Sunday, 12 December 2010

Literary Characters - The Cit

The Cit, the opposite of the country gentleman, is a citizen and a member of the growing middle class. With the advent of mercantile capitalism, theatre-goers were increasingly from this social state. As the aristocratic element in the audience dwindled, so did the status of the rake and the his typical victim the cit rose to prominence.

In the early 17th century, the cit had been an ambiguous character. Greedy and vulgar but still enterprising, he increasingly came to stand for the expansion of British influence in trade, shedding his negative qualities onto the character of the Dutch Merchant. Whereas the fop with whom he shares some urban characteristics was a figure of ridicule, the cit never suffered this treatment although he was early on suffering as the victim of the rake.

In the Restoration, the aspiring and socially climbing cit was criticised for his presumption but as he became more intrinsically involved in the health of the nation his abandoning his trade became synonymous with treason. In Richardson's Clarissa and Hogarth's Marriage á la mode, however, the social aspirations and the increasing influence of the middle class is seen to save the aristocracy; the "new money" achieve social status and the "old blood" recieve influence, funds and continued lineage.

Robinson Crusoe was a cit working his industrious, colonial influence on an untamed world

Three processes affect and reflect the cit throughout the century. Firstly, its rise to prominence is seen in its favourable treatment in satires like Henry Fielding's Jonathan Wild and John Gay's The Beggar's Opera. Here, the upper and working classes were linked and criticised in opposition to the middle class, i.e. the cit. Secondly, artists increasingly looked to the increasingly affluent middle class for patronage. This led to an improvement in the portrayal of the cit. Finally, as middle class expertise and wealth led them into higher social milieu and often out to landed estates the distinction between the cit and the country gentleman became increasingly blurred. Although the cit's trade was still percieved as both vital and vulgar, prominent writers like Richardson symptomatically often cast their hero as a country gentleman but often an industrious one. (This merger would perhaps reflect Richardson's own middle class background). As McGirr states, "the ideal character at the century's close was a combination of the cit and the country gentleman: honest, industrious, solvent, well-fed and unapologetically British" (74)

Source: Elaine M. McGirr, Eighteenth-Century Characters: A Guide to the Literature of the Age (Houndsmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007)

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