Are you shocked by literary racists?

I am reading Don Quixote by Cervantes, and I am finding it most enjoyable. (If a little long-winded…) But I was shocked at Sancho Panza’s comments on what he would do if he were governer of Ethiopia. He suggested making the local population slaves as an option for generating income. I was as shocked at this as I was when I read H. G. Wells’ comments on aryan supremacy, and his anti-semitic viewpoint.

I guess some might say that these views are from that time, and should be accepted as such. Does that excuse people in Nazi-era Germany who agreed with the events occuring in the concentration camps? I think not. Are other book-lovers shocked by some attitudes expressed in literature, or doesn’t it bother you?


Jachel. This is irrelevant to Sancho Panza’s plans.

Update :

Sudeep. If you can only make snide comments, don’t bother.

Update :

Cathrl. I am not afraid to say you make pompous and patronising comments.

✅ Answers

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  • I think you have to take a step back and think about it.

    Only when you study history, which is by the way a ‘narrative’, can you learn from it and improve on it.

    Only because people wrote about Nazi-Germany in novels and history books and described all aspects of it, can we have a complete picture of what actually happened in that era.

    So reading in a story about Anne Frank, about her persecutors and about the people who helped her still needs for the terror of the time to be described correctly. Only then does Anne Franks book make sense.

    Only because the time and the people of Shakespeares Merchant in Venice were so cruel and anti-semitic, did the merchant become so desperate to insist on a ridiculous contract and people were almost almost killed for that. Another example that would not be a story if the attitudes of the merchant and the people would not have been what it was.

    And if we would not read the stories about Israel’s Mossad and the Jewish settlers, we would be in the dark about their cruelty and their crimes.

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    So we need to read about the perversity of all people on this planet to know what is going on in the world and what our narrative is. Very quickly you are not shocked anymore, since you realise that it is human nature, then and now, that speaks out of these books.

    That does not mean that you accept or excuse the views of hateful, cruel and perverse people.

  • There is a huge difference between using a racial stereotype, that is commonly accepted at the time, in a work of literature and rounding up a section of the population and attempting to exterminate them.

    The fact that I am Jewish does not stop me enjoying The Merchant of Venice and I am sure that many black people have read and enjoyed Othello.

    Racial stereotypes used to be used as a literary shorthand to suggest a character’s nature without having to spend time developing it. It wasn’t necessarily pejorative.

    I do sometimes find racism in literature offensive. The Autobiography of a Supertramp, by W. H. Davies, was a book that revealed the author’s deeply unpleasant character and any of the Biggles books, by Captain W. E . Johns, all of which I very much enjoyed as a child, are completely unacceptable today in their original form.

    Sometimes allowances have to be made for the contemporary attitudes acceptable when a piece was written or performed. Much comedy from the sixties and seventies contains sexist, homophobic or racist overtones that would not be acceptable today but was not meant to be hurtful at the time. Thankfully we are all (?) more enlightened now than we were.

  • Not really, I mean, not unless the author actually believed it. But, usually I try to put context to it. Even if it’s a book that was published yesterday, but I’d expect it to be realistic if the setting of the book was based in the ‘s or s when attitudes about race and the Holocaust were much different than they are today. Not that many people today don’t hold racists or anti-semetic attitudes, but it was more wide-spread back then. I prefer realism more than anything. But, I’d probably have concerns if the author has expressed himself to believe the same racists views that’s in his literature.

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  • Why would I be shocked? I’m reasonably well-read. I know something about history. I’m not shocked by things I’m expecting.

    You’re confusing two things here. It’s not shocking to find that Nazis agreed with the concentration camps, because everyone over the age of about ten should already know that’s what happened. That doesn’t mean I think it was acceptable or that I’m not bothered by it. It just means I know it happened. Shock implies surprise.

    Shock at things which are pretty well-known and which happened many decades ago just makes you sound ignorant, I’m afraid.

  • It doesn’t so much shock me as anger me. I recently read God’s Country by Percival Everett for my Into to Lit class, and I found myself hating every character that made a racist remark (making it very hard to read the book, as the main character was one of the worst). Granted, that’s how readers were intended to feel for that particular novel, but I was grinding my teeth every time something racist showed up, mainly because I know that people actually used to, and still do, feel that way.

    Reading it in books is no different for me than when I hear it in real life or in movies or whatever. It’s not shocking to me, just irksome.

  • I know what you mean…

    I kind of thought racism was dead until I met my husband’s grandparents…EVERYTHING they said shocked me, but what am I going to do, I mean, they’re my in-laws, right? I think I was just ridiculously sheltered as a child, but truthfully, it bugged me a lot, and I’m the kind of person who would normally speak up. But when people who are raised in different societies become a product of their surroundings, how are you supposed to convince them otherwise? Especially authors who are dead.

    At least we have a record of this stuff so that we can look back and go “These people are morons, but since this time, things have (very slowly) changed for the better”, right? And none of us should be “excused” from thinking that we’re better than someone else, but in some small way, I’m sure most people have done it from time to time. Not necessarily due to race, but appearance or intelligence or education or location.

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  • I have a historical and genealogical background.

    I don’t judge the past. Nor do I judge the people who lived through it.

    There is a reason it was there. And it has passed. What remains would be different, but it would not necessarily be better.

    In fact, most of us wouldn’t be here at all, regardless of our race. One slight change, and your DNA would not have been formed.

    They aren’t alive to judge us by our standards, and we should not judge them by the standards under which they were forced to operate. It would be better to harvest the best of their efforts, and pay attention to how our great-grandchildren will judge us.

    Hopefully the kids won’t Monday-Morning-Quarterback us for political purposes as much as we have with our elders.

  • You have to remember the time and context these books were written in, when these ideas were acceptable. Yes we find them shocking now but at the time they weren’t intended to offend. Try to filter out the unnacceptable parts so you can still enjoy the rest of the novel.

  • Keep in mind, that in Ethiopia, the actual Ethiopians–and not anyone Caucasian–made the slaves. The same idea expressed in that book was put into action by the Ethiopians.

  • don quixote is a cracking book…its rated as the first novel..

    We cant judge a time by our own standards. If i look at the opinion of the english yearsago as they spoke of ireland and took it seriously i would be a fool. “illiterate bog trotters” etc. Opinions change with time. Yes there was a lot of anti semitism in ordinary peoples opinions..but as we become more enlightened our world improves

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