Nonfiction > Upton Sinclair, ed. > The Cry for Justice

Upton Sinclair, ed. (1878–1968).
The Cry for Justice: An Anthology of the Literature of Social Protest.  1915.
Reflections Upon Poverty
(From “The New Grub Street”)

By George Gissing

(Novelist of English middle-class life, 1857–1903. Few have ever equalled him in the portrayal of the sordid, every-day realities of poverty. The story of his own tragic life is told in a novel called “The Private Life of Henry Maitland,” by Morley Roberts)
AS there was sunshine Amy accompanied her husband for his walk in the afternoon; it was long since they had been out together. An open carriage that passed, followed by two young girls on horseback, gave a familiar direction to Reardon’s thoughts.  1
  “If one were as rich as those people. They pass so close to us; they see us, and we see them; but the distance between is infinity. They don’t belong to the same world as we poor wretches. They see everything in a different light; they have powers which would seem supernatural if we were suddenly endowed with them.”  2
  “Of course,” assented his companion with a sigh.  3
  “Just fancy, if one got up in the morning with the thought that no reasonable desire that occurred to one throughout the day need remain ungratified! And that it would be the same, any day and every day, to the end of one’s life! Look at those houses; every detail, within and without, luxurious. To have such a home as that!”  4
  “And they are empty creatures who live there.”  5
  “They do live, Amy, at all events. Whatever may be their faculties, they all have free scope. I have often stood staring at houses like these until I couldn’t believe that the people owning them were mere human beings like myself. The power of money is so hard to realize, one who has never had it marvels at the completeness with which it transforms every detail of life. Compare what we call our home with that of rich people; it moves one to scornful laughter. I have no sympathy with the stoical point of view; between wealth and poverty is just the difference between the whole man and the maimed. If my lower limbs are paralyzed I may still be able to think, but then there is no such thing in life as walking. As a poor devil I may live nobly; but one happens to be made with faculties of enjoyment, and those have to fall into atrophy. To be sure, most rich people don’t understand their happiness; if they did, they would move and talk like gods—which indeed they are.”  6
  Amy’s brow was shadowed. A wise man, in Reardon’s position, would not have chosen this subject to dilate upon.  7
  “The difference,” he went on, “between the man with money and the man without is simply this: the one thinks, ‘How shall I use my life?’ and the other, ‘How shall I keep myself alive?’ A physiologist ought to be able to discover some curious distinction between the brain of a person who has never given a thought to the means of subsistence, and that of one who has never known a day free from such cares. There must be some special cerebral development representing the mental anguish kept up by poverty.”  8
  “I should say,” put in Amy, “that it affects every function of the brain. It isn’t a special point of suffering, but a misery that colors every thought.”  9
  “True. Can I think of a single object in all the sphere of my experience without the consciousness that I see it through the medium of poverty? I have no enjoyment which isn’t tainted by that thought, and I can suffer no pain which it doesn’t increase. The curse of poverty is to the modern world just what that of slavery was to the ancient. Rich and destitute stand to each other as free man and bond. You remember the line of Homer I have often quoted about the demoralizing effect of enslavement; poverty degrades in the same way.”  10
  “It has had its effect upon me—I know that too well,” said Amy, with bitter frankness.  11
  Reardon glanced at her, and wished to make some reply, but he could not say what was in his thoughts.  12

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