Ha Jolly Ha

Thursday, May 26, 2005

The Benefits of Social Hierarchy

I just finished reading a novel by Anthony Trollope, entitled The Warden. As far as style is concerned, it seemed reminiscent of both Austen and Dickens. It is the first in a series of books about a cathedral town in England, and the author purposefully raises some interesting questions. The plot surrounds an Anglican cleric, appointed by his friend the bishop to be Warden of a charitable hospital. This hospital is supported by the estate of a man long dead, whose will made provisions for the support of twelve elderly or disabled tradesman of the town, unable to care for themselves. The will also directed that a Warden and Steward be appointed to run the hospital and decide who in the town needs that kind of help. At the beginning of the story, the salaries received by the Warden and Steward fall under legal scrutiny. It seems that many clerical fortunes were suspect at that time, and an idealistic youth of the town suspects that the poor men are being cheated out of their dues. As the story unfolds, however, it becomes clear that the hospital inmates receive much from their Warden that cannot be estimated in monetary terms. He arranges everything for their comfort, sees that the grounds are beautiful and well-kept, consoles them in their griefs, and tends them in their illnesses. How their happy situation is upset by rash interference! After a life of struggles and poverty, these old men were living comfortably under the kind care of a gentle, spiritual shepherd. When the legal action begins, that peaceful world falls apart; though many of them are near death, and thus cannot hope to enjoy any greater comfort from a larger pension, greed engrosses their days and divides their happy community. Suddenly, they resent the situation of their generous benefactor, who lived for their good. Meanwhile, he suffers from their fickleness and his own scruples. His agonies increase when the public attacks his good name and the case is used as a vehicle of political reform. In the end, the action against him falls through, but he gives up the position anyway because his conscience is in doubt. Thus, the old men are left in loneliness and neglect, their unworthy hopes disappointed and their friend and protector gone. Impoverished and cast from his home, the Warden has neither the time nor the means to offer them the same attentions, much as he would like to. The idealist who prosecuted him thought to enrich the lives of the old men by securing them a greater allowance of money, but it seems that that money benefited them most in the hands of someone else.


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