen the main character in Robert Tressell’s classic The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists first published in 1914, three years after the author’s death. Owen, like Tressell himself, was a painter and decorator slaving away and just about surviving on his meagre income. He was possibly the first working class hero to appear in literature whose beliefs were tied to a political questioning of the existing system. He considered his workmates to be philanthropists because of the way they worked for next nothing to ensure their bosses stayed rich.

Owen believes that the capitalist system is the real source of the poverty he sees all around him, and he rejects reformism as the answer saying, “It's no good tinkering at it. Everything about it is wrong and there's nothing about it that's right. There's only one thing to be done with it and that is to smash it up and have a different system altogether.” In vain he tries to convince his fellow workers of the correctness of his views, and much of the book consists of conversations between Owen and the others, which frequently lead to Owen being jeered and mocked.

Today, the book continues to be sell well with over a million copies being sold in more than one hundred printings and at least six languages, and Owen’s critique of the system still hits home and will continue to be relevant as long as the system remains in place that sees our leaders to mock us while making us poorer.

Arthur Seaton From Saturday Night Sunday Morning

Saturday Night Sunday Morning by Alan Sillitoe is considered by many to be the first accurate reflection of working class life in England just after the Second World War written by someone from that class themselves. It was made into a film that was considered to be a masterpiece of the British new wave cinema of the 1960s. The hero Arthur Seaton is one of a new breed of workers who has a bit of spare cash to spend. In a rejection of the prevailing class prejudices of the time he rejects the conventional deference of the worker to the boss and loyalty to the workplace, knowing he’s better and bigger than that. Similarly he also knows that the conventionalities of the working class will tie him down, he describes his parents as “dead from the neck up.”


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He knows there’s more to life than that offered by the traditional avenue of work, marriage, and children, but he rejects the traditional alternatives of politics and trade unions on offer, viewing his union steward as “that big-bellied union ponce [who will] ask us not to muck things up”, although as an act of rebellion he does vote communist at an election with his dad’s voting card, simply because they’re not like the rest. Instead his idea of escape is an individualistic nihilism revolving around insolence to his so-called betters, spending his money, and womanising. His only aim, in his own words, is being "out for a good time. All the rest is propaganda.”

Eventually pressures put upon him sees him agreeing to settle down with his girlfriend Doreen, but you know he won’t lose his rebellious spirit. At the end of the film version of the book Arthur is seen casting a stone at the buildings going up on the new estate where Doreen wants to settle down. This shot shows that the fight against conforming to a prejudiced class system and accepting mundanity has not left Arthur yet.

Josef Svejk From The Good Soldier Svejk

Next demonstrating that it is possible to challenge authority but at the same time appearing to be on their side is Josef Svejk, the main character of The Good Soldier Svejk, first published in 1923.

And so they've killed our Ferdinand," says Svejk's charwoman, in the first line that opens the novel. She was talking about the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo, 1914, but Svejk responds in a way that sets the tone for the character for the rest of the book: "Which Ferdinand, Mrs. Muller? I know two. One is a messenger at Prusa's, the chemist's, who once drank a bottle of hair oil there by mistake. And the other is Ferdinand Kokoska who collects dog manure. Neither of them is any loss."

Svejk was created by Czech anarchist Jaroslev Hasek, and the book tells the story of an apparently good natured simpleton who through his bumbling, manner and speech manages to embarrass and mock the entire class-based hierarchy of the Austro-Hungarian army and avoid fighting in World War One, while at the same time appearing to be enthusiastic about it. It is considered by many to be the first truly anti-war novel.

Generations of Czechs have come to adore Svejk’s subversive humour and the thumbing of his nose at authority behind its back, and his dumb insolence still inspires today. At a Prague NATO summit in 2002 a man dressed as Svejk appeared at an anti-alliance protest, with a placard reading "To Baghdad” mimicking Svejk’s seeming enthusiasm for war, showing just how deep the character is etched on the common psyche here. In the Czech Republic many hundreds of restaurants, bars and cafes are to be found dedicated to the Czech’s number one anti-authoritarian hero.

Christy Malry From Christy Malry's Own Double Entry

One of the more obscure heroes to be found in literature is in B.S. Johnson’s Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry. Christy Malry, the hero in this story, like Svejk, is a simple man described by the author as an average shape, height, weight, build, and colour. Malry, unsatisfied with the way society is organised, hits on a way to redress what he sees as the imbalance between the way life should be and the knocks it keeps giving him, particularly from those in authority. He decides to introduce the principle of double-entry book keeping into his life and to repay every debit of inconvenience that society throws at him with a corresponding action of revenge as a repayment. He starts off simply by gouging the concrete of a building that was in his path, but gradually as his grievances become greater so does his revenge, ultimately poisoning London’s water supply and killing thousands of people. He is forced to question his system though when life has its ultimate revenge on him as he dies of cancer.

Henry Chinaski From Post Office

Finally perhaps the most famous of all anti-heroes is the alter-ego of Charles Bukowski, Henry Chinaski. Chinaski is the main character in Bukowski’s novels Post Office, and Factotum in which he fights against the routine monotony of having a nine-to five job and the deadening lack of ambition the permeates most of his fellow workers lives. Perhaps the finest quote that sums up Chinaski’s attitude appears in Factotum, and everyone who hates their job should have this printed somewhere,

“How in the hell could a man enjoy being awakened at 8:30 a.m. by an alarm clock, leap out of bed, dress, force-feed, shit, piss, brush teeth and hair, and fight traffic to get to a place where essentially you made lots of money for somebody else and were asked to be grateful for the opportunity to do so? ”

Chinaski was no slacker though, he just wanted the time and space to carry out his true desire, writing.

So there you have it, five inspirational characters who can give you ideas on how to buck the system the next time your crummy job, boring workmates, and guffawing politicians get you down.