Updated date:

Larkin's Poems Present how the Proletariat Can Never Increase their Social Status due to their Own Delusion

Alex is a first year law student at the University of Leeds and writes about books, novels and other pieces of literature.

larkins-poems-present-how-the-proletariat-can-never-increase-their-social-status-due-to-their-own-delusion

Introduction

Larkin’s ‘Whitsun Weddings’, ‘Here’, ‘The Large Cool Store’ and ‘This Be The Verse’ portray how the proletariat are in a state of delusion as they are deceived into believing, by the bourgeoisie, that acquiring items deemed luxurious and expensive will allow them to ascend the social hierarchy they are situated within. Larkin also vividly expresses the monotonous and dull lifestyle of the proletariat, as well as illustrating the eternal cycle of purchasing the same items they worked on to make in factories will result in them never ascending the social ladder. Larkin’s negative description of the society presented in his poems are likely inspired by the inequality of 1960s Hull. His fatalistic attitude of marriage shown in ‘Whitsun Weddings’ is also a very likely product of his parents' marriage.

The Large Cool Store

In the poem ‘The Large Cool Store’, Larkin demonstrates how the proletariat are deceiving themselves by believing that purchasing expensive, luxurious items will result in their social status increasing, showing how “it is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness”. The poem concerns a clothing store that provides affordable clothing for the working class and shows how the proletariat are driven by consumerism. The title of the poem also contains a double meaning, with it insinuating that ‘cool’ means that the working class concern themselves with looking fashionable but also conveys a harsh, cruel reality. Larkin typifies the wearisome weekday lifestyle that the proletariat inhabit through the illustration of the boring, dreary coloured clothing they buy, as the colour expressed in the “knitwear, summer casuals and hose” are described as “brown, grey, maroon and navy”, conveying the mundane lives of the lower class. The isolationism felt by the proletariat is not only suggested by the colour of clothing they wear, but instead blatantly states it; “To suppose they share that world, to think their sort is matched by something in it, shows how separate and unearthly love is”. This description depicts how the working class are in denial by believing that they are equal to that of the upper class; although they are viewed as lesser beings by those in the bourgeoisie due to their menial jobs. On the weekends, the proletariat purchase more vibrant, colourful clothes to allude themselves into believing that they can look like the bourgeoisie “lemon, sapphire”. Therefore, it is evident that the proletariat are deceiving themselves into thinking that buying these clothes will result in ascending the social ladder, and that by taking part in a capitalist system they can become more in control of their identity, whereas they are actually doing the opposite - allowing the upper class to have control over their identity, which subscribes to the Marxist idea that “choice is an illusion”. However, fashion is depicted through a Marxist lens as being “Associated specifically with the class stratifications of the capitalist mode of production”, which therefore entails that the proletariat are indeed deceiving themselves by committing to an ideology that is a factor for their poverty, as popular culture is used to delude and distract the proletariat from the way they are being unknowingly exploited for work and production by the bourgeoisie, as they gain more capital and dominion over the proletariats. This is due to the 1960’s, where the poverty levels were extremely high and there was no minimum wage, which meant the proletariats were working for nothing. Materialism is also used by the bourgeoisie to placate the proletariat. This results in a cycle of inequality that the proletariat are unaware of as they would have done the factory work that produced the clothing they purchase from the store, which makes them appear to be deceiving themselves. Marxism suggests that the bourgeoisie have dominion over the proletariat through isolation in several facets of society; this in return, supplies the bourgeoisie with workers that voluntarily work for sufficient commodities in order to obey the status quo with the most fashionable items of clothing. This is in line with the Marxist ideology that “The ‘mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life’”, as the bourgeoisie sees people as merely production and they are alienated into believing that a minor wage increase will change that, although it will likely not.


The Whitsun Weddings

Larkin’s other poem, ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ follows a long boring train journey over the course of a weekend. Larkin creates an almost apocalyptic picture of the infectious invasion of grey and pollutive industrialisation, “industrial froth”, “dismantled cars”. These descriptions relate to the working class which creates a bad impression of them. This is in contrast with the presentation of the bourgeoisie, as they are described “wearing broad belts under their suits”, portraying them as having high status professions, and thus are more respectable. It is clear Larkin implemented his own experiences, or lack thereof, in the protagonist of the poem, as the wedding is described negatively: “Children frowned at something dull” and “Happy funeral”. This may have something to do with the fact that Larkin was never married and his only experience of marriage was between his parents which had been described as; ‘His mother was a nervous and passive woman “a kind of defective mechanism… Her ideal is ‘to collapse’ and to be taken care of”, dominated by her husband’. This adheres to the idea that instead of seeing authors as primarily autonomous, ‘inspired’ individuals whose ‘genius’ and creative imagination enables them to bring forth original and timeless works of art, the Marxist sees them as constantly formed by their social contexts in ways which they themselves would usually not admit. Therefore, subconsciously or not, Larkin cynically describes marriage as an unpleasant experience to go through as well as suggesting that instead of it being a union of love, it is the bourgeoisie indirectly expanding its dominion and control over the proletariat. The poem also repeatedly incorporates enjambment which further emphasises that the weekend is tedious and boring. Another view of Larkin’s negative outlook of marriage is that it is again another example of a barrier that separates the lower class from the upper class as they do not marry across social classes, rather the lower class will continue to marry each other, being deceived that it is ceremony of love rather than another institution to delude the proletariat into unknowingly accepting their social positions.

Similar to ‘The Large Cool Store’, Larkin also describes vibrant colours such as “lemons, mauves and olive-ochres” which is to elucidate the fabrics which are hand-made by the working class. This again enforces the idea of a cyclical and self-inflicting discriminatory barrier between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, as those same clothes they make will be sold back to them for a large, fruitful profit, showing how “Capitalism… thrives on exploiting its labourers. Simply put, capitalists grow rich and shareholders do well because the labourers that work for them and actually produce goods (including services) get less - and often a good deal less - for their efforts than their labour is actually worth”. Larkin likely witnessed an abundance of this while living in 1960s Hull and was outraged by such injustice, resulting in him mentioning it in two of his poems, which is evidenced by Thomas Warton stating “The Hull setting was symbolically apt for Larkin: as the twentieth century unfolded its wars and revolutions, he cowered behind the book stack in this remote provincial outpost”


Here

In Larkin’s ‘Here’, the proletariat's aspiration to feel equal to that of the bourgeoisie is most explicitly expressed among all of his poems. Larkin emphasises, as similarly seen to that of the ‘The Large Cool Store’, the proletariat’s attempts to feel of equal status to the bourgeoisie by acquiring commodities that are deemed ‘cool’, “Residents from raw estates… push through plate-glass swing doors to their desires - cheap suits, red kitchen-ware, sharp shoes, iced lollies”. This once again accentuates how the proletariat purchase items that they believe will increase their social status. However, by describing them as wearing ‘cheap suits’, Larkin keeps his portrayal of the proletariat being poor and ostensible. This description also makes it obvious how Larkin is demonstrating that the working class are obsessed with material goods in a capitalist society, identical to the Marxist ideology that people are alienated from the world/themselves - we have no control over what we do. This can be viewed as the proletariat deceiving themselves because of the fact that a Marxist would believe they will never be equal to the bourgeoisie due to the class they were born in, as seen with Hans Bertens - “Your social circumstances determines much, if not all, of your life”, and is also strengthened by the statement that humans are not free, they are determined by their socio-economic circumstances. Larkin also describes the long hours the proletariat are ascribed to every weekday in manual/factory jobs, as can be seen when it states “work men at dawn”. This shows Larkin is highlighting the flaws of society of 1960s England, by demonstrating the exploitation of the workers and how mistreated they are which illustrates the quality of life for the proletariat is low.


This Be The Verse

In ‘This be the Verse’ Larkin explores the Marxist idea that Marxist theory argues that the way we think and the way we experienced the world around us are either wholly or largely conditioned by the way the economy is organised, and that your future is predetermined by the class you were born into. This is directly shown in the poem where Larkin states “They fuck you up, your mum and your dad, they may not mean to, but they do”, further showing his belief that it is the fault of your parents for whatever socio-economic circumstances you are in. This demonstrates how Larkin adheres to the Marxist view that being born into a working class family would be deeply unfortunate as the capitalist system preys on the working class. This is strengthened by the line in the third stanza, “Get out while you can, and don’t have any kids yourself” which is used to show the false consciousness of the proletariat and the inevitability of always remaining to the same social class to which you were born into. Larkin seems to therefore contradict the Marxist philosophy that it is inevitable that society will evolve into socialism as Larkin depicts an eternal cycle in which the proletariat are trapped in a capitalist system. Larkin maintains the theme of dejection for the proletariat in ‘This be the Verse’ and the conditioning of being obsessed with materialism in order to distract the working class from potentially ascending the social ladder.


Conclusion

Larkin deconstructs multiple Marxist ideas throughout his poems which was likely brought about by being in the working class environment of 1960s Hull. He portrays how the working class are deceiving themselves in the majority of his poems through delusions caused by materialism, which was created by capitalism. It is also evident that Larkin is a product of his environment and expresses his ideas of marriage in ‘Whitsun Weddings’ which was evidently inspired by that of his experience with his parents' marriage. This therefore adheres to another Marxist idea, that Marxist authors are products of their experiences.


© 2021 Alex Tether

Related Articles