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.