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Sociological Imagination

This essay reviews a novel by John Braine Room at the Top (first published in 1957) and analyzes it from a sociologist’s perspective by applying the symbolic interactionism perspective and by relating it to the concept of social mobility.

Part I: Summary of Room at the Top

Braine’s novel Room at the Top describes the life of young people in post-war Britain, focusing on the character of Joe Lampton, a man with a disadvantaged background. In order to start a career at the factory Joe moves to a town called Warley. There he establishes friendly relationship with a prosperous couple, which introduces him to an elite room in an exclusive apartment, and invites him to join a theatrical society. Joe meets new people and later begins to date two women at the same time. One of them was Susan, a naïve young daughter of the factory owner, who Joe eventually decides to marry in order to become rich quickly and to join the ranks of the factory elites. To do this, he has to break his loving relationship with Alice, who was a few years older than he was. Alice consequently dies, and Joe suffers from the burden of losing a woman whom he loved. In such a way, the main character reaches the top at the great cost to his own and other people’s lives.

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Part II: Social Mobility and Associated Social Factors in Room at the Top

The post-war working class youth, particularly men, was inclined to believe that the entry into the desired lifestyle with large amounts of money and vast range of opportunities was limited to the upper class. The Britain’s class boundaries appeared to be cemented, turning social mobility into a difficult pursuit. Yet, in this historical context, social mobility was influenced not only by the structural features, but also by the individual perceptions of so-called possible futures, based on background, gender, and education (Scott and Nilsen, 2013, p.101). Being educated, male, and attractive, Joe has some latitude for achieving social mobility. Nevertheless, he figures that marriage will ensure a faster ascend of the social ladder. In Joe’s view, a man who has little money is powerless against a rich person at the top of the social ladder. He defines himself in terms of the opposition to the people in his hometown, Duftown, whom he considers to be reluctant. Joe’s choice to marry a woman from the upper class of society, rather than a woman whom he loved, proves that he highly valued social mobility. It was more important than other possible opportunities, including a reasonable wealth and a love-based marriage. There were many people who, like Joe, aspired to become socially mobile and to join the upper social class with its promise of power and status in the British society.

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Part III: Symbolic Interactionism Perspective: Application to the Novel

The characters of Room at the Top interact in the ways that underline their social class, and from these interactions Joe percepts the intangible symbolic meanings of class, status and power (Blumer, 1969, p. 52). His new friends, a wealthy couple, boast about their capital, which impulses Joe to derive the idea of his potential movement toward the top social class. The wealthy people’s belongings as well as interactions bear the symbols of prestige. These people drive expensive cars, live in exclusive apartments, and are always well dressed. Joe acts on the basis of the meanings derived from the symbols that appear in his continuous interactions with such people (Blumer, 1969, p. 49). Moreover, he becomes the carrier of the upper class’ symbols: he wears an expensive suit that expresses the status of his workplace, and he lives at an apartment with a top-class bay view. The objects surrounding him have emotionally pleasing characteristics, and he is proud that now he can afford to do the things that he could not do in his hometown, for example to wear a nightgown.

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Upon assessing the rewards of the upper class lifestyle, that were communicated by the symbols within interactions (Scott, 2006), Joe decidedly acts to approximate the advent of his desired reality and marries the factory-owner’s daughter. Otherwise, the cost of not pursuing this marriage was to remain deprived of the top-class status, or, metaphorically, of the room at the top.

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