The Legacy of Friedrich Engels in Modern Manhattan

This is the movie poster for the film, Maid in Manhattan, directed by Wayne Wang.

This is the movie poster for the film, Maid in Manhattan, directed by Wayne Wang.

Friedrich Engels left a huge impression on his readers when his piece titled The Conditions of the Working Class in England in 1844 was published in Germany in 1845 and then translated into English in 1892.  It shinned a very bright light on how appalling the working conditions truly were for the poor in England.  When we were assigned this particular reading in class I couldn’t help but think of how much this text reminded me of modern day concerns.   The text felt relevant to today and even sounded familiar to me.  Engels’ concerns live on today in many stories and movies, but I want to focus on how his critique of the urban poor is mirrored in the 2002 movie, Maid in Manhattan.

Maid in Manhattan is a movie that gives you an inside view into the life of a single mom who lives in the projects and works in an upper class hotel in Manhattan as a maid.  The main character, Marisa Ventura, dreams of becoming manager one day so that she can provide a better life for her son, Ty.  Her dream is jeopardized when she develops a relationship with a guest who is staying at her hotel where she works, a politician named Christopher Marshall, who mistakes Marisa for being a guest in the hotel as well.  As their relationship grows throughout the movie we see how Marisa’s “working class” status is something that is meant to be separate and even hidden from the middle and upper class guests that she serves.

In his text, Engels “was so appalled by his observations of the urban poor and of their degradation, stressing the hypocritical town planning that insulated the middle class from the sight of squalor and suffering” (Damrosch, 1101).  Engels goes on to show how the positive aspects of the new industrialism is merely a façade for what is truly taking place behind the scenes which is the horrible working and living conditions of the lower-middle class.  The classes are kept completely separate which allows for no contact or understanding between the two.  “He who visits Manchester simply on business or for pleasure need never see the slums, mainly because the working-class districts and the middle-class districts are quite distinct” (Damrosch, 1106).

This separation that Engels speaks about is also reflected in the movie Maid in Manhattan.  Throughout the movie the maids and the staff of the hotel are constantly reminded to serve without being seen, because that is the mark of good help.  “A Beresford maid is expedient. A Beresford maid is thorough. A Beresford maid serves with a smile. And above all, a Beresford maid strives to be invisible” (Maid in Manhattan).  This distinction is also present in the main character, Marisa’s, struggle between her real life and the life that Christopher believes she leads.  Marisa is worried that he will find out the truth about her status which will put her future career at the hotel in danger.  Once it is finally revealed that Marisa does in fact work at the hotel instead of staying there as Christopher believes, she is met with criticism for her façade, gets fired from her job, and reinforces the idea that the working-class is meant to remain hidden.  “The first time you saw me, I was cleaning your bathroom floor! Only you didn’t see me” (Maid in Manhattan). 

Engel shows how the shops that the poor maintain, provide for the upper class and are used to keep the boundary between the rich and poor distinct.  “Even the less pretentious shops adequately serve their purpose of hiding from the eyes of the wealthy ladies and gentlemen with strong stomachs and weak nerves the misery and squalor which are part and parcel of their own riches and luxury” (Damrosch, 1106).  The maids and staff of the hotel in Maid in Manhattan are comparable to the shops in Engel’s text.  The maids, like the shop owners, maintain the hotel that serves the upper-class.  They are meant to serve the upper-class and maintain their own appearance during work, but they are always considered other from those that they serve.  “To serve people takes dignity and intelligence.  But remember, they are only people with money.  And although we serve them, we are not their servants.  What we do, Miss Ventura, does not define who we are.  What defines us is how well we rise after falling” (Maid in Manhattan).

In the movie, Christopher Marshall is a politician who is working on his campaign.  Through his relationship with Marisa, Christopher gains an insight into the working-class that he is not expecting and one which that he doesn’t fully understand because he doesn’t realize she is a current member of the lower-middle class.  At one point in the movie, Christopher is going to the Bronx’s to give a speech about the housing projects.  His goal is to take the press up there to “shine light” on the living conditions, but Marisa points out that the people who live in the projects do not need to be told how bad the living conditions are.  “Maybe you should spend real time in the projects and then you wouldn’t have to make up speeches and memorize them.  You know, it would be coming from someplace real” (Maid in Manhattan).  Engel’s brought this up in his text as well, saying that “it is only when he has visited the slums of this great city that it dawns upon him that the inhabitants of modern London have had to sacrifice so much that is best in human nature in order to create those wonders of civilization with which their city teems” (Damrosch, 1102).

It is clear that Friedrich Engel’s text, The Conditions of the Working Class in England in 1844 has created a legacy that has influenced and can be reflected in other works of literature and films such as, Maid in Manhattan.  Engel’s critique is a very modern one that is still present in today’s society.

Works Cited

Damrosch, David, ed. The Longman Anthology of British Literature Volume 2B: The Victorian Age. Longman: New York, 2003. Fourth Edition.

Maid in Manhattan. Dir. Wayne Wang. Perf. Jennifer Lopez and Ralph Fiennes. Revolution Studios, 2002. Film.

Maid in Manhattan. Digital image. N.p., 2002. Web. 1 May 2014.