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A parvenu is a person who is a relative newcomer to a socioeconomic class. The word is borrowed from the French language; it is the past participle of the verb parvenir (to reach, to arrive, to manage to do something).
The word parvenu typically describes a person who recently ascended the social ladder, especially a nouveau riche or "new money" individual. The famous Molly Brown, who survived the Titanic sinking in 1912, was portrayed as a "new money" individual in the "climbing social classes" musical The Unsinkable Molly Brown because of her impoverished Irish immigrant roots and lack of social pedigree.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines a parvenu as: "A person from a humble background who has rapidly gained wealth or an influential social position; a nouveau riche; an upstart, a social climber. Also in extended use. Generally used with the implication that the person concerned is unsuited to the new social position, esp. through lacking the necessary manners or accomplishments."
The term designates individuals not socially accepted by individuals already established in their new class. It expresses a form of classism.
Several examples might include athletic and entertainment professionals born and raised in poverty and suddenly finding themselves with significantly higher sources of income due to their new-found celebrity status.
Established royal families of Europe regarded the Bonaparte family as parvenu royalty. Napoleon III tried to marry into Swedish and German royalty, but was unsuccessful because he was a parvenu. This was also said to be the case with the marriage of Egyptian Princess Fawzia to the future Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. One of the reasons speculated for their divorce is that Fawzia's family, including King Farouk I, viewed the Pahlavis as parvenus. Though the Muhammad Ali Dynasty of Egypt and Sudan, to which Fawzia belonged, had humble beginnings, it had solidified its status in Egypt and the Arab World since 1805. In contrast, the Pahlavis were a far more recent dynasty, owing their position entirely to the coup d'état of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi's father, Reza Khan, in 1921.
Many parvenus in the United States worked their way up the social ladder, starting as poor immigrants. Originally immigrant workers, they would have found themselves able to take advantage of the growing opportunities in the U.S., moving on to become civil servants, "white collar" (business/office) workers and finally member of respectable society. Such an example might be John Jacob Astor, whose family once skinned rabbits for a living and went on to build such icons of New York City as the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel with his brother.
- In the novel The Great Gatsby, Gatsby represents the newly rich. He obtains his wealth through bootlegging, spends it lavishly, and struggles to gain the acceptance of older money.
- In the novel The Red and the Black, the provincial protagonist Julien Sorel thinks of himself as a parvenu after establishing himself in the service of the Marquis de la Mole.
- In The Cherry Orchard, Gayev regards Lophakhin as a parvenu, as many critics interpret his remarks.
- Pip, from Dickens’s Great Expectations, would be considered a parvenu by many.
- Edmund Dantès as The Count of Monte Cristo in Alexandre Dumas' work.
- In Miss Potter, Beatrix Potter refers to her parents as "Parvenus...social climbers" after they attempt to prevent her from marrying her publisher Norman Warne since he is a tradesman, despite them coming from a trading background.
- Myers, Gustavus "THE INCEPTION OF THE ASTOR FORTUNE", THE HISTORY OF THE GREAT AMERICAN FORTUNES, 1907, accessed May 10, 2011.