Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Do we get what we deserve?

Clairity's picture

  "I just don’t understand why I have this life." Leah said.
  "Because we worked harder...We were smarter...We wanted to get out...they didn't want it enough...people generally get what they deserve." Natalie replies.

  I paused at this paragraph towards the end of Zadie Smith's NW, thinking.

  This is a book that presents vivid reality. This is a book that leads me to ask questions. This is a book that makes me doubt whether social mobility is really feasible. And one of the questions that I keep wondering is why Zadie Smith didn't seem to agree that it is very much possible.

  "Visitation-Guest-Host-Crossing-Visitation". Through a circle of chapters, the four main characters, Leah, Natalie/Keisha, Felix and Nathan, live towards different paths after they leave their childhood's council estate, a place where all of them start from together.

  In this northwest corner of "imagined" London, Zadie deliberately arranges different fates for her characters. Reading their stories make me start to question about social mobility, which I was convinced that is absolutely possible prior to reading NW. In this book, Natalie, who changed her born  name Keisha, works really hard to become a successful barrister and has such a perfect life with a husband from an affluent background and several children. Natalie endeavors to achieve her social mobility, which is really admirable. However, in the pursuit of social mobility, she gets kind of lost. In other people's eyes, she seems to forget where she comes from. “Natalie Blake had completely forgotten what it was like to be poor. It was a language she’d stopped being able to speak, or even understand” (330), Zadie Smith writes.

  This is actually what Natalie always try to achieve-to escape the kind of poverty she's born into, to be a lawyer without a destitute background, and to have this perfect isolation to do things freely. In order to do this, she had a hard time defining who she is and finding her own identity. From my prospective, Natalie does rise from her original class to middle class. In Zadie's writing, Natalie struggles between being this new person and her old self. And somehow Zadie didn't seem to believe that there's a large possibility for the people from this kind of background to accomplish social mobility. She makes Natalie's life so hard even if she gets this satisfying life she is striving for.

  Looking at the history of London, I started to understand the reason of Zadie's story structure. In 1944, London, Butler Education Act began to implement The Eleven Plus, an examination concerning admission to secondary school. Although it received some criticism, Eleven Plus system enabled a small number of children from working class to use this ladder for higher education as a way towards social mobility. But at some point, as the society became more meritocratic, the ladder for children from working class family to better their lives fairly through academic achievements got taken away by comprehensive school.

  Zadie Smith realized this social phenomenon in London society. Therefore, she used this book, whose surroundings set in northwest London, as a way to remind people of this declining possibility of social mobility in London. She feels urged to point out this harsh reality that the possibility for rising class is relatively small.

  "People generally get what they deserve."Natalie said. I think we all know in some sense that it's not true. A fair amount number of people from poverty try to get out of it. But not all of them could succeed in moving to an upper class. Research shows that five-year-old children from affluent background have vocabularies eighteen months ahead of those from poorer family. And the former group of children also do better in problem-solving and school work than the latter group do. It is apparent that children from poverty need to work much harder to gain the same amount of achievements comparing to wealthy children. And not everyone who pay efforts could get what they want.

  Do we really get what we deserve? Do people really deserve to live in poverty? Do people really get a fair chance to have social mobility? Questions that Zadie Smith leaves her readers to explore. Questions that probably no one could ever give a definite answer to.