Sample Literary Analysis: The Pillory of Racism in "The Moor of Peter the Great"

EssayLiterature
Aug 28, 2019

A literary analysis is similar to an argumentative essay. It presents an interpretation of the elements of a work of fiction, which has to be proven through arguments supported by evidence from the text. See how to write a literary analysis for college students. 

Introduction

The concept of race was developed by European philosophers in the 17th century to rationalize the categorization and subsequent slavery of non-white people, particularly of people from Africa (Roediger para. 3). Since then, racism has become integral to the western society. European literature has since depicted racism, usually with imagery of overt violence and discrimination to demonstrate its dehumanizing and immoral nature. In most cases, the issue of racism is presented in a black-and-white manner—as overtly bad. One exception to this is Alexander Pushkin, a Russian poet, whose unfinished novel, “The Moor of Peter the Great,” depicts racism as something that can be expressed in a subtle manner. The unfinished novel was published in 1827 and is Pushkin’s first attempt at prose. It was believed to be an account of his African great-grandfather, Abram Gannibal. With that in mind, this literary analysis is bound only by as much as what was written. Thus, Pushkin’s “The Moor of Peter the Great” demonstrates a critical insight into racism—that it is not black-and-white, and instead can manifest in hierarchies in relationships and disguised in praise and exaltation but in reality, is rooted in discrimination. In the novel, the pillory of racism is disguised as fondness and care that ultimately prevents the subject of racism, Ibrahim, from being truly free. Instead, he is stuck in a position of humiliation, a scapegoat that is patronized by his oppressors. The following analytical essay expounds on this thesis statement and cites textual evidence from Pushkin’s novel.

Summary and Background of “The Moor of Peter the Great”

Pushkin’s novel, “The Moor of Peter the Great” was written from 1827 to 1828 and published in 1837. The story is about Ibrahim, a moor or African who was taken from Africa to Russia and who later on wins the favor of the tsar, Peter the Great, who makes him his godson. After gaining success in French society, the moor develops a love affair with a French countess, with whom he has a son. However, he is summoned by Peter the Great to return to Russia where he finds out that he is being arranged to marry the daughter of a member of Russian nobility. The tsar explains that he is arranging Ibrahim’s marriage to help him establish himself in Russian society so that when the tsar dies, he will not be discriminated or returned to becoming a slave. 

It has been historically accepted that Pushkin’s novel is a semi-biographical account of the life of his great-grandfather, Abram Petrovich Gannibal, an African slave who won the favor of Peter the Great, which allowed him to become influential in Russian society and marry a Russian (Grinberg 61). Pushkin has claimed that Gannibal is his great-grandfather and this ancestry has been cited as a major issue and source of insecurity for the poet, particularly about his disconnection from Russian society (Grinberg 60). In addition to that, Pushkin himself experienced discrimination for his African features (Grinberg 64). This background serves as a rich context for which to understand the novel “The Moor of Peter the Great.” While Pushkin’s intentions for writing the novel are unclear, the similarities between the experiences of Ibrahim and Gannibal with Pushkin’s own experience of discrimination and isolation from the society in which he grew up affirm the fact that the novel is indeed throwing a spotlight upon the subtle ways racism manifest in society.

Analysis of the Pillory of Racism in “The Moor of Peter the Great”

Racism is rooted in the notion that certain groups of people, specifically those who were different from Anglo-Saxons, were naturally inferior in all aspects (Roediger para. 6-7). Numerous scientists and philosophers have attempted to demonstrate that Africans were a sub-human group, of inferior intellect and morality, which rationalized their enslavement and subsequent discrimination. 

In the novel, the moor was not the subject of this type of racism. He was a freed slave, educated, and treated with respect. In fact, he was put on a pedestal for his wartime achievement. What’s more is that the tsar himself is fond of Ibrahim, even taking him in as his godson, which is what made all of his achievements possible in the first place. However, racism in Russian society is not nonexistent. It is bubbling under the pretense of applause and is amplified when the relationship between Ibrahim and Peter the Great is examined closely.

“The Moor of Peter the Great” mostly revolves around the relationship between Ibrahim and Peter the Great. The tsar holds the highest and most powerful position in Russia. Thus, most, if not all, members of the nobility would want to remain in his good favor. As such, when the tsar became fond of the moor, none contradicted him; resulting in Ibrahim gaining an education and gaining a position in Russian society. Although the tsar refers to the moor as his friend, their relationship is far from such. At most, it is the relationship of a father and son—wherein the son owes his whole being to his father. Thus, when the tsar tells Ibrahim to return to Russia, despite the latter’s attempts to postpone this with varied excuses, he ultimately has no choice but to follow the tsar’s request. Both the tsar and Ibrahim are aware of the difference in their status due to their race, not just because of the tsar’s position in government. Thus, when Ibrahim returned to Russia: 

Ibrahim, recognizing Peter, rushed forward to him in delight, but respectfully stopped short. The Tsar drew near, embraced him and kissed him on the forehead (Pushkin).

This scene would be a common occurrence when visiting a tsar, as people are expected to vow and show reverence before proceeding. However, in this scene, it is clear that Ibrahim, though he is fond of Peter, is aware that his standing is still that of a slave and is, therefore, obligated to show respect. 

Peter the Great himself is aware that Ibrahim’s status as a slave cannot be erased. Regardless of what the tsar has done to help the moor and what the moor has accomplished afterward, Russian society will continue to see him as merely a moor. Their slave-master relationship is the one that prevails even though the tsar likens their relationship to that of the prodigal son and his father. However, even in the tsar’s metaphor, there is an imbalance of power that would not otherwise be present in a friendship. In the prodigal son, the son has made an error that the father forgave, so the son is indebted to his father. In the case of Peter the Great and Ibrahim, Ibrahim did not commit any error except being born an African. Peter is aware that the respect and acceptance afforded by the Russian nobility toward Ibrahim are done out of respect for him. Once he passes away, any civility they have toward Ibrahim will vanish and the latter will be reduced to being a moor again and, possibly, returned to slavery. Because he is a moor he remains without agency in Russian society. Without the tsar, Ibrahim will not be able to protect himself. This is why Peter the Great arranged for Ibrahim to be married to one of the Russian noblest families so that he cannot be easily cast aside. The Tsar himself acknowledges Ibrahim’s stature as a Moor in European society; his status is dangerously low, so he must establish it among the nobility.

While this effort is proof of the tsar’s fondness for Ibrahim, it demonstrates that Ibrahim is under the care of the tsar. As Peter the Great brought Ibrahim to social calls, telling stories about his childhood and wartime accomplishments, it is clear that the tsar’s fondness for Ibrahim is rooted in his fascination with the moor. The tsar appears to see Ibrahim as an accomplishment. It is during this time that people believed that people of African descent were inferior and, therefore, incapable of the same accomplishments white people were (Roediger para. 3-4). It is from this inferiority that the fascination toward the Orient as “exotic” is also rooted (Said 15-16). Ultimately, Peter the Great treats Ibrahim like a child because he sees the latter as a valuable trophy, a priced possession, that must both be protected and displayed proudly. 

However, what this further demonstrates is Ibrahim’s lack of agency. First, he was gently forced to return to Russia from France where he was thriving. Then, upon return, he finds out that he had been arranged to be married to a woman whom he had never met. Though the marriage is supposed to be a way to protect Ibrahim, it is ultimately another reminder that he is not free. 

"It's all fixed, my friend!" Peter said, taking him by the arm. "I have betrothed you… If I were to die today, what would become of you tomorrow? You must get settled while there's still time; find support in new ties, marry into the Russian nobility.” (Pushkin)

The Russian nobility has a similar attitude toward Ibrahim. They see him as a fascinating thing for the same reasons the tsar finds Ibrahim fascinating. When taken by Peter the Great to events, they treat Ibrahim with civility and talk to him to entertain themselves. Ibrahim, too, is aware of this as, for instance, after a dinner with the tsar and the Grand Duchesses, “he tried to satisfy their curiosity, he described the image of Parisian life, the local holidays, and capricious fashion (Pushkin).” In many other events, Ibrahim was welcomed as a guest. However, because of his “exotic” stature in Russian society, Ibrahim could not become a part of it fully. He remains an outsider. Ibrahim is well aware of this reality, which is one of the reasons he was postponing his return to Russia:

Good-bye, Leonora, good-bye, my dear and only friend. I am leaving you, you, the first and last joy of my life. I have neither country nor relatives. I am going to sad Russia, where my total solitude will be a consolation to me (Pushkin).

Ibrahim’s experience of being an outsider in Russian society—the society where he grew up and therefore should call “home”—is consistent with Said’s description of the problem of orientalism. Having been relegated as an “exotic” the East is alienated not only as an outsider, an “other,” but ultimately, as an object (Said 30-32). The West has treated the East as an object to marvel at, often neglecting that it is comprised of diverse cultural identities with their own voices. In doing so, as Peter the Great has done with Ibrahim, the East is stripped of its agency.

Ibrahim’s status as an outsider and inferior is further proven by Rzhevsky’s reaction to Peter the Great’s order for his granddaughter, Natalya, to be married to Ibrahim. Rzhevsky is an old prince, a respected member of Russian nobility, which means that he expects his granddaughter to marry someone of high stature. Considering Ibrahim’s accomplishments, he should be considered a good match for Natalya. However, this is not the case simply because he is a moor. Thus, Rzhevsky had an outburst of anger:

"What!" exclaimed the old Prince, who was by now wide awake. "Natasha, my granddaughter, to be married to a bought negro!" (Pushkin)

This exclamation by Rzhevsky is the most blatant manifestation of racism in the novel. This affirms all the actions of other Russians toward Ibrahim—that they treat him with civility but they do not see him as equal to them. To the Russian nobility he is inferior—a moor, a slave who was merely chosen by the tsar for his own entertainment.

What is most interesting is that even though Ibrahim has attempted to remove himself from this—by living in France—he is forced to return to this situation. He cannot move any more than what Russian society, or Peter the Great, allows him according to his moods. Though he is not physically abused, no tomatoes were thrown at him, the pretend interest and praises he receives from Russian nobility is just as humiliating. Even though it does not fit the usual image of racism, especially during Pushkin’s time, it is every inch a manifestation of racism. 

Conclusion

As discussed earlier, “The Moor of Peter the Great” is a semi-biographical work (see how to write a famous person’s biography ) about the experiences of Gannibal and Pushkin himself. Pushkin was born into Russian nobility, but many of his contemporaries viewed him as inferior due to hints of African genes in his appearance. Despite his accomplishments as a poet, he was still heavily criticized and mocked for this (Grinberg, 64). Ultimately, Pushkin’s intentions for writing the novel are unclear, especially since he never finished it. However, what is clear is that the novel provides a vivid description of the manifestations of racism in Russian high society even as they treat Africans differently from the brutal treatment of African slaves by Americans.


Works Cited

Grinberg, Miriam. “Pushkin and Gannibal: Ethnic Identity in Imperial Russia,” The Gettysburg Historical Journal,  vol. 8, no. 1, 2009, pp. 60-65. https://cupola.gettysburg.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1081&context=ghj

Pushkin, Alexander. The Moor of Peter the Great. 1827.

Roediger, David R. “Historical Foundations of Race,” Smithsonian – National Museum of African American History & Culture, n.d., n.p. https://nmaahc.si.edu/learn/talking-about-race/topics/historical-foundations-race 

Said, Edward. Orientalism. E-book, Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1978. https://sites.evergreen.edu/politicalshakespeares/wp-content/uploads/sites/33/2014/12/Said_full.pdf 

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