Pride and Prejudice. Crime and Punishment. Les Miserables. If it was written before the mid-nineteen thirties, it is probably considered to be “classic lit.” Pieces of classic lit appear everywhere on school syllabi. These texts were predominantly written by wealthy, European and European American individuals. A better term for the genre would be classic European literature. However, it is widely regarded as just being “classic lit.”
Classic literature can be wonderful, but there are many problems inherent within the genre. Racism, misogyny, homophobia, and ableism can be found within the texts. Many of them combine to create frightening descriptions of marginalized communities. Two common identities that come together in classic literature in an unfavorable way are racism and misogyny. The argument often goes that this is just a product of the time. However, this argument does not stand when the feelings of readers are taken into consideration. The language used within these texts might have been acceptable at the time, but it does not remain the same in the modern day. Just as we have updated legal policies, we deserve to have updated pieces of literature in our classes that do not demoralize and degrade those who have often been subjugated and exploited.
“She is one of God’s women, fashioned by His own hand to show us men and other women that there is a heaven where we can enter, and that its light can be here on earth. So true, so sweet, so noble, so little an egoist – and that, let me tell you, is much in this age, so sceptical and selfish.”
– Dr. Abraham Van Helsing, about Mina Harker. Chapter 14
Dracula was ahead of its time in many ways, though it still includes problematic characters. Bram Stoker’s novel includes many interesting takes on characters in gothic fiction. His leading male character is not an all-powerful man who saves the day easily. He included an early version of a feminist character in Mina Harker. She has agency, and she acts within the text to push away the influence of the titular Dracula. Mina is allowed to be powerful and strong, and these traits do not negate her femininity. However, Lucy Westenra is not so lucky. She lacks agency within the text. Before she is turned, she is everything that an ingenue of the Victorian period ought to be. She is blonde, sweet, and delicate. An ingenue is defined as “an innocent or unsophisticated young woman, especially in a play or film.” She is the ideal Victorian ingenue, a rival to many others.
Her lack of agency is disturbing. Though the text is a part of the horror genre -a genre notorious for its ultimate lack of agency for many characters- she exhibits less free will than any other characters. That alone is disturbing, and her treatment by other characters grows worse throughout the text.
She is manipulated by Dracula, and she cannot break his hold. This is seen, to an extent, as her fault. Unlike Mina, who is able to resist Dracula, she falls under his thrall. Gothic fiction often united the idea of vampirism with sexuality. Robert Tracy elucidates the connection between death and sex within his article “Loving You All Ways: Vamps, Vampires, Necrophiles and Necrofilles in Nineteenth-Century Fiction,” just as Christopher Bentley does in “The monster in the bedroom: Sexual symbolism in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.” Both argue that Stoker’s work -though not intentionally- furthered the narrative of the sensuality of the vampire. Earlier examples in fiction include Carmilla and the Vampyre.
Within this, we can see that vampires were associated with -and still are- seduction and exploitation. Dracula seduces Lucy and exploits her. He is even able to transform her. This, too, has sexual undertones. Any transference of blood between characters in Dracula acts as a display of intimacy. Van Helsing perceives it as such, and thus, so does the reader. During the late Victorian period, Stoker would have believed that the transfusions were innately sexual. When Dracula takes Lucy’s blood and transforms her into a vampire, he takes control of her. Soon after her transformation, not only is she viewed as suddenly lesser, but she becomes hungry. She loses control. She needs blood.
“Why can’t they let a girl marry three men, or as many as want her, and save all this trouble?”
– Lucy Westenra, Chapter Five.
Blood is sexual. Her desire and need for blood is insatiable and unstoppable. The attitude of the ingenue she first appears as is gone. Instead, she becomes the antithesis of the ideal Victorian woman. She rages against the restrictions of her time. She acts with violence against children in an almost deliberate reference to refusing motherhood. She goes from being indecisive about marriage to taking in blood from multiple different men. As Van Helsing describes it, her need for blood made her a polyandrist, just as it made him a bigamist for donating blood to her.
Still. She needs blood.
Her bloodlust is a character within itself, it overtakes her completely, and the only thing that frees the original woman from her madness is a stake to the heart. The scene is drenched in sexual imagery, in which the sexual woman is killed by a man with a phallic weapon, surrounded by other men who were besotted with her. Her death becomes sexual in that sense. Death, like blood, is sexual.
“There, on the pendant boughs her coronet weeds
Clamb’ring to hang, an envious sliver broke,
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook.
Her clothes spread wide
And mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up;
Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes,
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and endued unto that element.
But long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.”
– Gertrude, Act Four, Scene VII, Hamlet.
Death is sexual in classic literature. That is almost always certain. In many pieces of literature, the woman’s body is never her own. Fair Ophelia faced naught but troubles in Elsinore in her life, and in her death, she was wrought with more. Her death has become a beautiful tragedy. Artwork after artwork depicts the girl’s suicide as something beautiful. For centuries, her death has been made into a display of loveliness. Her innocence and purity are laid bare in her death. She is no longer a human figure upon dying as she is a fantastic creature. In her life, she is a figure of madness. Hamlet treats her horribly, her father controls her, and she is used throughout the play as a pawn. Her madness is brought on by her father’s murder by Hamlet. Her madness is usually associated with sexual imagery until she dies. In the context of the play, her death was not meant to be sexualized. Shakespeare chose to have the only other speaking female character within the play share news of Ophelia’s death. However, over time, the scene has become terribly sexualized.
Lucy Westenra’s death is the same: sexualized by the male gaze.
“Sibyl? Oh, she was so shy and so gentle. There is something of a child about her. Her eyes opened wide in exquisite wonder when I told her what I thought of her performance, and she seemed quite unconscious of her power.”
– Dorian Gray, Chapter Four.
In Oscar Wilde’s novel the Picture of Dorian Gray, Sibyl Vane ends up dead as well, all because of a man. The early depictions of Vane depict her as childlike. She is innocent and unaware of the power she holds over Dorian. This power is implied to be enough to have broken the effect of Lord Henry on Dorian. But, Dorian turns into the Dorian we know him to be. Sibyl’s power is limited. She dies. She is pushed to the side, with her agency taken away from her. Any personality she has falters after meeting Dorian. After she falls in love, she can no longer feign the pretense she had before. Dorian doesn’t love her anymore, and his rejection kills her.
All three scenarios greatly differ from one another, yet they all share a similar sentiment; Lucy’s beauty entices other characters within the story, though she does not have agency. Her character is not strong, she is susceptible to Dracula’s manipulations throughout the text. When she has turned into a vampire -a highly sexualized creature in Victorian fiction- her only salvation is through death.
Ophelia’s appearance changes often. She is never described as being a figure of ideal Elizabethan beauty, and her portrayal on stage changes often enough that there is not a concrete version of her. However, she is still an innocent woman whose death has been overtaken by the male gaze. Her agency within Hamlet is limited, and her only real act of agency is to kill herself. However, her death has, in turn, been sexualized by the public since its first appearance in the play.
Sibyl Vane is also associated with purity and innocence, and upon experiencing the feelings she portrayed that made Dorian fall in love with her, she can no longer display them on the stage. He rejects her because he no longer sees her innocence and purity, which brings about her death.
From this, purity in women illuminates the genre, and it illuminates the problems within the genre. The only women who are treated as whole characters are women viewed as pure. These women are virtuous. They are religious. They are kind and sweet, and innocent. They are not intelligent people in the eyes of the men around them.
And they’re usually blonde.
From this, we can discuss the issues of racism within classic literature. Racism colors classic literature in a very disturbing way, and it often combines with sexism in many different ways. Two of the worst examples come from two much-covered classics: Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.
Conrad’s novel is, on average, seventy-two pages long. Within these seventy-two pages, the n-word is used ten times.
Heart of Darkness perpetuates many negative stereotypes. “The language of description of the people in Heart of Darkness is inappropriate,” says Achebe in an article by NPR. In his article, “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness,” Achebe discusses the offensive nature of Conrad’s novel. Characters of color are belittled throughout the text. Conrad demeans an entire continent based upon racial stereotypes and a racist Victorian outlook on the world.
His description of women of color is disturbing. The only major female character of color does not have a name. She is referred to as “Mr. Kurtz’s mistress” when she is not being described harshly. All commentary made about her others her as a person, and most of it sexualizes her. Though she is the only major female character of color within the text, like all other female characters in Conrad’s work, she holds no agency. None of the women within the text are named.
Further descriptions of the woman include animalistic characteristics, while the depiction of Kurtz’s nameless intended is softer. The narrator focuses on the beauty and piety of Kurtz’s intended, greatly contrasting with the horrible depictions of Kurtz’s mistress as wild. Cruelty. That is all that Marlow affords to the native, nameless woman. She has no other title than being a wealthy, white colonizer’s mistress. She is treated tragically. Marlow considers the woman to be dumb. He considers her to be wild, and “ominous.” He portrays a woman of color as evil for no other reason than the color of her skin. This greatly contrasts Marlow’s opinion of the Intended. She is treated as a pinnacle of purity and goodness. He focuses on the paleness of her skin.
Within Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, racism and sexism intertwine. Though none of the female characters have a name, Conrad’s racist language serves to demean a woman of color further. He treats her as a villain -a nameless villain- and he strips her of intelligence, personhood, and humanity. He portrays her as a faceless character whose only characteristics further his overall racist tone.
The text itself furthers this. Conrad mentions background characters of color with racial slurs. “Quarrelsome” and “sulky” describe them, while the environment that they are compared to is joyless and gloomy. He dramatizes the differences between Europe and Africa by frequently using the word “ugly.” The natives are labeled as cannibals, even the crewmen that Marlow sails with. They are portrayed as lesser than Marlow by Marlow and thus by Conrad.
“To tell you the truth,” Marlow said, “I was morbidly anxious to change my shoes and socks.” Throughout the text, characters of color are devalued and demeaned, time after time. There is little care that Marlow affords to them. He cares more about the blood on his shoes than about another person. In this sense, the racism within the text is laid bare. There is little other explanation for Marlow’s casual cruelty other than racism. In contrast, Marlow is almost driven to suicide after Mr. Kurtz’s death.
Racism does not just extend to the male imperialist, nor does sexism cancel out racism. Brontë’s Jane Eyre is another common example of racism portrayed within classic literature. The titular Jane Eyre is young, pale, and innocent. Jane Eyre is young, orphaned, and unhappy. Jane Eyre is young, haunted, and intelligent. She is brought into Mr. Rochester’s house and falls in love with the man. Her relationship with the man is unhealthy before factoring in racism.
When racism and ableism are factored in, the horror of the story is truly brought to light. Mrs. Rochester -Bertha- is treated horribly. She is locked inside of a room and called mad. She is abused and cast aside by her husband. Just as Conrad portrayed characters of color within his text as animalistic, Brontë does the same with Bertha. Although Bertha Rochester’s race is ambiguous, some scholars have interpreted her as being a woman of color. She is othered throughout the text, serving as a foil for Jane Eyre. Her madness is seen as genetic, and her entire being is thought of as lesser by Rochester. Reasons why Bertha Rochester is sometimes interpreted as being a woman of color stem from the use of the term “dark” to describe her. Her complexion is described as dark within the text, though some argue that in context, the use of words like “dark” and “black” is used to reference tragedy, not ethnicity.
The term “Creole” is used to describe Bertha as well. At the time, the term meant a person born in the Caribbean who was of European descent. The argument from here would contradict other points about Bertha being a woman of color and instead make her to be a white woman. Her brother is described as “sallow,” but Bertha’s descriptions are still indicators of the time period that the character was likely of non-European origin. The narrator references her “bloated features” while also making many animal-based comparisons. Whether that is to accentuate the state of the woman’s mental health or whether to further racial stereotypes is unknown, but the ultimate portrayal is a distinctly negative one.
Even though Bertha’s ethnicity is not clear, the racism within the classic is. When characters within Brontë’s novel are untrustworthy, they suddenly take on a dark complexion. Rochester himself is not spared from this treatment. Jane sees him as hideous. He, too, though a wealthy English nobleman, is given negative characteristics and described with words implying an Islamic or Muslim background. One such word that is used, which will not be quoted here, often was used to describe Muslim individuals meant “pagan or heathen… used to describe non-Christains… often associated with Muslims.” The word was also associated with Jewish people in a derogatory way.
Although Mr. Rochester is a white English nobleman, offensive terms used against BIPOC people were still used to describe him. The same applies to Bertha Rochester, though her ethnicity is more ambiguous. Throughout this, a trend can be seen: Brontë utilized negative stereotypes about people of color to make characters appear as less than others. She is celebrated as being an important feminist author, but her language is demeaning against people of color. Wide Sargasso Sea is often brought up when discussing the soured legacy of Brontë’s classic, but that does not mean that Brontë is exonerated of criticism. Her works might feature strong, leading female women with agency, but her works are not truly feminist, as they do not seek to uplift all women.
Many other negative stereotypes prevail in classic literature. Russian novels offer very few female characters, and those that contain them often have characters who lack agency. These pieces of classic literature use derogatory language when talking about BIPOC characters. Still, others offer brutal fantasies about hurting women for being sexual or even for daring to exist. The genre stretches from antiquity to the early twentieth century, and it can be wonderful. However, far too many pieces of classic literature demean women, and many overlay their sexism with racism as well.
Once again, this is where the conversation often gets turned to “these works were just a product of their time.” Most of the authors referenced, like Stoker, Conrad, Brontë, and Wilde, wrote during the age of imperialism, while Shakespeare wrote during Britain’s early colonial period. Their world shaped their works, but that is not an excuse to continue to demoralize the students who are directly affected by these works.
Context is, of course, an important part of understanding the literature. By providing the context surrounding these pieces, we are able to discuss how those views came across. However, the context does not excuse the authors from the modern perspective. In the present day, we are more connected than ever to the entire world. We have become a global society. As such, by being global, it is our duty to ensure that the views of a far less global and far smaller portion of the population do not further modern injustices.
Classic European and American literature is not for everyone, nor should it be. It was not written to include everyone, and in the modern day and age, that is abundantly clear. Racism and sexism are systematic within intellectual settings, and as we as people grow and change, we must fight to incorporate our own voices within the literature. Everyone deserves to see themselves represented in literature like any other form of art. The treatment of minorities of any type in literature has prevailed for too long, and we must work to change it.
Reading Racist Literature
Feminism, Sex Role Exchanges, and Other Subliminal Fantasies in Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”
The Figure of Bertha Mason.
Perception of Women and Crime in Sherlock Holmes
NEGATIVE RACIAL STEREOTYPES AND THEIR EFFECT ON ATTITUDES TOWARD AFRICAN-AMERICANS
Reading Jane Eyre while Black
Jane Eyre, Jamaica, and the language of Rebellion
Slavery and the black presence in Spanish Golden Age literature
Vampires in Literature
The Importance of Blood in the Victorian Era
The Trouble with Heart of Darkness
Achebe: An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness
Achebe: Heart of Darkness is Inappropriate
The Vampire in the House
A Vampire in the Mirror: the Sexuality of Dracula
The Monster in the Bedroom: Sexual Symbolism in Bram Stoker’s Dracula
Repossessing the Body: Transgressive Desire in “Carmilla” and “Dracula”
Loving You All Ways: Vamps, Vampires, Necrophiles and Necrofilles in Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Rober Tracy