Should Classics be Forgiven for Prejudicial Attitudes?

It's hard to deny that times - and literary expectations - were very different in the eras of Austen, the Bröntes and even Dahl. Different things were considered acceptable, and there's no getting away from that when you read classics. Attitudes we'd call sexist, racist and ableist (plus a bunch of other -ists, I'm sure) are woven throughout lots of the narrative, just because no-one batted an eyelid at them at the time.

But does that mean those attitudes should be forgiven or ignored by modern-day readers?

On the one hand, well. Some of the 'dodgy' things that happen in those classics really are dodgy. In The Secret Garden alone, all these things happen (and it's still one of my favourite classics, but it's kind of tricky to ignore all the prejudice going on). If you're trying to avoid spoilers, maybe don't read the last part of this list, but I tend to assume that once a book's been out for several hundred years it's fair to analyse the whole plot:
  • The main character refers to native Indians as 'servants' who are 'not people'. 
  • Not only that, but her flawed personality is blamed on growing up in a country full of black people, not 'respectable' whites. 
  • No, I'm absolutely serious. I quoted all those words.
  • She also hates black as a colour and is dressed in white to signify her change from being disagreeable to agreeable. Subconscious racism? Maybe?
  • There's this bedridden boy named Colin - good representation, right? - well, no. He is taken out into the garden, and after a few short weeks he jumps out of his wheelchair. And walks. For some reason, everyone's reaction is 'oh, isn't it wonderful!' not 'something weird's going on we need to call a doctor like, now'.
  • This also implies that all you need to cure a disability is a good attitude! Anyone can do it! If you have a disability, you must just have a bad attitude! 
  • What about this do you think is making the disabled girl growl?
I'm going to have to stop listing these before I get angry. I can still remember identifying with Colin so strongly when I first read the book, and then he was snatched away from me, the thing that I empathised with him for most just magicked away. And while that was the thing that offended me most, I know other people could have been horrified about a lot of other things. Honestly, knowing that books have so much power to hurt people makes it difficult to forgive the pain they cause.
However, we can't deny that, while many classics might have elements we don't agree with, they are amazing stories. They've stood the test of time. And if we don't forgive them for the things that were never really intended to hurt us, then how are we going to experience those amazing stories? If they were edited to make them more politically correct, it would mess with the heart of the story - that editing would be a form of censorship, which ... well, isn't generally considered a good thing. Some people might even argue that if you're going to do that, you might as well pull the books of the shelves altogether.

That said, the tolerance of prejudicial attitudes in classic books sets a double standard. We expect modern-day writing to be tolerant and - in the best case - reflective of the diverse world we live in. It doesn't always work out that way, or I guess we wouldn't need things like the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign. But those expectations are super super super important for making sure that we as humans move forward with our art, not back - and if we say that certain books don't apply? I guess it could set a dangerous precedent.
Yet if we think about it, those expectations come from our desire to de-normalise discrimination in the world - it's especially important for children's and YA books to be inclusive because they help us form our opinions. But classics are usually enjoyed by people who read A LOT, or read them for classes where they are guided through the themes by a teacher who really knows their stuff - and that means readers know the context of what they're reading. To erase that would be erasing a part of history, and refusing to admit that prejudice used to be so acute (and still is in many places) through literature would be as bad as the fact it existed in the first place.

So what do you think we should do with those attitudes? Just forget them? Forgive the authors for not intending to hurt their readers? Or neither forget nor forgive, just realise the context of the work and accept those attitudes as a part of the whole? 

Please share your opinions in the comments. LET'S HAVE A CHAT, YOU GUYS!
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  1. I have a hard time with this, only because I can't stand reading/watching anything that is discriminatory or behind the times. It incenses me. But, I think we do have to understand that it was written in a time where that was more acceptable. I'm sure in fifty years, the next generations will be reading what we've written and shaking our heads at how ridiculous we sounded because things have progressed much more. Classics can be used to show us how much we've evolved, as well as how much still needs to be changed. Maybe there isn't one clear answer here. :)

    1. YES. I completely agree with you on the idea that there isn't a clear answer - because there are so many points of view and possible 'solutions' out there, it's honestly pretty darn tricky. And incensed is such a good word to use in this situation: I certainly find it very difficult to read / watch anything discriminatory without yelling at it.

      And who knows what'll happen in fifty years? Maybe this very post will be somehow offensive.

  2. Totally agree - classics can be uber-difficult to align with modern views of... well, everything!

    1. True, true. I've had my fair share of classics that I read and just looked at in disbelief for a while, just because it's so difficult to understand how some of the things in them were ever acceptable!


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