Do People Change?

I’ve mentioned this in a few of my previous posts but one of my favourite things about reading books written set in an older context is that I like reading about different eras and how fundamentally, people don’t really change.

First of all, let me state that I don’t mean books written today but set in, say, the 1930s, but books written in a previous time frame and set in that time frame. I enjoy reading about their gripes and worries because to me, it’s a case of ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same’.

Let me explain.

Everyone’s always complaining about how society’s worsening; marriage rates are falling, divorce rates are climbing, young people don’t respect their elders, crime rates rising, poverty abound, values aren’t being upheld, all that jazz. We always think that things are getting worse because we seem to enjoy romanticising the past.

But these societal complaints don’t seem to change and are no different from the concerns that people have now.

I saw a lot of this in Agatha Christie novels where the characters made general complaints about how children always want to do something different from their parents (‘Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case’) and that parents simply didn’t understand. 

And in ‘Five Little Pigs’ the criticisms directed at the home-wrecking antics of the “very good-looking, hard-boiled, modern” Elsa Greer could come out of any modern day tabloid.

To the women in the court she stood for a type – type of the home-breaker. Homes weren’t safe when girls like that were wandering abroad. Girls damn full of sex and contemptuous of the rights of wives and mothers.

In Roald Dahl’s short story, ‘Mrs Bixby and the Colonel’s Coat’, Dahl devotes the first paragraph to just how easy it is for smart gold digger’s to profit from easy divorces.

America is the land of opportunities for women. Already they own about eighty-five percent of the wealth of the nation. Soon they will have it all. Divorce has become a lucrative process, simple to arrange and easy to forget; and ambitious females can repeat it as often as they please and parlay their winnings to astronomical figures.

If you didn’t know any better, you’d think it was some ultra-conservative media commentator lamenting the crumbling institution of marriage.

And the news makes an enormous fuss about rising crime rates but it’s not as if crime is a new problem; in the 1940s Raymond Chandler was plotting the lives of double crossing gangsters in violent storylines. To add to this grey morality, he was also writing about alcoholic private detectives as the new knight templars when he dreamt up Philip Marlowe.

This makes sense to me since fundamentally, the only thing that really changes throughout history is technological advances.

I think it’s also one of the reasons I love studying history so much. I love that no matter what changes or how civilisation progresses, humans will always behave like humans, and this to me, is one of the most reassuring factors in life.

It may seem depressing since it looks like we learn nothing from our past. We go through long periods of unrest so that we can vow to devote the rest of our lives to peace and understanding, only to declare war all over again.

But I think it means that people are consistent; despite all our failings, we still strive for the same goals and have the same concerns. We worry when we see what we believe are signs of society falling apart around us and we try our best to rectify it. We still have the same idea of what we believe is a happy life and a good community, even if some of those morals change to suit the times (interacial marriages, gender rights etc).

And this gives me hope because it seems that people seem to have consistent ideas of what a good life is, even when generations change.

Anyway that’s my two cents.


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