In a children’s story by Beatrix Potter, Timmy Willie, a country mouse, ends up in the house of Johnny Town-Mouse after falling asleep in a wicker basket. Later, Johnny visits Timmy’s own home in the garden. Timmy doesn’t like the danger that the city mice live through daily, and the lavish meals don’t sit well with him. Johnny doesn’t like the modest and quiet life that Timmy lives.
The story has its origins in one of Aesop’s fables, “The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse.” Its moral advises that it is better to live in self-sufficient poverty than to be tormented by the worries of wealth. City life, while it promises instant gratification and worldly pleasures, does not give us independence and safety.
The tale was hugely popular with the ancient Greeks. Then, the polis reigned: city-states in which the majority of labour was done by slaves. Consequently, being from either the city or the country meant a whole lot. However, as the time of the polis came to an end, so did the interest in this story.
Centuries later and to the west, Europe was chaotically emerging from feudalism. City-states once again defined politics. As land was bought up by the wealthy, an itinerant and unemployed peasant class flooded the cities. Now, being from the country or from the city was more important than ever, and Aesop’s fable became common once again, with several new translations and interpretations. Yet despite their differences, all versions had one thing in common: a characterization of the country mouse as simple and boorish, and the city mouse as well-bred and well-mannered, perhaps a bit stuck up.
Both [Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina] bear a strong idealization of on the one hand the city, with its semblance of progress and riches; and on the other the country, with the fantasy of self-sufficiency.
Fast forward to 19th century France at the height of the industrial revolution. Most peasants had been kicked off their land, going on to crowd factories and mines at low pay. The nobility inhabited an increasingly precarious position, and the bourgeoisie was growing. In 1856, Gustave Flaubert published Madame Bovary, often considered the first modern novel.
In the novel, a doctor, Charles Bovary, marries the daughter of an impoverished farmer, Emma Rouault. They move to a small town. Now ‘Madame Bovary,’ Emma becomes bored and depressed, and she begins two different affairs. From this point onward, she becomes obsessed with city life, making trips to Rouen, the nearby town, frequently. Emma – spoiler alert – ends up in debt from living beyond her means, and finally commits suicide by eating arsenic.
Flaubert deftly depicted the struggle of a country woman to become a city woman, set during a time of unprecedented social transformation in France. As Stephen Heath put it, “The main impression [in the novel] is one of mobility, money on the move, an economic and social transformation in which a truly middle class is finding itself.”
The history of literature maps neatly onto the history of the changing dynamics between the city and the country.
Another famous novel, Anna Karenina, was written 20 years afterward. In the novel, Anna has an affair with Vronsky, a dapper military man. The affair goes sour, and Anna becomes ostracized by the rest of society. Tolstoy splices the story with imagery of progress – the train thunders throughout the novel, carrying the characters to the city and back again. Finally, Anna throws herself in front of it.
Another character in Anna Karenina, Levin, raises similar questions to Anna’s, struggling to balance his ideals with those of his society. His story ends in a way similar to Tolstoy’s own life: his hatred of the city and the idea of progress that accompanied it caused him to spend his final days running a farm, caring for his family, and writing in peace about art, religion, and anarchism.
Both novels bear a strong idealization of on the one hand the city, with its semblance of progress and riches; and on the other the country, with the fantasy of self-sufficiency. Both female characters are crushed by social forces: Emma is overburdened by debt; Anna is no longer accepted in high society. And modernity kills them: Emma swallows poison from her husband’s medicine room and Anna is crushed by a train. Meanwhile, trains, carriages, and money bring all the characters to their destinations, promising pleasure and privilege.
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In a short story by Nguyễn Huy Thiệp, “Lessons from the country,” published in 1987, a boy from Hanoi escapes to the country to stay with his friend’s family, intending to work for his keep. There, he meets the village teacher, who asks him, “Do you feel superior to country people because you live in the city?”
The boy says he doesn’t. “Don’t despise them,” he remarks, himself a former urbanite. “All city people and the educated elite carry a heavy burden of guilt when it comes to the villages. We crush them with our material demands. With our pork stew of science and education, we have a conception of civilization and an administrative superstructure that is designed to squeeze the villages.”
Vietnam, at the time of writing, had recently decolonized. This required reforming the European property rights that had been stamped all across the country by the French. Thiệp’s story was also written in the context of globalization, when the country opened itself up to foreign investment, eventually resulting in widespread uprooting of the rural class.
This passage from Thiệp’s story crystallized a jumble of ideas in my mind. First, literature is literally shaped by the divide between country and city. Everywhere you look, it defines characters and plot. The history of literature maps neatly onto the history of the changing dynamics between the city and the country, from Aesop to Thiệp.
There is something inherently oppressive in a society that prioritizes cosmopolitanism: the success of one class is dependent on the expropriation and labour of another, more marginalized class.
One historian, Immanuel Wallerstein, sees all politics in these terms: the richest societies – what he calls the “core” – extract a net positive of materials from the poorest – the “periphery.” In his view, development of one part of the world requires the extraction of resources, labour, and land from another. This, of course, requires transportation, and it’s no surprise that as cities grew, so did the reference to trains, roads, and vehicles in literature.
Additionally, the relationship between country and city is one of debt. Cityfolk owe all their material wealth to the country, while at the same time, countryfolk are seen as less civilized or boorish. There is something inherently oppressive in a society that prioritizes cosmopolitanism: the success of one class is dependent on the expropriation and labour of another, more marginalized class. This material oppression is then justified by social oppression: like the country mouse, countryfolk are ‘common,’ ‘peasants,’ ‘uneducated,’ or ‘uncivilized.’ Yet the life of the oppressed becomes idealized – Levin, of rich noble stock, dreams of self-sufficiency in the country.
This dynamic can also be seen between Indigenous people in America and European colonizers. While Indigenous land, necessary for the colonizer’s wealth, is taken at gunpoint, they are deemed uncivilized and simultaneously idealized for their peaceful, ‘more natural’ livelihood.
Finally, it drives home the realization that we should always remember what makes living in the city possible. Nowadays, visionary ideas of endless cities and utopian images of pristine cosmopolitan worlds abound. It becomes easy to forget – and therefore erase – how we are indebted to life beyond the edge of the city.
Currently, the world’s most materially impoverished people are farmers, peasants, and rural refugees. The most disenfranchised in North America are people who moved into cities to survive after their land was privatized or sold: migrants, Indigenous people or people whose ancestors were ripped from their rural livelihoods and themselves sold into slavery. The current economic system continues to most impact those uprooted from the country, causing shockwaves that ripple across the world, into literature and our cultural imagination.
This article was originally published in The McGill Daily.