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“The Disinherited” by Jack Conroy

“The Disinherited” by Jack Conroy mixed an early version of social commentary and fiction into a compelling informant narrative that delved into the life of a poor low wage worker within the U.S. during the early 1900s. The book delves into how non-skilled workers within the U.S. attempt to live through their daily lives (as seen in the case of Larry and the other characters), earning the bare minimum wage given by their employers.

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One of the main problems presented in the book centers around the fact that minimum wage workers are not paid enough to reach a decent standard of living. Their situation is also compounded by derogatory practices by employers, which are meant to force employees to see themselves in a lowly position, which facilitates better control over their actions and to keep them from demanding better pay and benefits. Based on this, I believe that the reason why Conroy wrote this book was so that he could shed some light on the hiring practices within American society at the time and how they need to be changed in order to help ordinary workers. The book creates a compelling informant narrative in justifying this need by showing how unskilled workers receive low wages not out of choice but due to the current labor and social system in place, which keeps wages down in order to keep low wage workers in their positions.

Conroy helps to further justify his arguments for better treatment of workers by showing how the current economic system (the system during the early 1900s) did not benefit low wage workers at all. It showcased how low-income housing subsidies had all but disappeared and that social services and education were all geared towards skilled labor, with unskilled labor more often being the least cared for a portion of the U.S. labor force.

What makes the work of Conroy fascinating is how he blends in the reality and sadness of the situation of Larry in such a way that the reader cannot help but feel sorry for him and the status of American workers. Through instances such as the coal mine, the railroad, and the car factory, it is repeatedly stated through a narrative how the lives of ordinary workers were basically miserable; however, they do not have the means to get out due to a lack of financial resources. Conroy, in effect, suggests that this might be due to the fact that the society in the U.S. at the time required unskilled laborers to remain in the positions they were in so that the upper echelons of society can benefit. While it was not outright stated, the fact remains that should unskilled laborers receive higher wages; this would translate into higher costs of labor for the middle and upper class. By keeping unskilled laborers in their current positions, society ensures that the price of services continues to remain low. This is a very compelling idea to take into consideration since it is evidence of early systemic class warfare wherein the poor are intentionally kept poor so that the rich can benefit.

By utilizing the format of an informant narrative to shed light on this issue, Conroy is able to show that the system of employment for unskilled labor during the early 1900s is virtually designed in such a way so as to limit employee rights and give more power to the employer. Conroy further reinforces his need for change by showcasing various forms of derogatory behavior and repetitive tasks that Larry witnesses, as well as the various social practices that are put in place, which are all meant to degrade employee perception. This is done to ensure their compliance with work practices and ensure that they will have no option but to go to work again the next day. Such instances were seen in the case of Larry’s childhood and the experience of his father, who worked in the coal mine.

Through the informant narrative of the novel, Conroy is able to showcase that the entire system of employment in use within the U.S. at the time is inherently constructed so as to imprison people within a certain role and within a certain economic class to benefit those above. Even though the jobs they do are harder and involve more work, the pay is invariably lower. What Conroy is attempting to show through the novel is that the economic system during his time fostered class and economic inequality for the benefit of the select few, leaving little if next to no choice for those at the very bottom rung of the ladder of society. This is what makes the work of Conroy so compelling since he is able to utilize an informant narrative in such a way that it argues against current societal practices without outright saying that there is a problem. Instead, he depicts it in novel form and has the reader judge whether the true change is necessary.

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