Race and Prejudice in World Literature

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Race and Prejudice in World Literature


Suffering and loss pervade world literature, reflecting that there is no guarantee of happiness, safety, or peace for humanity. Literature opens readers' eyes to events and lifestyles they would perhaps not otherwise experience, and with those experiences they come to understand the dark things that one human being will do to another out of fear, hate, greed, and ignorance. There is a difference, however, between the darkness that is an essential part of life, and the imposed darkness that results from prejudice and discrimination.

Essential darkness includes the inescapable problems of life, and not—for these are not essential—the cruelties individuals impose on one another. Cruelty is not part of the natural course of life, but is rather the product of distorted will. Prejudice and hate are imposed darkness: the misuse of intelligence and willpower, the damage individuals do each other by racial prejudice, deprecation, and oppression of others—on the individual and the national levels. World literature reflects this kind of willful distortion in issues of ethnicity, gender, religion, sexuality, social class, disability and illness, genocide and exile, slavery, and segregation. Prejudices, as is illustrated in texts from the around the world, are evils that do not have to exist.


The diversity found on the planet Earth is truly astounding and comprises a vast array of unique traditions, languages, customs, and beliefs. While this diversity can be an endless opportunity for learning and tolerance, it is often the seed of mistrust, discrimination, and hatred. Ignorance frequently plays a major part in promoting racial prejudice, but the antidote to this ignorance is readily available: knowledge and understanding can go a long way toward overcoming differences based solely on the circumstances of one's birth.

Polish author Jerzy Kosinski's The Painted Bird (1965) is a novel about a young boy in World War II Poland separated from his parents and left to survive as well as he can on his own. He is constantly on the move from one village to another, trying not to let people know that he is Jewish, for this would be a death sentence for him. The novel illustrates the inhumanity of a war situation in which one's heritage becomes a death warrant, even for a defenseless child. The narrator begins to see himself as the Germans do. He starts to think his life is worthless, and that he deserves to die because he is nothing more than an insignificant Jew to them, not a human being. In the face of a sharply dressed German officer, he feels "like a squashed caterpillar oozing in the dust, a creature that could not harm anyone yet aroused loathing and disgust…. I had nothing against his killing me."

The horror of World War II's institutionalized prejudice did not teach humanity any lasting lessons. Shortly after the war, South Africa's government enacted apartheid, a harsh policy of racial segregation. A white writer who had grown up under and opposed to apartheid, J. M. Coetzee wrote Waiting for the Barbarians (1982), which deals with black/white relations from the context of the antiapartheid movement. The figure at the center of the novel is a magistrate, a white official working on the margins of the Empire. The Central Government begins to fear that the barbarians (read: blacks) on the far side of the Empire are planning to invade. All diligence must be taken to keep the barbarians at bay; the Magistrate is therefore asked to keep a close eye out for dissent. Government investigators arrive to interrogate two "barbarian" prisoners in the city where the Magistrate works. The Magistrate begins to realize that his heart is with the barbarians (the blacks), who are feared due largely to reputation and misunderstanding. A tragic and instructive story unfolds from that point, and with it the reader gains a fresh sense of the devastating consequences of racial stereotyping. At the time of Coetzee's writing, many whites in South Africa feared an uprising of the majority black population. Like the government in the novel, they were "waiting" for what they considered an inevitable race war. Their reaction to such a possibility illustrates how tenuous the minority ruling class felt its hold over the majority truly was.

Blacks and Jews are far from the only groups to have been victimized by racial politics and discrimination. Like the Native Americans in North, Central, and South America, native New Zealanders known as the Maori have long been victims of social neglect and scorn. Just as the Native Americans were driven from their ancestral lands and relocated, Maori were forced out of tribal lands by the colonial British in the 1860s. Without their land on which to hunt and fish, many Maori moved to urban areas where they experienced racism and marginalization.

Alan Duff's novel Once Were Warriors (1990) presents the Hekes, a Maori family living in a public housing slum in Auckland, New Zealand. The Heke family exemplifies the struggle of modern-day Maori, who are torn between their native culture and the Pakeha (white) world in which they are forced to live. The Hekes are denied both a cultural identity and a way of life, and as a result, the father is a violent, unemployed alcoholic, one son turns to gangs and another is in reform school, while their eldest daughter hopes to leave the Maori world behind and assimilate fully into the white world. As the title of the novel indicates, the Maori were once powerful, independent warriors, but the effects of racism have left many broken, lost, and without an identity. Their frustration and hopelessness makes them self-destructive as they move further from their sources of ancestral pride, but no closer to a new foundation. They must reclaim their heritage and self-esteem before the downward spiral can stop.

The Maori family in Once Were Warriors has lost its cultural identity, straddling the line between a lost way of life and a racist majority culture. Like the Maori, the Hmong people of Cambodia have long been victims of racial contempt; both groups were embedded in larger, dominant cultures. Dia Cha addresses the Hmong destiny in her memoir, Dia's Story Cloth (1996).

Hmong culture has long been devoted to fine needlework, and stitchers have recorded national history in their cloths. The maintenance of national history—and by extension, cultural identity—is especially important to the Hmong, as they were displaced first from China, then from Laos-Cambodia, by the effects of the Vietnam War. Needlework provides a venue for historical awareness among the Hmong in a shaky world of displacements. In her cloth, which is a series of literary quilting pieces evoking Hmong history, Cha weaves a thread of identity for a people tossed on the waters of history. Her family is equally storm-tossed: her father was killed in the escape from Laos to Thailand, and her family faced the inevitable hard times of first-generation immigration into the United States. Like the Jewish child in The Painted Bird and the Hekes in Once Were Warriors, Cha's family struggles to maintain ties to their culture once they are removed from their native land. Through her family's story cloth, Cha is determined to preserve her people from the kind of cultural memory loss inflicted on the Maori.

Indian author Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake (2003) traces the passage of the Gangulis, a Bengali couple in an arranged marriage who immigrate to the United States. After arriving in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Ashoke goes to work, while his wife, Ashima, remains restlessly nostalgic for home. A key challenge in their Americanization effort is the naming of their first child, born in the United States. The cultural clash over the occasion illustrates the Gangulis' tenuous position as new Americans who hold to Indian cultural traditions. In India, it is traditional for parents to wait, sometimes for years, to name their children: "In India parents take their time. It wasn't unusual for years to pass before the right name, the best possible name, was determined." In the meantime, the infants receive pet names, until their true names are decided upon. In America, as Ashima learns, babies are named immediately: "they learn that in America, a baby cannot be released from the hospital without a birth certificate. And that birth certificate needs a name." The baby ends up with a compromised name—Gogol—which becomes history, strength, and misunderstanding between the immigrant parents and their first-generation American child. Growing up an immigrant, a stranger in a strange land, Gogol is forever falling through trapdoors into a past he does not share with his parents.

Prejudice can be supple. It intrudes into cultures and lives in a myriad of forms and affects both the oppressors and the oppressed in many different ways. Kosinski and Cha write from direct experience of racial annihilation, while Coetzee and Duff show the cultural damage wrought by institutionalized racism. Lahiri is concerned with the quieter transition from one culture into another, a transition greatly complicated by the racial issue. Cultural identity links people to their past, and maintaining and preserving that identity is often a key to their future.


The history of second-class citizenship for women is ancient, stemming from concepts like "property," "parentage," and "inheritance," dating back to the earliest societies. Women existed legally at the mercy of stronger, richer, more powerful men, a situation that changed little throughout the world until the twentieth century. World literature contains many depictions of women who refused this arrangement with varying degrees of discrimination, isolation, and success.

Russian author Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina (1877) presents a powerful female character who flouts societal conventions, and the backlash ultimately leads to her ruin. In the beginning, Anna is depicted as a virtuous woman, sedately married to the upper-class Alexei. The marriage is paper thin and passionless, and soon Anna falls for a dashing courtier, Vronsky. As in Flaubert's novel Madame Bovary, Anna falls for a man more glamorous than her stodgy husband. Anna gives birth to Vronsky's child, but her husband forgives her. Anna begs for a divorce, which Alexei refuses. She and Vronsky leave for Europe together, and they are shunned by society because they are traveling together unmarried. As revenge for embarrassing him with her conduct, Alexei refuses yet again to grant her a divorce. She begins a downward spiral of despair. Vronsky loves her, but she feels that he cannot truly love her since she cannot be his. In the end, she throws herself in front of a train and ends her life.

Anna Karenina is about the human condition and the complex, often tragic things that can occur, especially for the less powerful. Anna is too passionate not to create havoc around her as she follows her heart, and yet she is also a victim of the stereotyped roles to which she is expected to conform. Unable to conform to those roles, she takes her life rather than survive in misery. A similar fate awaits Edna, the unconventional protagonist in American Kate Chopin's The Awakening (1899), who cannot return to her traditional roles as wife and mother after she is "awakened" to the freedom of life on her own terms.

Henrik Ibsen's play A Doll's House (1879) presents another unconventional heroine, Nora. Like Anna and Edna, Nora is stifled by marital conformity. As the title of the play suggests, Nora is treated by her husband as a pretty thing, just a doll for display. However, she refuses to continue living that way, and decides to make a life on her own: "I have to stand completely alone, if I'm ever going to discover myself and the world out there." Her husband, Torvald, begs her to stay, but she refuses: "it would take the greatest miracle of all…. You and I both would have to transform ourselves to the point that—Oh, Torvald, I've stopped believing in miracles." Unlike Anna and Edna, Nora actually leaves and lives. However, public outcry over Nora's behavior demanded an alternate ending to the play, one in which Nora returns to her family, feeling that her children need her more than she needs her freedom. Ibsen wrote this ending, which he called a "barbaric outrage," for use if the audience demanded it.

A different analysis of women's self determination and empowerment is presented by Doris Lessing in The Golden Notebook (1962). The novel's protagonist, Anna, attempts to live as freely as a man, taking up the torch that Nora has lit at the end of A Doll's House. She has written one successful novel, and is now keeping four notebooks as part of her growing literary career. One of these notebooks carries a black cover, and in it she reflects on the African experiences of her earlier life. In a redcovered notebook she writes of her political life, especially of her disillusionment with communism, the reigning alternative ideology of her time. In her yellow notebook she writes a novel with herself as heroine. And in her blue notebook she writes a personal day-by-day diary. In the end, having fallen in love with an American writer and feeling her own sanity teetering, she decides to bring the strands of her four notebooks together in one tale, in the golden notebook.

In the end, Anna likewise reintegrates the compartments of her life. She accepts her growing disillusionment with communism, an ideology on which Western culture wasted many hopes. She also comes to accept her emotional weaknesses and the fact that she has been sexually betrayed. She tries to relieve the tensions in her family and friendships. In short, she works to make her writing the catalyst to becoming the whole woman she wants to be.

Chi-tsai Feng, in The Three-Inch Golden Lotus: A Novel on Foot Binding (1985) takes readers into a world where women are evaluated (in part) by the smallness of their feet. The smaller a woman's feet, the more beautiful and valuable she is considered; thus the women in this society have the same ornamental function Nora sees for herself in A Doll's House. Feng's story takes place in China in the late 1800s and early 1900s. When Fragrant Lotus's grandmother decides to bind her feet, a tradition reaching back thousands of years, it opens the door to Fragrant Lotus's own rapid upward mobility, with possibilities normally unknown to a person of lower class like herself. Aristocrats begin to seek her out. Her date book is crowded. However, the Maoist era is on the horizon, a period when foot binding seems only a contemptible reminder of the dynastic past with no place in the present. Fragrant Lotus continues to uphold the virtues of the dainty foot, but finds her world no longer shares her point of view. Feng's novel catches the moment when a new type of woman is emerging, banishing the old-fashioned traditions and practices like foot binding that now seem archaic and even cruel. What was once considered beautiful is now considered a deformity.

Bharati Mukherjee addresses the theme of women in a foreign culture in her novel Wife (1992). This novel reflects one kind of debilitating experience of immigration, a harsher transition than that depicted by Lahiri in The Namesake. Dimple, a young Indian woman, and her husband move from Bengal, India, to New York City. The transition is a rough one, and Dimple grows increasingly withdrawn as she realizes how different she is from the new culture in which she finds herself. Unable to comprehend a way to survive in his alien and inhospitable environment, Dimple kills her husband and herself. Wife is a testament to the fact that the feelings of exclusion and hopelessness present in Ibsen's A Doll's House and Flaubert's Madame Bovary from over a century earlier remain a part of some modern Western women's lives in the twentieth century.

In many contemporary cultures, women remain the property of their husbands or fathers with no legal rights. Souad, the Palestinian author of Burned Alive: A Victim of the Laws of Men (2003), recounts her disfiguring and near-fatal experience in such a society. As a member of a small Palestinian community, Souad broke a cultural taboo by engaging in premarital sex, a grave dishonor to one's family that is punishable by death. Her brother-in-law, with the support of her parents, poured gasoline over her and set her on fire. Souad escaped alive but with burns over ninety percent of her body. In contrast, her male lover was not punished. Though in permanent exile today, Souad wrote of her experiences with the hope of helping to change Palestinian tradition. It is hard to imagine a more dreadful path to testimony, and yet news of similar "honor killings" continue to attract the world's attention.

It is true that women have come a long way in the last century, and yet it is only partially true. All over the world, women are still marginalized and lack the power to shape their own destinies. In many places they have gained equal legal rights, but continue to bear most of the childrearing responsibility without the same pay scales as men. In more repressive maledominated societies, women's access to education, health care, and even free movement is dictated by the men in their lives. Control over their own bodies, voices, and lives is still a hazy dream. Works by the writers who have lived and survived, or perhaps escaped, bring the plight of women in such closed societies to the awareness of a broader world, where their struggles for progress gain support and momentum.


The history of the world is a story of conflict, and the seed of many of those conflicts has been religion. Nations have been built and battles fought to defend a belief or to spread a religion. World literature, therefore, is rich with examples of how religious prejudice and persecution has altered the world and affected its people.

Nicholas Cardinal Wiseman was the first Archbishop of Westminster, and one of the dominant leaders of Roman Catholicism in England in the nineteenth century. In that highly visible role he wrote Fabiola, or the Church of the Catacombs (1886), a collection of vignettes of life in the early days of the Church in ancient, pagan Rome. This was the city of the Coliseum, where Christians would sometimes be sent to fight wild animals, and where the crucifixions of early Christians were common events. The work takes the reader inside the worlds of heroes of the faith, like the young virgin Saint Agnes or the idealized soldier, Saint Sebastian, and invites the reader to experience the drama of those sacrifices that proved decisive in the survival of the Church. Cardinal Wiseman's book shows the strength and resolve necessary to stand in the face of persecution and prejudice, even when it might cost one's life.

European Jews in the 1930s and 1940s faced a similar vicious persecution, though on a larger scale. Religious prejudice and hate turned to genocide and mass murder in World War II, when six million Jews died in Nazi extermination camps. Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl (1947) recounts the terror, monotony, and anxiety experienced by a Jewish family hiding from the Nazis during the German occupation of Amsterdam. The atmosphere of threat is appalling. Holed up like a ghost in the attic, Anne writes of her experience in a diary that went on to make her one of the most moving witnesses to the brutality of war. As news of what is happening to Jews across Europe reaches the attic, Anne reflects on the fate of her people: "I get frightened myself when I think of close friends who are now at the mercy of the cruelest monsters ever to stalk the earth. And all because they're Jews." The Franks themselves were ultimately discovered, and all but Anne's father died in concentration camps. What is perhaps most moving, knowing the outcome, is Anne's tenacious belief throughout her ordeal in hiding: "that people are truly good at heart." A victim of the most malevolent persecution of a religious group, Anne persists in upholding the highest ideals of her faith.

Religions, like nation-states, carry out their own imperial takeovers. Cardinal Wiseman depicted early Christianity when it was fighting for its survival. Over fifteen hundred years later, Christianity was no longer a threatened religion, and in fact was asserting itself across the globe. Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, in Things Fall Apart (1958), explores the breakup of traditional African culture and religion in the face of invading Christianity and its missionaries. The tensions emerging from within organized religion are central to this classic.

This brief, complex tale highlights a protagonist, Okonkwo, who is a figure of power in his Ibo village. Because of his eminence, he is chosen to be the guardian of a young boy, Ikemefuna, who is taken prisoner by the tribe. Okonkwo assumes this responsibility, but when the elders decree that the boy must die in order to satisfy local gods, Okonkwo insists on taking part in the murder. That act is the beginning of Okonkwo's downfall. He and his family are sent into exile for seven years. While he is away, Christian missionaries convert many members of the tribe—including Okonkwo's oldest son, Nwoye—and whites introduce a new kind of government into the village. When Okonkwo and some of his native loyalists prepare a rebellion to throw out the Christians and their institutions, he learns that the village as a whole no longer supports him. He blames Christianity for the divided village: "You do not know what it is to speak with one voice. And what is the result? An abominable religion has settled among you." It all ends badly for Okonkwo, who hangs himself, and the key to the collapse is the tension between religions, and the gentle mercilessness of Christianity toward the ancient ways. No religion can afford to lack a quiet weaponry, and it is no surprise that prejudice is among those weapons.

In The Name of the Rose (1983), Italian author Umberto Eco looks closely at the internal struggles for power and influence that were at the heart of the medieval Catholic Church. In Eco's account, prejudice and conflict are as rampant within the Church as without.

This historical novel opens in 1327 with a visit by William of Baskerville to an isolated Benedictine Monastery in northern Italy. William is on assignment to inspect the monastery, which has a library that is the richest in Christendom. The Abbot of the Monastery strictly controls access to the library holdings. During William's visit, conspiracies and murders take place within the monastery, indicating how precious, and incendiary, the materials contained in this priceless library are. The library itself is an object of interest throughout the learned world of the time. Many turbulent cultural currents cross throughout the tale, including the conflict of the Papacy with the Franciscan order over the issue of voluntary poverty and the struggle of the Papacy with the Holy Roman Emperor. Though one might expect the Church to be above internal prejudices and infighting, its history shows otherwise, for whoever holds the knowledge holds the power.

The novel Shame (1997), by Tasalina Nasarina, takes the reader outside the Judeo-Christian orbit of the West and explores the violent religious repercussions of an event that took place in India in 1992. After the Partition in 1948 which created the separate nations of India and Pakistan, large numbers of Hindus relocated to India. The relationship between majority Hindus and minority Muslims has long been tense and antagonistic. In 1992, Hindu extremists destroyed a sacred Muslim mosque in Ayodhya, India. The outcry this provoked was harsh, but the Muslim retaliation was equally—Nasarina would say much more—violent. Shame traces the effects of this Muslim retaliation on a Hindu family living in Bangladesh.

The novel's narrator is the young son of the Hindu family, cynical and hard to discipline. He tells of the brutalities of the Muslim counterattack, including the abduction and probable death of his sister, Maya. The heavy toll of religious revenge cycles that go back to ancient times plays itself out, and Nasarina's novel shows the individual impact of these sweeping cultural and religious clashes. It did not stop with the events recounted in the novel, for the Muslim authority pronounced a fatwa against Nasarina, making it a holy Muslim duty to kill this writer. The text illustrates the dreadful consequences of one religion battering another, both in print and in life.

When religions clash, both factions invariably believe that they are on the side of "right." Because each faction is convinced of their righteousness and moral superiority, these conflicts rarely end with any surrender, concession, or understanding. Whether the fight is within sects of the same faith, between new ways and old, or between ancient enemies, the repercussions are shattering. History is written by the victors, but in the case of conflict over religion, there is always another chapter still to be written.


Prejudice in matters of sexual choice takes very different forms worldwide. While the Western industrialized world is currently debating issues such as gay lifestyle and even gay marriage, these options are taboo for many more conservative parts of the world, such as Africa, the Middle East, and parts of Asia.

Thomas Mann's Death in Venice (1929) presents the issue of sexuality as an obsession taking control of its victim, in this case a distinguished German scholar and writer. Gustave von Aschenbach has reached a point in his self-disciplined scholarly life where he needs a break by the sea. He gravitates to Venice, a city he has always longed to revisit. He establishes himself in a seaside hotel, and from his window grows increasingly obsessed with a handsome, androgynous teenaged boy who passes regularly along the beach. For von Aschenbach, the boy is both an erotic image and the image of a beautiful Greek god. At this point news comes that Venice is under siege from cholera. Instead of escaping, von Aschenbach elects to remain in Venice, absorbed by the miasmic beauty of this stranger. He dies for his obsession, infected by the plague. Though today Mann's character von Aschenbach would be considered a pedophile preying on an innocent child, Mann's intent while writing the novella was neither predatory nor strictly sexual. He wished to create a story about a man's longing that could not be admitted or openly shared, and therefore taken to a grave hastened by its secrecy.

Japanese writer Yukio Mishima's Confessions of a Mask (1949) shares with Mann's story a fascination with homosexuality and a sensitivity to the surrounding presence of death. Both stories appeal for sensitivity to the gay consciousness, but in its most inward and private dimensions, Mishima's book is an autobiographical novel. As a young man he is preoccupied with his own body, and there is a strong death component in this self-desire. Mishima is drawn to images of such sufferers as Saint Sebastian, the slim Christian martyr perforated by arrows. At the same time, the young Mishima likes the idea of being attracted to the beauty of his best friend's sister, for heterosexual attraction is what society expects. The girl becomes a woman, then marries and returns again to the city where Mishima lives. The two meet, and when she asks if he has had sex yet, Mishima grows hugely aware of his impotence. He falls victim to the supposition that a man should be able to make love to a woman. Mishima's novel shows how social prejudice against homosexuals can affect their identity and self-worth. Young Mishima lives in a world of "should haves" that cripple his personal growth.

Argentine Manuel Puig's Kiss of the Spider Woman (1976) is also about homosexuality, but with a liberating, rather than a masochistic, twist. The setting of the novel, a prison cell, provides a perfect context for acting out the perils and potentials of a human relationship. The world outside is a harsh, judgmental police state, but the imagination has free range inside the four walls of the cell. The older prisoner, Molina, enjoys a mental game that allows for his inner freedom, retelling the plots of his favorite movies. Molina identifies with the female protagonists of the movies he recounts, and he begins by telling his cellmate, Valentin, of a film in which a woman turns into a panther whenever she kisses a man. Molina considers himself a dangerous homosexual lover, like the panther woman, and Valentin, an at-first dour political ideologist, falls for his fellow prisoner's mind. The homoerotic relationship that forms during this six-month incarceration is as liberating to the men as getting out of jail could be: "It's as if we're on some desert island…. Because, well, outside of this cell we may have our oppressors, yes, but not inside."

Social Class and Caste

Prejudice against (or indifference toward) the impoverished is rapidly becoming a global form of oppression. The disadvantages of global poverty can be seen with ever greater clarity—in housing, in medical care, in access to education, and frequently in issues of simple nutrition—as the gap between the rich and the utterly destitute widens throughout the world. There have always been richer and poorer, but since urbanization and industrialization became linchpins of the economy in the nineteenth century, writers have focused on the struggles of surviving in the modern world.

In his vast series of novels, La Comédie Humaine (The Human Comedy), the French author Honoré de Balzac depicts many aspects of the new middle-class industrial life of France in the period following the Napoleonic Wars. That life was marked by the development of unbridled capital acquisition, with laborers frequently reduced to pawn status. In perhaps the most famous of his novels, Le Père Goriot (Father Goriot) (1834), Balzac probes deeply into the issues of wealth and poverty. Much of the action of the novel emanates from a Parisian boardinghouse, at which Goriot, a formerly wealthy merchant who has spent all his money on his two ungrateful daughters, resides. A fellow boarder is Rastignac, a student from the country who is trying to make a life in Paris and ambitiously hoping to link up with a wealthy wife to make his fortune.

Rastignac insinuates himself into the good graces of Goriot's daughter, Delphine. At the end of the novel, after twists and turns in Paris society and underworld, Rastignac is Delphine's lover and the chief heir to Goriot's fortune. Rastignac is on the upward ladder that will lead him to an important post as Cabinet Minister. A brutal climate of early capitalism pervades this world, in which money and power are everything, and love is merely a means to an end.

In The Communist Manifesto (1848), Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels address the questions of rampant capitalist ambition seen in Balzac's novels, where the drive for money and power corrupts society. The Manifesto begins by tracing the sequence of man's historical development as successive stages of polar opposites: free man and slave, upper class and lower class, lord of the manor and serf, then capitalist oppressor and oppressed. For Marx and Engels, the wealth accumulated by the masters of capitalism has been essentially stolen from the workers, who produced that wealth. The inevitable course of history, the Manifesto suggests, will lead to the workers taking violent control of the means of production, regaining their own rightful profits, destroying the idea of the nation-state, and establishing something like a worker's paradise. Marx and Engels's social and economic thoughts in the The Communist Manifesto would go on to inspire revolutions worldwide, from Lenin in Russia to Mao Zedong in China to Che Guevara in South America.

Balzac, Marx, and Engels share an analytical eye for the structure of society and the conflicts that emerge from the focus on amassing and investing capital. The same withering look at a ruthless economic order is evident in Victor Hugo's novel, Les Misérables (1862). This melodramatic but deeply touching novel is set in France after the fall of Napoleon. The protagonist, Jean Valjean, spent his early adulthood jailed for stealing a loaf of bread for his family, which was "always on the verge of destitution." Upon finally being released from jail, he crosses paths with a cleric, who sets him on the straight and narrow.

Valjean becomes mayor of a small town, but is hounded by a police inspector, Javert, who is determined to arrest him. Valjean escapes the officer, and in the meantime finds himself the protector of an orphan girl, Cossette. He takes her in and raises her in Paris, where she falls in love with Marius, a young revolutionary. It is a time of great unrest in Paris, as the poor are preparing to revolt against the rich ruling class in the manner predicted in The Communist Manifesto. A poor woman points out the hypocrisy of their rulers:

I'd like to strangle the lot of 'em, the rich, the so-called charitable rich, living in clover and going to Mass, and dishing out sops and pious sentiments. They think they're our lords and masters and they come and patronize us and bring us their cast-off clothes and a few scraps to eat.

The whole theme is perhaps overdrawn, but the novel is emotionally rich and full of insights into the kind of cutthroat social developments Balzac depicts in his work. Hugo has a warmer heart than Balzac and allows love some room in the shaping of human affairs. Both writers bring indifference to the poor into sharp relief, and help shape the public debate about their plight by using people's names, human faces, and moving stories to illustrate their societal dilemma.

Gustave Flaubert, author of Madame Bovary (1857), was sensitive to the social issues plaguing nineteenth-century France. In his story "A Simple Soul" (1877), Flaubert writes a simple tale of a quiet life in the French countryside, not in the vast economic battleground of Paris. This short story portrays Félicité a simple and quiet maid so "economical" that "when she ate she would gather up crumbs with the tip of her finger, so that nothing should be wasted of the loaf of bread." Félicité is not a victim of social prejudice as such, but of the quiet sad integrity of the little life, the life without interesting horizons because there is no money or time to achieve them.

The explicit injustice of a caste society could not be more sharply highlighted than in Mulk Raj Anand's Untouchable (1935). The Indian caste system has historically been a rigid social stratification in which it was nearly impossible to improve one's lot. Until recent decades there were five recognized castes, with several thousand informal subcastes. At the bottom level of the caste system (which is much less enforced in contemporary times) are the untouchables. In this novel, one of India's most respected novelists illustrates the plight of the untouchables. The protagonist, Bakha, is fixed in an inherited occupation, latrine cleaner, from which he can only escape in his mind. This handsome, gifted untouchable—locked into his position in caste society—becomes Anand's vehicle for assessing many tempting formulas of reform. Civil disobedience, Marxist, and Muslim ideologies all offer themselves as imagined escapes, and Bakha's thoughts travel down all of those paths. Anand has, however, been criticized for the very dilemma he sets before the reader: for Bakha to be a convincing and realistic untouchable, he can hardly be the philosopher Anand makes him, as he would have had no education. Yet, without that philosophical dimension, the character of Bakha is simply a thing engaged in eternal base toil rather than a human. Prejudice is much too gentle a term for the vise that pins the character of Bakha in place.

In A Bend in the River (1979), V. S. Naipaul moves the social class critique to Africa, early in postcolonial times in Zaire. Naipaul's principal character, Salim, is a trader whose post is situated at a bend in the vast river, around which lays the still-untamed African jungle. It is his business to sell assorted supplies such as household wares and school materials to natives from the interior who travel by river to trade. He is a Muslim Indian, part of the trader community of long standing in eastern Africa. His ethnicity makes him an outsider in Africa, where Indian and Asian traders are subject to animosity and even violence as they grow successful. East Africa is itself a poor region that was abandoned by Europeans when colonialism collapsed. Naipaul is liberal with his criticisms, both of the Africans for having let their country deteriorate after the departure of the Europeans, and for the Europeans, who left things in shambles. In a partly abandoned village on the lake, the clash of cultures, mistrust, and anxiety are evident signs of Africa's colonial past:

The Africans who had abandoned the town and gone back to their villages were better off; they at least had gone back to their traditional life and were more or less self-sufficient. But for the rest of us in the town … it was a stripped, Robinson Crusoe kind of existence … if we had worn skins and lived in thatched huts it wouldn't have been too inappropriate.

What in Balzac is commentary on the first boisterous exuberance of modern wealth making is by Naipaul's time part of the winding down of late capitalism and the negligence of colonialism. All these writers, though, provide a means through which those not usually faced with the dilemma social rank can be made to consider the issue and see its sufferers as fellow human beings. It is comforting to believe that status is earned, particularly among those who enjoy some status; the literature of social prejudice helps the "haves" see the "have nots" less as architects of their own fates and more as victims of circumstance.

Disability, Illness, and Social Stigma

World literature is full of characters that are "misfits" to society, either in their actions, appearance, health, or mental states. For one reason or another, either from fear, ignorance, or indifference, characters of this sort have often been subject to ridicule and prejudice in the real world. In literature, though, they are given a chance to prove themselves as individuals worthy of compassion and love. With this literary understanding comes the opportunity for real-world understanding, as well as greater tolerance.

Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831) transports the reader into the French social critique of the new middle class and capitalist culture of the nineteenth century. In it, Hugo reaches back to fifteenth-century Paris for the setting in which to make his nineteenth-century social points. The central figure of this novel is Quasimodo, the bell ringer of the great cathedral of Notre Dame, in the center of medieval Paris. Because he is born with a physical deformity, his parents abandon him, but he is taken in by the archdeacon of Notre Dame. The archdeacon gives him the job of ringing the church's bells, which deafens him. Quasimodo has a sweet, gentle nature, but is routinely ridiculed and ostracized because of his appearance. When Esmeralda, a beautiful young street woman, is condemned as a witch, Quasimodo hides her in the bell tower of the cathedral to protect her from the vigilantes in the city. For a moment at least, Quasimodo and Esmeralda are connected by their shared experience of being treated as unacceptable outsiders by the harsh Paris crowds. Supposing that Quasimodo's deformity indicates a foulness of soul, the crowd assumes that he is assaulting Esmeralda, rather than protecting her. In an effort to free (and capture) the woman, the attacking citizens bring on tragic results for both Quasimodo and Esmeralda. Quasimodo's unusually reflective and sensitive soul is a poignant feature of the text, showing the dignity of a person that society might discriminate against in any century. Hugo's novel gives a clear image of the way prejudice deforms its objects.

Like The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Idiot (1868) deals with the paradox of a beautiful soul who is unrecognized as such because he is somehow disabled. Prince Myshkin is a pure soul, distinctive for his simple honesty, and therefore suspect in a society that runs according to subtly embedded rules and can stand only a limited amount of directness. From the beginning, when he returns from the sanatorium where he has been sent for treatment of his epilepsy, readers know that Myshkin is going to capsize in the sea of social conflicts awaiting him:

The readiness of the fair-haired young man in the cloak to answer all his opposite neighbour's questions was surprising. He seemed to have no suspicion of any impertinence or inappropriateness in the fact of such questions being put to him.

Myshkin is an outcast who becomes the subject of scorn because he embraces the truth. As he idealistically plans toward marriage, he discovers that he is embroiled with a scheming circle of competing contenders. Myshkin is indifferent to social norms, and because of that, society takes him for an idiot. With this novel, Dostoevsky holds a mirror to a society that had made truth a social blunder, and the honest men victims of discrimination.

Another innocent is scrutinized by society in Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez's short story, "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings" (1968). The story illustrates how people who are different can automatically be subject to suspicion and curiosity. As in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the reader wonders at humanity's lack of compassion, and its willingness to so quickly reject what is not understood.

One rainy season, Pelayo finds an old man with weather-beaten wings mired in the mud on the beach. Pelayo brings the man back to his house and places him in the chicken coop in his yard. The villagers gather to see this curiosity, formulating many theories about him: he could be an angel, a supernatural being, or a castaway sailor. Though they cannot agree on what he is, there is a mutual agreement that he is definitely not like them. Pelayo and his wife begin to charge people for the opportunity to look at the old man, as he if he were a creature in the zoo. So many people come to stare at the old man that "they had to call in troops with fixed bayonets to disperse the mob that was about to knock the house down." Before long, Pelayo and his family have enough money to build a mansion and their child regains his health after a long illness. The novelty of the old man begins to wear off, and people stop coming to see him when it appears that he is not an angel after all, but merely a human with wings. People lose interest in the man, and he becomes deliriously ill. Rather than have compassion or sympathy for the man's condition, Pelayo and his wife come to regard him as a nuisance: "it [is] awful living in that hell full of angels," his wife shouts. The old man eventually recovers his health, grows new wings, and flies away. The story is a parable about people's readiness to strip the humanity from those who are different, and how, in doing so, they miss out on those people's magic.

Korney Chukovsky's works demonstrate the power of disparaged minorities and individuals to proudly rise up and find themselves. In Chukovsky's memoir, The Silver Crest: My Russian Boyhood (1976), he recounts how he was able to overcome the social stigma of his childhood and family in order to control his own future. Chukovsky was born to an unwed mother, a serious social taboo in the Stalinist Soviet Union of the 1940s and 1950s. As an illegitimate child, he is subjected to scorn and dismissed from school; no longer able to wear the silver school crest on his cap, he loses his identity and friends. Whereas once he had belonged, the loss of his silver crest means he is a social outsider with limited opportunities open to him. As an adult he becomes a painter, and is again scorned by society, since he is homeless at the time, so people assume that he lacks respectability. As he matures, however, he gradually establishes himself as a distinguished man of letters. He refuses to be kept down or limited because of a social more that robs people of their dignity and denies them all opportunity. Chukovsky's account of self-determinism is a welcome contrast to Quasimodo's bell tower or the old man's chicken coop, limited spaces that stigmatized people are forced to inhabit because society's prejudices force them into confinement.

While the social stigma associated with birth is abating in many countries, the stigma surrounding HIV and AIDS continues to be strong and deadly in some areas of the world. In some cultures, the disease is associated with immorality and sin, and infected persons sometimes keep the disease a secret for fear of the social repercussions. Chu T'ien-wen's novel, Notes of a Desolate Man (1999), is a sophisticated reflection on gay love and gay survival in the face of the AIDS crisis in China. As the story opens, the narrator, Xiao Shao, has lost a childhood friend to AIDS. Depressed over his friend's demise while simultaneously shocked that he is still disease-free himself, Xiao thinks back on his lovers and friends. He reflects on mortality and risk, and on the chances his friend Ah Yao had been taking—not only in his sexual life but as a political radical as well. From the plateau of these reflections, and in the course of an urbane and scholarly narration, Xiao goes on to think of the nature of romantic love, of writing, and of a younger generation preoccupied with video games while Taiwan teeters on the brink of extinction. The life in the narrator's mind provides him with a brilliant if shaky haven from the part of the world that kills directly. A striking parallel to Xiao's feeling of isolation in the face of AIDS is the setting of Taiwan, an island off the coast of China that has long fought to be independent of Chinese rule. The Chinese government, however, refuses to allow Taiwan to break away and become an independent nation. Just as Taiwan is caught between two opposing forces, T'ien-wen depicts a character straddling a similar divide in his own life.

Alan Brennert's Moloka'i (2003) pursues the theme of personal marginalization by society, and of the social prejudice that makes that marginalization particularly painful. Throughout history, the disease of leprosy has made outcasts of its sufferers. Leprosy is an infectious, disfiguring skin disease, and for centuries, sufferers were quarantined to leper colonies and kept apart from the rest of society. In this respect, leprosy has long been a disease that causes social nonexistence before physical death. In the late nineteenth century, a leper colony existed on the remote Hawaiian island of Moloka'i. Brennert's novel follows the pain and isolation of a young girl sent to Moloka'i by her family. She must leave everything familiar and beloved behind her, and reach inside herself for the courage that brings human beings through to hard-won triumph despite being pushed outside of society.

Victims of prejudice suffer from the discrimination they face, whether it is because of physical, mental, or social conditions. Writing from around the world presents characters who face these prejudices and show readers just how damaging they can be. Literature shows those who remain misunderstood, such as the old man with wings and Quasimodo; those who refuse to bow to it, like Myshkin in The Idiot; and those who rise above it, like Chukovsky and the leper girl in Moloka'i.

Ethnic Cleansing, Genocide, and Exile

When prejudice and discrimination are extended to national and international levels, or where entire races, cultures, or ethnicities are involved, there looms the threat of ethnic cleansing and genocide. These horrific conditions can lead to forced exile or relocation, and the loss of a people's homeland and identity. The twentieth century has seen its share of such large-scale exile and genocide—Armenia, Nazi Germany, Bosnia, Cambodia, Rwanda—but the practice of exterminating whole ethnic or religious groups is centuries old.

The book of Exodus (fourteenth century b.c.) in the Bible recounts the departure of the Jews from Egypt, where they had been living for four hundred years. As the Jewish population rises in Egypt, the Pharaoh decides to enslave them in order to preserve his balance of power: "the Israelites have become much too numerous for us. Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous" (New International Version). The Pharaoh fears the rising population because "if war breaks out, [the Jews] will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country." From that point on, by the Pharaoh's decree, the Jews are systematically harassed and singled out for murder and slave labor by the Egyptians. The plan does not work, however, and the Jewish population continues to grow. In response, the Pharaoh institutes an attempt at genocide: all male Jewish babies are to be thrown into the Nile River to prevent future generations from reproducing. However, one man, Moses, manages to escape the fate of male Jews, and rises up to become the chosen leader of the Israelites.

After enduring many excruciating hardships, the Jews are led by Moses out of the land of bondage into the desert of Israel. Many miracles herald this flight out of Egypt, in the course of which, for instance, the Red Sea is parted to let the Jews cross. Water and food are miraculously provided in the desert. Moses is met by God on Mount Sinai, and receives the Ten Commandments. A noble future lies ahead for these emigrants, who eventually settle in the land God promised to them in Israel. There is no minimizing their sufferings, however, which were prototypes of those sufferings nature and oppression inflict on refugees to this day.

Franz Werfel's novel The Forty Days of Musa Dagh (1934) is set during the genocide of the Armenians by the Turks in 1915. The massacre in question was eclipsed by World War I, which diverted the world's attention from the Turkish government's systematic move to extirpate their neighbors and bitter ethnic rivals. In the novel, Gabriel Bagradian, an Armenian by birth and an officer in the Turkish army, leads five thousand Armenian villagers to the top of "the mountain of Moses," Musa Dagh, to fend off the attacking Turkish army. The resistance effort is far too small to repel the vastly superior numbers of the Turks, but the courage of their stand makes these Armenians models of inspiration to their people. Werfel's book was one of the first published accounts of the Armenian genocide and forced exile in Turkey, and though it is fictionalized, it is considered an important piece of history. The book was banned by the Nazis as a threat to the people of Germany. Through his novel, Werfel hoped to ensure that the systematic destruction of a group of people never goes unnoticed or unacted upon again. As the twentieth century unfolded, however, Werfel's vision went woefully unfulfilled.

Less than a decade after Werfel's account of the Armenian genocide, one of the worst genocides in human history was underway in Europe. Elie Wiesel's memoir Night (1960) opens in 1941, in Wiesel's village of Sighet, in Transylvania. Elie is a happy and studious young man who, along with his family, is unaware of the impending perils that they, and all European Jews, will face. It is not until 1944, when the German army occupies Sighet and the first Jewish deportations begin, that the brutal truth becomes plain to everybody. The villagers are transported to Auschwitz, the most notorious of the Nazi concentration camps. Wiesel, his sister, and his parents are placed in a crowded cattle car and transported to Auschwitz, where Wiesel's mother and sister are separated from him. He never sees them again.

When he and his father arrive at the camp, they are faced with scenes from hell—babies being burned to death; starving, emaciated men; and the stink of human flesh being incinerated. The men in the camp are under no illusion about their fate: "Don't let yourself be fooled with illusions," a fellow prisoner tells Wiesel, "Hitler has made it very clear that he will annihilate all the Jews before the clock strikes twelve, before they can hear the last stroke." By the time the Russians liberate the camp, in April 1945, Wiesel is one of the few survivors of the original group from Sighet. After being released, he wakes, looks in a mirror, and sees a living corpse stare back at him. Wiesel's memoir is often credited with bringing to the world's attention the holocaust that killed six million Jews. Like Werfel's novel, however, Wiesel's account of genocidal horror was not the last such event that would wind up chronicled in print.

In The Rape of Nanking (1997), Iris Chang shines the spotlight on another relatively ignored episode of genocide. The Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945) was a binational struggle for power between the Chinese and the Japanese. The Chinese Nationalist government, under Chiang-kai Shek, seemed a threat to Japanese interests on the Chinese mainland, and the two sides fought heavily for dominance. The event chronicled by Chang in The Rape of Nanking refers to the atrocities carried out by invading Japanese forces, in December 1937, in the revered ancient Chinese city of Nanking.

In a two-month period, some three hundred fifty thousand Chinese soldiers and civilians were slaughtered with the permission (and Chang suggests, encouragement) of the Japanese government. This book gives a chilling account of the kind of smaller-scale brutality triggered by ethnic cleansing impulses, throughout history and around the globe. Chang sees this terrible episode in a large context, as part of man's inhumanity to man, a manifestation of the damage human beings voluntarily impose on one another. Like Werfel and Wiesel, Chang uses literature as a mode of remembrance, in hopes that history will not repeat itself with future bloody genocides.

It is not yet to be, however, for in nearby India and Sri Lanka, centuries of religious, social, and cultural violence continue their cycle even today. That there is no easy end to the pockets of local violence in the world is evident from the civil war in Sri Lanka between the Tamils and the Sinhala, the two ethnic groups left to battle over the local power that became available when the British withdrew from their colonialist enterprise. This civil war, which pits racially opposed groups against one another—like the Biafran War in Nigeria or the Hutu/Tutsi massacre in Rwanda—began in 1983, and is still ongoing. This struggle is at the heart of Sri Lankan-born Michael Ondaatje's novel Anil's Ghost (2000).

The main character, Anil Tissera, is a Sri Lankan who leaves her country when she is eighteen. She becomes a forensic anthropologist, and works in the killing fields of Guatemala exhuming victims of that country's civil war. She returns to Sri Lanka fifteen years later and teams up with a Sri Lankan archeologist. Together, they let their minds and imaginations flow freely into the histories they find in the bones, familiar names, and memories, evoking all the poetry and horror of the death that is spilled around them on all sides. As the body count rises from Sri Lanka's civil war, Anil and the archeologist are able to find answers and evidence hidden in the remains of the victims of this violence. Anil finds herself involved in the struggle in ways she never imagined. Like Wiesel's Night, Anil's Ghost portrays the impact of ethnic cleansing and genocide on the individuals who must live with their realities. Accounts such as these depict abstract and remote historical events and bring them to the reader in a highly personal manner.

Before the civil war in Sri Lanka that led to ethnic cleansing between two tribes, a genocidal and political massacre took place in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. In Loung Ung's memoir, First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers (2000), Ung reminds readers that the communist faction the Khmer Rouge killed some two million people, almost one-fourth of the Cambodian population, during the second half of the 1970s. Under the reign of the Khmer Rouge, intellectuals, professionals, ethnic Vietnamese, Christians, Muslims, Buddhist monks, and anyone with connections to the former government were killed. It is considered one of the bloodiest political reigns of the twentieth century, on a par with Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany.

In 1975, when Cambodian cities were about to be emptied to make way for an imagined agrarian communist utopia, five-year-old Ung is living in the capitol Phnom Penh. She is one of several children of a well-placed government official, a child of privilege and of a thousand small pleasures around the city. Under the brutal regime of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, she is separated from her family, driven out into the countryside, and forced to labor as a child soldier in a camp for orphans. Ung writes about how it is essential to her survival to keep her privileged background hidden, and how she is forced to endure the dispersal and murder of her family members. After the war, and in the writing of the book, Ung reassembles her understanding of what happened to her under Khmer Rouge, and of the immense calamity that befell Cambodia. By the power of her book she makes an effort to rescue history from its nightmare.

Two decades later, in 1994, hundreds of thousands of Tutsis were murdered in the span of one hundred days by Hutus in Rwanda. Gil Courtemanche's novel A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali (2003) is set at the start of the genocide. The protagonist is Bernard Valcourt, a Canadian filmmaker who has been sent to Kigali, in Rwanda, to set up a television station. The story takes place in the early 1990s, and though the genocidal struggle between Hutus and Tutsis has not yet started, the disaster is already in the air. During the colonial era in Rwanda, the whites arbitrarily created the ethnic distinctions based solely on their physical appearance, and had favored the taller, lighter-skinned Tutsis. Hutus were getting ready to revolt against decades of marginalization.

Valcourt regularly finds himself poolside at his hotel with other members of the local elite and the expatriate community. There Gentille, a lovely waitress who, though Hutu, looks like a Tutsi, captures his eye and his heart. Valcourt comes to know the threatened Tutsi community, then the entire Rwandan culture, shadowed as it is with impending massacre, not to mention the endless scourges of AIDS and poverty. Through a love affair—which becomes a love affair with a culture as well as an individual—Courtemanche pulls the reader deep into the individual experience of genocide.

Novels and memoirs can be some of literature's most powerful forms, as they memorialize and interpret what sometimes seems to lack meaning. In a world that has known, survived, and repeated so many instances of genocide, forced exile, and ethnic cleansing, literature serves as a memorial to the fallen who can no longer speak for themselves, and as a warning to those who survive or follow.


The forced labor of members of certain ethnicities, minorities, or religions has occurred to some extent on every inhabited continent in the world. Slavery reduces humans to the level of possessions and units of labor, but literature about slavery tries to reintroduce the humanity of the victims of this institution, and remind readers that slaves, too, are individuals with the same feelings, fears, hopes, and dreams as any member of the human race.

An early firsthand account of modern slavery is The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano: or, Gustavus Vassa, the African (1794). Equiano was born in present-day Nigeria and sold into slavery as a child. He was taken to England, where he at first found himself a slave to a captain in the Royal Navy, and then a slave to a Quaker merchant. As Equiano explains in his narrative, he was able to buy his freedom by saving money and trading commodities, a rare occurrence in the eighteenth century. He went on to become a sailor, sailing the Mediterranean, Atlantic, and Caribbean. He also sailed to the Arctic as part of an expedition hoping to reach the North Pole. Upon returning to England, he became instrumental in the movement to abolish the slave trade, which provided the impetus for Equiano's writing this autobiography. Not only did his book become a bestseller, but it made its author wealthy. Equiano used his own experiences with the inhumanity of slavery to campaign against the entire institution. His is a story of suffering, oppression, and ultimately, victory and hope. Slavery was finally abolished throughout the British Empire in 1833.

Another slave who was able to escape the horror of the system was Mary Prince, whose The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave (1831) recounts her life as a slave in the Caribbean. Like Equiano, Prince writes about the degradation and suffering imposed by slavery from personal experience. She escaped in 1828 and made her way to London. Her History became an overnight bestseller, and was praised by abolitionists for its frank depiction of the life of a slave. Personal narratives such as Prince's and Equiano's were extremely influential in the antislavery movement in Britain. These accounts had the power to transform a remote practice that happened to "other people" in a far-off place into personal stories, putting a face on the brutal practice of slavery.

Though legally abolished by the twentieth century in most countries, the practice of slavery continued. In the 1930s, the political fervor sweeping the world in the wake of The Communist Manifesto (1848) and World War I led many to see industrialization and capitalism as a new form of slavery. Scottish writer James Mitchell, a Marxist critic and novelist, published Spartacus (1933) in tribute to the Roman gladiator who led a slave revolt in 73 b.c. against his tyrant Roman masters. This sustained rebellion, which claimed one hundred and thirty thousand slave adherents, was a genuine threat to the Roman Republic for a while, and required repeated campaigns to defeat it. For Mitchell, as for fellow Spartacus admirer Karl Marx, this slave uprising exemplified perfectly the power of the underclass to strike back. The historical Spartacus was far from an ideologist and had no interest in overthrowing the Roman state. He simply wanted freedom for himself and his followers. In the politically charged 1930s, it was impossible to believe that personal freedom was enough, and Spartacus had come to be seen as an inspirational figure well ahead of his time.

Russian author and Nobel laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn, like Equiano and Prince, was himself a slave. Though he was not bought or sold, he was nevertheless forced into a hard labor camp where he was a slave of the Soviet government. In 1945, Solzhenitsyn was sent to the Gulag, or prison internment camp, for ten years. His crime had been making derogatory comments about Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin in a letter to a friend. In the novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962), Solzhenitsyn shares his firsthand experience about the steady stream of small indignities that make up daily life in a prison camp. It is an existence where every day is mind-numbingly monotonous:

In all the time he spent in camps and prisons, Ivan Denisovich had gotten out of the habit of worrying about the next day, or the year…. Winter after winter, summer after summer—he still had a long time to go.

Control over even the smallest of things becomes a victory in such a repressive situation. One day he finds that he has managed, unintentionally, to pocket a spoon from the dining hall, and that he has gotten away with it. It is the triumph of the slave who has nothing more to expect. Where Equiano, Prince, and Mitchell show some degree of triumph over the institution of slavery, Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich offers no such hope. It is the story of the average slave, like the multitude of slaves the world over who have suffered anonymously.

Though centuries of literature have shown the brutality and inhumanity of slavery, the institution is not a thing of the past. Human trafficking is widespread even today, and supports a modern slave system that exploits women, children, ethnic and religious minorities, the poor, and the desperate. It is an underground economic force still strong in some parts of the world. Mende Nazer reminds contemporary readers about the ongoing reality in her memoir Slave (2003). In 1994, Nazer is kidnapped from her Nuba village in Sudan by Mujahedin raiders. Many of the villagers are raped or murdered, and several young girls, including Nazer, are kidnapped and sold as slaves. Without knowing of her family's survival after the attack, Nazer is brought to a home in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, and forced to work as a domestic servant. The urban landscape of Khartoum is alien to Nazer, as she grew up without conveniences like electricity, eating utensils, or automobiles. The family she works for are cruel, and they beat her regularly. She is given no bed, no regular food, and no payment. After seven years, she manages to escape when she is sent to London to work for another family. Nazer's account has brought the issue of slavery back into the world's view, and human rights groups are investigating Sudan and other African nations believed to be involved in his modern slavery. Like Equiano's narrative, Nazer's is making it hard for those who never encounter slavery to ignore what happens to foreign people in far away places.

In the National Book Award-winning novel All Souls' Rising (1995), Madison Smartt Bell presents a historical story that rivals that of Spartacus for spontaneous violence in the service of freedom. Here the subject is the Haitian slave rebellion of 1791, in the first months of which twelve thousand people lost their lives. The fighting took place in part between black slaves and white slave owners, but the situation was made more complex by the shifting alliances among slaves, French royalists, French revolutionaries, and more than sixty-four different classifications of people of mixed race. The action focuses on the earliest months of the rebellion, which would last more than a decade. There are no clear instigators or victims. Full understanding and appreciation of this work is not a simple matter of distinguishing the good guys and the bad guys, or naming the winners and losers. History tells us that Haitian slaves won their freedom, but novels like Bell's show the complexities and ambiguities of conflicts with so much at stake for so many.

For those who do escape slavery, the legacy of having endured enslavement is a painful burden. This pain is a central fact in Nora Okja Keller's novel Comfort Woman (1997). The book deals with a Korean mother and a daughter, who are both deeply affected by the mother's slavery during World War II. The mother was kept as a sex slave during the Japanese occupation of Korea. She cannot shake her mind free from this terrible memory, which in some ways echoes the issues of Chan's The Rape of Nanking. The American-born daughter cannot penetrate the history her mother has endured, and can only understand her mother's burden in a limited way as her mother approaches the end of her life. Love unites the two women in the end, as the trauma of slavery is shown in Keller's novel to never fully subside.

Slavery is as old as civilization, but the power of literature to affect the institution is relatively new. The inhumanity of slavery becomes impossible to ignore when the slaves themselves tell of their experiences, showing that spirit and humanity not only exist, but can survive even in the harshest conditions. Literature has helped to stamp out slavery in many times and places, and will continue to force the free people of the world to confront the evil wherever it continues to exist, until it is no more.


Many nations throughout the world have permitted or encouraged barriers between ethnicities, religious groups, genders, or between society and the pariahs it marginalizes. These barriers impose separation, or segregation. Beyond individual prejudices, legally designed and enforced segregation—or in the case of South Africa from the 1940s to the 1990s, apartheid—support state-sanctioned brutality and suffering. Institutionalized segregation continues in some areas of the world even today, despite literature's success in raising awareness and demolishing barriers. Divided communities are weakened as they relegate some members to second-class status; the literature about segregation and apartheid speaks for the strength of communities that are whole.

In a move not unlike what would follow in South Africa, in 1931 the Australian government issued an edict declaring that all aboriginal black girls were to be—willingly or not—integrated into mainstream white society, educated, and put into domestic (or other) service. To do this, aboriginal peoples were separated from their homelands and families and relocated to isolated "native settlement stations" that resembled the U.S. Japanese internment camps during World War II. In Rabbit-Proof Fence: The True Story of One of the Greatest Escapes of All Time (2002), Doris Pilkington describes how three adolescent sisters—Molly (the author's mother), Gracie, and Daisy—bravely defied this edict that separated them from everything they had ever known.

The girls are removed to a native settlement station twelve hundred miles from their home, and begin indoctrination into white culture. That means a ban on speaking their own language and on maintaining their cultural heritage, and heavy stress on learning white household skills. For these three independent and high-spirited girls, this exile is intolerable. After less than a month, they escape, making the two-month journey back to their home village by following the fence that runs nearly the whole north-south axis of Australia. The three girls' refusal to accept their desperate circumstances and their drive to return home despite the dangers of the trip is a story of remarkable courage and unwavering faith in the rightness of their quest. These girls never internalize the indoctrination and barely hesitate when they see their chance to flee. A different kind of courage is needed to challenge the only status quo one has ever known.

In Biko (1979), Donald Woods writes about a man who came to represent the most tenacious and daring opposition to South Africa's apartheid. Biko was the leader of the nonviolent Black Consciousness Movement, which rejected the minority white version of "truth" in matters of race and identity. Woods was one of the few outspoken white supporters of Steve Biko, and in his writing he explores the circumstances of Biko's life, and especially of his suspicious death in police custody in 1977. Woods himself showed a particular brand of courage in publishing Biko's story while still under apartheid rule. The courage that Biko showed in fighting apartheid is echoed in Woods's book, which itself proved an important instrument in raising awareness about the gross injustices being carried out by the government of South Africa in the late twentieth century.

Throughout the 1970s and 1990s, racial tension in South Africa was extremely high. That tension and fear is captured in Nadine Gordimer's July's People (1982), in which the South African novelist looks into the mindset of South African whites who are not necessarily racists, yet are affected by the racial tension that surrounds them. The dilemma she highlights springs from a possible future (at the time, a future still to be imagined) in which a black revolution has overthrown apartheid society. The protagonists, a middle-class white family, are driven into hiding after the revolution, and must seek refuge in the home of their servant, July. The reactions of the former servant and his employers to their new role reversal highlight the tyranny of power as much as the abasement of powerlessness. It was an eye-opening polemic when it was published during apartheid's darkest days.

A nonfiction account of life under true South African apartheid is captured in Mark Mathabane's Kaffir Boy: The True Story of a Black Youth's Coming of Age in Apartheid South Africa (1987). Mathabane describes the rough living conditions of his youth in the 1960s and 1970s in the shantytown of Alexandra. There was no running water, electricity, or heat; police frequently raided homes and arrested citizens; corruption and abuse were rampant. The book is a crushing indictment of the pain of the segregated black underclass during apartheid, and Mathabane's purpose is to force whites to see these conditions: "The white man of South Africa certainly does not know me. He certainly does not know the conditions under which I was born and had to live for eighteen years." Fortunately there is a ray of promise at the end of the story. Mathabane receives a tennis scholarship to a college in the United States, where he is able to permanently escape the confines of apartheid. However, he cannot escape his past or his memories of oppression: "I knew that I could never really leave South Africa or Alexandra. I was Alexandra, I was South Africa, I was part of what Alan Paton [author of Cry, the Beloved Country] described as 'a tragically beautiful land.'" Mathabane's story, released before the end of apartheid, was another important step in the demise of the system a few years later.

Great courage is required of anyone, man or woman, rich or poor, white or black or brown, who is determined to realize a full life and reach out to his or her country and world. For many people, Nelson Mandela has become the contemporary symbol of this courage. In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela (1994), the Nobel Peace Prize-winner helps readers to understand how he survived twenty-seven years in prison on South Africa's Robben Island for fighting against apartheid. Steve Biko, Mark Mathabane, and the conflicted whites of Gordimer's July's People were all thrashing around in an effort to achieve an end to a segregated world while Mandela remained imprisoned. His story and experiences, however, end in a way that fulfills the hopes of all who fought against apartheid with him: four years after being released from prison, Mandela became South Africa's first black president. He not only survives his ordeal; he triumphs. His life is a testament to the power of perseverance, forgiveness, and unity, and his story is inspiring proof that one person can have an enormous impact on the world.

Segregation is also found in more historically ingrained incarnations. Many societies around the globe keep women at a lower status than men in terms of rights, legal protection, and freedom. Jean P. Sasson shows the extent to which segregation affects women, even royalty, in Muslim Saudi Arabia in Princess: A True Story of Life Behind the Veil in Saudi Arabia (1992). This book transports readers from the racially segregated world of Steve Biko and Mark Mathabane to the gender segregation of conservative Muslim society in Saudi Arabia. The external differences between the two settings could not be more extreme: from the squalor of a South African shantytown to wealth, comfort, and fine things inside a Saudi palace. Within the walls of the palace, however, the Saudi Princess is as segregated from the full human world as is the black township dweller: "Although I was only seven years old,… I first became aware that I was a female who was shackled by males unburdened with consciences." The unidentified Saudi princess who is the subject of this book yearns to break free from her life of confinement and enjoy the same liberties as the powerful men.

Segregation is the impulse to separate and subjugate a portion of the population that makes those in power uncomfortable. They do not worry about dehumanizing the targeted group, because they do not perceive them as fully human anyway. After the twentieth-century attempts, failures, and regrets about attempts at legalized racial separations, civilized people no longer accept segregation as a moral option. Literature has been instrumental in making the cruelty and injustice of segregation vivid in worldwide imaginations. Literature will continue to portray the humanity of other separated segments of humanity, and remind us that there is still much more progress to be made. To be kept apart is to be deprived of one's full humanity, and the literature of segregation illustrates that pain.


Literature shows that prejudice and are instances of imposed darkness that individuals willfully elect to live in and thus inflict on others. With the right human exercise of will, racism, gender discrimination, caste and underclass thinking, institutions like slavery, and segregation could be remedied. Humans working and thinking in concert could eliminate these evils. For them to do so, it is necessary for them to think it in their interest to do so. Literature about the reality, experience, and aftermath of the different manifestations of prejudice help give a human voice to the tragedies and bring home to the presumably "uninvolved" that it affects them, too. The books serve as testaments of these dire events and warnings about the need for vigilance to guard against recurrences of evils believed extinct. They serve as chronicles of ongoing wrongs humankind has yet to eradicate. Literature is our reality, our history, and our future, teaching us not to forget, not to repeat, and not to relent.


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Naipaul, V. S., A Bend in the River, Vintage International, 1989, originally published in 1979, p. 25.

Puig, Manuel, Kiss of the Spider Woman, translated by Thomas Colchie, Vintage International, 1991, originally published in 1978, p. 203.

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Race and Prejudice in World Literature

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