Java in the period covered by Kayam's fictional saga was a rural society somewhat relieved by mostly minor urban centers. It was a time of population increase and of diminishing holdings, when the immemorial difficulties of the peasantry were growing more acute than usual. Nevertheless, modern ways and ideas were seeping into the countryside, offering prospects of upward social mobility and a more secure life. The key was education: the one bright portal of hope for the wretched of Java. A central focus of the novel Para Priyayi, translated here as Javanese Gentry, is the indispensability of literacy to any peasant villager seeking to escape the miseries of his class and achieve familial betterment by rising into the higher of the colonial Java's essentially two-tier society. That higher, literate tier was the priyayi, a functionary-gentry shading in its upper levels into the traditional aristocracy and acting in most facets of life as an intermediary and cultural filter between the peasantry and the Dutch.
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