‘White’ Underneath It All?

Holly’s manuscript presents various, and sometimes contradictory, representations of race through his descriptions of skin color, hair color and light/dark imagery. The supposedly informative, scholarly purpose of publishing the manuscript is complicated by closer examination of the binary Holly creates through contrasting diction and imagery. This binary calls into question of the explicitly stated role of the narrative, to provide a knowledge base for a previously unknown periphery society. The instances in the text where race is included in descriptions of individuals and events assign ‘whiteness’ that is observably aligned with projections of Victorian conceptions of race. These conceptions of race are a crucial component in the establishment (and subordination of the primitiveness of) the peripheral ‘other’.
“I saw Mahomed turn white under his brown skin…with fear” (94), Holly notes as he watches his “servant” submit helplessly to an excess of sensual attention poured upon him by an Amahagger woman. The use of the word ‘under’ struck me as highly significant. ‘Under’ implies the existence of a core. This core vs. periphery/external space dichotomy that has been foundational for our course, is, as we discussed in class, a project of the novel’s form through its various frameworks (i.e. native inscriptions to translations of these native inscriptions to the letter from Leo’s father to Horace’s manuscript to the editor’s presentation of the manuscript with its various footnotes). Here, at the sentence level, this dichotomy is mapped using Mahomed’s body. Holly has rhetorically constructed a binary between white and ‘brown’ skin with white at the core.
In the earlier section we read, the Amahagger people’s physical appearance is described as “tall and all handsome, though they were varied in their degrees of darkness of skin, some being dark as Mahomed, and some as yellow as a Chinese” (78). The use of the word “though” constructs a binary opposition between “tall and handsome” and “darkness of skin”. Considering the positionality of the speaker, and his subsequent mention of the Amahagger’s “admiration” for Leo’s “tall, athletic form”, the positive connotations become attributed to “tall and handsome” while “darkness of skin”, with the interjection of “though” between the two descriptive phrases, suggests a negative connotation. Billai’s (bizarre) insistence on showing Holly the woman’s “perfect” white foot further emphasizes the Amahagger’s apparent cultural value of “jeweled whiteness” (105).
These instances in the text where race is included in descriptions of individuals and events assign ‘whiteness’ a value that is observably aligned with projections of Victorian conceptions of race. What does this mean for the credibility of the manuscript as simply an ‘observation’ of a previously ‘undiscovered’ culture? The text suggest whiteness is desired by the Amahagger people, connection this society of the past to contemporary English society. Assuming that the Amahagger people are alike other humans in that they act on their desires, this suggests that they will move towards “whiteness” in the future to fully realize its observed cultural value. The initial positioning of “whiteness” as “under” Mahomed’s “brown” skin works with other description of violence and cannibalism later in the chapter, and section, to establish (and subordinate the primitiveness of) the Amahagger people, who, in relation to England, are positioned, similar to “darkness” at the sentence level, as the peripheral ‘other’.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *