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The Reality of Social Mobility

Clairity's picture

    "I just don’t understand why I have this life"(Smith 399). Leah says.

    "Because we worked harder...We were smarter...We wanted to get out...they didn't want it enough...people generally get what they deserve"(400). Natalie replies.

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

    "People generally get what they deserve" is a common assumption, or a faith, that almost everybody, including me, accepts. It is such an American dream that if people work very hard towards their goals, they will get what they are striving for, even rising to a higher class. However, is this a practical depiction of how things work in the real world? Looking through the stories of the characters in NW, I am in search for the reasons and meanings of their social mobility.

    In this northwest corner of "imagined" London, one of Zadie Smith's main characters, Natalie, who changed her childhood 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 something that she thinks she's meant to become. Thus now, having a career in this male-dominated profession as a black woman, she successfully progresses from working class to middle class. She finally obtains the “silence and privacy”(293), a symbol of social mobility characterized in the book, that she lacks as a teenager when she debates with her mother about having her own room and privacy.

    "You have your work. You have Frank. You've got all these friends. You're getting to be so successful. You're never lonely"(321), as her friend Leah depicts Natalie's "perfect" life. However, in response to Leah's appraisal, Natalie "tried to picture the woman being described", which gives us a sense of how her life will play out eventually. Predictably, in the end, everything starts to fall apart after she begins to have affairs with strangers from the Internet and eventually get caught by her husband. Her mobility is simply not sustainable.

    Zadie makes this sad outcome perceivable by laying foundations every time Natalie has doubts about her life and every time she tries to escape where she comes from by pretending and denying. As a child, "she began to exist for other people"(208). "I work hard. I came in with no reputation, nothing. I've built up a serious practice..."(311). In her conversation with her sister, I can feel her sheer desperation to prove to others, but especially herself, that she succeeds by her own force, not by marrying a wealthy husband or by accepting his family connections. Meanwhile, she's keenly aware of her unhappy marriage, which serves partly as a useful ladder to help with her class progression. Even with the benefit of connections through her husband, her life is still ruined, or will be ruined, as it goes on.

    One thing I want to clarify is that social mobility means more than simply reaching a higher class life and having those amenities. Being able to stay in the better situation is what matters. At one point in the book, Leah says, "what was the purpose of preparing for a life never intended for her?” Zadie Smith is trying to remind people of something through the book. "From the owl rises the phoenix. Or rise only to descend again?"(47). Zadie doesn't seem to believe such thing as high mobility exist in the NW world. And as the characters' lives proceed, almost none of them can live the life they expect it to be, and the only ones, including Natalie and Felix, who are able to do so, in some sense, still end up in an unsatisfactory situation. And the person who actually lives a relatively satisfying life is Natalie's ex-boyfriend Rodney, who owns a dry cleaners now and has done well for a while. Rodney merely achieves comparatively low mobility, but it is probably the most feasible success they could accomplish in this neighborhood.

    In the world of NW, large social ascendancy is just not possible. Too many obstacles are in the way for people who are born and living here. The slim chances to escape make this place more real. Thus returning to the question in the opening paragraphs, I come to realize that the common belief of "people generally get what they deserve" is an illusory placebo that people use to justify human behaviors. To some extent, NW reflects the real world we're living in, separating from a world of meritocracy that we all would like to have. It is extremely hard for people to obtain high mobility in today's complex world. However, in the case of Rodney, it's not completely hopeless in terms of improvement of life. Just as my professor pointed out the other day, "Dream a little. Don't dream big."

Work Cited:

Smith, Zadie. NW. New York: Penguin, 2012. Print.