Breaking Down Barriers

Today’s writing prompt comes from Michael Charboneau, a sophomore at Fordham University in the Bronx, where he studies English and photography. He has contributed poetry and photography to Fordham’s literary magazine, The Ampersand, as well as serving as its secretary and copy editor. He has also written articles for Fordham’s student newspaper, The Ram. He hopes to find a career involving writing, taking photos, and experiencing all that the world has to offer.

Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past year or so, you’ve probably heard of, or seen firsthand, the latest piece of British culture to invade America: PBS’s historical drama Downton Abbey. Following a British aristocratic family, the Crawleys, through the turbulent times of the Titanic disaster, World War I, and the Roaring Twenties, the show has caught the attention of millions of stateside anglophiles. Jeremy Egner of the New York Times recently called it a “transcendent hit,” noting its appeal not only in Britain and America, but across the globe. I had my first taste of the show while spending Christmas with my family, and I’ve been intrigued ever since.

Although the show can be a little too predictable and, at times, over-dramatic for my taste (bad news seems to turn up in every episode via some shocking letter or telegram), I’ve become attached to the characters and the historical insight the show provides. Its emphasis on class differences and social boundaries stands out as particularly thought-provoking. Society at Downton is literally stratified: servants live downstairs, while the aristocratic Crawley family lives above, and rigid social rules govern everyone’s behavior. The show explores how those social boundaries become strained and broken in response to various historical events and the desires of the characters, particularly their romances. One relationship represents an unusual crossover between social classes: the romance between Lady Sybil and the family chauffeur, Tom Branson. Their relationship flies directly in the face of established social boundaries. Sybil must break with her family and with the expectation that she marry a wealthy aristocrat, and Tom, a staunch Irish republican with a clear distaste for British aristocracy, must reckon with the fact that the woman he loves comes from an aristocratic family.

Like Tom and Sybil, people all over the world sometimes feel the need to reject social restrictions. In his article, Egner points out that the “tensions of social status” and “unabashed romance” present in Downton Abbey have led directly to its widespread appeal, even in places as distant, physically and culturally, as China and the Far East. It’s reasonable to say that tension and conflict over social boundaries are present in just about every culture on earth.

Keeping in mind the universal nature of this experience, write a scene in which a character confronts a social boundary. How does this character confront it? This could involve disobeying a parent, for example, as it often does in Downton Abbey. Why does that character feel the need to ignore this certain social restriction? Will life be better for him or her after they have ignored it? Will life be easier? How will the people around him or her react?


  1. tory meringoff says

    this is fantastic! I love the way you turned this into a prompt at the end!

  2. Great subject matter! Well done Michael. Keep watching!