The Depiction of Class and Self-Created Identity in "The Buddha of Suburbia"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2009 22 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Lower Middle Class in Britain and its Portrayal in the Buddha of Suburbia

3 The Depiction of Class
3.1 Suburbia
3.2 Housing and Appearance
3.3 The Role of Education
3.4 Jobs and Everyday Life

4 London: The Chance to Invent a New Self
4.1 The Depiction of London
4.2 London: A Masquerade Ball?
4.3 Being Oneself

5 Conclusion

6 Works Cited

1 Introduction

Being one of Hanif Kureishi’s most famous works, The Buddha of Suburbia has been discussed numerously in academic writing. Up to now, most scholars have, unfortunately, only focussed on the most apparent topics of hybridity and racial as well as migrational identity. Although fairly striking, only few have paid attention to the British class system that is portrayed in the novel, and if they have, only in passing.

This paper is not intended to be added to this long list. I rather want to concentrate on how diverse and comprehensively the topic of class is approached by Kureishi, how class is depicted. For this reason, I want start with some more general facts about lower middle class, but will try to directly compare them to the contents of The Buddha of Suburbia.

Secondly, I aim to show how, especially, class is depicted and to describe what makes someone belong to a certain class. How is affiliation expressed and how can one distinguish from other social groups? What does influence our thoughts and beliefs, and why do people want to break out? In regard to this, I will pay special attention to how the suburbs are presented in the novel and to what extent they differ from London.

Finally, I want to examine in how far London offers a chance to flee suburbia and lower middle class influences. Does the anonymity of England’s capital provide the basis for a new self, to create something new, and leave the past behind? Do people have to surrender, not to say sacrifice, their old identities in order to make it in London? What is the price for climbing the social ladder, and can one find a new, but genuine, self after having left the old behind?

My paper shall answer these questions, it seeks to unfold some of the complexity of Kureishi’s début novel and to offer a new approach for interpreting The Buddha of Suburbia.

2 Lower Middle Class in Britain and its Portrayal in the Buddha of Suburbia

In order to understand the Buddha of Suburbia to its full extend, it is indispensable to completely comprehend the British class system as »the term ›social class‹ has a good deal of currency among the [British] population at large and that they are prepared to use it of themselves.«1 Its importance, even still today, derives from the belief that a person’s class-belonging affects one’s opportunities in society.2 When reading Kureishi’s novel, the recipient will become aware that topics concerned with the British class system arise constantly - especially subjects dealing with lower and upper middle class.

Lower middle class does not enjoy much prestige in academic writing. It is said to be »the social class with the lowest reputation in the entire history of class theory […], the class for whom it seems hardest […] to claim pride of membership«.3 Furthermore, it is seen as a rather negative identity, »a category usually applied from outside, by those of higher social status, or retrospectively, by those who once belonged to the lower middle class and have since moved beyond it.«4 If it is not perceived in this dismissive way, at least, lower middle classness is understood as a non-identity.5 Looking for an identity of their own, Karim and Charlie would prove this judgement in The Buddha of Suburbia as both of them endeavor to belong to another social group: The latter attempts to join the newly founded and morbid punk movement, whereas Karim, in contrast, aims to raise his social status by becoming an actor.

Social mobility enables the protagonists to perform this migration of status and prestige, and signifies that class is not a fixed construct. Two varieties of social mobility are commonly acknowledged: intra-generational and inter-generational mobility.6 Both of them are represented to us in Kureishi’s novel. Haroon and - as the name implies already - Princess Jeeta, for example, were born into a high caste back in India. After they had gone to England, their social status had declined dramatically. The social development from the lower middle class »English« Haroon to his upper middle class son Karim, in contrast, marks an inter-generational one.

When in Britain increasingly more labour was needed to be done in offices, some men started taking jobs as clerks and secretaries. Working in these positions was acceptable for most of the men, but they did not consider it appropriate for their sons to have a similar occupation. That is why only very few boys whose fathers were occupied in a non-manual profession entered this kind of job themselves.7 Haroon, too, does not want his son to be a clerk working in an office as he does, but rather to pursue the aim of being a doctor.8 It was more often women taking on jobs with ›feminine‹ tasks such as customer care.9 Working as a sales assistant in a shoe shop, even Margaret, Karim’s mother, fits into that pattern perfectly fine. Thus, there cannot be any doubt that the Amirs constitute a typical lower middle class family.

Nevertheless, it is not only white-collar workers that account for the whole lower middle class. Usually, the petit bourgeois belongs to this social group, too, and includes »[…] shopkeepers, garages, builders [and] other service businesses […].«10 These small businesses are mostly dominated by men. Over four-fifths of the self-employed are male.11 This resembles exactly what is portrayed in The Buddha of Suburbia: The only two people belonging to the petit bourgeois we become acquainted with are Anwar and Karim’s uncle, Ted. The former is the proprietor of a small grocer’s shop (cf. BoS 26), the latter runs a central heating business (cf. BoS 33). Being predominantly male, the self-employed also »pride themselves on masculine values such as competitiveness, independence and individualism.«12 In the Buddha this becomes apparent by the parties Ted and Jean had given in the heydays of »Peter’s Heaters« because they were »a little king and queen in those days - rich, powerful, influential« (BoS 42), and their guests were the »most important builders, bank managers, accountants, local politicians and businessmen […] with their wives and tarts.« (BoS 41) Ted was definitely more successful with his business than Anwar although both of them have a »work-centred lifestyle: they work long ours, and homes are usually workplaces«.13 This is even more true for Anwar: He works very close to where he lives and spends most of his time in his shop. If Ted did the same before he stopped working, we can only guess. From his former success, however, we can infer that he must have been fairly industrious.

There is also another point about the petit bourgeois in Kureishi’s novel that portrays British life very precisely because in »terms of ethnic mix, the self-employed are less dominated by whites than any other class. Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis are overrepresented […]. Britain’s ethnic minorities have transformed the restaurant trade, and have also made a major impact in retailing.«14 Anwar is a perfect example for this influence of the »black« on British society. Being usually not discriminated like other immigrants, Indians and Pakistanis can be seen as assimilated into British culture.15 This is the main reason why I will not focus on racial discrimination or racial identity in my paper, but rather deal with Karim and his family as British citizens. Besides, »Kureishi's London, with its »thousands of blacks«, is internally influenced by the culture of minorities as well as by emergent cultural groups like the punk movement.«16 Therefore, Karim must not be seen as a foreigner, but as British, especially since he was born in the United Kingdom and has never been to India. Of course, the rule of living in a diverse metropolis does not prove right for all the time of his life. Having grown up in the London suburb of Bromley, Karim had to face narrow-mindedness at first and was, indeed, rather an exception in his neighbourhood as far as skin colour is concerned.17

3 The Depiction of Class

3.1 Suburbia

The situation of living in a London suburb is a very distinctive one; it is »as close to the green belts of the Black Country and rural Kent as [it is] to the metropolitan centre[]«.18 However, being so close to the British capital, the suburbs hold a obvious disadvantage: they will never be anything but peripheral compared to it.19 Therefore, there is always the lure for something greater, the temptation of the city. The suburbs do not offer anything, whereas the city seems to have everything a young person is longing for: freedom, dozens of shops and »parties where girls and boys you didn’t know took you upstairs and fucked you; there were all the drugs you could use.« (BoS 121)

Karim’s expectations are very opposing to his opinion about the suburbs where, according to him, »people rarely dream[] of striking out for happiness« (BoS 8), so that, in the end, their lives are dominated by »dullness« (BoS 8). Bearing that in mind, it is not surprising that Karim’s life is characterised by a »claustrophobic anxiety […] to be ›always somewhere else‹«.20 For him, Bromley is nothing but a point of departure on his way to the city, »a leaving place, the start of a life.«21 He was looking for something only London could offer him; he just did not fit into this boring narrow-minded way of living. If he had wanted to fit in, he would have had to play according to certain rules, which was impossible to him.

The very fact alone that he »wanted to sleep with boys as well as with girls« and that to him it would have been »heart-breaking to have to choose one or the other« (BoS 55) made him an outsider where he had lived. This sexual difference, his skin colour, »along with his refusal of fixed identity categories, is often associated with urban cosmopolitanism and seen as a challenge to suburban sameness.«22 Even though Bromley belongs to Greater London, it is not comparable to the inner city. Bromley is missing everything metropolitan: adventure, discovery, excitement, consumption, indulgence, and from that point of view the outer suburbs cannot be considered »London«.23 Karim himself makes this clear to the reader when introducing London to us: »In London the kids looked fabulous; they dressed and walked and talked like little gods. We could have been from Bombay. We'd never catch up.« (BoS 127 f.) This scene reveals how different both worlds are; Karim appears to be intimidated by the Londoners although he has lived in only a few miles distance from the »real London« for years. He should be familiar with this kind of fashion and their language, and, in fact, one would suspect him not to be different to that at all.

Kureishi, however, goes further than that to create a strong contrast. Not only is it fashion that distinguishes both of Karim’s dwelling places, but rather that the suburbs


[1] Ivan Reid, Class in Britain (Malden, Mass.: Polity Press, 1998), 32.

[2] Cf. Reid, Class in Britain, 33.

[3] John Hartley, Popular Reality: Journalism, Modernity, Popular Culture (London: Arnold, 1996), 161.

[4] Rita Felski, »Nothing to Declare: Identity, Shame, and the Lower Middle Class.« Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 115.1 (2000): 41.

[5] Felski, »Nothing to Declare«, 34.

[6] Cf. Reid, Class in Britain, 111.

[7] Kenneth Roberts, Class in Modern Britain (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001), 130.

[8] Hanif Kureishi, The Buddha of Suburbia (London: Faber and Faber, 1990), 23. In the following abbreviated as BoS. All subsequent quotations of the Buddha are taken from this edition.

[9] Roberts, Class in Modern Britain, 132.

[10] Roberts, Class in Modern Britain, 135.

[11] Roberts, Class in Modern Britain, 136.

[12] Roberts, Class in Modern Britain, 136.

[13] Roberts, Class in Modern Britain, 138.

[14] Roberts, Class in Modern Britain, 136.

[15] Roberts, Class in Modern Britain, 211.

[16] Anthony Ilona, »Hanif Kureishi's Buddha of Suburbia: »A New Way of Being British««, Contemporary British fiction, ed. Richard Lane et al (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2003), 101.

[17] Cf. BoS 64: »[T]here were so few Asians in our part of London […].«

[18] James Procter, Dwelling Places: Postwar Black British Writing ( Manchester: Manchester Univ. Press, 2003), 128.

[19] Procter, Dwelling Places, 128.

[20] Procter, Dwelling Places, 62.

[21] BoS 117; also cf. Procter, Dwelling Places, 150.

[22] Susan Brook, »Hedgemony?: Suburban Space in The Buddha of Suburbia,« British fiction of the 1990s, ed. Nick Bentley (London: Routledge, 2005), 214 f.

[23] John Clement Ball, »The Semi-Detached Metropolis: Hanif Kureishi's London«, ARIEL (A Review of International English Literature) 27.4 (1996): 21.


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ISBN (Book)
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University of Bamberg
Hanif Kureishi Buddha Suburbia Buddha of Suburbia class identity London Indian India Immigration hybridity migration literature contemporary Zadie Smith White Teeth Monica Ali Brick Lane lower middle class lower middle



Title: The Depiction of Class and Self-Created Identity in "The Buddha of Suburbia"