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The Elusive Existence of the Elite


By Emma Agripino

Written in the age of contemporary literature, Sophie McManus’ 2015 novel, The
Unfortunates
, serves as a satirical piece of the elusive world of the one percent. Through the
perspectives of a deteriorating matriarch, an aspiring playwright son, and his outsider wife, The
Unfortunates
follows the Somner family as their world quickly becomes inverted and their lives
begin to crumble at their feet. McManus serves to elaborate on the myths and realities of the
wealthy, and in doing so she attempts to humanize the vicious. McManus’ driving force is the
Marxist approach she takes throughout her novel as she demonstrates the elite’s alleged
superiority, illustrates the adamant belief individuals inherently maintain an ulterior motive, and
analyzes the emphasis placed on wealth.

Sophie McManus portrays her cold matriarch, CeCe Somner, as a woman with the
condescending tone of “mother knows best,” ultimately establishing the hierarchy between the
one-percent and the working class. Despite falling ill, CeCe presents herself as a controlling
figure who must order her servants around and converse with them as if they are incompetent.
While preparing for a party, she lists what must be done of the waiters while simultaneously
treating them as if they have never worked a party; furthermore, she proceeds to state they must
be “invisible” and even deems her orders as “good life advice, not just for today”
(McManus 16). CeCe’s belief that the wealthy are naturally more intelligent than the working
class emphasizes the hierarchy of the classes that has existed for centuries. The hierarchy she
firmly believes in produces a social structure found within all members of the elite; the elite
naturally know best because wealth indicates the value of knowledge. The working class does
not need “good life advice” from their employer because they have existed in the real-world.
They understand their circumstances and the challenges they face, they comprehend one party
will not benefit their entire existence. However, Cece’s societal group will never quit; they
believe it is their duty to aid the poor and educate those beneath them. Yet, they must not assist
their inferiors to the extent where one day they too can join the precious ranks of the elite. As the
novel advances, CeCe finds herself in Oak Park, a treatment center for the rare Multiple System
Atrophy disease. CeCe acknowledges the uncomfortable cold and her hunger, expecting for a
nurse to be at her beck and call, yet when she is left unnoticed she states, “what an insult it is to
wait” (115). Due to her affluent background, it can easily be assumed that growing up CeCe had
many servants throughout her household. Waiting is a foreign concept to her; if she asks for an
item, it is in her hands within seconds. Consequently, this has made her a stranger to the real
world. Although this concept has formed subconsciously in CeCe’s mind, it reveals the
underlying tones of the Marxist theory found within McManus’ novel and the exclusive world of
the one-percent. The ideological apparatus of the Marxist theory which aided in formulating
CeCe’s prenotion of “immediately” is rooted in family institutions. Her household had the
greatest contribution to her belief system and wants. The concept that waiting is an “insult”
insinuates she is above all else while simultaneously acknowledging the privileged household
she grew up in.

Subsequently, McManus’ novel is dominated by the prominent notion that anyone who
marries into wealth is simply doing so for the money, rather than the powerful act of love itself.
The novel’s commencement finds CeCe describing the preferred candidate worthy of her son
George’s affections, “…someone from a family CeCe was acquainted with, a young woman with
no reason to take advantage” (39). CeCe’s comfort with George marrying a family friend rather
than an outsider stems from an ideological structure rooted in the Marxist theory – maintaining
the status quo. Old money stays in the family and true power within this competitive society can
only be gained if one possesses the ability to control every situation and individual. The
introduction of Iris, George’s wife and the woman whom Cece believes can take advantage of
the family’s riches, challenges the very foundation of the status quo: Money circulating within
the one-percent. Considering Iris lacks a single penny to her name, Cece convinces herself Iris is
only marrying George for his wealth. McManus demonstrates the immediate apprehension
placed by outsiders because their introduction into this realm through marriage, rather than birth,
insinuates anyone can climb the ranks to the highest rung on the ladder. Moreover, as the novel
approaches its conclusion, Iris acknowledges CeCe’s distaste and mocks her insistent theory that
Iris was “in it for the money of course. For the money, money, money” (317). Iris pleads with
CeCe to once and for all recognize she married George because she loved him, not because of
the depth of his pockets. McManus was once again acknowledges the opposition to the status
quo in order to convey the inaccuracy and detrimental beliefs of the wealthy. The obsession the
elite place on their wealth prohibits them from recognizing money is not the entire world.
Although Ron Charles of The Washington Post may argue that “for all our obsession with the
wealthy, it’s not a world most of us really know” (Charles), McManus’ novel attempts to guide
her readers of the toxic ideas the wealthy hold. Challenging the status quo should not be feared
but rather encouraged, and essentially Iris’ presence throughout the novel represent this.

Lastly, McManus’ novel is fundamentally about the stress placed on wealth and the fixed
power and status that accompanies wealth. Throughout her duration in Oak Park, CeCe
contemplates many circumstances, most notably the status of her estranged daughter, but most
importantly the status of her business. In the sea of her thoughts, CeCe expresses she “has not
allowed those conversations to stray beyond business. She will never let the
invalid and philanthropist coexist” (107). Although Annie Mason has been conducting CeCe’s
business through her leave of absence, CeCe refuses to view Annie Mason as her equal. Instead,
she designates her as invalid. This is perhaps one of the most crucial statements made throughout
McManus’ novel: It encapsulates the weight wealth carries in the eyes of the one-percent.
Simply because an individual does not possess a great amount of wealth, it does not invalidate
their worth. Once again the idea of a hierarchy is noted, except it is not defined by the working
class and the elite; instead it is defined by philanthropists and invalid. The philanthropists are
those who are capable of donating thousands, millions even, while anyone who cannot do so is
regarded as invalid. They have no reason to exist. However, what CeCe fails to recognize is a
good person is not equivalent to a philanthropist. While wealth is the defining characteristic in an
affluent society, it does not hold nearly the same effect in any other world. McManus’ novel
serves to demonstrate how unfortunate it is to live in a narrow-minded society where validity is
defined by the amount of charities an individual donates to. Following the Somner bankruptcy,
Iris addresses the power of the affluent, “another rule about the rich no one explained to Iris –
when they lose their money, they’ve only misplaced it, like a set of keys” (303). The emphasis
placed on monetary value and the trepidation that accompanies a life without it is so significant,
CeCe cannot admit when they are truly broke. If she were to do so, she would be scrutinized by
her peers and shunned, so instead she simply claims their money has been directed elsewhere.
Despite being in a fragile mental state throughout the duration of the novel, when her family’s
fortune and status is questioned she regains the ability to maintain control. Daphne Merkin of
The New Yorker suggests it is in this time “when she shows her true mettle, pulling herself and
and her family through the havoc they have created in her absence” (Merkin). In a society
riddled with competition, the question of wealth and status serves as a powerful motivator: CeCe
must resume her controlling matriarch ways in order to restore and maintain their Marxist social
structure prevalent within their society. Throughout her novel, McManus has emphasized the
importance of the social structure and the hierarchy in this world: It is dominated by a family’s
fortune. However, readers were unaware of how crucial it was up until CeCe finds the strength to
pick up the pieces of a broken household.

Sophie McManus’ novel, The Unfortunates, transports the readers to an alluring world
they all secretly desire to exist in. However, readers quickly learn how unfortunate it is to be a
part of the elite society as membership is so exclusive: it is only socially acceptably to be born
into this world and lack morals. McManus elegantly writes the world of the one-percent through
a Marxist approach and analyzes the cruel hierarchy that has developed. Once the novel
concludes, readers are left wondering whether this world is worth it or whether it belongs it
fantasies.


Works Cited

Charles, Ron. "'The Unfortunates' Evokes a Modern-day Edith Wharton Novel." The Washington
Post. WP Company, 16 June 2015. Web. 25 Mar. 2017.

McManus, Sophie. The Unfortunates. London: Windmill, 2016.

Merkin, Daphne. "The Rich in Fiction." The New Yorker. The New Yorker, 12 Sept. 2015. Web.
27 Apr. 2017.

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