I recently read Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim for a class. During class discussion a number of people thought that the main character’s treatment of women was less than stellar. He may not have been an outright misogynist or sexist, but it was clear in his thoughts and actions that his main interest in women had only to do with their beauty. Our class, all females save for one boy, generally seemed to agree that the author struggled to create solid female characters. Some argued, however, that we must not blame the author, for his thinking is merely a product of his time and circumstance.
But how much are we willing to forgive racism or sexism in authors who are, as some say, “evidence of their time”? I don’t know where exactly readers ought to draw the line for an author. Still, I’d say it should be more a matter of why an author’s work lacks strong female characters. If there is a good reason, such as the book is really meant to be about the male experience, or the book is a satire, then we have a good reason to look past our initial reactions about the treatment of women and seek something far more intellectual.
The issue, then, is that all of this is up to interpretation. I might argue that when an author consistently allows female characters to be meaningless pawns in a story he may, truly, just be a product of his time. But if his characters vary, it is more likely that he is engaging in something more intellectual than blatant sexism.
Racism in novels can be even more complex, as we wonder whether authors are seriously mistreating black characters or if it is meant to convey something else. I remember the conversation about the “n” word in my high school English class when The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was our week’s reading. The book was a controversial choice by our school’s English board, but they defended it unswervingly.
In many ways, we thought, it was simply a part of the literature and we must accept it as so. We knew that the greater value and meaning of the novel would override the racism in the novel. Racism was a part of the setting and, indeed, we noted that the characters were able to overcome that setting. However, can we always accept an author’s not-so-21st-century views as okay and “simply a part of the literature”? I would hope that we could learn to fault authors where we feel fault is due, but never disregard an entire book because the author lacked insight into what was truly right.