Sunday, May 14, 2017

Anthony Trollope's The Eustace Diamonds and Anti - Semitism

The Eustace Diamonds by Anthony Trollope is in many ways a great book. My general commentary on the work is here. However, I want to write a few words concerning something that is not so great about it. The novel contains a nasty streak of anti-Semitism.

First, I will note accusations of bigotry and sexism against authors of older works is fairly common. Sometimes these accusations are based on statements or actions that an author committed or made that are not directly related to their writing.  In other instances, such charges are made based on subtle or scant evidence. Joseph Conrad has been accused of racism based on his novella Heart of Darkness. At the very least, the purported racism inherent in Conrad’s book is far from clear and open to debate. Sadly, the anti-Semitism in the Eustace Diamonds is in the text, and it is far from subtle.

In the book, several characters who are Jewish are described using negative and despicable stereotypes. The portrayal character of Mr. Emilius is an unfortunate example of this.

Mr. Emilius is an Anglican preacher who was formerly Jewish. Again and again, he is portrayed as being endowed with the worst Jewish stereotypes and is portrayed as “greasy,” “oily,” and as a liar and a conniver.

He is described as follows,

“The man was a nasty, greasy, lying, squinting Jew preacher”

Disparaging comments about his physical features, which also reflect stereotypes, are also included in numerous passages,

“He was a dark, hookey-nosed, well-made man, with an exuberance of greasy hair, who would have been considered handsome by many women, had there not been something, almost amounting to a squint, amiss with one of his eyes”

The Jewish character of Mr. Benjamin is also portrayed using similar odious stereotypes. The word ‘Jew’ is used numerous times in the text, usually paired with negative or disparaging language.

One can argue that anti-Semitism was a product of the times that Trollope was writing in, but there are some facts to consider. Other writers and thinkers who were contemporaries of Trollope vocally opposed anti-Semitism. In Our Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens spent many pages defending Jews and criticizing anti-Semites.  Friedrich Nietzsche, in multiple essays, threw his trademark scorn at anti-Semites and defended Jewish people. These are just a few examples.

With that, when it comes to reading older works, it is not uncommon to encounter bigotry, sexism and indefensible beliefs. The Old Testament, The Koran and much of Greek literature contain misogynistic and homophobic passages and are often pro-slavery. William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice was terribly anti-Semitic.  More recently, H.P. Lovecraft’s stories contain some overtly racist passages. The list of examples of this sort of stuff is lengthy.

However, I must admit to being extra disappointed in Trollope. Having read quite a few of his novels, these passages not withstanding, his books often embody wisdom and balance. Even when he seems to support institutions and social conventions that I find questionable, he does so in a moderate way. He seems to show understanding for people and ideas that are different. He often shows sensitivity towards women’s issues. The basic morality that he conveys in his books seems solid. For all of these reasons, this ugly streak of anti-Semitism is especially surprising and disconcerting.

These passages are part of the text. One of the many functions of novels is that they allow an author to communicate ideas. Such ideas are fair game for analysis and criticism. This is a set of ideas that Trollope includes in this book that are odious and should be identified and commented upon as such. It is important for those of us who like Trollope and admire other values that he espouses recognize this shortcoming and acknowledge that this set of ideas is terrible. I believe that we need to look at literature through a critical lens. This means analyzing a book’s contents, celebrating the good, criticizing that with which we disagree and calling out the truly awful.



30 comments:

Caroline said...

Those anti- Semitic quotes are very painful to read. I'm afraid, we could make a long list of authors who did that. That's no excuse though. As you mentioned there were many far more enlightened writers. It is sad.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - It is the writers who spoke against this stuff that highlight the lack of ethics of those who perpetuated it.

Mudpuddle said...

Good post... Sometimes one must call a cow a cow... Trollope, in his book re traveling in the West Indies, is markedly proslavery, also... As I stated in my last comment, T can be a rewArding read, but he's not a writer for all seasons...

Jillian said...

Such a shame. I will read the Shylock soliloquy.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jillian - Though the Merchant of Venice was terribly anti - Semitic, Shylock was a complex character.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Mudpuddle - I did not know that about Trollope and slavery. This is more disappointment.

Tim Davis said...

When in Rome, we need not do what the Romans do, but we should not be surprised when Romans behave as some other Romans behave. In other words, anti Semitic and racist moments in fiction from the past neither surprise nor offend me; literary and historical context matters more than my contemporary attitudes. I am reminded of modern readers who despise Huckleberry Finn. They are being rather foolish.Ditto regarding The Merchant of Venice and many more examples not worth citing here, You get my point.

thecuecard said...

I'm glad you raised this or noted it even though you're a big fan of the author's works. It's an interesting issue to balance it with the historical times. It is too bad though, and hard to read.

Suko said...

Brain Joseph, I am very disappointed in Trollope as well. This would bother me a lot; I am much less likely to read his work now. Thank you for this honest post.

Kathy's Corner said...

Hi Brian, the Trollope passages are very disturbing and as much as I admire the literary genius of someone like Dostoyevsky I cannot ignore his anti-semitic passages either. Also true as you say that sometimes the bigotry is kept out of the author's work but then you learn about the way the writer lived their lives or the prejudices they had and it damages one's reading experience. Glad to hear Dickens fought anti-semitism in Our Mutual Friend which is a book I've heard good things about

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tim - I often lean towards the view that times were different too. It is when contemporaries like Dickens in this case, take a more principled stand, I think that it opens the door to more scrutiny.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - These passages were troubling. I can see how this would discourage someone from reading something like this.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - With a lot of older works we must balance these issues and look to historical contexts. The fact that other thinkers spoke out against this at the time weighs heavily with me.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Kathy - I try to seperate horrible personal behavior if it does not creep into the text. So many great writers and other artists did some very bad things. When it gets into the text however, I think that we should address it.

In my opinion Our Mutual Friend is very underrated Dickens book, I highly recommend it.

James said...

Trollope's comments go beyond the sort of typical cultural differences one might ignore. It certainly diminishes his luster as a fine novelist.
You mentioned how Dickens took a different approach in Our Mutual Friend. He may have changed by then (his last complete novel), however he was not immune to antisemitism as evidenced by his characterization of Fagin in Oliver Twist.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - Thus stuff was indeed pretty bad.

By coincidence I just finished Oliver Twist. I have also been donig some research. It turns out that Dickens's portrayal of the plight of Jews in Our Mutual Friend was partially in response to charges of anti - semitism in Oliver Twist. I will have more to say about this in my post on that book.

The Reader's Tales said...

Bravo, Brian!!! Very thoughtful analysis. These anti-Semitic quotes are very silly. Unfortunately, there is a long list of authors who did that.... Even the most educated people say such horrible things. How many times I have heard the Jews are very dangerous because they are very intelligent. Or the Jews when they walk they look down at the ground to see if they find money, and so on. It is pitiful!!
Personally, it does not hurt me, it rather makes me feel pity of such a narrow mind coupled with laziness to learn more about others.
That said, I'm willing to read this book. Thus, will add it to my long TBR list. Have a great week :)

Gently Mad said...

Hi Brian,

I noticed the Anti-Semiticism as well when I read this book. It is sad, but I think that most people don't question their attitudes when it is "normal" to think that way.

What I try to do is apply it to today and see what prevalent prejudices exist now that people don't question because everyone around them thinks the same way.

I think no one should have a derogatory view of anyone else, regardless if that person has a different skin color, cultural background, different values, religious beliefs, or, dare I say, political views. It seems that on the one hand people see clearly discrimination that is brought to their attention through the media, but they don't always see the discrimination that is being afflicted on other people. And, frankly,sometimes encouraged by the media.

Like the Jews in previous centuries, these people are portrayed as "villains" and it is therefore acceptable to either hate or discriminate against them.

Hence huge protests on college campuses if someone with a different viewpoint comes to speak-even to the point of violence.

Or forcing people into bankruptcy if they don't cater or photograph our wedding.

It's easy to look at the past and go tsk,tsk. It's only valuable if we can recognize prejudice in its contemporary guise.

In short, I believe we should love others as we love ourselves...even those who hate us or spitefully treat us.

Got a little bit sermonizing there, sorry! Have a wonderful week!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon – I agree that we need to look at our own society and for prejudice and intolerance.

I also strongly object some of the tings that you object to, particularly the attacks on Campus speakers and other such intolerance. On the issue of businesses not wanting to participate in same sex weddings I tend to favor government not forcing a business to do so, but this gets really complicated and I think some situations are different. I am not entirely familiar with the economic pressures brought against businesses that you mention. With that, I think that the venom hurled at people with some differing views on social issues is wrong.

Furthermore, I am also appalled by blanket attacks on large groups such as Democrats, Republicans, Hillary supporters, Trump supporters, etc.

With all that I think that there is a difference between such attacks based on beliefs verses prejudice aimed at people based on ethnicity, race, religion (some say religion is closer to politics, but for various reasons I think it is better to sometimes classify it like race) and gender. I think that there is an important dividing line between these.

I admire and completely agree with your call for goodwill towards one another.


Have a great week!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks The Reader's Tales.

Anti - Semitism and prejudice in general is a scourge that is unfortunately still with us.

It is something that we must grapple with especially when we read older works.

We must make choices as to what we can take when we read these books.


HKatz said...

What a shame, especially since he otherwise seems perceptive about human nature. (And you're right, the reasoning that he's a "man of his time" doesn't explain the authors who did write Jewish people as humans and not as horrible caricatures... in addition to your examples, there's George Eliot's Daniel Deronda and Walter Scott's Ivanhoe).

I've come across a similar problem in The Scarlet Pimpernel. A pretty entertaining book for the most part but the depiction of Jews is nasty.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Hila - It really is shame. It is a dark spot on otherwise an ethically based body of work.

The Bookworm said...

Wow, how disappointing. I know you read and enjoy his other works. It's interesting however to see how back in those times some writers were openly anti-Semitic while others were against it.

I know H.P. Lovecraft was a racist. I read a few of this short stories and it's sad to think some great writers were so closed minded and bigoted. I read a book by Georgette Heyer called Frederica and I really loved it, so I read a few others from her and enjoyed them too. She became a favorite regency romance author. Then on googling her I found out she was openly anti-Semitic and it showed in one of her books especially called The Grand Sophy, I haven't read that one but it definitely disappointed me to hear that. She was publishing in the 1930's-50's. It's a shame.

I can see how Trollope surprised you with this since he showed sensitivity and understanding about other things like women's issues and different people's beliefs.

Great, thoughtful post as always.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Naida.

Sadly, as you point out, racism, antisemitism and other forms of bigotry appear in the belief systems of a lot of writers.

Though he was not nearly as sensitive to human issues as Trollope, Lovecraft is also terrible disappointment as I otherwise love his stories.

baili said...

how weird that same write who used to write in a reasonable and comprehensive way all his other works sounds terribly stuck in racism which is biggest sign of unenlightened and narrow mentality.

Writes have gift of power ,power to influence the other minds ,they have responsibility to to guide humanity in a right path by rising above such squeezed thoughts and ideas .

no one can be define on the basis of religion he follow but only the character he owns individually

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Baili - You make a good point about responsibility. Thinkers like Trollope do humanity such a disservice by spreading racism and other forms of bigotry.

It is also true that one's religion or lack of religion does not define one's ethics, decency or intelligence. I have been thinking a lot about this lately and might write more on this in an upcoming post.

Tracy Terry said...

Great analysis. I always find racism, sexism and the likes difficult to come to terms with even if they are subtle and arguably to be expected given the period in which the book was written.

Its funny you should mention Joseph Conrad as my book club has just read Heart Of Darkness - my review is to follow soon.

Cowardly of me I know but I didn't comment on the inherent racism in my review of the book as all too often I've had the argument that of their time, books like these reflect the views held then and are therefore harmless.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Tracy.

Sometimes this stuff is indeed hard to stomach.

I also did not address racism when I wrote about Heart of Darkness. I have read commentary arguing that it is there that has not convinced me. Racism and other forms of bigotry are terrible and sometimes it is hidden and not apparent. With that, I think that there is tendency in some to see racism and bigotry everywhere, whether exists or not. Hence, I try to look at charges of it fairly, but skeptically.

Maria Behar said...

Brilliant post as usual, Brian! And this one in particular is a very insightful, much-needed observation on a highly important issue, as well!

I must admit that I am shocked by what you have found in this novel. Based on all of your previous commentary of Trollope's works, I definitely had NOT expected to find out that he had anti-Semitic views! Now I'm not so eager to start reading his novels.

I'm glad you referenced Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice". Based on my statement in the previous paragraph, I should state that I refuse to read Shakespeare's work, as well. Perhaps such a generalized assertion about any given writer is too drastic. But then, the thing is, I have already read and loved some of Shakespeare's plays, and am loath to condemn him outright. Since I've never read Trollope, and thus, don't know if I will like his novels, it seems much easier to write him off completely.

Well, writers, like people in general, do have their flaws. On the other hand, one would expect a writer, as a creative person, to have a more open mentality, and to discard bigotry. Again, I am totally shocked at this element in this particular Trollope work, especially since he was sensitive to women's issues, as you've pointed out.

I remember feeling disturbed by Shakespeare's portrayal of the Jewish character in "The Merchant of Venice", when I read the play in high school. That is definitely NOT one of my favorite plays authored by the Bard.

I also find it HIGHLY ironic that Nietzsche defended Jews, in light of the fact that his philosophy directly inspired Hitler and the Nazix. The literary world is certainly full of surprises!

As for what you point out about the Old Testament, the Koran, and much of Greek literature, you are absolutely right. I would say that finding bigotry and stereotypes in spiritual literature is even MORE unsettling than finding it in what we might call 'secular' literature. I am not familiar with the Koran, but there are parts of the Old Testament that totally HORRIFY me.

In short, I will definitely not read "The Eustace Diamonds". As for other Trollope novels, perhaps I'll give the first book in The Chronicles of Barsetshire a try. But I will probably not enjoy it, now that I know this most unpleasant fact about Trollope. It will always be in the back of my mind.....

Thanks for your incisive, highly interesting commentary!! Hope you're having a GREAT day!! :) :) :)

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Maria.

The Merchant of Venice is very difficult in that the anti – Semitism was amajor part of the work.

I have big problems with Nietzsche, especially in regards to his rejection of certain sentiments such as emotions like pity. That is what attracted the Nazis to him. But he defended Jews, attacked anti – Semites as well as German nationalism. Thus I think that he would not have liked the Nazis.

I do plan to read more Trollope. But he will be tainted as a writer for me.

Have a great week!