Racial Difference

An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory - Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle 2016

Racial Difference

You might reasonably expect a chapter on racial difference to focus on, for example, William Faulkner’s great novel of social aspiration and race prejudice Absalom, Absalom! (1936) or Toni Morrison’s closely related slave narrative, Beloved (1987), or perhaps one of Salman Rushdie’s narratives of the Indian diaspora, or Derek Walcott’s poetry of Caribbean multiculturalism. Our intention here, however, is to argue that questions of race, slavery and racial violence are everywhere, and that they pervade even the most apparently ’innocent’ literary works. In this way we will be guided by the provocative and incisive words of the American poet John Ashbery: ’Remnants of the old atrocity subsist, but they are converted into ingenious shifts in scenery, a sort of “English Garden” effect, to give the required air of naturalness, pathos and hope’ (Ashbery, Three Poems (1956), cited in Wood 2002, 1).

Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) is one of the classic nineteenth-century novels in English. It describes a love affair between the eponymous heroine, a governess, and her aristocratic master, Rochester. The novel ends with the marriage of Jane and Rochester after Jane has become both professionally and economically independent. Jane’s struggle for independence marks the novel as centrally engaged with the oppression of women in nineteenth-century England and with the possibility of their liberation from constricting roles of subservience to their male ’masters’. Alongside the question of gender, however, Jane Eyre raises other questions. These are questions of racial difference and they will form the focal point of this chapter. Jane and Rochester are unable to marry because Rochester is already married to Bertha Mason, a creole woman from the West Indies. This woman, who is mad, is kept locked up in Rochester’s attic. Occasionally she escapes, and at one point attempts to set light to Rochester’s bed while he is in it. Finally, in a pyromaniacal frenzy, she sets light to the house and dies in the blaze. Her death leaves the way clear for Jane and Rochester to marry, although not before Rochester is blinded and crippled as he tries to save Bertha from the fire.

While the novel has long been recognized as an exploration and critique of the position of women in nineteenth-century society, more recently critics have begun to see questions of racial and ethnic difference as central to the novel. The delayed recognition of the importance of these questions is telling. As in the English literary tradition more generally, such questions have been marginalized or effaced. They have simply not been seen or have been ignored. Such an effacement is, in fact, inscribed in the novel itself. Indeed, representations of race in Jane Eyre may be said to constitute a sort of textual unconscious: like the repressed contents of the Freudian unconscious, they repeatedly return in disguised form. In the following passage, for example, racial and ethnic difference becomes part of the flirtatious courtship ritual of Jane and Rochester. At one point, Jane, the narrator, sees Rochester smile: ’I thought his smile was such as a sultan might, in a blissful and fond moment, bestow on a slave his gold and gems had enriched.’ This image of sultan and slave then develops into a whole discourse on slavery and racial otherness:

’I would not exchange this one little English girl for the Grand Turk’s whole seraglio—gazelle-eyes, houri forms, and all!’

The Eastern allusion bit me again. ’I’ll not stand you an inch in the stead of a seraglio’, I said; ’so don’t consider me an equivalent for one. If you have a fancy for anything in that line, away with you, sir, to the bazaars of Stamboul, without delay, and lay out in extensive slave-purchases some of that spare cash you seem at a loss to spend satisfactorily here.’

’And what will you do, Janet, while I am bargaining for so many tons of flesh and such an assortment of black eyes?’

’I’ll be preparing myself to go out as a missionary to preach liberty to them that are enslaved—your harem inmates amongst the rest. I’ll get admitted there, and I’ll stir up mutiny; and you, three-tailed bashaw as you are, sir, shall in a trice find yourself fettered amongst our hands: nor will I, for one, consent to cut your bonds till you have signed a charter, the most liberal that despot ever yet conferred.’ (197—8)

Ironically, Jane is to gain her financial independence and her freedom from what Rochester calls her ’governessing slavery’ (298) when she inherits a fortune derived, we can only assume, from the slave-trade of the West Indies. Moreover, although she seriously contemplates it, she does not finally leave England with another man, St John Rivers, who wishes to marry her and take her with him as a missionary to India. Most importantly, however, this passage presents us with the intersection of the discourses of sexual desire and racial otherness. These discourses organize the novel but do so in a way that the novel itself seems to repress. Both Jane and Rochester figure the racially other as sexually active and even passionate, while at the same time being available for purchase, like goods to be bought in a market. By contrast, Jane herself is repeatedly figured in terms of resisting both her own sexual desires and the financial temptations of Rochester’s wealth: her sexuality is governed by self-control and she cannot be bought. The passage also brings together questions of sexuality and gender, race and economics, through its references to slavery. Slavery, the buying and selling of the dehumanized and racially other, is central to the novel’s plot in that Jane gains her financial and therefore social independence after inheriting a fortune made in the Caribbean, where slavery had been the main source of wealth. Rather differently, the novel repeatedly figures slavery through metaphors of chains and imprisonment. A few paragraphs after the above quotation, for example, Rochester expresses a desire to imprison Jane when he says that ’“when once I have fairly seized you, to have and to hold, I’ll just — figuratively speaking — attach you to a chain like this” (touching his watch-guard)’ (299). The expression ’figuratively speaking’ denies but at the same time exposes the structure of gender and race relations organizing the novel: it exposes the fact that Rochester is not only speaking ’figuratively’. Indeed, the phrase marks a textual anxiety concerning the precise status of slavery in the novel — literal or figurative. And this anxiety is compounded by the fact that while Rochester is flirtatiously threatening Jane with enchainment, incarcerated in his attic, imprisoned in chains, is his wife, the racially other Bertha.

A brief reading of a second passage might clarify some of these issues concerning the novel’s representations of race. The first time that Jane and the reader see Bertha is a crucial moment. Jane and Rochester are prevented from marrying by the revelation that he is already married. Rochester tells Jane the truth and, in order to excuse his attempted bigamy, takes her into the attic to look at Bertha:

In the deep shade, at the farther end of the room, a figure ran backwards and forwards. What it was, whether beast or human being, one could not, at first sight tell: it grovelled, seemingly, on all fours; it snatched and growled like some strange wild animal: but it was covered with clothing, and a quantity of dark, grizzled hair, wild as a mane, hid its head and face. (321)

No longer a woman, Bertha is the other of humanity, unrecognizable as human, a beast with a purely animal physiognomy. Almost invisible, Bertha cannot be seen. Invisibility, as this suggests, and as we observe in our reading of the opening to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man in Chapter 10, above, is the condition of racial otherness. As Henry Louis Gates has commented, ’The trope of blackness in Western discourse has signified absence at least since Plato’ (Gates 1984, 315). In this novel, Bertha cannot and must not be seen. Despite (or because of) her invisibility as an individual, Bertha embodies the very idea of difference for Rochester and for the novel itself. Rochester explicitly contrasts Bertha with Jane: ’[L]ook at the difference! Compare these clear eyes with the red balls yonder — this face with that mask — this form with that bulk’ (322). By contrasting the two women, Rochester makes it clear that Bertha should be understood as the other of Jane. But, as we have observed elsewhere, otherness is a tricky business. If you say that one thing is the opposite of another, you are at the same time asserting their mutual dependence, in that it is pointless to contrast two things from different categories. You would not say that a cricket match is the opposite of a submarine, for example, if only because there are no obvious points of comparison. What is being asserted in Rochester’s comparison, then, is not only difference but also likeness: in particular, they are both women who are, in different ways, imprisoned, and both are partners for Rochester. Bertha is what Jane is not but could be. While it is only opposition that is announced, Jane Eyre is haunted by the possibility that Bertha is not simply other to but also, in some ways, identical with Jane.

In these respects, then, Jane Eyre articulates how racial otherness is constituted — both absolutely other, non-human, bestial, and at the same time an integral element in what defines racial sameness, in this case Englishness and, or as, whiteness. And it is this ambiguous status of the other (racial or otherwise) that makes it so threatening, so disturbing, so dangerous. This dangerous (racial) other, far from being unusual is, in fact, quite common in canonical works of English literature. Figures of the racially other — more or less threatening, more or less destructive — appear as, for example, the Moor in Shakespeare’s Othello (c. 1602), the Jew in The Merchant of Venice (c. 1596), Caliban in The Tempest (1611), Man Friday in Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), some of Lord Byron’s dashing, exotic heroes and anti-heroes, the Malay in Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1822), Heathcliff in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847), Daniel Deronda in George Eliot’s novel of that name (1876), and various figures in the colonial stories and novels of Rudyard Kipling (1865—1936), Joseph Conrad (1857—1924), E.M. Forster (1879—1970) and Graham Greene (1904—91), to name only some of the most famous examples. Far from being a marginal concern of English literature, in fact, racial difference is central.

But the internationalizing of contemporary ’English’ literature in and as the literatures of the English-speaking ’world’ — in the literatures of (for example) Australia, Canada, the Caribbean, Hong Kong, India, New Zealand, Nigeria, Pakistan, South Africa, Sri Lanka, the USA, the West Indies — has also permanently altered our conception of such ’otherness’. The emphatic multiculturalism of the postcolonial canon suggests, indeed, that the racial, linguistic and cultural ’other’ may indeed be conceived as the white Anglo-Saxon writer him- or herself. At the same time, the geopolitical, cultural and racial heterogeneity of postcolonial discourses itself provokes a questioning of the apparently stable, established values of canonicity, with its assumptions of paternity and inheritance, its homogenizing linearity of influence, and its cultural exclusivity.

We have tried to suggest elsewhere in this book that many of the major developments in literary criticism and theory of the past few years have been associated with what is known as a critique of the subject — with a deconstruction of the stable, coherent and autonomous ’self’. This critique investigates the idea that there is nothing essential about the nature of any individual or about the human more generally. It is not for nothing that this critique of the subject and of essentialism has been mounted. Our brief reading of the dehumanization of Bertha in Jane Eyre has begun to suggest that Western humanism necessarily defines itself through terms of race, by constructing a racial other which then stands in opposition to the humanity of the racially homogeneous. Such essentializing of race is at once philosophically untenable and very dangerous. Racism is, before anything else, the delusion of essentialism. As Robert Young points out, the invention of modern concepts of ’human nature’, together with ideas about the universal nature of humanity and the human mind, occurred during the centuries characterized in the West by colonization, ’those particularly violent centuries in the history of the world now known as the era of Western colonization’ (Young 1990, 121). Critics such as Frantz Fanon, Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak and Homi Bhabha have argued that the Western discourse of colonialism is constituted by the other subject — by alterities of race, colour or ethnic origin. Western notions of human identity itself as universal or unchanging may be recognized as a historical construct constituted by the exclusion, marginalization and oppression of racial others.

The institution of Literary Studies is far from free of the discursive marginalization of racial and ethnic others. For example, it was long thought possible for writers and critics to appeal to ’universal’ values. A notorious instance of this is a series of comments made by the nineteenth-century politician, literary critic and historian Thomas Babington Macaulay in his Minute on Law and Education (1835). This minute, presented to the Committee of Public Instruction for Bengal, was destined to have a decisive influence on the education of the indigenous population in colonial India. Macaulay argues for the teaching of English and against the teaching of Arabic and Sanskrit to the Indian population. His argument relies on assertions concerning the aesthetic value of Western culture:

I have no knowledge of either Sanscrit or Arabic. But I have done what I could to form a correct estimate of their value. I have read translations of the most celebrated Arabic and Sanscrit works. I have conversed, both here and at home, with men distinguished by their proficiency in the Eastern tongues. I am quite ready to take the oriental learning at the valuation of the orientalists themselves. I have never found one among them who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India or Arabia. The intrinsic superiority of the Western literature is indeed fully admitted by those members of the committee who support the oriental plan of education…. It is, I believe, no exaggeration to say that all the historical information which has been collected in the Sanscrit language is less valuable than what may be found in the paltry abridgements used at preparatory schools in England. In every branch of physical or moral philosophy, the relative position of the two nations is nearly the same. (Quoted in Said 1983, 12)

While expressing appalling prejudice, this passage appeals to standards of objectivity, academic authority and apparently rational statements about ’intrinsic superiority’. The passage is evidence that, as Frantz Fanon remarks, for the native, ’objectivity is always directed against him’ (quoted in Said 1993, 196) — that ’objectivity’ is ideological. In Macaulay’s statement, such objectivity is, in fact, blatantly ideological in its dependence on judgements of aesthetic value. By their very nature, such statements can only be culturally, ethnically and historically specific. To judge the aesthetic standards of one culture by those of another is self-evidently problematic. Judged by the standards of Japanese Noh drama, for example, Shakespeare’s plays would be absurdly verbose, unstylized and generally incompetent. And yet the history of Western aesthetics is dominated by precisely such notions of the universality of art.

To end this chapter, we would like to suggest two ways of going beyond such ways of reading and writing. Implicit in our discussion has been the idea that there is a connection between the differences of race and of gender. In this respect, Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman argue that any ’discussion of ethnicity is always also by implication a discussion of gender and sexuality’. The reason for this is, not least, that ’[w]omen, as the biological “carriers” of the “race”, occupy a primary and complex role in representations of ethnicity … and it is women’s exercise of their sexuality which is an often unacknowledged major concern underlying such representations’ (Williams and Chrisman 1993, 17). In Western literature black women have been doubly effaced. As novels such as Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982) and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (1970) make clear, black women are silenced both as black and as female. But it is precisely this doubled otherness that might help us begin to move beyond racial essentialism, beyond the repressive politics of identity. In an attempt to get beyond a constricting notion of identity and of a simple and reductive notion of otherness, Mae Gwendolyn Henderson has argued that black women’s writing is ’interlocutionary, or dialogic’ owing to their position as ’not only the “Other” of the Same, but also as the “other” of the other(s), [which] implies … a relationship of difference and identification with the “other(s)” ’ (Henderson 1993, 258—9). The value of this analysis is that it allows us to recognize the plurality of identity, to recognize that any identity is constituted by a multiplicity of positions and differences. Black women’s writing, in particular, being marginalized twice over, figuring the other of the other, reinforces a sense of the polymorphic nature of identity. In addition, Henry Louis Gates has argued that all black texts are necessarily ’two toned’, or ’double-voiced’, that they both engage with white canonical discourse and, at the same time, express a black consciousness. This, for Gates, leads to a discourse which is duplicitous, potentially subversive, one that undermines the universalizing and essentializing tendencies of hegemonic white discourse: ’Black people have always been masters of the figurative: saying one thing to mean something quite other has been basic to black survival in oppressive Western cultures’ (Gates 1984, 6).

Our second suggestion for displacing the monolithic and oppressive assumptions about racial difference is the possibility of reading otherwise — the possibility of what Edward Said calls ’contrapuntal reading’ (Said 1993, 78). A number of critics and theorists have suggested different ways of reading, guided by an acceptance of multiplicity, a questioning of binary oppositions and an affirmation of radical otherness. Said suggests that we might read such texts as Brontë’s Jane Eyre or Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park ’with an understanding of what is involved when an author shows … that a colonial sugar plantation is … important to the process of maintaining a particular style of life in England’ (78). Such a reading, a contrapuntal reading, two-toned or double-voiced, cannot ignore the economics of slavery through which Jane Eyre’s liberation as a woman is effected.

Further reading

Frantz Fanon’s impassioned and politically charged The Wretched of the Earth (1967) is the classic work on race, nationalism and decolonization. For more recent discussions of race and culture, see David Marriott, On Black Men (2000), and Brian Nero, Race (2003). For a valuable and thought-provoking account of racism in relation to the emergence and functioning of the modern nation state, see David Theo Goldberg, The Racial State (2002), and see Platt and Upstone, eds, Postmodern Literature and Race (2015) for an informative series of essays on writing and race. For a wide-ranging and polemical study of the links between race and sexuality, especially in the context of slavery, see Marcus Wood, Slavery, Empathy and Pornography (2002). Much of the most interesting work on race and ethnicity in literature has been that associated with studies of postcolonialism: for a useful handbook that clarifies ideas and issues in the field, see Gina Wisker, Key Concepts in Postcolonial Literature (2007). The work of Gayatri Spivak, who comes at the subject of race and ethnicity from a specifically feminist position, has been particularly influential: see her In Other Worlds (1987); and see also Toni Morrison’s brief and highly readable Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1993). In a British context in particular, see James Procter’s Dwelling Places: Postwar Black British Writing (2003) and the useful anthology Writing Black Britain, ed. Procter (2000), and see Robert J.C. Young, The Idea of English Ethnicity (2007) for a compelling account of the ethnic diversity of Englishness. CulturalPolitics.net has a useful annotated list of references at culturalpolitics.net/cultural_theory/race.