Stereotypes and Identity Reflected in Literature Analysis

At Issue

Literature reflects the preconceptions, perceptions, and misperceptions of its time, its authors, and its readers. The inextricable relationship between literature and culture reflects the continual clash of ideas, assumptions, values, and worldviews inherent in human society. Fiction, drama, poetry, and exposition mirror and create the stereotypes that individuals, groups, and entire societies hold. Much has been written and debated on different groups’ portrayals in literary works; full-length critical works are devoted to the stereotypes of many different groups. Readers, critics, school boards, and others have challenged the value of particular works of literature accused of stereotypical portrayals. The word “stereotype” itself has different connotations, from simply denoting a type to castigating certain groups. The whole range of possible interpretations can be found in American works.

Historical Background

Characters are sometimes referred to as “static” and “dynamic” or “flat” and “round.” Static or flat characters change little or not at all over the course of a work. Dynamic or round characters change in response to the actions or circumstances. Authors often purposefully employ static characters; to say that a work of literature includes such characters is not to condemn it. However, when such types become merely caricatures, those with a single trait so exclusive that they no longer resemble believable human beings, or when characters conform to an inaccurate stereotype, then such a portrayal negatively affects the value of the work. Authors sometimes employ character types, or stock characters, sometimes atypical ones, and sometimes combine the two—even in the same characters, thus portraying both the universal and the particular.

In literature, readers find two impulses realized in characters: the desire to typify and the desire to individualize. On one hand, authors create characters that the reader, or audience, recognizes from life. These characters represent some personality trait, or habit, or way of thinking that draws a spark of recognition from those observing. In this way, authors attempt to typify, to create characters who parallel a common, or at least recognizable, part of the human condition. On the other hand, authors also attempt to create individualized characters, ones who transcend a simple classification. Human...

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Since literary works reflect their times and authors’ views, as times change, the reception of the literature often changes with them. A clear example is Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). Huck’s view of Jim, a black man, mirrors the close-minded, superstitious, and hypocritical people whom Twain satirizes in that novel. Subsequent attempts at censorship of Twain’s novels—in schools, curriculums, and libraries—stem from objections to the racist language and thought expressed in the novel. Similar challenges of other books stem from objections to sexism, racism, and ethnocentrism. The enduring quality of literary work provides a forum for ongoing reevaluation of cultural views and accepted assumptions. Challenges to current works of literature show that culture is often divided on these issues.

Literary works also create enduring images which, in turn, become synonymous with a type. The expression “poor as the Joads” comes from John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939) and its portrayal of the Depression-era Oklahoma family traveling across the country in search of work. The pejorative expression “Uncle Tom” has its origin in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) and its portrayal of the long-suffering, Christian main character. The name “Injun Joe” conjures up a stereotypical image of Native Americans; it comes from Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876). The name “Gatsby” conjures up the image of a rags-to-riches, isolated, romantic character from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925). The name “Snopes” has become synonymous with the grasping, amoral social climber from William Faulkner’s works. These names, familiar to people who have not read the works as well as to those who have, both derive from and continue society’s views of types of people.

In American literature, stereotypes prove as diverse as the country itself. Willa Cather’s immigrants, James Fenimore Cooper’s Native Americans, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s New Englanders, Bret Harte’s Westerners, William Faulkner’s Southerners, Ernest Hemingway’s expatriates all derive from and create categories, or types, of Americans. Many critical works explore the portrayals of African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, Irish...

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Literature continues and creates stereotyped views of others. Literature provides a complex, implicit interweaving of types and stereotypes. Readers must distinguish between typifying that makes comparison to universal human experience and stereotyping that identifies others based on gender, race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and all the other classifications that culture recognizes. To resist typifying leaves literary characters who bear little resemblance to human beings. However, to anticipate behavior, values, and attitudes based solely on identification with a particular group misrepresents human experience.

To condemn stereotypes in literature ignores the larger societal context in which they occur. Symbols exist in literature because they exist in the mind; human beings create symbols as representatives of things important to them: A flag stands for a country, for example. Likewise, stereotypes exist in literature because they inevitably exist in human understanding. Writing off Twain’s message in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because of racist language ignores the antiracist theme of the novel, just as writing off complaints about the novel ignores the stereotypes in it. Approaching the novel as fertile ground for thought, discussion, and reexamination of cultural assumptions, strengths, and weaknesses brings the issues and attitudes of society out of the pages and back into the culture from which they came.


Suggested Readings

Graff, Gerald, and James Phelan, eds. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: A Case Study in Critical Controversy. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995. The text of the novel, along with selected critical essays on the controversies about the novel.

Hart, James D. The Oxford Companion to American Literature. 5th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983. A reference work, with entries on authors, titles, literary terms, literary history, etc.

Holman, C. Hugh, and William Harmon. Handbook to Literature. 5th ed. New York: Macmillan, 1986. An introduction to literary terms and concepts.

Scholes, Robert, et al., eds. Elements of Literature: Fiction, Poetry, Drama, Film. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978. An introduction to literature, with discussions of history, genres, and structure.