Race and Prejudice in British Literature

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Race and Prejudice in British Literature


Literature is at least as old as the fifth millennium B.C, and has accompanied mankind's most daring efforts to carve a place for culture in the slippery surface of time. The first sustained writing records are of accounting and inventorying, but it was not long before writing became the record of preference for preserving past events and giving interpretations of the world. It is no wonder that literature has made itself a faithful chronicler of human woes, as well as of human joys.

British culture is a relatively old Western culture. To read Beowulf, dating from the eighth century, is to reach into the recesses of Norse and Anglo-Saxon experience, and into the outposts of the Roman Empire. With the Norman invasion of the eleventh century, the tapestry of British culture grows richer. The faint hues of something like a modern English nation, with all of its diversity, begin to appear. With two millennia of historical memory, British literature encompasses great cultural development. But beyond that, the British literary tradition also acknowledges the worst kinds of human experience: cultural repression, racial prejudice, slavery, marginalization of poor and disadvantaged minorities, and indifference to legitimate sexual and spiritual needs.


People's ethnicity or skin color is among the most easily observable characteristics that can mark them for prejudice or discrimination. Large immigrant and expatriate communities in England often insulate themselves in an attempt to maintain their cultural identity and protect themselves from what they see as the threat of the dominant culture. In general, the Anglo population also keeps its distance from immigrant communities, resulting in a division between the two groups. This issue became important long ago when Britain became a world naval power, from the sixteenth through the nineteenth century; Britain became an international society but it resisted becoming a melting pot.

In The Merchant of Venice (1598), William Shakespeare depicts a caricature of the Jew (a stock victim in Elizabethan English writing) in the moneylender Shylock. At the same time, this figure emerges on the stage a uniquely sympathetic human character.

Bassanio, a Christian merchant of Venice, is in love with a rich woman, Portia, and needs money to travel to her. Bassanio's friend Antonio offers to get the money for his friend's trip, and borrows it from Shylock, who imposes one condition on Antonio: if he cannot repay on time, Shylock will be entitled to take a pound of his flesh. (Shylock, it must be said, has a well-founded grudge against Antonio, who has defamed him and his religion.) When news comes that the ship carrying Antonio's assets has gone down and he will not have the money to pay Shylock, the moneylender demands his pound of flesh.

Here begins the complex morality of the play. Portia, now Bassanio's wife, appears in disguise to serve as judge at Antonio's trial. She passes judgment in favor of Shylock, but adds a condition: Shylock is to take only and exactly one pound of flesh—no blood. If he exceeds or varies that amount, he will be found guilty of trying to take the life of Antonio and will have to pay with his own life. Ultimately Shylock is accused of conspiring to murder Antonio and is forced to strike a deal, including becoming Christian, in return for his life.

It is a fact that anti-Semitism was an accepted attitude not only in Renaissance England but throughout the Middle Ages, when Jews were viewed chiefly as moneylenders and takers of interest—a practice harshly criticized in the Christian New Testament. While Shylock is characterized as rapacious, remorseless, and vengeful—all Jewish stereotypes—he is, at the same time, a sympathetic character. Shakespeare's depiction, then, was groundbreaking and controversial in its time. Shylock rightly laments the wrongs done to Jews, and insists on their humanity: "If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?" Readers are left, consequently, with a character portrayal that is both vulgar and beautiful, and which takes its tone from the actor in every performance. One interpretation goes so far as to make Shylock the only fully human person in the play—yet he must swallow a pound of prejudice to gain that honor.

Three hundred years after Shakespeare's Jewish caricature, Rudyard Kipling's poem "The White Man's Burden" (1899) was intended as advice to the American government, which had involved itself as a colonial power in the Philippines. (The United States had recently won and bought the Philippines from Spain in the Spanish American War.) Kipling's dehumanizing sentiments about "new-caught sullen peoples, / Half devil and half child" are not far from Elizabethan England's attitude toward Jews. Kipling's advice—that America should take responsibility for civilizing the new colony—reflects his own experience growing up in British colonial India. He claims that white people have the responsibility to rule and develop native populations in colonial areas. The use of the word "burden" in the title indicates that he believes it is a heavy responsibility that the white "civilized" world is obligated to shoulder: "Take up the White Man's burden—/ Ye dare not stoop to less."

The complicated and complex result of centuries of the "white man's burden" is illustrated by Nobel Prize-winning poet Derek Walcott in "A Far Cry from Africa" (1962). The grandchild of African slaves, Walcott is from St. Lucia in the British West Indies, where he received a British education. As he contemplates the African veldt (open, uncultivated land) before him, he finds himself torn between the two parts of his heritage. On the one hand there are the Kikuyu, the dominant ethnic group in Kenya. Walcott describes them as "quick as flies," and says, in reference to their bloody practices of assaulting the colonists, that they "Batten upon the bloodstreams of the veldt, / Corpses are scattered through a paradise." On the other hand, he has no sympathy for the colonists either, and sees colonial policy as an implementation of oppression and violence. His African heritage and colonial education in the British West Indies collide within him; he speaks of being "poisoned with the blood of both," as he is kindred to the oppressed and the oppressor. He feels the prejudices of both sides. In the end he asks how he is to choose between "this Africa and the English tongue I love?" He has no place, or one too many places, to call home.

The confluence of ethnicities and races is evident in modern-day London, a melting pot of immigrant communities and multiculturalism. Zadie Smith, in White Teeth (2000), writes about the potential for a new social and cultural world in Britain, one where the myriad of immigrants and ethnicities that reside in the country relate and interact. Her novel concerns two families, the Joneses and the Iqbals, who are brought together across time and racial barriers. It all began in the British Army, where Bengali Muslim Samad Iqbal fought side-by-side with Archibald Jones. Iqbal and his family later move to London, where the friendship between the Iqbals and the Joneses continues. In considering this kind of example, the reader envisions the unique potential of a formerly vast empire for bringing diverse cultures together. The two families, brought together fighting for the British Empire, form a lasting friendship that integrates many of their common hopes and disappointments. In a twist on Kipling's directive, each family helps to carry the other family's burden.

In the novel Maps for Lost Lovers (2004), Nadeem Aslam takes readers inside the life of a self-enclosed and isolated Pakistani community within London. It is a quite different depiction of the city from that offered by Smith, where families of different ethnicities live and socialize together. Aslam's novel represents the reality that the fusion of foreigners with British culture can be difficult, even tragic.

Two lovers, Jugnu and Chanda, have disappeared from a tightly knit Pakistani community, and no one has any clues where they have gone. The unmarried couple had been living together, a shocking decision within their small community. When their bodies are discovered five months after their disappearance, Chanda's brothers are arrested for their murders. Shockwaves reverberate in the community, and one couple especially, Jugnu's brother and sister-in-law, must work through their emotions and shock over Jugnu and Chanda's fates. The sister-in-law, Kaukab, struggles to remain true to her Islamic principles, but begins to reevaluate certain aspects, and with them her entire value system. At the same time, the tense inner struggle of the Muslim Pakistani community in London becomes vivid. Readers gain insight into the dangerous generational conflict that can haunt a community of immigrants, and into the struggle of immigrants to maintain their ethnic identity in a new land.

The distance between Kipling's work and that of Smith and Aslam may seem immeasurably far, though it is only a century. During that century, the "new-caught sullen peoples" of Kipling's "White Man's Burden" have become fellow soldiers, citizens, next-door neighbors, and entire communities within Britain, struggling to apportion a place to their own traditions in a rapidly evolving new culture.


Although Britain's history has seen a number of powerful queens ruling the country and empire, women, by and large, did not enjoy positions of power or privilege in British society until the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Long thought to be the "weaker" sex, British women lived domestic lives as wives and mothers, possessions of their fathers or husbands. Still, the British literary tradition has seen a fair share of strong and influential women, both as characters and as writers. It is interesting to compare and contrast the magnificence and intelligence of women on the page against the harsh, oppressive reality they lived in until recent centuries.

In a time when education, employment, and social freedoms were largely off-limits to women, Mary Wollstonecraft, in her essay A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), argues for two crucial guarantees for women: the right to freedom of thought and the right to education. This text was one of the first extensive studies of the "woman question," and though it may seem tame today, it lies at the foundation of much of the early feminism of the nineteenth century.

As an educator, Wollstonecraft grew convinced that women were harmfully subjugated to men, and that their lives were unnecessarily limited. She likens the condition of women to that of African slaves: "Is one half of the human species, like the poor African slaves, to be subject to prejudices that brutalize them?" She argues forcefully for women's education, the social equality of men and women, and for marriage to be an equal partnership; in short, Wollstonecraft advocates allowing women to "participate [in] the inherent rights of mankind." However, she was far from challenging the importance of the family. The period of her work, the Revolutionary epoch in France, guaranteed that, as an Englishwoman, she would be cautious about any call to radical social change. Society was under many threats, and no Englishwoman was about to challenge the security of the family.

In Jane Eyre (1847), Charlotte Bronte describes the education and growth of a young English woman through the first nineteen years of her life and the ways in which she demands equal treatment and respect. Jane has the misfortune to end up living with a cruel aunt and attending a bitterly strict boarding school. Before long, though, she finds herself on her own, and seeks a post as a governess. She meets Mr. Rochester, the master of the house where she becomes employed. She begins to fall in love with Rochester, who eventually declares the feeling mutual. As the day for their marriage approaches, however, Rochester grows increasingly arrogant; at the marriage ceremony, there is an intrusion by two men who declare that Rochester has been previously married. Jane cannot go through with the wedding, and fears that living out of wedlock with Rochester would put her in a subordinate position to him, which she cannot tolerate. After several other romantic hardships, Jane reunites with Rochester, who is by now a physically broken man, but capable of profound love. They marry, and Jane reaches a stage of mature love and happiness. It has not been easy, especially because she demands an equal partnership, refusing to live as a mistress. She is a strong woman, one not easily fitted to the prejudices of her age. Brontë, along with her sisters Anne and Emily, were among England's first female novelists. The literary environment of the time was so hostile and dismissive of women authors that, for many years, the women published under male pseudonyms: Acton (Anne), Ellis (Elizabeth), and Currer (Charlotte) Bell.

Female writers were not alone in addressing women's issues in their texts. With the essay "The Subjection of Women" (1869), John Stuart Mill adds his voice to the British feminist tradition. In an era when women were legal possessions of men, Mill's stance is revolutionary and bold: "the principle which regulates the existing social relations between the two sexes—the legal subordination of one sex to the other—is wrong in itself, and now one of the chief hindrances to human improvement." Mill echoes Wollstonecraft's sentiment that both sexes would benefit from the liberation of women. He writes that both men and society at large will benefit from the infusion of women's abilities. Mill's main concern is liberty; he argues that where one person in society is free, all the others will profit from it, for from freedom comes ingenuity, exuberance, and good planning.

The strong British tradition of libertarianism, seen clearly in the works of Wollstonecraft and Mill, was forcefully expressed throughout the nineteenth century. Middlemarch (1871), by George Eliot (who, like the Brontës, used a male pseudonym; her real name was Mary Ann Evans), is one of the great milestones in this development. The novel, like Jane Eyre, traces the search for marital happiness by an idealistic young woman, Dorothea. Where initially Dorothea imagines that "[t]he really delightful marriage must be that where your husband was a sort of father," as she matures, she comes to see that marriage is a difficult institution: "Poor Dorothea … had not, as we know, enjoyed her husband's superior instruction so much as she had expected." Dorothea suffers in a marriage that is not an equal partnership, as do most of the other characters in this complex novel. For Eliot, the strictures and conventions surrounding marriage make it the most difficult adjustment for women to make.

Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles (1891) is the fictional study of a woman's search for happiness, which, defined as it is by men and marriage, is never completely within her control. Like Jane Eyre and Eliot's Dorothea, Tess is, in part, a tragic victim. Tess's father believes they might be related to a local wealthy family, and arranges for her to become their maid. She is seduced (possibly raped) by Alec, the actual heir of the family fortune, and bears an illegitimate child. Women in Tess's position—single, unmarried mothers—in the nineteenth century were subjected to intense discrimination. Tess enters the snares of lust blended with Victorian moralities, falls victim to two more ill-fated romances, murders the lover who has twice debased her, and ends up hanged for her crime. This novel, like those of Eliot and Brontë, paints the most vivid possible picture of a woman's difficult social role in Victorian England. Prejudice dogs her until she is desperate, and she reacts violently.

Until the mid-nineteenth century, women authors were largely absent from British literature. In her essay A Room of One's Own (1929), Virginia Woolf argues that the reason for this is because they have not had the independent wealth and the private space to create work of art. Woolf admires the strength of character that it must have taken the Brontës and Jane Austen to write unapologetically as women, for they had no template to follow and no standards to work toward. However, Woolf argues, the barriers holding back female writers must be eradicated altogether. One step toward the "equalization" that Jane Eyre, Dorothea, and Tess sought, Woolf suggests, is for women and men to be more like one another. Writers should not think of themselves as either a female writer or a male writer, for "a great mind is androgynous." She further states that one should endeavor to be labeled merely as a writer without the qualification of gender: "one must be woman-manly or man-womanly." Woolf builds on Wollstonecraft's and Mill's fight for equal access, adding her views on what must be the next step in the process.

The removal of gender barriers fostered by androgyny was the subject of Woolf's 1928 novel, Orlando. The novel is a fantasy biography of a sixteenth-century Elizabethan nobleman, both resembling and indirectly addressed to Woolf's female lover, Vita Sackville-West. The story evolves as the nobleman, at times male and at times female, witnesses three centuries of European history. Coming to life in the sixteenth century, Orlando passes through imperial Muscovite times, the eighteenth century in England, and the twentieth century, having a myriad of experiences. Throughout, Woolf uses Orlando's fluid gender to comment on the issue of gender identity. Her approach remains playful, but her point is insistent: gender identity is mutable and shifting. Orlando maintains the theme of androgyny that Woolf proposes in A Room of One's Own, suggesting that an intersection of male and female virtues is both more real and more ideal when describing gender. The rich character of Orlando is intended to embody such an intersection.

All of the texts covered here stress a woman's need to be free of limiting social strictures. Only Woolf, however, is able to even conceive of a more flexible society and make positive proposals of what women need once those strictures have been loosened. The struggle for gender equality saw increasing progress throughout the twentieth century.


Throughout history, religion has often served as a vehicle through which prejudices are perpetuated. In some cases, religious beliefs engender intolerance of other people's beliefs. At the same time, religions themselves can become the victims of other people's disparagement. In British literature, religion has been depicted as both a weapon and a defense.

Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal (1729), originally published as a pamphlet, purports to be a solution to the famine and overpopulation that was crippling Ireland under eighteenth-century British rule. Ireland, Swift's homeland, was overflowing with crowds of Catholic children, and the burden on the country to feed and house them was too great. Swift's "modest" and satirical proposal is to use these children for food, leather, and fine ornaments, thereby reducing the density of the Catholic population and improving the country's economic health. It is clear long before the punch line that Swift intends to satirize the brutality of England's Protestant regime in a bitter religious assault. Animosity and even violence had long been a part of the relationship between Irish Catholics and English Protestants. It is an issue that has continued into the twentieth century, largely in Northern Ireland, which remains a part of the United Kingdom.

Like Swift, Maria Edgeworth in Harrington (1817) indirectly critiques existing religious institutions. While Swift uses satire, Edgeworth fictionalizes a rabid anti-Semitic character in order to condemn anti-Semitism. As in Shakespeare's day, anti-Semitism was not uncommon in England in the nineteenth century. In Edgeworth's anti-Semitic protagonist, she undermines her own point about resisting religious bigotry by making her prejudiced character a fascinating one. It is a difficult tightrope Edgeworth walks, akin to satire. She maintains her balance, thanks to the validity of her critique, but the rope wavers as does her objectivity. An interesting message one might take from the story is that even those with the best intentions sometimes fall into the same behaviors and attitudes they purport to deplore.

While texts on women's rights were proliferating in nineteenth-century England and were, on the whole, entering an open and progressive dialogue, texts on Christian/Jewish religious relations sailed much more troubled waters. Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe (1819) is a historical novel reaching far back into the conflict between the Saxons and Normans in England. The novel traces the destiny of Wilfred of Ivanhoe, a noble Saxon family serving the Norman King Richard I. At the outset of the novel, Wilfred is returning from the Crusades, military ventures sanctioned by the Vatican to "reclaim" the city of Jerusalem from the Muslims. Wounded in a tournament, Wilfred is nursed back to health by Rebecca, who is Jewish. Suspected of bewitching Christian men into loving her, Rebecca is tried for sorcery and is acquitted only after the Christian man who accused her dies from the stress of the ordeal. Ivanhoe defends Rebecca, but marries a Christian.

In the essay "Agnosticism and Christianity" (1889), Thomas Henry Huxley writes that it was "inevitable that a conflict should arise between Agnosticism and Theology." Agnostics believe that it is impossible to know for certain if there is a God. According to Huxley, at the time it was thought that anyone claiming to be agnostic was merely using that label "in order to escape the unpleasantness which attaches to their proper denomination" of "infidel" (unbeliever or rejecter of religion). There is a difference, Huxley argues, and therefore sets out to defend the rights of agnostics who, in a prevailing Christian society, experience prejudicial treatment because of their religious—or lack of religious—views. Huxley, for his part, ardently insists that his quarrels are not with theology (the inquiry into the existence and nature of God), but with sectarianism (sects of religion like Catholicism and Protestantism), which claims the truth of a particular religion's avenues to God over any others.

In his book The Crusades (2001), David Nicolle chronicles the origins, historical development, and outcome of these Church-sanctioned raids on the Holy Land in the later Middle Ages. In the First Crusade of the late eleventh century, European warriors and mercenary soldiers sought to defend the Byzantine Empire from encroaching Muslim forces, and seize Jerusalem from Muslim control. (Jerusalem is a holy city for Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.) The Crusaders conquered Jerusalem and set up several small Crusader states. One hundred years and two crusades later, Jerusalem was back under Muslim control. Without a doubt, massive religious prejudice, on the parts of both the Crusaders and the Muslims, was instrumental in fueling these huge religious adventures. But, as accounts like Nicolle's show, many other factors entered into the Crusades besides religion. The Holy Land itself was of commercial value as an important trading location to all involved. There were also various lucrative way stations throughout Europe at which the Crusaders systematically constructed fortifications and staged plundering raids. Military ardor, in the service of Western fief-doms—present-day nations did not yet exist—was strong, and plunder reflected the self-interest of the commanders. In addition to economic factors, local Western rulers were eager to acquire new territory to rule. All these motives were manifested as religious prejudice to justify the Crusades.

Religion has been a sensitive subject throughout the history of Britain and the world. Where human passion combines with conviction of religious belief, the possibility for discrimination, hate, and even warfare becomes quite real, as the literature presented here has shown. The British are far from alone in their experience with religious persecution, but British literature offers views from every side of the issue as awareness of different "sides" has evolved over centuries.


The battle over sexuality and sexual preference was bitterly engaged in Britain during the twentieth century, and is very far from settled. From novels about women who are punished for pursuing the same sexual freedom that men are free to enjoy, to tales of homosexual love affairs that have long been taboo in British society, literature about sexuality is by its nature among the most intimate and personally revealing of all literature. Disapproval of unconventional sexuality remains a socially ingrained prejudice the world over, though more and more writers feel the freedom to openly address these issues.

In The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), Oscar Wilde finds an indirect way to examine the effects of moral decadence on one's life. The key figure of the story is handsome young Dorian Gray, who has his portrait painted by Basil, an outstanding painter. Dorian is so impressed with his depiction in the painting that he decides he wants to be forever young; for the privilege, he will give his very soul. Instead of Dorian growing old, the painting will do so in his place. Dorian falls in love with an actress, but once they make plans to marry she loses her acting ability. He mistreats her and she commits suicide. When he looks at his portrait, he sees that cruelty has entered into its expression.

From that point on, Dorian plunges into a sensuous lifestyle with hetero- and homosexual love affairs, excesses at the banquet table, and various other indulgences. When he later decides to reform his life, after having killed Basil, he finds that the portrait has turned bitter and cynical. He throws himself at it, slashes it, and, in the process, kills himself. All at once the painting becomes youthful and beautiful, and Dorian is a shriveled mass of decay.

The tale is both sensual and moralistic, and suggests at the end that Dorian's vices, sexual and otherwise, have turned him into an ugly monster. The tale itself is more interesting considering that Wilde, a homosexual himself, was in court on charges of sodomy four years after the publication of the novel. He was well aware of the stakes for which he wrote. He served two years in prison for "gross indecency," a punishment that today seems draconian; however, in many cultures, homosexual activity is still considered a sin against society.

The novel Maurice, by E. M. Forster, was published in l971, but was written at the beginning of World War I. Because of prevailing bias against homosexuality in the early nineteenth century, Forster delayed publishing the novel, fearing it might damage his literary reputation and create legal troubles (like Wilde's sodomy trials just fifteen years earlier). The work traces an identity quest, like that in Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray. At the novel's opening, Maurice is a fourteen-year-old, privileged member of Edwardian society. He and his two sisters have been brought up by their widowed mother in unexceptional circumstances. Forster takes the reader through the protagonist's public school life, on to Cambridge as a student, and then to Maurice's father's stockbroking firm: a standard career path for one in Maurice's social setting.

His first homosexual love affair occurs while Maurice is a student at Cambridge, but it breaks up when his lover decides to marry. His conventional career pattern makes it easy for Maurice to conceal his homosexual inclinations, and he considers fighting his homosexuality. But when he falls for the gamekeeper on the country estate of his first lover, his resolve fails. It is a happy affair, as is the conclusion of the novel, a marked turn from the outcome of Wilde's character Dorian Gray, whose "vices"—which include homosexuality—lead to his death. By giving the novel a happy twist, which Forster himself declared he did not believe in, he meant to turn the screws on the repression of British society, intolerant as it largely was in regard to homosexual relationships.

In the play Mrs. Warren's Profession (1893), George Bernard Shaw, a socialist with strong opinions about the evil of money, brings a cool analytical eye to bear on the profession of prostitution, framing it in terms of economics. In so doing, he believes, he introduces a new humanity to the stage, one that brings the much-maligned profession of prostitution out of the shadows and introduces the individuals behind it. As Mrs. Warren tells her daughter Vivie, "It's not work that any woman would do for pleasure, goodness knows; though to hear the pious people talk you would suppose it was a bed of roses."

Previously unaware of this income source for her mother, Vivie is at first sympathetic. She buys into the notion that her mother had to rely on charm to support herself. But she also believes the work to be in her mother's past. The situation changes for Vivie when Sir George Crofts, a man twenty-five years her elder, sets his sights on her. When she learns that the money with which he proposes to support her derives from an international brothel operation that her mother runs, Vivie is appalled and disgusted. She quarrels bitterly with her mother, especially furious about her mother's "fashionable morality." Her mother, however, believes prostitution to be preferable to poverty, and suggests it is society's fault that, as a woman, those were her only two choices: "I always wanted to be a good woman. I tried honest work; and I was slave-driven until I cursed the day I ever heard of honest work." In the end, Vivie refuses her mother's money and severs their relationship.

Irish poet Seamus Heaney's poem "Punishment" (1975) connects the pre-Roman punishment for adultery with modern images of Irish women's punishment for consorting with British soldiers in Northern Ireland. In doing so, he illustrates that nearly two thousand years of time have done little to change the consequences of a woman's sexual activity. Heaney describes the body of a young girl dug up from an English bog where it was buried in the first century. The frailty of the skeleton is touching and lonely, and the probable fate that led to this burial increases the pathos of the scene. The body was weighted by "stone, / the floating rods and boughs." The girl's head has been shaved, and eyes blindfolded "to store / the memories of love." Heaney feels sympathy for the girl and her unfair fate, but knows he would not have saved her at the time, when prejudice and hate ruled her small community: "I almost love you / but would have cast, I know, / the stones of silence." He knows this about himself because at the time he is writing, the same thing is happening to Northern Irish women who are found in the company of British soldiers. The Irish Republic Army (IRA) shaves their heads and chains them to public posts to expose them to ridicule. Heaney thinks that these women would understand the bog girl's fate, "the exact / and tribal, intimate revenge."

Sexuality remains taboo in many parts of the world and in many religions, but still finds its way into literature where the imagination is free to speculate, reflect, and interact with ideas and values that society forbids. Wilde did so in The Picture of Dorian Gray, using the image of the painted portrait to address issues of morality, human change, and fear of death. He invites readers to consider and perhaps rethink their prejudices toward the sensual life. He does not insist on one single conclusion, but rather opens discussion, as does Forster's Maurice, which asks readers: are two men in love such a bad thing? Would you deny them happiness? Shaw puts a prostitute on stage and then allows her daughter to judge her. Undoubtedly the audience will be divided; some will side with Mrs. Warren, some with Vivie, and others will go home questioning, just as Heaney does after viewing the bog girl. More than anything, these works create a dialog with their audiences, freeing not just the writers, but the readers and observers, to consider new ideas about sexuality.

Social Class and Caste

Prejudice against the impoverished is a serious issue in the United Kingdom. There is a wide divide between the "haves" and "have nots," as in many societies, but there also remain strong signs of the class system. In a stratified society where rank and position have long been highly prized, the divisions between classes—monarchy, aristocracy, tradespeople, and working class—sharpen the economic divide.

Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (1813) is a novel of manners set in drawing rooms and other social spheres of the English countryside. Elizabeth Bennet is one of five daughters in an upper-class rural family, and her mother assumes responsibility for securing husbands for each of the girls. The suitor with the most potential for Elizabeth's hand is Mr. Darcy, a Londoner who is at first inclined to disregard country folk as being below his social station. However, Elizabeth's wit and charm convince Darcy otherwise. After the expected ups and downs in a novel of this nature, Darcy proposes to Elizabeth.

Social mechanisms and expectations fill the book, and accurately reflect nineteenth-century English society, where marrying outside of one's class is not only unthinkable, but akin to social suicide. Conversations in this society are full of innuendo, and prejudgments and prejudices are only natural in a society that is based on assumptions about people and class. One does not, in Austen's work, find the grosser prejudices of a culture, as they might link to race or religion, but the finely textured interplay of inviolable opinions. Though they may seem silly in a larger historical context, they are no less hurtful or damaging for those involved.

In Oliver Twist (1837–1839), Charles Dickens presents a very different slice of the class society than the one in Austen's novel. He looks at an England clumsily entering the Industrial Revolution, with its child labor and terribly long work days in the factory. During this time, local government officials were responsible for caring for pauper children—children without parents or support. As more and more families moved from rural farms into cities like London for job opportunities, many found they could not afford to support their children in the expensive city. Officials were required to find workhouse employment for these youngsters, who would then be apprenticed into some skilled occupation.

Young Oliver Twist is born in a workhouse and does not know who his parents are. He is taken advantage of by the other boys in the workhouse, who one day talk him into asking for a second helping of food—a breach of etiquette that gets Oliver sent off as an undertaker's apprentice. From there, harassed and mistreated by older boys, he runs away to London. There he is welcomed by a boy criminal, the Artful Dodger, and introduced to Fagin the Jew and his circle of bold master criminals. While doing what he must to survive on the streets, Oliver is lucky enough, in the ensuing wrangle of mishaps, to meet the compassionate Nancy and a savior in the form of Mr. Brownlow. Eventually Oliver discovers his lost family and acquires the inheritance due to him, and the criminal Fagin is hanged. The tale ends as a kind of melodrama, but not before scoring many points against human unkindness and indifference toward the defenseless poor in industrialized England.

To speak of prejudice against the poor, in the case of Oliver and his ilk in Dickens's novel, would be an understatement. The British government was unable to exercise anything like the required supervision of the welfare of the people. Playwright George Bernard Shaw exposed the same situation for prostitution sixty years later in Mrs. Warren's Profession, which was a little-governed but lucrative fringe product of the new society.

Shaw once again examines issues of class and stigma in his play Pygmalion (1913), which looks at several aspects of the class system. The springboard to this story is the ancient Greek myth of Pygmalion, a young man who tires of unfaithful women and turns his back on the entire sex. To replace living women, he creates a superb sculpture of a woman and adores it as though it were a real woman. One day Venus, the goddess of beauty, catches news of this adoration, and turns the sculpture into a living woman. That is what Professor Henry Higgins, a rather authoritarian linguist, proposes to do—create a whole new woman—with the essentially raw material of Eliza Doolittle, a Cockney flower girl.

The very premise indicates Higgins's class prejudice, as he supposes that Eliza needs or wants to change, or that she would have a better life in a higher class. Cockneys are working-class inhabitants of London's East End, known for a distinct dialect that was once considered "improper" and a marker of the working class. Higgins's associates are initially skeptical about his plans, as they are unsure that he can change Eliza's class by merely changing her clothes and style of talk: "you can't take a girl up like that as if you were picking up a pebble on the beach." Undaunted, the professor teaches her standard English, then goes on to change her clothes, her style of behavior, and her overall attitude. Ultimately, tired of being the professor's project, Eliza falls in love with a young aristocrat—a member of the social level she has now attained—and marries him.

Shaw was insistent that the play was no love story. Rather it is class commentary, as was Mrs. Warren's Profession. Shaw was a shrewd observer of class markers, and in the character of Eliza Doolittle, proves how learnable the class posture really is. The famous Oxford accent, still a highbrow cultural factor today, is learnable, as are styles of dress and manners. Shaw's devastating commentary on the pretenses of a class system comes down to this: the only inherent difference between people of different classes is money. The prejudice that sustains the upper class is paper thin.

A point of view similar to Shaw's comes through in D. H. Lawrence's poem "How Beastly the Bourgeois Is" (1929). Though Shaw punctures the pretenses of the elite in Pygmalion and Lawrence focuses his attention on the bourgeois or middle class, both attack the social inequality that has its roots in prejudice against other lifestyles and classes. The bourgeois may appear to live contented, controlled lives, but Lawrence argues that the facade evaporates in the face of even the smallest difficulty: "Watch him turn into a mess, either a fool or a bully. / Just watch the display of him, confronted with a new demand on his intelligence, / a new life-demand." The bourgeois, Lawrence says, lacks the flexibility to meet human challenges face-to-face; he is rattled by an existential situation and is spiritually dead: "Touch him, and you'll find he's all gone inside / … / under a smooth skin and an upright appearance."

The poem and the play both poke fun at social pretensions: Higgins's on the one hand, those of the bourgeois "mushroom" on the other. At the same time, both Shaw and Lawrence are themselves expressing prejudices against what they see as excess or lifestyle error. Prejudices, in other words, are everywhere. The lesson, then, is surely not that people should claim to be entirely free of prejudices, but that they should see them for what they are, and try to correct them in light of values like sympathy, honesty, and tolerance.

The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), by George Orwell, takes a harsh look at industrial life in northern England, which, in the century following the ugly industrialization shown in Dickens's Oliver Twist, has seen few improvements. Yorkshire and Lancashire were, in Orwell's time, centers of the coal industry, complete with the inevitable dirt, low wages, and unsafe working conditions. In Part One of the book, Orwell details life in the industrial North. He introduces a family who runs a small shop and a cheap lodging place, along with some of their boarders, who are old and poor. Orwell ventures down into a coal mine to look at the deplorable nutrition, clothing, and wages of the workers. It is a sobering glimpse of the British underclass of the time, and is reminiscent of Upton Sinclair's similar exposé of the U.S. meatpacking industry in The Jungle (1906). In the second part of the book, Orwell examines the prospects for socialism in Britain and expounds his own view, which is similar to that of Shaw in Mrs. Warren's Profession. Orwell criticizes the middle-class ownership of the Socialist Party in Britain, given that the middle class—think of Lawrence's poem on the bourgeois—have no sense of how the underclass lives.

In Angela's Ashes (1996), Irish writer Frank McCourt writes of the grimness of his upbringing in a lower-class Irish neighborhood where poverty, violence, and sorrow are commonplace:

[N]othing can compare with the Irish version [of childhood woes]: the poverty; the shiftless loquacious alcoholic father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests; bullying schoolmasters; the English and the terrible things they did to us for eight hundred long years.

Born in Brooklyn during the Great Depression, McCourt and his family moved back to his parents' homeland, Ireland, when McCourt was a young boy. While his father works and drinks and his mother tends to the smaller children, McCourt is left to fend for himself. He must lie, cheat, and occasionally steal to help his family survive, much in the way Oliver Twist is forced to scrounge for his survival. Eventually, McCourt manages to save a little money and return to America, an isolated immigrant in the country where he was born. But this is only after he has survived his youth, living regularly on the verge of starvation, surrounded by typhoid and pneumonia, and on edge with his shiftless father and hopeless mother.

The one hundred and fifty years between Oliver Twist's struggle to survive and McCourt's account of his childhood saw little improvement in the lives of the poor. Both stories depict equally pinched childhoods, surrounded by unkindness and social indifference. D. H. Lawrence, who was the fourth child of a struggling, alcoholic coal miner, had an upbringing similar to McCourt's. Such writers show that writing can prove a recourse to the pain of memory, and the power of survival cannot be underestimated, but victims of the class system, from Oliver Twist and Eliza Doolittle to Frank McCourt, are in some part of themselves deeply harmed.

Disability, Illness, and Social Stigma

It is not just the color of a person's skin, their gender, or their religion that can be subject to prejudice and discrimination. Any major differences from the status quo, including physical and mental conditions that cannot be easily explained, are potential fodder for fear. And from there prejudice is merely a step away.

Thomas de Quincey, author of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821), was a distinguished man of letters, friend to the great Romantic poets, and a consumer of opium for over fifty years. His first and most famous book is a testimony to this extended experience. In it he explains his poverty, his writing career, his dreams, and the opium addiction that serves as a kind of vehicle for his memoir. The fact that he was able to publicly reveal and write about his addiction indicates a level of acceptance unknown to many other marginalized groups. This generosity of spirit extends to de Quincey himself, who writes unapologetically of consorting with prostitutes: "at no time of my life have I been a person to hold myself polluted by the touch or approach of any creature that wore a human shape."

The potential for de Quincey to be stigmatized was based on his drug addiction, which is often considered a disease. There are many examples in literature of illness and disease making a person an outcast, as in the poem "In the Children's Hospital" (1935) by Hugh MacDiarmid. Readers witness a scene in which war wounds and disabilities are given a patriotic whitewash. Tommy, a young soldier who has returned from World War I without legs, is put on display for visiting royalty. Though his nurse insists that he is not ready to walk on his prosthetic legs, the princess bids him to do so anyway. War veterans must frequently face the attitude that their losses are readily outweighed by the nation's gain. Another common reaction to wounded veterans is one of timidity and avoidance, as people are unsure how to acknowledge veterans' injuries and losses.

In another poem, "The Hunchback in the Park" (1941), Dylan Thomas examines children's cruelty to a person who is physically different. Unlike the opium addict or the war veteran, the hunchback of the poem's title has been born with an affliction that renders him the target of ridicule and, as a result, he is isolated. This "solitary mister" has become an oddity in the park, "Drinking water from that chained cup / That the children filled with gravel." The children mock his hunchback, and chase him around the park. The hunchback returns to his hiding place in the evening, his "kennel," but even there he is not secure. Given the nature of childhood, and its reliance on the familiar and expected, it is unlikely that children will ever overcome their suspicion of those who are different. It can only be hoped that as children grow and mature, their willingness to accept and tolerate all people grows as well.

Unlike works in which disability, illness, and social stigma are factors that serve to marginalize the individual, Under the Eye of the Clock: The Life Story of Christopher Nolan (1987) is a memoir that celebrates—rather than pities or hides—the life of a young man with cerebral palsy. Restrictions such as a wheelchair and dependence on others for all his daily needs have built in Nolan a huge appetite for freedom. He writes of experiences at school where the other children tease him, mock him, and ask him every sort of impertinent question about his life. He gets by with the help of the occasional sympathizer, his family, a local priest, and his powerful will to surmount the difficulties of his disability. Eventually, new medicines help him control his spastic movements, and he is able to type. Writing and literature provide Nolan a path to freedom unlike any he has previously known. Memoirs such as Nolan's remind readers of the drive someone can have to experience the simplest pleasures in life and to be accepted by society, even when achieving those things means surmounting significant obstacles.

In Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague (2001), Geraldine Brooks writes a stark tale of the Black Plague, which has besieged a tiny and isolated British lead mining and farming village in the late seventeenth century. As the stranglehold of the disease grows, the townspeople fall ever deeper into superstition and terror. As in the story, when the plague struck it was unstoppable, killing tens of thousands in England alone. Those infected with it were quarantined, separated from their families and community, and left to their fate. In the grip of such desperate terror, people often require a scapegoat, someone or something to blame for their affliction. In Brooks's novel, witches are found to satisfy the communal bias that evil forces are responsible for the village's calamity.

The plague victims in Year of Wonders are treated differently because of their physical illnesses, and Under the Eye of the Clock illustrates how individuals with physical handicaps are often subject to prejudices. Mark Haddon's novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003) shows how individuals with neurological disorders—invisible to the naked eye—can meet with misunderstandings and discrimination. Haddon places readers in the mind of an autistic narrator to create a world unfamiliar to most. At once readers recognize the difficulty society has dealing with this person. The crux of the difficulty, in the present case, is that the mind of Christopher John Francis Boone does not experience its own emotion, and therefore cannot understand the emotions of others. This inability to relate emotionally to others places Christopher on the outside of interactions with schoolmates, neighbors, and his own parents.

As is often the case with autistic children, Christopher is highly intelligent. He is mathematically skilled, memorizes things easily, and relates well to animals, but he does not understand people—he will barely permit them to touch him. Yet this difficult situation is endurable until an event changes the status quo, and the novel becomes a mystery with Christopher at the center of it. Incorrectly accused of murdering his neighbor's dog, Christopher turns to cold logic—his forte—in his effort to defend himself, but only betrays the fact that he cannot understand the way others' minds work. His dilemma is heightened when his pursuit of the mystery leads him to discover the unraveling of his own parents' marriage. At this point, readers feel all the intensity and pain of a mind misplaced in the messy human world.

Accounts of prejudices based on handicaps and illnesses have been present in British literature for hundreds of years. As in the cases of other common prejudices, such as those centering on ethnicity, class, and gender, writers have sought to give a voice to the unheard, those in society who are marginalized because of their differences. By doing so, writers erase some of the fear of the unknown associated with illness, disability, and addiction, and perhaps even inspire tolerance and acceptance.


The forced labor of other human beings has been utilized to the advantage of conquering nations since the beginning of recorded history. England was a major player in the transatlantic slave trade, and its own citizens were subjects of slavery as well.

Aphra Behn's Oroonoko, or The Royal Slave (1688) is a short novel about an African prince who is captured and sold into slavery. Before his capture, Oroonoko is deeply in love with the lovely Imoinda, who is sold as a slave and taken to Suriname in South America, which was then a British possession. Oroonoko himself is tricked into going aboard a slave trader ship offshore of his native African country, where he is taken prisoner and shipped off with other slaves. He is bought by Trefry, a British gentleman who likes him perhaps because he seems so unlike what the man's prejudices led him to expect from Africans. Trefry installs Oroonoko on the same Suriname plantation where Imoinda is settled, and the two reunite, marry, and have a child. Though Oroonoko's slave experience appears almost positive in the beginning, by the middle of the story he has come to see the harsh reality of a slave's life: "They suffered not like men, who might find a glory and fortitude in oppression, but like dogs that loved the whip and bell." Oroonoko knows that he does not want his child to be brought up in slavery. Therefore, he kills his wife and child, and leads an unsuccessful slave rebellion. In the end, he is caught and put to death by his enemies. The ugliness of prejudice and oppression is vividly portrayed in Behn's novel, which is one of the first novels written by a woman in Britain.

As novels and accounts such as Oroonoko began to expose the inhumanity and brutality of slavery, the abolitionist movement gathered momentum in England. William Wordsworth's poem "To Thomas Clarkson. On the Final Passing of the Bill for the Abolition of the Slave Trade" (1807) is dedicated to Thomas Clarkson, one of Britain's most vocal opponents to slavery, whose work helped pass the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act in England in 1807. In the poem, Wordsworth praises Clarkson for being resolute in fighting for the bill, and for being a staunch enemy of the slave trade. Wordsworth assures the gentleman he can rest in peace, having struggled for humanity: "And thou henceforth wilt have a good man's calm, / A great man's happiness; thy zeal shall find / Repose at length, firm friend of human kind!" Though the law celebrated in Wordsworth's poem abolished the slave trade, it did not abolish the institution of slavery itself. Slaves in British colonies were not freed until 1833.

Though British slaves were freed more than one hundred and sixty years ago, slavery has not left the collective memory of literature. In Westward to Laughter (1969), Colin McInnes writes a historical novel probing the slave trade and the condition of slavery in the West Indies. The narrator is a young Scotsman who finds himself forced into slavery on the Caribbean island of Laughter. He attempts to free himself, and is thereby involved in a slave uprising. The consciousness of Caribbean slavery remains vivid in Britain, where a large community of Caribbean blacks keeps the history of their ancestors' oppression alive through remembrance and acknowledgement.

As Westward to Laughter illustrates, accounts of slavery in British literature and history do not only include African and Caribbean people. Slavery and indentured servitude of Irish and English citizens was not uncommon throughout Britain's past; in fact, the patron saint of Ireland was a slave for a short time. Eileen Dunlop's The Tales of St. Patrick (1996) creates a vivid tapestry of details in the life of St. Patrick, who brought Christianity to Ireland. Born in fifth-century Roman England, Patrick was enslaved by Irish raiders and taken to Ireland as a youth. For six years he lived in harsh bondage and cared for his master's flocks, all the while focusing on prayer and his belief in God. Pope Celestine I later gave Patrick the mandate to bring the Irish people together as one under God and to convert them to Christianity. The old days of enslavement, in which Patrick tested himself and his faith, bore fruit in a life of holiness and imagination. Dunlop's The Tales of Saint Patrick provides a bright patch in a very dark subject matter that seldom ended so positively.

Kate McCafferty's Testimony of an Irish Slave Girl (2002) also deals with the theme of white slavery. In the mid-seventeenth century, tens of thousands of Irish men, women, and children were sold as indentured slaves by their families, who were facing crushing debt. Many of these Irish slaves were transported to the Caribbean, where they worked the plantations together with black slaves from Africa. Others of these Irish victims were kidnapped from Ireland by pirates or sold to pirates by the occupying British government. In most cases, these Irish indentured servants, theoretically bound only to a specific length of servitude, were never freed, and spent the rest of their lives in slavery.

McCafferty presents the fictional story of a slave girl, Cot Daley, abducted from her home in Galway in 1651. The style of the novel mimics the first-person frankness of slave narratives written in great numbers by African slaves in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Cot is sold from one plantation to another in the Caribbean, working as a house servant and in the fields. She suffers the inevitable abuse from her British slave masters and is regularly whipped and beaten. She joins a mixed-race slave revolt, marries an African fellow slave, gives birth to their children, and is thrown in prison. The color of Cot's skin does not distinguish her for preferential treatment; like all slaves, she is treated not as a human being, but as merely a possession to be bought and sold.

McCafferty's novel adds to the reader's understanding of the slave trade, specifically how race was only one factor. Dark-skinned people were the primary victims of the Atlantic slave trade, yet white slaves also existed. This is no consolation to anyone, but points to the overwhelmingly commercial interests behind slave trading. Racism against blacks grew mightily after they had been transformed into an underclass in South America, the Caribbean, and North America. The roots of slavery run deep, and remain visible today, both in the literal sense—in certain African countries like Mauritania and Sudan—and more loosely in international industries like the sex trade, where young women are shipped like commodities to overseas markets.


The impulse to prejudge is deeply human, a way to evaluate the multitude of experiences that humans have. After all, without some systematic preferences in life—certain friends rather than others, certain kinds of ice cream rather than others—humans would be simply conscious recording machines, empty observers of the world. But the harm in prejudice occurs, and occurs on a massive scale, when one begins to generalize broadly and to act on generalizations, either through violence, exclusion, or attitudes of disdain. Education is an aid in reducing those tendencies to generalize and act out, and exploring the literature of centuries of British experiences and voices provides invaluable perspectives with which to advance humanity's understanding and reduce its prejudgments.


Behn, Aphra, Oroonoko, or The Royal Slave, in Vol. 1 of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 2d ed., edited by M. H. Abrams, W. W. Norton, 1993, p. 1901, originally published in 1688.

De Quincey, Thomas, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, in Vol. 2 of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 2d ed., edited by M. H. Abrams, W. W. Norton, 1993, p. 447, originally published in 1821.

Eliot, George, Middlemarch, Penguin Books, 2003, pp. 6, 357, originally published in 1871.

Heaney, Seamus, "Punishment," in Vol. 2 of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 2d ed., edited by M. H. Abrams, W. W. Norton, 1993, pp. 2424-25, originally published in 1975.

Huxley, Thomas Henry, "Agnosticism and Christianity," in Vol. 2 of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 2d ed., edited by M. H. Abrams, W. W. Norton, 1993, p. 1450, originally published in 1889.

Kipling, Rudyard, "The White Man's Burden," The Literary Network, www.online-literature.com/kipling/922 (January 4, 2006), originally published in 1899.

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McCourt, Frank, Angela's Ashes, Scribner, 1996, p. 11.

Mill, John Stewart, "The Subjection of Women," in Vol. 2 of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 2d ed., edited by M. H. Abrams, W. W. Norton, 1993, p. 1012, originally published in 1869.

Shakespeare, William, The Merchant of Venice, in The Complete Works of Shakespeare, The Wordsworth Poetic Library, 1994, p. 401, originally published in 1598.

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―――――――, Pygmalion, Project Gutenberg, www.gutenberg.org/dirs/etext03/pygm110.txt (January 5, 2006), origin ally published in 1913.

Thomas, Dylan, "The Hunchback in the Park," in Vol. 2 of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 2d ed., edited by M. H. Abrams, W. W. Norton, 1993, pp. 2282-83, originally published in 1941.

Walcott, Derek, "A Far Cry from Africa," in Vol. 2 of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 2d ed., edited by M. H. Abrams, W. W. Norton, 1993, pp. 2358-59, originally published in 1962.

Woolf, Virginia, A Room of One's Own, Harcourt Brace, 1981, pp. 98, 104, originally published in 1929.

Wollstonecraft, Mary, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, in A Vindication of the Rights of Men, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, An Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution, Oxford University Press, 1999, pp. 225, 261, originally published in 1792.

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Race and Prejudice in British Literature

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