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A Twentieth Century Class Struggle

By Jackson Chmara

Throughout the history of time, class has almost always played an integral role in
the life of citizens. Whether one lived in ancient Mesopotamia, or modern day Los Angeles,
it is clear to see the role that class plays in everyday life. In Moonglow, by Michael Chabon,
Mike’s grandfather, who Mike did not have the closest relationship with, is terminally ill,
with just a handful of days left. Throughout the novel, Mike’s grandfather recounts his life
story to his grandson in a series of stories, ranging from his childhood to the death of his
wife, all in an ever-changing order, depending on what comes to his mind. Throughout the
novel, one can easily see how impossible the idea of a Marxist society is, due to the
prominent role class plays within the life of a family, and how being in the lower class
brings countless barriers.

Throughout Moonglow, the concept of class seems to take over the novel, as Mike’s
grandfather and his family are anything but wealthy. During Mike’s grandfather’s early life,
he enlisted in the military, and was deployed in Germany during the war. When the war
was over and his grandfather had to return home, he experienced many of the same
problems that other veterans experienced during the time. This can be seen with his
grandfather’s wide range of jobs, from working with a rocket manufacturer, to a job in
advertising. Many soldiers had a hard time finding jobs after the war; “With the problems
of find work and those encountered on the family scheme, this reintegration was anything
but smooth” (novelguide.com). The problem with finding a job set the stage for Mike’s
grandfather with a life in the lower class. During WWII, those who were wealthy enough
found their way out of fighting in the war, which could ensure that they could keep their
jobs, along with a steady income for their family. Without the reassurance of a protected
job, as well as his wife not working, Mike’s grandfather and his family did not have a lavish
lifestyle in the suburbs of Baltimore. It is impossible for a completely Marxist society to
exist, because one class is always going to have an advantage in income and job
availabilities, and the lower class is always going to be struggling, fighting for the few jobs
that remain. The inconsistencies of Mike’s grandfather’s work led to a surplus of other
problems, keeping him within society’s lower class, restricting him and his family from
climbing the social ladder.

Another problem that stemmed from the war that led to Mike’s grandfather’s life in
the lower class was his wartime PTSD, leading to incarceration. War can be a traumatic
experience for anybody who is affected: a family member of a victim, a citizen of a war-torn
region, or a soldier, seeing the entire war play out before his or her very eyes. Mike’s
grandfather, like many of the lower class men during the 1940’s, was drafted to the
military, and was deployed in Germany during WWII. Many of the stories that Mike’s
grandfather told him involved his time during the war, including killing German soldiers,
befriending a German minister and his wife, and creating life-long enemies that extended
beyond the parameters of the battlefield. Needless to say, what happened during his
experiences in Germany could not be fully expressed in words. Many soldiers experience
problems adjusting to life back in the States once their wars are over, and Mike’s
grandfather is a clear example of this. With war, comes indescribable terror, and with this
terror almost always comes a backlash. In 2008, the RAND Corporation took a survey of
veterans six months after returning from war, and they noticed that, “almost one in five had
either PTSD or major depression” (thedailybeast.com). This could easily be seen with
Mike’s grandfather. As he was transitioning from job to job, random outbreaks of anger
would take over. Out of nowhere, a new man appeared, as Mike’s grandfather was
transformed into a wild animal, which could not be tamed by the walls of society. This
could be seen when he randomly attacked his boss at his advertising company with a
stapler, and nearly took his life. Of course, this assault subsequently led to his arrest.
However, Mike’s grandfather was not the first veteran to have an arrest, most likely
stemming from wartime PTSD. In fact, in 2004, Department Justice’s Bureau of Justice
found that, “nearly one in 10 inmates in U.S. jails had prior military service. Extrapolated to
the total prison population, this means that approximately 200,000 veterans were behind
bars” (thedailybeast.com). Although this data is from much more recent times, it is clear to
see a direct link between war, PTSD, and incarceration. By being born into a lower class
family, Mike’s grandfather was “set up” for a life of hardship and struggles, only to remain a
member of society’s lower class. If he had been born into a wealthier family, and had not
gone to war or had the luxury of a steady job, many of the problems that he had may not
have existed. Unfortunately, there was nothing he could do. It is clear to see how he and his
family were destined to remain poor and part of the bourgeoisie.

In addition to Mike’s grandfather’s economic and war related difficulties that
stemmed from being a member of the lower class, many of the family’s difficulties also
arose from his wife’s (Mike’s grandmother) lifestyle. As a fleeing Jew escaping the wrath of
Nazi Germany, Mike’s grandmother arrived in the US with her daughter, Mike’s mother,
along with about 130,000 other Jews from 1945-1952 (ushmm.org). However, although her
life was saved by her arrival in the United States, life as a European immigrant was
anything but an easy road to success. With regards to economic success of immigrants, the
Library of Congress writes, “(immigrants) became economic scapegoats during periods of
economic uncertainty, a pattern that would repeat itself during subsequent waves of
immigration” (loc.gov, 2). Between the upper class males in the United States, followed by
the lower class American citizens, followed by male immigrants, there were practically no
available jobs for female immigrants. Mike’s grandmother was literally at the bottom of the
totem pole. Not only was Mike’s grandmother an immigrant, she was also mentally
unstable. As her life progressed in the United States, her mind began to unravel, as she soon
had to be kept in a mental hospital for over a year until she was able to regularly function
in society. As a family comprised of a PTSD plagued veteran switching between jobs and
jail, as well as a mentally unstable female immigrant moving to the United States in one of
the country’s largest immigration movement in recent history, one can only assume how
difficult it was to remain economically stable, in a rapidly developing nation. It just was not
possible for Mike’s grandfather and his family to be considered equal in class to those who
had steady incomes and could live lavish lifestyles.

The idea of a classless society is preposterous when one considers the situation at
hand. Born into the lower class, Mike’s grandfather was destined to a life of hardship,
having to work twice as hard as those in a wealthy family, only to see his results half as
successful as theirs. Not only that, he was drafted into the war, lost the security of a regular
job, and was permanently scarred from the fighting, killing, and ruthlessness of the war,
which had encapsulated his entire life for a handful of years. On top of that, Mike’s
grandfather married a fleeing Jewish immigrant, battling her mental illness while caring for
her only child. One cannot possibly argue that the idea of a classless society is even close to
becoming a reality. Those who are born into society’s upper class stay there; those who are
born into society’s lower class stay there. Social mobility has and always will be a challenge
for those at the bottom of the pyramid. A jump from the bottom to the top takes an unreal
amount of time, energy, and effort, and frankly, it’s just not a realistic jump for a majority of
the people struggling to make ends meet. Those born into the lower class are at a complete
disadvantage from birth, which makes the concept of a completely Marxist society
something that people can only hope for.

Works Cited

Chabon, Micheal. Moonglow. New York City: HarperCollins, 2016. Print.

Library of Congress. "Immigration: Challenges for New Americans." Teacher's Guide
Primary Source Set: Immigration: Challenges for New Americans. Library of Congress,
n.d. Web. 3 Apr. 2017.

Team, Novelguide. "U.S. Soldiers After World War II." Novelguide. Novelguide.com, n.d.
Web. 01 Apr. 2017.

"United States Policy Toward Jewish Refugees, 1941–1952." United States Holocaust
Memorial Museum. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, n.d. Web. 02 Apr.

Wolfe, Matthew. "From PTSD to Prison: Why Veterans Become Criminals." The Daily Beast.
The Daily Beast Company, 28 July 2013. Web. 02 Apr. 2017.