The Boy Behind the Curtain

by

Tim Winton

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The Boy Behind the Curtain: Using the C-word Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
In 2013, during an interview, a journalist asks Winton whether he really means to use the word “class” to describe the distinctions between two characters in his new novel. The question startles Tim—surely it can’t be offensive to refer to the idea of class—but he soon realizes that public opinion about the word and its connotations is changing.
Winton’s caught off guard by the journalist’s question, which demonstrates his lack of practice mincing his words—it seems he’s used to telling the truth as he sees it. 
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Winton suggests that Australians now think of themselves as divided between those who make an effort in life and those who don’t. People no longer attribute success or poverty to systemic or historical factors. Though the gap between rich and poor is now wider than any time since World War II, Australians are ignorant of the factors outside of personal ambition that could keep someone in poverty, tending to believe that if people work hard, they reap the rewards of their labor.
Winton’s observations paint a picture of a general Australian public that’s willfully ignorant of their history and the entrenched inequalities in their society. To Winton, it seems that most Australians disparage the working class because, rather than understanding the lack of resources that has led to their relative status in life, they see them as lacking ambition and drive.
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It seems to Winton that raising the issue of class in Australia sets off alarm bells that that person intends to declare class war or suggest a communist strategy. The political right will only indulge a conversation about inequality if there is no mention of class, which allows the privilege of the powerful and wealthy to continue unexamined. 
While Winton is interested in debating this societal issue, for others, even bringing up the subject seems like an attack. This suggests that there’s a fragility in the middle class—a sense of defensive entitlement that could crumble at the first challenge.
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Growing up, Winton was aware of class and simultaneously told by many teachers that every Australian had a chance to prosper. He understood that he and almost everyone around him was working class, and that while he had as much value as those of higher classes, they would always have power over him. He was told by his grandfather to continue with his education, because his boss would never be able to control what he learned and thought. And while Winton was aware of class, the government of his childhood and teenage years seemed to create the possibility that he would have some class mobility that his parents and grandparents lacked.
Though discussing class in the present day is a tricky maneuver, Winton’s exposure to the concept at a young age was anything but. His family was class-aware, and it’s implied that this awareness wasn’t an oppressive thing for Winton. Rather, it enabled him to understand his status and work out ways of claiming power over his own narrative instead of being governed by others.
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Artists, though less constrained by class divisions than many occupations, mostly hail from socially mobile families, and Winton finds himself amongst a small group of writers who rose from working-class backgrounds to middle-class existences. He credits this to luck and cultural history—the hopeful political climate during his childhood—as well as his parents’ encouragement. But growing up being aware of and engaged with class distinctions, he never expected the very idea of class to be a taboo topic.
Much like Winton’s desire to credit the success of the Ningaloo campaign to circumstance, luck, and the help of the people around him, he credits his class mobility to a particularly lucky political circumstance and his parents’ assistance. It’s another scenario that suggests he doesn’t spend much time thinking about his individual qualities as much as he does the world around him.
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At a literary party in Soho in 1995, a drunk editor describes Winton as “chippy.”. He realizes that, because he brought up the topic of having been working class, some of the wealthier attendees saw him as a touchy person who made others uncomfortable. He’s surprised by this interaction, and even more surprised when it becomes normal in Australia 20 years later. The friends who call Winton out for his comments on class are always wealthy and from elite schools. He doesn’t bring the issue up because he wants to be pitied—it’s not his childhood that deserves special attention—but because the issue is still alive and affects Australians in so many ways.
Winton’s experience at the party demonstrates the power of privilege. Even though he’s surrounded by people of higher status and power than himself, those people use their status to make Tim feel like he’s the one belittling others. Winton finds defensiveness among people who are better off than him, which suggests that the comfort of wealth and high social status might only be a façade that obscures someone’s deep-seated anxieties.
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Winton wrestles with the fact that his face is on a postage stamp, which is the subject of much teasing from his family members—yet some of those same family members are unable to write a letter to fix that stamp to. Those members of his family left education early not because of their own willpower or lack thereof, but because of their class. Wealthier Australians often forget that factors other than a person’s own efforts can restrain a person—and that these factors play into class.
Winton’s discomfort at the fact that his face is on a stamp is a direct echo of his experience feeling like an impostor as the special guest at a Ningaloo Reef event. These two reactions confirm Winton as someone who’d rather live a private life than be celebrated publicly, and perhaps that’s partly because he feels such a distance between that glamorous existence and the fact that some of his family members are unable to even read his books.
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Before Winton got to university, he didn’t know anyone who wasn’t working class; a tertiary education was only possible for him because of the current government’s decision to abolish fees. That decision gave Winton and his contemporaries access to more opportunities. At university, everyone was caught off-guard by the new social order—by the possibility that their class was no longer a restriction. But while the working-class boundaries dissolved for Tim, he found that the middle class inherited a growing solidarity and class consciousness from the very richest members of society.
Winton’s ability to attend university is one of the circumstances that he credits with his fortunate rise to the middle class, and something he thinks of as lucky because he knows that previous generations weren’t granted the same privilege. Because of this, university was something of a microcosm of a potential society in which everyone is given the same access—partially proving Winton’s argument that class differences are based not on lack of effort but on lack of resources.
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By the 1980s, the working class began to dissolve, and salaries of those who were once confined to that class—bus drivers and tradespeople—were booming. However, the idea of class is still a solid part of Australian society, defining the middle class more than the working class and creating a feeling of anxiety and defensiveness among those in the middle class who are witnessing the social mobility of those they assumed were in a lower class. When Winton was a child, working-class people described themselves as “battlers,” but now the middle class has coopted the term despite their extremely comfortable incomes and living situations.
The anxiety the middle class feels about the rise of members of the working class is perhaps because their strongly held belief—that they have achieved a comfortable life through their own efforts—is coming into conflict with jealousy and insularity. And despite having achieved a comfortable living, Winton notes that this growing middle-class has co-opted the term “battlers,” preferring to think of themselves as hard-done-by laborers than relatively well-off suburb-dwellers.
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The middle class’s defensiveness and entitlement leads to governments affording them a disproportionate amount of welfare including tax cuts and subsidies, further impoverishing the working class. The wealthiest shy away from the word “class” because it would reveal the inner workings of their privilege and oppression. People once discerned social stratifications of class through accent, occupation, or the size of someone’s home. But now, partly due to credit schemes, social stratification has become more obscure. It’s all down to mobility, which is fueled by money—those without it have no power.
This scenario paints an unsettling picture of government decision-making, suggesting that the government is compelled by fear and serves only the loudest, largest societal groups. Because of the vague distinctions between social classes, it’s possible that there’s less solidarity within the working class to push back against these governmental decisions. No longer being connected by occupation or location, their common ground unsettlingly becomes having less money than others.
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Winton suggests that the most overlooked class of people in Australia is the working poor—cleaners, carers, and hospitality workers with no income stability or welfare assistance who create and maintain the society in which the middle class and very wealthy live comfortably. Winton feels that he once belonged to a class that was similar to this, but he now feels like “a class traveler [who’s] become a stranger to his own.” He notices that people around him commonly speak about the working poor as if they have just as many choices as the middle class do, and to him, it’s “morally corrosive” that they can so blatantly ignore the roles that family, geography, ethnicity, and education play in determining one’s safety and success.
Though Winton has been fortunate enough to enjoy the comforts of a middle-class existence as an adult, he still strongly identifies with the working class. Because of this, he finds he has more empathy and understanding for members of this class than the great majority of Australians. Saying that he’s “become a stranger to his own” also echoes his earlier choices to, for instance, leave the church; once again, Winton feels alone and as though he’s no longer part of a group that was once a huge part of his life.
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Quotes
Winton worries that the government’s preoccupation with keeping the middle class happy will limit the working class’s opportunities. He feels that the clear social stratifications that were present in his childhood allowed people to discuss class and fairness much more easily, but now, the middle class’s defensiveness and anxiety has obscured the conversation, and the working poor have very little chance of being understood or helped.
At the end of the essay, Winton returns to the subject of transparent debate. He implies that scenarios such as the one with the interviewer at the beginning of the essay mean there are fewer and fewer opportunities to unite and enable the working class. Winton suggests that it will take everyone becoming more conscious of what actually determines a person’s class before anything will change for the better.
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