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Representations of Poverty in “The Casual Vacancy”

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Though I stood in line for the midnight release of almost every Harry Potter book, I was a bit more hesitant about reading J.K. Rowling’s newest book.  The Casual Vacancy has been hailed as an “adult” book, something vastly different from the author’s previous series about wands and wizards. Set in a small British town called Pagford, The Casual Vacancy follows the town’s residents through intertwining narratives, all surrounding the political issues brought forward by the death that occurs in the book’s first chapter.

Most reviews of Rowling’s newest tome have been lukewarm at best–critics and readers were put off by her very realistic prose which features swearing, drug use, depictions of rape and abuse, explicit sexuality, and references to Facebook. In contrast to Harry Potter’s magical world, where nobody ever needs to pee and magical teenagers left mostly to their own devices never progress past snogging, Pagford seems shockingly realistic. Many reviewers have blamed this feeling on Rowling “trying too hard” to show her worth beyond children’s fantasy. However, I found that the disingenuous feeling of Rowling’s realism came from somewhere else: the extreme representations of poverty in The Casual Vacancy.

   (My discussion from here forward will contain spoilers from The Casual Vacancy.)

Though Rowling’s mess of characters share screen-time pretty equally, much of The Casual Vacancy centers on the character Krystal Weedon. Krystal is the character who represents “the Fields,” a contentious area of Pagford that borders the larger town of Yarvil and contains unkempt public council housing and the Bellchapel Addiction Clinic. The Weedons are the only of Rowling’s main characters who live in poverty– though her remaining characters suffer from abuse, self-harm, and mental illness, they are all characterized as solidly middle class. The characterization of the Weedon’s poverty sets them apart from the other residents of Pagford, as does the fact that they serve to represent the entire idea of “the Fields,” a subject that crosses the minds of the rest of Pagford’s residents due to its political impact in the central plot point of the parish council elections.

The Casual Vacancy, and along with it, the characterization of the Weedon family, suffers from the extreme situation of poverty that Rowling chose to describe. It isn’t that the Weedon’s situation is not realistic– of course, stereotypes of poverty are informed by real brushes with it. The problem is that by representing social issues like poverty in extremes, we often cannot recognize the problem in any of its other forms.

The argument against extremes was first articulated to me through a feminist lens in a 1989 bell hooks article, “Violence in Intimate Relationships: A Feminist Perspective”. Hooks argues that while feminists have had to focus on extremes to bring an issue to the attention of the public, this same focus can be harmful when addressing more common forms of the problem. In the essay, hooks uses the term “battered women” to illustrate her argument. “Battered woman” not only defines a victim of intimate partner violence by their injuries, but implies repeated, visible, and ongoing physical abuse. When the term “battered woman” is translated into a representative figure in books, television, or film, we get the typical image of a battered wife– visibly bruised, emotionally shaken, and marked with a token black eye. This image erases many other forms of intimate partner violence that occur, most notably, emotional abuse that does not leave such visible scars.

The argument against extremes has been brought up in many feminist issues. In 2011, feminist activists convinced the FBI to change its definition of rape, which had not been updated since 1920. The FBI’s old definition included the phrase, “forcibly and against her will,” which (despite the obvious gender pronoun issues) placed pressure on rape survivors and law enforcement to prove whether the rape was “forcible”. The FBI definition was influenced by larger myths that we have about rape in society: that rape is usually committed by an evil stranger in a dark alley who physically injures their resisting victim. As feminists, we know these myths are wrong, but society continues to focus on “extreme” versions of the crime, which is represented and then echoed through our media and laws.

The same problem of extremes exists in society’s treatment of poverty. I am speaking from an American perspective, which of course differs from the exact issues of poverty that are prominent in Britain, specifically regarding issues of race. But here are just a handful of ways society creates a specific idea of what “poor” is supposed to look like:

Poor folks are regularly ridiculed for using food stamps to buy basically anything (soda, “junk food,” or treats for children). Poor people who buy new shoes must not really be poor. Poor people should stop having children, but we don’t want to pay for their contraception either. If you are not homeless, you are not really poor. If you buy fast food, you aren’t really poor. If you have money to celebrate birthdays/holidays/etc, then you’re not really poor. And so on. 

In an interview with NPR’s Steve Inskeep this past September, Rowling touched on her own experience with poverty in Britain and how it informed her writing of The Casual Vacancy. Rowling said: “It’s not my story, but it does address themes, subjects that are very important to me”.  She may have been better off writing something closer to her story. Rowling is well-known for her period of poverty while she was writing the first Harry Potter book as a single mother. This time in Rowling’s life is almost mythical in the media, which likes to toss around stories about her writing the novel on napkins because she couldn’t afford paper. The media has also written that Rowling’s habit of writing in cafes was directly related to her poverty– she was escaping her unheated flat. Rowling has denied such myths, complicating the portait of her time of poverty. Those myths, along with many others, feed our desires for a romantic and extreme form of poverty. But the reality of Rowling’s situation did not fit our poverty narratives. She was a poor single mother from a middle-class family, educated at the University of Exeter, divorced after an unsuccessful marriage in Portugal, and unemployed and on welfare benefits so that she could finish writing a book about a boy wizard. Rowling’s life does not fit into stereotypical poverty narratives, but it is an image of poverty nonetheless.

The Casual Vacancy is very much a book about politics and class wars, so Rowling may have intentionally created the Weedon family as a stereotype for poverty in the UK. If this was the intention, I believe she failed. Rowling herself articulates the problem that I find with her book in this quote: “One of the great problems for me is that the poor … are so often discussed just as this large, shapeless mass. You lose your individuality a huge amount when you have no money, and I certainly had that experience…”¹ .

It is unfortunate that the extreme and stereotyped description of the Weedon family represented the poor as something Rowling wished to avoid: a large, shapeless mass of stereotypes.

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