Poverty in Literature

I collect quotes from books I like about different topics. One of those topics is poverty. It's a realm some of us are living through or have walked through, while others have only glimpsed its shadow. Poverty impacts and defines people in different ways; some are blatantly evident, and some are deeply hidden. This post is not meant to be educational. It is meant to capture beautiful writing that resonated with me personally.

All the extraordinary and mundane ways to die.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante.

“We lived in a world in which children and adults were often wounded, blood flowed from the wounds, they festered, and sometimes people died. One of the daughters of Signora Assunta, the fruit and vegetable seller, had stepped on a nail and died of tetanus. Signora Spagnuolo's youngest child had died of croup. 

A cousin of mine, at the age of twenty, had gone one morning to move some rubble and that night was dead, crushed, the blood pouring out of his ears and mouth. My mother's father had been killed when he fell from a scaffolding at a building site. The father of Signor Peluso was missing an arm, the lathe had caught him unawares. The sister of Giuseppina, Signor Peluso's wife, had died of tuberculosis at twenty-two. The oldest son of Don Achille, I had never seen him, and yet I seemed to remember him gone to war and died twice: drowned in the Pacific Ocean, then eaten by sharks. 

The entire Melchiorre family had died clinging to each other, screaming with fear, in a bombardment. Old Signorina Clorinda had died inhaling gas instead of air. Giannino, who was in fourth grade when we were in first, had died one day because he had come across a bomb and touched it. Luigina, with whom we had played in the courtyard, or maybe not, she was only a name, had died of typhus. 

Our world was like that, full of words that killed: croup, tetanus, typhus, gas, war, lathe, rubble, work, bombardment, bomb, tuberculosis, infection. With these words and those years I bring back the many fears that accompanied me all my life. You could also die of things that seemed normal. You could die, for example, if you were sweating and then drank cold water from the tap without first bathing your wrists: you'd break out in red spots, you'd start coughing, and be unable to breathe. You could die if you ate black cherries and didn't spit out the pits. You could die if you chewed American gum and inadvertently swallowed it. You could die if you banged your temple. The temple, in particular, was a fragile place. We were all careful about it. Being hit with a stone could do it, and throwing stones was the norm.”

Anonymity and transient existence.

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk

“I worked in a factory on the outskirts of a large metropolis. I assembled antennas for high-end yachts. There were a lot of people like me there. We were paid under the table and never questioned about where we came from or what our plans were for the future. Every Friday we got our money, and whoever didn't feel like it anymore simply didn't come back on Monday. There were high school graduates taking a break before applying to university. 

Immigrants still en route to that fair, idyllic country they were sure was somewhere in the West, where people are brothers and sisters, and a strong state plays the role of parent; fugitives from their families from their wives, their husbands, their parents; the unhappily in love, the confused, the melancholic, those who were always cold. Those running from the law because they couldn't pay off their debts. Wanderers, vagabonds. Crazy people who'd wind up in the hospital the next time they fell ill again, and from there they'd get deported back to their countries of origin on the basis of rules and regulations shrouded in mystery.

Just one person worked there permanently, an Indian man who had been there for years, though in reality, his situation was no different from ours. He didn't have insurance or paid vacation. He worked in silence, patiently, on an even keel. He was never late. He never found any need to take time off. I tried to talk some people into setting up a trade union these were the days of Solidarity— if only for him, but he didn't want to. Touched by the interest I'd taken in him, however, he began to share with me the spicy curry he brought in a lunch box every day. I no longer remember what his name was.”

A deep-seated sense of alienation.

Do What They Say or Else by Annie Ernaux

“In two years, when I came of age, I would go to Paris and I would find him at whatever university he was going to. There was only one time I thought about leaving home right away and getting a job. But thinking about the train station, the platform, the crowd, and who knows what else, I got scared, seeing myself with my little suitcase in my hand. I always think of myself that way, When I think about my cousin Daniel, the hothead, I feel like the world doesn't belong to us, like we're afraid of it. My mother hung her linens outside. "What beautiful weather for drying the laundry." So did the neighbor woman. You can't just leave home”

“She never really says it, but we all understand that it's lousy to be a manual worker”

“She whispers when she's around certain people, important people. With us, it's just the opposite: she'd rather yell.”

Frugal, even in love.

Poor Things by Alasdair Gray

"You are the only woman I have loved, Bella; I am not like Duncan Wedderburn, who has been practicing on servant women all his life if you count the wet nurse who was hired to suckle him. My mother served on a farm. Her boss practiced on her, making me, and I am lucky that he did not fling us both out afterwards. There was no time for love in our lives. The pay was too poor, the work too hard for it. I learned to survive on small quantities of it, Bella. I cannot suddenly start enjoying whole armfuls."

A never-ending frustration cycle.

Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed by Meghan Daum

“I am talking about people whose lives were harder than most, people with low-paying jobs or dependent on welfare, people with limited education, foreign accents, poor English, bad teeth, dark skin —people who were all too aware of being at the bottom of the ladder. Their inevitable frustrations were, inevitably, taken out at home. Husbands beat wives; parents beat children; big children beat little children. (Don't let's think about the pets.)”

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