Authors Behaving Badly: How should we interpret their works?

April 23, 2012

What do Charles Dickens, Roald Dahl, T.S. Eliot, George Bernard Shaw and V.S. Naipaul have in common, other than being beloved authors? Why, their insensitive, offensive views on various topics such as race, religion and gender, of course! As hard as it may be to believe, these illustrious men have been accused of racism, anti-Semitism and misogyny.

Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens was well known for his racist and xenophobic views. He advocated genocide against the Indian race during the Indian Rebellion of 1857. Furthermore, at a time when the term “noble savage” was in circulation in reference to Native Americans, Dickens dismissed it as an absurd oxymoron and advocated that savages be civilized “off the face of the earth,” calling them murderous and filthy. Paradoxically, he condemned the slavery of Africans in the United States, but then railed against “the melancholy absurdity of giving these people votes.”

T.S. Eliot was an anti-Semite, best evidenced by a line in his poem “Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar,” in which he refers to Jews as beneath the rats. During a lecture in Virginia in 1933, he claimed that “any large number of free-thinking Jews [were] undesirable.” Roald Dahl was also an anti-Semite and Nazi sympathizer, explaining in an interview in 1983 that “there is a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity. I mean there’s always a reason why anti-anything crops up anywhere; even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason.” He also reportedly threw a fit at his country club because of the number of Jews dining there, resulting in his expulsion from the club.

Roald Dahl

Roald Dahl

George Bernard Shaw was a firm supporter of eugenics, which is the applied science or the bio-social movement that advocates the use of practices aimed at improving the genetic composition of a population. The theory became particularly popular when it was used by the Nazi regime as the basis for the purification of the German people. Shaw suggested the use of a lethal chamber for those who could not justify their existence or could not “pull their weight in the social boat,” but advocated that all killings should be done as humanely as possible.

V.S. Naipaul is a known misogynist, stating that all female writing is inferior to men’s because female writing reflects their “sentimentality, the narrow view of the world.” He has criticized numerous leading female Indian authors for the “banality” of their work.

The question is, how much can our knowledge of these authors’ personal opinions and beliefs impact our views of their work? Many of us grew up with the stories of Roald Dahl and Charles Dickens, but are those childhood memories now stained by the knowledge that the authors were actually bigots? What about T.S. Eliot who has been heralded as one of the best poets of the twentieth century or George Bernard Shaw who has penned some brilliantly monumental theatrical works? And one cannot forget V.S. Naipaul who won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Should their personal views affect our appreciation and enjoyment of their texts?

V.S. Naipaul

V.S. Naipaul

I believe the answer to this question lies in the study of narratology, which firmly separates the author as a person from their novels. As the analogy goes, the author is a parent and the novel is a separate entity born in the author’s mind but given a life of its own, just like a child. However, narratology does not encompass argumentative works of nonfiction, such as journal articles or essays, since these cannot be separated from the author due to the use of the author’s own voice to speak and argue. This is very different from the creation of the novel in which the author breathes life into narrators and characters who then speak and act, often independent of the author’s own beliefs and opinions. If you subscribe to narratological theory, then one can and should enjoy the novels, poems and short fiction of these authors as separate entities and not view them as scarred by the personal beliefs of the authors.

Furthermore, to defend T.S. Eliot and Charles Dickens in particular, it is an anachronism to judge their beliefs based on modern standards of tolerance and understanding. Dickens lived in a time where, despite massive colonial expansion, encounters with people of different races were not common. What little Dickens knew about people who were not European would have come from the explorers and colonialists who were extremely biased against the natives of their respective colonies. Therefore, his racist views concerning Native Americans, Indians and African Americans may not have existed if he had encountered these people personally instead of relying on the words of biased third parties.

An example of this outside of Dickens is Agatha Christie who has been lambasted for her stereotypical descriptions of various races. Once more, people do not account for the fact that Christie did not personally encounter these people and to her, describing a Chinese person as “yellow-skinned with slanty eyes” was as accurate as she could be. Similarly, T.S. Eliot wrote and published his work during a time of extreme anti-Semitism. As contemptible as it may be to us now, injecting strains of anti-Semitism into his work made Eliot’s poems more palatable to society at the time. However, we cannot begrudge a man earning his livelihood and cannot know for sure whether his views were actually anti-Semitic or merely a product of an author pandering to his bigoted audience.

Authors Behaving Badly

Lastly, judging authors based on their personal lives has led to vast ignorance of copious talent – as in the case of Oscar Wilde. Wilde was tried and convicted of being a homosexual, which made him a figure of public humiliation. Due to his homosexuality and hedonism, his brilliant novels and poetry were then condemned, with a large volume of his talent going unrecognized until many years later. After his imprisonment, he was forced to write under a pseudonym in order to have any of his work published.

While Wilde was arrested and condemned on an outrageously bigoted premise, unlike the accusations against Dickens, Dahl, Eliot, Shaw and Naipaul, the idea that we could lose so much talent simply due to the personal beliefs of the authors is a horrifying one. When we start deciding who can or cannot be celebrated based on their personal lives rather than their talent, we return to the times when literary geniuses such as Oscar Wilde were publicly crucified for their lifestyle decisions. Where will the line be drawn? How long before we start condemning people because we disagree with their religion, with their political leanings?

As an open-minded woman, I can’t say that I will ever look at these authors the same way again. However, as a lover of books and art, I cannot and will not let my personal views of these men cloud my judgment of their undeniable talent, be it because of the theories of narratology, the anachronism of their references or simply my belief that we don’t have the right to condemn the work of another simply because we do not like what they believe in.