How to View Prejudice in the Classics

LaShun Beal, "Deep in Thought"

LaShun Beal, “Deep in Thought”

Yesterday a New Yorker columnist tackled the thorny question of racism in classic literature. Elif Batuman, who is Turkish American, lists Turkish stereotypes she has noticed over the years, including in Lady Chatterley’s Lover (Turkish women as exotics), The Brothers Karamazov (Turks as torturers), Heidi (a mean goat is nicknamed “The Old Turk”), and Pantagruel (Turks as cannibals).

As it turns out, I read the article after watching a smart first-year student violently react to Milton’s description of Eve in Paradise Lost. It is understandable why someone coming into her own in college would be taken aback by the following depiction:

 …though both 
Not equal, as their sex not equal seemed;
For contemplation he and valor formed,
For softness she and sweet attractive Grace,
He for God only, she for God in him…

And by this one:

She as a veil down to the slender waste
Her unadorned golden tresses wore
Disheveled, but in wanton ringlets waved
As the vine curls her tendrils, which implied
Subjection, but required with gentle sway,
And by her yielded, by him best received,
Yielded with coy submission, modest pride,
And sweet reluctant amorous delay.

And then there’s this conversation with Adam:

To whom thus Eve replied. O thou for whom
And from whom I was formed flesh of thy flesh,
And without whom am to no end, my Guide
And Head…

Batuman says that, despite her discomfort with objectionable passages in the classics, her normal impulse has always been to give them a historical pass:

To feel personally insulted when reading old books struck me as provincial, against the spirit of literature. For the purposes of reading an English novel from 1830, I thought, you had to be an upper-class white guy from 1830. You had to be a privileged person, because books always were written by and for privileged people. Today, I was a privileged person, as I was frequently told at the private school my parents scrimped to send me to; someday, I would write a book. In the meantime, Rabelais was dead, so why hold a grudge?

She has changed her mind, however, since seeing the revival of a forgotten 1859 play. Now she imagines a different response: let yourself be stimulated by the clash of value systems.

Irish writer Dion Boucicault wrote The Octoroon two years before the Civil War and it manages to contain both racial stereotypes and progressive ideas. For instance, it is pro-love, anti-lynching, and anti-anti-miscegenation. Furthermore, it has been produced and partially rewritten by the African American playwright Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins, leading Batuman to wonder,

What do you do with your mixed feelings toward a text that treats as stage furniture the most grievous and unhealed insult in American history—especially when you belong to the insulted group?

The result, if one frames a work as well as Jacobs-Jenkins frames Octoroon, can be “a work of joy and exasperation and anger that transmutes historical insult into artistic strength.”

So yes, we can decry Milton’s longing for a sweet and submissive wife, even as we also admire his three-dimensional Eve later in the poem, especially when she pushes through Adam’s anger and talks him down from his despair. We can give Milton credit for articulating a new vision of marriage—man and wife as partners—even if they are not as equal as we would like. Let’s not forget their lovely scene of lovemaking in their “blissful bower,” which was controversial at the time. And we can also be inspired by the way they leave Eden hand in hand, prepared to face the vast new world together. Our mixed reactions to Milton are part of the fun.

Reading books from the past calls upon us to read stereophonically, with different speakers in our brain picking up the different tracks. A model for me is Mr. Ramsay reading Sir Walter Scott’s Antiquary in To the Lighthouse.

Although a famous author and critic, Mr. Ramsay is extremely sensitive and feels defensive when one of his students makes a slighting reference to Scott, dismissing him as out-of-date,. Mr. Ramsay rereads his beloved author and notes that, although Scott is indeed old-fashioned, he also retains his power. One part of Mr. Ramsay’s mind is enmeshed in the plot, which brings him to tears, while another part contextualizes the novel:

[H]e went on reading. His lips twitched. It filled him. It fortified him. He clean forgot all the little rubs and digs of the evening, and how it bored him unutterably to sit still while people ate and drank interminably, and his being so irritable with his wife and so touchy and minding when they passed his books over as if they didn’t exist at all. But now, he felt, it didn’t matter a damn who reached Z (if thought ran like an alphabet from A to Z). Somebody would reach it–if not he, then another. This man’s [Scott’s] strength and sanity, his feeling for straightforward simple things, these fishermen, the poor old crazed creature in Mucklebackit’s cottage made him feel so vigorous, so relieved of something that he felt roused and triumphant and could not choke back his tears. Raising the book a little to hide his face, he let them fall and shook his head from side to side and forgot himself completely (but not one or two reflections about morality and French novels and English novels and Scott’s hands being tied but his view perhaps being as true as the other view), forgot his own bothers and failures completely in poor Steenie’s drowning and Mucklebackit’s sorrow (that was Scott at his best) and the astonishing delight and feeling of vigor that it gave him.

In short, we should neither throw classics on the ash heap of history nor treat them as idols beyonds human reach. Literature is most human when we wrestle with the authors, holding them accountable but acknowledging that they a lot more than we do and letting them move us to tears. The great works, including Paradise Lost, will survive the scrum.

This entry was posted in Lawrence (D. H.), Milton (John), Rabelais (Francois), Woolf (Virginia) and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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