Defining the British Self Through the Racial Other
in Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana and The Human Factor, and Ian Fleming’s Live and Let Die
(A Submitted Essay)
Identity building is an especially hard task and cultures of whiteness and constructions of Otherness impose much of its own perceptions about who one should and should not be to further complicate this process. Within British spy fiction, Britain’s colonial history saturates how white characters interact with racialized characters. These racialized characters become Others within the language of whiteness as they are constructed as completely opposite to the more respectable and “Enlightened” English men in these novels. Using stereotypes and binaries of difference, these Others are portrayed as criminal, sexually perverse and pitiful within British spy fiction. Ian Fleming in his 1954 novel Live and Let Die features James Bond as a symbol of white Britishness against the Other crime-lord Mr. Big. In Graham Greene’s novels Our Man in Havana (1958) and The Human Factor (1978), the Other is used to highlight what British white men are not by comparison with racialized Others and the constructed “natural” difference between them. Fleming and Greene’s novels display how in a culture of whiteness the binary of difference created between the Other who is beastly, depraved and pathetic are used to construct the British man as intelligent, powerful and heroic.
Whiteness and the binary construction of the Self and the Other in Western society is largely facilitated by the historical events and ideologies of imperialism and colonialism. British spy novels act as a cultural indicator of the anxieties within these cultures of whiteness. To understand how whiteness and Otherness functions within Greene and Fleming’s novels, one must first explore what these terms are and how they create a culture of binary difference. Whiteness itself is a flexible state of being which is neither explicitly nor solely connected to white skin but is instead a way of performing racial superiority in “a position of social dominance” (Levine-Rasky). Whiteness allows for a privileged access to “power, resources, rewards, meaning, status and futures,” which is used to further solidify superiority (Levine-Rasky, 18). As Tim Christensen notes: “the limitations of essentialist notions of identity from a performative notion of identity becomes the exclusive privilege of whites” (11). Western culture in many ways exists on differences within a system of binaries, which essentially limits identity and social interaction, for example: male and female, black and white. Whiteness and Otherness are constructed as complete opposites and each identity must rely on each other to exist; however, within cultures of whiteness, there is massive power imbalances which leads to the perception that whiteness is in fact better than Otherness. Stereotyping is a pervasive tool of whiteness which allows for institutionalization of discriminatory practices of difference while also normalizing it. Tim Christensen writes that:
The stereotype therefore sets a process of misrecognition into motion, through which the racial self is uneasily and re-iteratively created in opposition to the racial or colonial other, whose imagined characteristics conceal the lack of self-consistent being at the centre of the white, or English, self. (12)
The stereotype thus becomes a tool of self-identification and Otherness-naming while functioning as acceptable and in some cases true. Whiteness then becomes a symbol of normality, and being natural, along with being “identified with cleanliness, an idea that penetrates to behaviour, progress and morality” (Levine-Rasky, 46). Whiteness has the power in many ways to refuse to be “named and arrogates to itself the power of the norm and the universal” (Tsou, 585). Otherness and its stereotyping relies on exoticism, infantilism, and hypersexualization, while whiteness is connected with power, rationality and enlightenment (Levine-Rasky, 46). Creating a disproportionate power dynamic dictated by difference facilitates exploitation, conquest and discrimination. As Levine-Rasky argues, “whiteness and Englishness became conflated in London popular culture and in elite discourse of religion, politics, science, and philosophy” (27). England’s colonial history specifically saturates the British spy genre and the binary of difference between the British self and the Other is based on whiteness and the power inherent in being able to define who is the Other.
Live and Let Die by Ian Fleming depicts the black Other as a fundamentally unintelligent criminal in opposition to the constructed wit and heroics of James Bond. The Bond series is extremely important as a cultural indicator, as it explores the anxieties created by “social, cultural, and political changes Britain underwent in the 1950s and 1960s” (Bererich, 14). Mr. Big is the main antagonist who “is probably the most powerful negro criminal in the world,” regardless that “they don’t seem to take to big business” (Fleming, 16). Mr. Big is a powerful, intelligent and wholly unique black Other within Bond’s world and his black attributes largely outweigh his white heritage which allows for him to operate intelligently. How Mr. Big is described by Bond’s first person narrative in dehumanizing terms where he is melted down to a beastly “it” creature who has “a great football of a head, twice the normal size and very nearly round… it was hairless” (60). Furthermore, Bond must remind himself of Mr. Big’s human existence when he reflects that “he had heard its heart pumping in its chest, had heard it breath, had seen sweat on the grey skin” (209). Mr. Big’s appearance groups him with the “clumsy black apes,” according to Bond, as Mr. Big cannot escape his black heritage. Likewise, Mr. Big uses his Otherness to his advantage as he employments “the fear of Voodoo and the supernatural, still deeply, primitively ingrained in the negro subconscious,” to control his employees (20). Mr. Big is further dehumanized as the dangerous black Other when rumours establish him as the “zombie or living corpse of Baron Samedi himself, the dreaded Prince of Darkness” (19). Mr. Big uses stereotyping and the anxieties about the black and specifically male Other to further his criminal objectives. The characterization of Mr. Big relies on many perceptions of the specifically black Other, yet his intelligence and visibly grey skin positions him as partially white and illustrates what an aspect of whiteness is.
In Fleming’s book, he portrays Mr. Big as a legitimate challenge for Bond and Britain to overcome as he is far more intelligent then constructions of the Other should allow, and this is because he is partially white. Firstly, Bond is the image of the British self and his “strait-laced, stiff-upper-lipped Englishness can be upheld only by comparison with his enemies, who, mostly and emblematically, are not English” (Bererich, 26). Throughout the novel, readers are struck by the “black” language Fleming uses to show difference and ultimately stupidity as “guess ah jist nacherlly gits tahd listenin’ at yuh,” is highlighted as black Otherness speech (43). All of the distinctly black characters other than Mr. Big and Solitaire speak this kind of broken English; whereas Bond and his partner Leiter speak flawless English in opposition to the Other. The reason why Mr. Big is such a threat to Bond and he is able to communicate in sophisticated and flawless English is because he is not entirely black. Mr. Big has a grey muddled complexion and his “nose was wide without being particularly negroid, the nostrils did not gape at you” (60). Mr. Big’s ethnic and racial heritage also complicates his Otherness as “he’s not pure negro. Born in Haiti. Good Dose of French Blood,” which is why he is intelligent regardless of his blackness (16). In essence, it is Mr. Big’s small amount of whiteness which allows him to become a more realistic and challenging opponent for Bond, as Bond is above dealing with petty and unintelligent criminal Others as equals. Bond’s character attempts to solidify British superiority and “advocate British dominance over the rest of the world,” as he ultimately overcomes all foes, Others or not (Bererich, 24). Mr. Big and Solitaire both act as racially complicated characters which highlight both the blackness of the Other and the whiteness of Bond.
Solitaire in Fleming’s novel exists within a space of anxiety where she is the black Other through her supernatural abilities steeped in Voodoo, and her white appearance. Fleming and Bond both use Solitaire to illustrate and understand the black Other without allowing for an intimate and dangerously sexual relationship to develop with that black Other, as she is ultimately white in her loyalties and appearance. She is described as being pale, blue-eyed “with the pallor of white families that have lived long in the tropics” (Fleming, 66). Kissing “her white throat,” Bond is instantly sexually attracted to Solitaire, and while he reads about Voodoo and Mr. Big from files and books, Solitaire attempts to act as a safe interpreter of Otherness (105). Her instant trust and attraction to Bond as well as her white appearance allows her to identify within a space of whiteness, and thus she can be an appropriate sexual companion for Bond. She looks to Bond as a protector and saviour as he had saved her from being Mr. Big’s captured fiance as: “I’ve been shut up with him and his nigger gangsters for nearly a year” (92). She is much more white than her captor, Mr. Big, as her allegiance is solely with Bond and “she felt indifferent to the fate of those she judged to be evil, very few of them were white” (114). Bond in fact re-imagines Solitaire’s connection with whiteness as steeped in colonial history as he sees her face as “the face of the daughter of a French Colonial slave-owner” (66). He even recognizes his “romantic picture,” of Solitaire’s past and yet adheres to the idea that she has been in a position of power through her white colonial past and thus is like Bond himself (95). Yet Solitaire is not entirely white which gives her the ability to function within both white and Other spaces. Being born in Haiti already places her as not entirely white, but it is her relationship with the supernatural and Voodoo aspects of the black Other which further identifies her as different. Mr. Big finds her “doing a telepathic act,” just as Bond encounters her doing a visceral Voodoo dance to drums (65). As she can act as grateful interpreter for Bond, she attempts to “explain to someone with that certainty of spirit, with that background of common sense, brought up with clothes and shoes,” what the black Other thinks and will do (101). In fact, Solitaire has a great amount of difficulty in explaining the Other to Bond as “what could this man know of these things (Voodoo) or of her half-belief in them,” as he is so entirely white and functions within a space of whiteness (102). Solitaire and Mr. Big illustrate through their racial difference and likeness to Bond how whiteness and Otherness functions within Fleming’s story and how they are not mutually exclusive identity traits.
In Greene’s novel Our Man in Havana, the racialized Other is stereotypically homogenized as a beastly sexual being, where Havana is featured as the space of the Other and sex as the currency. The prerogative of whiteness is to label Otherness according to what one does not want to be and in Our Man in Havana, the main protagonist Wormold appears to be almost asexual; whereas the ethnically unspecific Others around him are hypersexual as a sign of both their difference and Wormold’s status as a white man in Havana. The economy of Havana, according to Wormold, is largely run by uncouth or sinful occupations and hobbies such as prostitution, pornography, gambling, alcoholism and the lottery which “was a serious trade uncorrupted by tourists” (Havana, 34). Greene writes that “the sexual exchange was not only the chief commerce of the city, but the whole raison d’etre of a man’s life, one sold sex or one bought it,” and those who do not partake are essentially outsiders within the Other’s space (Havana, 56). While the Other’s space is portrayed as functioning on sinful activities, the white or more specifically British space is ran on bureaucracy, extravagance and “appropriate” activities, so much so that explaining free drinks to Londoners would be “tedious, if not impossible” (Havana, 153). Wormold recognizes the “English snobbery,” and the “kinship and security the word English implied to him,” as he is ultimately an English man in the Other’s space (Havana, 173). For no matter how long Wormold has been a part of the Havana community the “pimps accosted him automatically… they had never got used to him, in their eyes he never became a resident; he remained a permanent tourist” (Havana, 32). Wormold, along with his obvious white skin, is further shunned by the Other community because he does not partake in the economy of Havana and this is confusing to the locals. When Wormold is offered a packet of pornographic postcards he rejects them and in response, the unnamed Other draws out another packet of pornographic cards in the hoping of please him (Havana, 124) Likewise, Greene implies that Wormold is too good for the usual product that the Other enjoys as Raul notes that “for an Englishman in your position places like the San Francisco are unsuitable, even the Mamba Club,” to get prostitutes from (Havana, 56). In fact, the type of prostitutes that Englishmen supposedly look for is also different than the Others as “you are not a Cuban: for you the shape of a girl’s bottom is less important than a certain gentleness of behaviour” (Havana, 56). The economy of Havana simply does not translate between British whiteness and racialized Otherness as “a notice in Spanish and bad English forbade the audience to molest the dancers” (Havana, 124). Even in the context of simple language translating, English and the Other simply do not function or communicate in the same way. By highlighting the difference between Wormold and the racialized Others around him, it illustrates the complex binary relationship that whiteness along with its opposite creates. While the Other is distinctly defined within its own space as depraved through their economy of sex, the British self represented through Wormold is also constructed through perceptions of whiteness and privilege.
While the Other in Havana and the space that it occupies is clearly set and is not explored as explicitly constructed according to the author, the identity of the white British self is questioned and consistently re-imagined, not necessarily for truth but is a necessity. Greene explores the anxiety of white British identity as distinctly malleable yet essential when being confronted by political and racial Others, especially within the space of the Other. By constituting and solidifying what a British man looks and acts like, the dangers of being in the space of the Other seems less threatening. Firstly, one has to consistently verify their allegiance with Britain and the white values that come with that. Wormold is asked repeatedly if he is a legitimate British man with a passport to confirm his trustworthiness as “one likes to do business with a British firm, one knows where one is, if you see what I mean” (Havana, 8). Being a recognizable British and white ally gives Wormold capital within cultures of whiteness and gives him access to the British world of spies. The label of Britishness in itself is cultural capital and allows for a certain level of white privilege as a female Other points out to Beatrice that “we Britishers have to stick together,” yet Beatrice has a name and the woman is called a Negress (Havana, 99). In this case, Britishness as a label does carry cultural capital but the Other can only access the privileges of that in small ways, as visibly racialized individuals cannot truly be British. What British means is complicated and as Greene describes the formulation of Wormold as a British subject according to his superiors, we see the depth of re-imagining and the links with colonial history. Wormold is described as:
Our man in Havana belongs—you might say—to the Kipling age. Walking with Kings—how does it go? –and keeping your virtue, crowds and the common touch. I expect somewhere in that ink-stained desk of his there’s an old penny note-book of black wash-leather in which he kept his first accounts (Havana, 46)
While ultimately, Our Man in Havana is a satire, Greene explicitly connects Wormold with real legendary Imperialist writer Rudyard Kipling. Regarding the formation of Wormold as a good British citizen, connecting him with Kipling, highlights colonial ideologies of difference and Wormold’s place within whiteness. Wormold’s superior takes a limited amount of information about Wormold and creates a romantic image of him, and understands the fictitious nature of his creation and notes that “details don’t matter,” as he is speaking in metaphors to communicate an idea (Havana, 46). While being identified as a British man and thus having access to privileges of whiteness, Wormold is still not beyond constructions of identity. He is expected to be a “patriotic Englishman,” (Havana, 26). By adhering to binary conceptions of whiteness and Otherness, Greene illustrates the problematic nature of racial and ethnic identity as constructions of opposites. Where the Other is positioned in their own space in Our Man in Havana, Greene explores how racial difference and ethnic awareness outside of one’s space affects racial identity in The Human Factor.
In The Human Factor, Greene depicts the African Other as an object of pity as being an Other and being impoverished according to stereotypes. The book is set during the South African apartheid and much of the plot and characters have personal experiences of the apartheid. The focus on the racialized Other is largely who the Africa Other is and how being African is an all-consuming identity. This African Other is a constructed identity of difference, where Britishness is conflated with comfort, abundance and saviour-hood, the African Other is poverty, political injustice and pitiful. Africa in itself is a constructed place where white British men can dictate what Africa was as: “my Africa was a sentimental Africa… How easy it was in the old days when we dealt with chiefs and witch doctors and bush schools and devils and rain queens” (Human, 65). The imagining of Africa is just as fictitious as the poverty-stricken Africa as “my Africa was still a little like the Africa of Rider Haggard. It wasn’t a bad place,” before (Human, 65). A distinct image which appears repeatedly in Greene’s text is “the memory of a famine photograph… a small corpse spread-eagle on desert sand, watched by a vulture” (Human, 27). Africa becomes a romantic image of “the bush” where “the cook would now be plucking a chicken behind the rest-house and the pie-dogs would be gathering in the hope of scraps” (Human, 241). This Africa is a place where a black mistress dies from blackwater fever and where poverty is idealized as an authentic African experience (Human, 248). Just as Fleming had dehumanized Mr. Big, Greene dehumanizes the African Other by creating an object of pity steeped in homogenized perceptions of poverty, which ultimately overrule any other experiences of the African self. The “little black babies,” are always in danger within Africa because they are African, and being a racialized Other living in poverty is perceived as being especially victimizing and in need of a white saviour (Human, 116). Those few who can escape the inevitability of the poverty-stricken African Other are portrayed as incredibly unique as if a man “picked out one piece of achieved sculpture from the all the hack carvings littering the steps of an hotel for white tourists” (Human, 22). Yet ultimately, portraying the African Other as an object of pity or a victim of their own racial identity is dehumanizing. It reinforces a binary of difference where the British white self is superior and feels pity for the Other, while also in a position of power to be a saviour.
The anxieties about political allegiances and how white guilt and sympathy makes the British self untrustworthy is at the core of the Greene’s novel. In The Human Factor, allegiances and ideological position is extremely important and while Castle should be trustworthy as a longstanding white colonial-steeped British man, his supposed romantic and sympathetic feelings for the plight of South African Others marks him as questionable. While Castle “daydreamed of complete conformity,” within the British Intelligence Agency and within the domestic sphere, his relationship with his wife Sarah and her son Sam disrupts that vision (Human, 15). Sarah as an African Other unintentionally corrupts Castle’s whiteness and white image as Castle notes: “I became a naturalized black when I fell in love with Sarah” (Human, 151). Ultimately, it is Castle’s relationship with Sarah that calls his loyalty into question and leads to his discovery as the leak (Human, 247). Whether Castle would betray his country for Sarah, and “her people,” is questioned in terms of romantic sympathy where “the romantic idea of breaking what they think is an unjust law  attracts them just as much as a black bottom” (Human, 127). Even Sarah questions Castle’s motives and loyalties, as: “I wonder whether you love me only because of my colour,” she highlights the uncertainty and untrustworthy nature of a romantic and sympathetic man (Human, 223). Castle deceived both BOSS and his agents in South Africa posing as a writer of a sympathetic book on the apartheid and he was perceived as “one of those idealistic types who want to change the nature of human beings” (Human, 128). Those around Castle fear he will seek “validation of his actions by empathy with an oppressed race,” rather than upholding his duties as a British white citizen (Snyder, 33). This novel is arguably a “cautionary tale demonstrating how a compunction fuelled by guilt (or sympathy) can lead to morally ambivalent outcomes” (Snyder, 29). While pitying the impoverished African Other is a sign of white superiority, sympathizing and possibly acting against your country in the name of injustice is not acceptable British white behaviour. The white man can only be a saviour in so far as helping the Other in minor ways; however, the white man can not help to make the Other equal within the culture of whiteness. There must remain an imbalance of power for whiteness to still be a privileged and sought after identity.
The construction of the British self with the culture of whiteness is dependent on the likewise construction of the Other. Both identities are intimately linked, as it is through the representation of both the white and Other self that difference and privilege can be analyzed. In Fleming’s novel Live and Let Die, the Other is depicted as beastly, unintelligent and superstitious while the British white man is sophisticated, intelligent and logical. The characters of Mr. Big and Solitaire each carry significant traits of the white and black Other and it is ultimately through these characters that the binary of difference is established within the novel. In Greene’s Our Man in Havana, the Other within its own space deals in sex as an intimate part of its culture, where the British white self cannot fully participate nor fully understand. The main protagonist Wormold highlights the constructed British white self as he is re-imagined to fit an appropriate character of whiteness. In Greene’s other novel The Human Factor, the African Other is explicitly connected and constituted by the perceived poverty of both Africa and the African self. While creating a dehumanizing culture of pity, the British self is restricted in the amount of sympathy and help it can offer the African Other, as the imbalance of power must be maintained. Each novel discussed illustrates the various ways that both the British self and the Other are constructed and how those constructions are dependent on a binary relationship of difference.
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Christensen, Tim. “The Unbearable Whiteness of Being: Misrecognition, Pleasure, and White Identity in Kipling’s Kim”. Collage Literature 39.2 (2012): 9-30. Web. Project Muse.
Fleming, Ian. Live and Let Die. Las Vegas: Thomas & Mercer, 2012. Print
Greene, Graham. Our Man in Havana. London: Vintage, 2004. Print
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Levine-Rasky, Cynthia. Whiteness Fractured. Surrey: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2013. Print.
Snyder, Lance Roberts. “’He Who Forms a Tie Is Lost’” Loyalty, Betrayal, and Deception in The Human Factor.” South Atlantic Review 73.3 (2008): 23-43. Web. JSTOR
Tsou, Elda E. “‘This Doesn’t Mean What You’ll Think’: Native Speaker, Allegory, Race.” PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 128.3 (2013): 575-589, 855-856. Web. MLA International Bibliography
Anonymous Writer, Published with Permission.
(Note) This essay is open for all to read however, plagiarism still counts- if individuals are caught using this essay as their own they can face consequences.