Think of an example of a classic you’ve read that presents issues like racism/sexism as acceptable within society. Do you think the reception of this classic work would be the same if it were newly published today? What can we get out of this work despite its weaknesses? Or, why would you say this work is still respected/treasured/remembered in 2014? (FYI The Classics Club can be found here)
I read Robinson Crusoe a year or two ago and was astonished at the level of implicit racism within in it (basically: white guy stranded on remote island, no chance of surviving, gets rescued by the local, black Man Friday, who rescues Crusoe, who somehow believes that he [Crusoe] is still morally and physically superior, despite the fact he would have died without Friday). I doubt people go back to the original text, preferring to remember the multiple cinema versions, which are more adaptable to the thinking of a changing world.
The Tarzan books were a little dubious – it’s still a case of “white man and western world is superior” but whilst presenting the African tribes as noble and savage (excellent hunters, with their own tribal rules and excellent in their own natural environment but, yer know, black). Again, few people go back to the original texts, especially going beyond book #1, relying on what they remember from the TV series, the cartoons and the films. As with Crusoe I think there is a romantic view of what the original text is about, and I suspect (hope!) that people would be affronted if they went back to the original texts.
I have yet to read books such as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and “Huckleberry Finn” which I know address issues of racism at the time, and which I suspect may anger me at one or more level.
As for sexism…..I’ll be interested in what other people define as “sexism”. I read books (such as Villette) where women are defined by their class, and if they dont marry well, or go into service, they live in this weird limbo land of housekeeper/governess/teacher…….is this a commentary of sexism or a rigid class system? Or books such as High Wages by Dorothy Whipple, where a woman decides to not live by the class rules that society defines for her, and makes a success of what she does. A certain level of sexism, yes, but I see it more as a class commentary.