Issues Concerning Race And Or Nation Addressed English Literature Essay

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The issue of race is an important theme in Victorian Gothic novels during the fin de siècle. Rider Haggard's She has been labelled as an "Imperial Gothic" text, a term Patrick Brantlinger coined to include "quest romances with Gothic overtones in which heroic white penetration of the Dark Continent is the central theme" (Brantlinger 189). He lists the three main themes of the imperial Gothic as "individual regression or going native; an invasion of civilization by the forces of barbarism, and a response to the diminution of opportunities for adventure and heroism in the modern world" (Brantlinger 230).

The depiction of the racial and national Other in She presents a complicated pattern, working alternately as a "shadow text" (Sharpe 29) to late Victorian anxieties over degenerate forms of behaviour amongst ethnic minorities and amongst the proletariat, and as the self-consolidating Other transmogrified into fantastic forms of the racial Gothic. The Negro race in She is debased to the extent that it is portrayed only in inanimate form as the top of a peak carved in the shape of "a negro's head and face, whereon was stamped a most fiendish and terrifying expression" (Haggard 58). The description continues:

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There was no doubt about it; there were the thick lips, the fat cheeks, and the squat nose standing out with startling clearness against the flaming background. There, too was the round skull, washed into shape perhaps by thousands of years of wind and weather, and, to complete the resemblance, there was a scrubby growth of weeds or lichen upon it, which against the sun looked for all the world like the wool on a colossal negro's head. (Haggard 58)

Holly speculates that it might have been carved as a warning or as an act of defiance. The "devilish face" "sullenly stands" at the lowest point of a racial hierarchy that acquires a chromatic coding with 'white' (Ayesha, Holly, Leo) at the top and then in descending order the brown-to-yellow Amahaggar and the dark brown skinned Mohamed, who is looked down upon by the Amahaggar as "black" (Haggard 75). The hierarchy of race is also related to the anteriority of certain ancient civilisation such as the Arab (to which Ayesha belongs), the Egyptian, and the Greek, which function as "a sign for the inauguration of Western civilization itself" (Chrisman 45). There is a corresponding legitimisation of English power as the inheritor of these great civilisations. Leo's mother is Greek and he can trace his ancestry on his father's side back to the Egyptians. The structure of Leo's Egyptian ancestry bears the marks of late Victorian preoccupations with Egypt and its ancient culture. Robert Young describes attempts to fix the ancient Egyptian culture as Caucasian rather than African in origin. He cites the phrenological work done in the nineteenth-century by the American anatomist and Egyptologist, S.G. Morton to prove that "the valley of the Nile, both in Egypt and in Nubia was originally peopled by a branch of the Caucasian race" rather than Negro, and that "the social position" of Negroes "in ancient times was the same that it now is, that of servants and slaves" (quoted in Young 128-29).

A discriminatory distinction is drawn between the ancient peoples and their modern descendants. Mohamed, descendant of the ancient Arab culture, is put in the position of a feminised inferior and treated as expendable in the hot-potting ceremony. Holly remarks at a later point in the story that the "Greeks of today are not what the Greeks of old time were and Greece herself is but a mockery of the Greece that was" and that Leo "had nothing of the supple form or slippery manners of the modern Greek" (Haggard 207). The distinction hinges on purity of race as the mark of superiority. Hence Ayesha is able to look down on Leo and declare that her race cannot mix with his until he is purified by the pillar of fire.

The Amahaggar are the quintessential example of the deleterious effects of racial mixing. With the exception of Billali and Ustane, the Amahaggar's are depicted as the evil Other against whom an idealised construction of Englishness may successfully achieve both definition and consolidation. The opposition works not just through an Imperial Gothic that depicts colonised races in terms of abnormal savagery and barbarism, but also through an identification of the Amahaggar with anxieties of racial and national degeneracy and indeterminacy in late Victorian England. Low notes that the sense of threat from Germany, France, Russia and the United States was "matched by an uneasiness within England as concern with the problems of urban poverty because enmeshed with an obsession with 'Darkest England'" (Low 15).

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The breakdown of class structures and an increase in the population of the urban poor, who lived in squalor and filth, was linked by many social commentators to vice and moral degradation. Simultaneously, fears of racial pollution arose from the influx of Irish and Scotch who formed ethnic minorities in the cities and from the infiltration of colonials and 'half-breeds' from expanding empire (Low 13-22, Malchow 66-75). Malchow argues that the half-breed was invested with bad or weak qualities such as " 'vanity,' 'passion,' lack of 'self-control'" that the white imperialist was required to suppress in order to fit "the construction of the idealized upper-class male as selfless stoic in the second half of the century" (Malchow 189). The term's symbolic value also stems from fears of the "white man going native" and transgressing racial boundaries (189).

The Amahaggar are characterised as "a bastard brood of the mighty sons of Kor" (Haggard 181) - identified in the text as Caucasian - and as speaking "bastard Arabic" (Haggard 77). Holly speculates that they are descendants of intermarriage between the remnant people of Kor and either Arab traders or Negroes. Physically, they meet Caucasian standards of good looks, although their variations in skin tone underscore their racial indeterminacy: "They were all tall and handsome, though they varied in their degree of darkness of skin, some being as dark as Mohamed and some as yellow as a Chinese"(Haggard 80) But the "cold and sullen cruelty"(Haggard 77) of their expressions betrays the fact that, mentally and socially, they violate Western norms of civilised conduct.

Their social structure clearly contravenes Victorian conventions of patriarchal domination. The women are "not only upon terms of perfect equality with the men, but are not held to them by any binding ties." Descent is strictly through matriarchal lines, fatherhood generally being regarded as inconsequential. Women choose their mates, signifying their choice through an embrace, and may just as easily get rid of them if they tire of them. However, there are contradictions to the matriarchal system in the father's legal power to order the death of any man who transgresses customary rules and also to put to death women who have outlived their use as "sources of life". The phantasmal inversion, therefore, is only partial and simultaneously reinforces patriarchal law and the Victorian association of a woman's worth with her reproductive capacity. At the same time, the discursive image of the "perfect woman" (Haggard 112) - an angel in the tomb - worshipped by men is enacted through the incident related by Billali of his infatuation with the corpse of a beautiful white woman, burned down by Billali's mother to the "beautiful shaped foot"(Haggard 112), that becomes a fetishised object for Billali. Receiving it from his surrogate father, Billali, Holly puts it away in his "Gladstone bag"(Haggard 113) thereby restoring the white woman's foot to the possession of the white male. The other model of perfect female beauty is Ayesha. Female beauty signifies entrapment to the male and must be annihilated.

It is significant that Holly declares the matriarchal society of the Amahaggar to be "in direct opposition to the habits of almost every other savage race in the world"(Haggard 81). Hybridity leaves them suspended in a bastard indeterminacy that encourages inversions and perversions such as foot fetishism, necrophilia, and cannibalism. This last practice while the Amahaggar indulge in through the abnormal rite of hot-potting, carried a peculiar resonance in Victorian society. The representation of alien races particularly in the Caribbean, the South Pacific and in Africa as cannibals forms part of "a stockpile of presentations," as Malchow notes, "available to Europeans to draw upon in their own struggle…with problems of social, sexual and spiritual identity" (Malchow 42). Malchow further observes that the 'cannibal' "serves to enforce social and sexual boundaries not only by being the image of a savage opposite…but…by incorporating others within himself, he becomes the image of chaos beyond the structures world of personality, subordination and hierarchy" (Malchow 44).

Late nineteenth century fictional depictions of white men encountering cannibals in Africa in the course of their adventures persisted despite Livingston's and Robert Knox' scepticism regarding the existence of Cannibalism in Africa (Malchow 51-56). The cannibalism of savage races became the subject of caricatures and jokes and the "stew pot", of which the hot-pot is a sexually charged variant, a comic symbol (Malchow 57). The Amahaggar's abuse of the mummified corpses, turning them into human torches, adds even deeper depravity to their savagery.

With Dracula, Jonathan Harker's attitude towards the Slovaks and the Gypsies is quite similar to She. Harker's first account of the diversity of Transylvania's population does not include the Slovaks or the Gypsies. He identifies only "four distinct nationalities…Saxons in the south, and mixed with them the Wallachs, who are descendants of the Dacians; Magyars in the west, and Szekelys in the east and north" (Stoker 8), therefore deleting the existence of other ethnic groups in the region, including the Gypsies and the Slovaks. Harker's deliberate omission of these two ethnic groups thus situates them as outsiders, as people who exist out of the ethnic makeup of the region.

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Bratlinger has also identified Stoker's Dracula as a text that participates in "imperial Gothic". Not only does "imperial Gothic" express:

anxieties about the waning of religious orthodoxy, but even more clearly it expresses anxieties about the ease with which civilization can revert to barbarism or savagery and thus about the weakening of Britain's imperial hegemony (Bratlinger 229).

The gothic attire of Dracula serves Stoker as a vehicle for conveying Britain's imperial anxieties about racial contamination from the inferior "barbaric" Balkan races, as well as for illustrating the difference between civilized West and backward East, between scientifically based rationalism and primitive superstition. The vampire's demonic look and mind become the ideal tool in Stoker's hands for demonstrating the racial and cultural otherness of the Balkan people, who may be white, European, and Christian, but are still considered inferior to the British; they are Europeans, but of a lower status, not quite as good as the Western Europeans.

The Oriental-Barbarian look of some of the people who inhabit Transylvania, more precisely the Slovaks, completes Harker's list of stereotypes about the East:

The strangest figures we saw were the Slovaks, who are more Barbarian than the rest, with their big cowboy hats, great baggy dirty-white trousers, white linen shirts, and enormous heavy leather belts, nearly a foot wide, all studded over with brass nails. They wore high boots, with their trousers tucked into them, and had long hair and heavy black mustaches. They are very picturesque, but do not look prepossessing. On the stage they would be set down at once as some old Oriental band of brigands. They are, however, I am told, very harmless, and rather wanting in self-assertion. (Stoker 9)

To Harker, the Slovaks are not people; they are strange "figures". The two adjectives that stand out in the description of the Slovaks are "Barbarian" and "Oriental," both of them indispensable to traditional British colonial discourse. To highlight their importance to the understanding of the Slovaks, Harker even capitalises the adjectives. Following closely the well-trodden path of nineteenth century British colonialist descriptions of native people as lacking in aesthetic values and in need of the West's help, Harker also depicts the Slovaks as "picturesque," but not "prepossessing," and as "wanting in self-assertion". The Slovaks, in other words, are ordinary Oriental-Barbarians who need to be taught how to act, dress, and express themselves as civilized people do.

According to Jonathan Harker, the Slovaks represent primitive barbarians with their "high boots, long black hair, and heavy black mustaches" (Stoker 9), therefore they are weak on the inside, and unable to assert themselves. The Slovaks, in other words, are the perfect people to serve as Dracula's servants: physically strong to protect their master, and mentally weak, therefore easy to command and manipulate. Since Stoker never went to Transylvania, most of his information about its diverse population came from nineteenth-century travel narratives that were mainly written by British officials who had spent time in the area, such as soldiers, administrators, or members of their families (Leatherdale 97). Stoker's image of the Slovaks is almost surely taken from Major E.C. Johnson's On the Track of the Crescent: Erratic Notes from the Piraeus to Pesth (1885). Johnson's description of the Slovaks is nearly an identical match to Stoker's in Dracula:

These men stand on rude rafts, made of the trunks of trees lashed together, and this primitive craft they guide by means of long poles. Some of these men passed while we were there, and wild indeed they looked, in their white linen shirts and loose white trousers, kept together by enormous broad leathern belts, and with long straight hair about their shoulders, heavy black mustaches, and immense hats. I was, however, assured that these apparently ferocious individuals are among the mildest of mankind. Excessive indulgence in vile brandy has, however, reduced their mental capacity below zero (Johnson 243-244).

Therefore with Stoker using second-hand information, this represents a nineteenth-century British bias about the native people from the colonies. While it is not surprising that Stoker chose Gypsies as the Count's helpers, his inclusion of the Slovaks as such is rather unexpected. As Nord remarks:

If English literature contains within it a constant marker of otherness, of non-Englishness, or foreignness, it is the Gypsy. A figure of literary origins and anthropological interest, the gypsy could signify social marginality, nomadism, alienation, and lawlessness. (Nord 189)

Using animalistic imagery, Johnson describes the Gypsy children he meets on the Balkan roads as wild "savages" who were "howling like wolves or jackals" while begging him for money (Johnson 149). In Emily Gerard's "Transylvanian Superstitions", she is not interested in the Gypsies' racial and cultural traits, but in the superstitions they have brought to Transylvania. Even so, she is unable to avoid some of the racist rhetoric of her countrymen, and identifies the "gypsy tribes" as "a race of fortune-tellers and witches" (Gerard 130). Stoker's depiction of the Gypsies strongly echoes their portrayal in his sources. When Harker meets the Gypsies for the first time in the courtyard of Dracula's castle, he notes in journal:

These Szgany are gypsies; I have notes of them in my book. They are peculiar to this part of the world, though allied to the ordinary gypsies all the world over. There are thousands of them in Hungary and Transylvania, who are almost outside all law. They attach themselves as a rule to some great noble or boyar, and call themselves by his name. They are fearless and without religion, save superstition, and they talk their own varieties of the Romany tongue. (Stoker 49)

The Gypsies in Dracula function as a projection of the Other, the opposite of the law-abiding, hard-working, Christian Briton. The Gypsies are savage, good-for-nothing, dirty, lazy heathens who cannot help but live like parasites, on the back of other people, by stealing and begging.

In She, the Amahaggar's are the classic example of the deadly effects of racial mixing. The Amahaggar's are depicted as the evil Other against whom an idealised construction of Englishness may successfully achieve both definition and consolidation. In Dracula, the Gypsies and the Slovaks do not have an identity. Stoker depicts both ethnic groups in overtly racist tones - as corrupt, heartless, oriental barbarians - to suggest their otherness and inferiority to the Britons, as well as to rationalise their alliance with the Count.