The Go-Between is fundamentally a drama of social hierarchy. The story is set in late-Victorian/Edwardian Britain around the turn of the 20th century, a time when class dominated society, and primarily explores these ideas in two related story lines: through its primary character, Leo, who narrates the book retrospectively about his experiences when he, a middle class boy, was invited to spend the summer at the high class estate of has schoolmate Marcus’s family; and through the love affair between the upper class Marian (Marcus’s sister) and the local farmer Ted, in which Leo gets caught up as a go-between. Through these intertwined stories, the novel shows how social class functions as a system of power that both makes people (such as Leo) accept it as natural and right, as well as how—in the disastrous consequences of Marian and Ted’s affair—these same social conventions, however refined, will brutally destroy those who go against its codes of acceptable behavior.
The overwhelming and rigid power of the social hierarchy impacts all aspects of Brandham Hall life, from meal times—breakfast is announced by a gong—to clothes. Before his visit, Leo hadn’t paid much attention to how he dressed: “Hitherto I had always taken my appearance for granted; now I saw how inelegant it was compared with theirs; and at the same time, and for the first time, I was acutely aware of social inferiority.” Though it’s not spoken about in the open, all the characters (except, to a degree, Leo) are fully aware of and affected by social hierarchy. That’s why, when Lord Trimingham arrives to Brandham Hall, the Maudsleys are all on edge—as a Lord and the hereditary owner of the estate, he outranks them.
While it is true that sometimes the upper class and the servant/working class might appear to mix, as when the two come together at the cricket match and following meal, these occasions always occur on the terms of the upper class, as if it is doing the lower class an honor by attending. After the cricket match and meal, for instance, Marcus comments: “Anyhow, we’ve said goodbye to the village for a year. Did you notice the stink … Three times I nearly had to cat [throw up].” All of this is why Marian and Ted enlist the class-ignorant Leo as their go-between—their love affair is the most intimate form of mixing, and they know that they have to keep it secret. Eventually, though, the affair is discovered by Marian’s mother Mrs. Maudlsey, who had architected Marian’s engagement to Lord Trimingham in order to secure her own family’s ascent into an even higher class. Mrs. Maudsley’s subsequent nervous breakdown along with Ted’s suicide—which can be read as his passionate acknowledgement that society will never allow him to be with Marian—make clear just how profoundly society will punish this transgression against class.
There is a direct relationship, Hartley suggests, between the strictness of social codes and the extremity of the consequences when these codes are disobeyed. Love is only permitted to exist between those people whose social standings are in proportion. The fact, as explained in the novel’s epilogue, that Marian and Ted’s love child is falsely presented as the product of her marriage to Lord Trimingham is final proof that Marian and Ted’s love was forbidden and remains so. The social order must be maintained: even when Marian was caught, the need for the Maudsleys and Trimingham to avoid embarrassment was more important than being honest about the father of the child. When, at the end of the book, the elderly Marian asks Leo to carry one last message, this time to her grandson (the eleventh Lord Trimingham), this is the forbidden knowledge that she hopes to communicate: that her and Ted’s love was real and nothing to be ashamed of. That she needs Leo to take the message to her estranged grandson implies that society still refuses to allow such thinking.
Social Class and Hierarchy ThemeTracker
Social Class and Hierarchy Quotes in The Go-Between
I was urged to put out more spells, one of which was that we should be given a whole holiday. Into this last I put all the psychic force I had, and I was rewarded. Soon after the beginning of June we had an outbreak of measles. By half-term more than half the school was down with it, and soon after came the dramatic announcement that we were to break up.
I came to dread these pleasantries, they seemed to spring up all around me like rows of gas-jets scorching me, and I turned redder than I was already. The frightful feeling of being marked out for ridicule came back in all its strength. I don’t think I was unduly sensitive; in my experience most people mind being laughed at more than anything else. What causes wars, what makes them drag on so interminably, than the fear of losing face?
But the idea of goodness did attract me, for I did not regard it as the opposite of sin. I saw it as something bright and positive and sustaining, like the sunshine, something to be adored, but from afar.
The idea of the assembled Viscounts contained it for me, and the Maudsleys, as their viceroys, enjoyed it too, not so incontestably, but enough to separate them from other human beings. They were a race apart, super-adults, not bound by the same laws of life as little boys.
I was in love with the heat, I felt for it what the convert feels for his new religion…And without my being aware of it, the climate of my emotions had undergone a change. I was no longer satisfied with the small change of experience which had hitherto contented me. I wanted to deal in larger sums. I wanted to enjoy continuously the afflatus of spirit that I had when I was walking to Lord Trimingham and he admitted to being a Viscount. To be in tune with all that Brandham Hall meant, I must increase my stature, I must act on a grander scale. Perhaps all these desires had been dormant in me for years, and the Zodiac had been their latest manifestation.
The messenger of the gods! I thought of that, and even when the attention of the gods had been withdrawn from me, it seemed to enhance my status. I pictured myself threading my way through the Zodiac, calling on one star after another.
My world of high intense emotions collapsing around me, released not only the mental strain but the very high physical pressure under which I had been living. My only defence was, I could not have expected it of Marian. Marian who had done so much for me, Marian who knew how a boy felt, Marian the Virgin of the Zodiac—how could she have sunk so low?
“Phew! Three times I nearly had to cat…And you looked so pi, Leo, really dreadfully pi. So did everybody, while you were singing that church thing about the angels taking care of you. They all looked as if they were thinking about their dear dead ones, and Burgess looked as if he might be going to blub. Of course it’s difficult to know how Trimingham feels because of his face, but he didn’t half crack you up to Mama. He’ll eat out of your hand now.
I liked Ted burgess in a reluctant, half-admiring, half-hating way. When I was away from him I could think of him objectively as a working farmer whom no one at the Hall thought much of. But when I was with him his mere physical presence cast a spell on me, it established an ascendancy which I could not break. He was, I felt, what a man ought to be, what I should like to be when I grow up.