Metacritic Journal

for Comparative Studies and Theory

Worlding (Semi)Peripheral Literatures 9.1 (July 2023)
ISSN 2457 – 8827
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Racialized Modernity in Late-Nineteenth-Century Romanian Literature

Maria Chiorean

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In the last decade, World Literature studies have had an increasingly self-reflexive dimension, being refashioned to include a constant dialogue with postcolonial critique and to answer a host of ethical questions regarding the production, circulation and consecration of literature. While Robert Young has called this overlap between the two disciplines a “virtually unmarked territory” (Young 213), other authors, such as Aamir Mufti, Caroline Levine, B. Venkat Mani and Lorna Burns all base their work on the revelation that the concept of Weltliteratur first appeared in the nineteenth century, when the European colonial empires were at their strongest and their global expansionism fueled literary exchange across nations and continents. In Lorna Burns’ views, World Literature needs postcolonial critique “lest it become complicit with the global structure of capitalism” (Burns 1). The modern world-system, the (neo)colonial regimes of knowledge and “contemporary publishing” go hand in hand, Burns shows, so they must be investigated simultaneously. In short, ever since Young decried the scarcity of critical work bringing World Literature and postcolonialism together, several scholars have tried to do just that, highlighting the risks involved in the uncritical celebration of difference and literary influence and paying more attention to the underlying inequalities fostered by capitalism: “What we have to teach when we teach world literature is precisely the history of these relations of force and powers of assimilation” (Mufti 493). Thus, many contemporary World Literature theorists like Pascale Casanova, Franco Moretti and especially the Warwick Research Collective approach the literary text and the literary system through a sociology of literature, inspired by second wave postcolonialism: in their work, the material circumstances which condition the literary field are constantly investigated and reevaluated, with literature being seen as a product and an encoder of these factors (Burns 4-5; 119).

At the same time, postcolonial scholars have devoted much of their research and theoretical work to the issue of racial and ethnic categorization, which was used by various Western powers as a discursive and political tool for maintaining control over a subaltern population. It is by now painfully clear that Enlightenment philosophy, based on the clear distinction between “civilized” or “cultured” and “barbaric” people, “was instrumental in codifying and institutionalizing both the scientific and popular European perceptions of the human race” (Eze 5). However, even in terms of Western interference in local inter-ethnic dynamics, it can be argued that colonialism has directly led to racialization, ethnic conflict and warfare in multiple regions (Mamdami 21-27; Idris 9-12), from India and Rwanda to more recent events in Syria and Myanmar. While the numerous case studies conducted by historians and sociologists have shown “how communalizing colonial policies (CCPs) that recognized and institutionalized communal divisions among colonized populations had influential effects” on internal inter-ethnic tensions (Lange, Jeong & Amasyali 142), statistical research has also proven that “highly discriminatory CCP is associated with very high odds of ethnic civil war onset” (158). The common conclusion of all of these studies is that, whenever an empire or a Western power oppresses and exploits a (semi)peripheral community, its internal processes of identity negotiation suffer significant consequences, generating hierarchies, enmity, and polarization between ethnic groups.  

Considering these two scholarly strands, it should be said that, despite the useful inter-disciplinary connections mentioned above, the combined use of World Literature and ethno-racial studies (the third possible combination) remains a rare occurrence, with no specific methodology. This is precisely why the following paragraphs will include a series of case studies from Romanian literature, which propose a narrower focus on the authors’ conception of ethnicity, nationness and historical progress. More precisely, I aim to discuss the connection between modernity and racialization in Romanian literature in the second half of the nineteenth century, drawing on the postcolonial critique of hegemonic modernity and showing that, although Romania is not traditionally included in historical accounts of colonialism and enslavement, the formation of a national identity and literature at the turn of the century went hand in hand with the orientalist depiction and radical othering of two internal ethnic minorities: the Roma and the Jews.

Worlding and marginalization were two sides of the same coin. In this sense, I will focus on a few texts by three writers conventionally known as the “great classics” of the nineteenth century: short stories by I.L. Caragiale, prose by Ioan Slavici and political articles by Mihai Eminescu. I will be arguing that their perception of cultural and racial difference is not only symptomatic of social attitudes in nineteenth-century Romania, but also of the contemporaneous position of Romanian literature in the world-literary system (see Fig.1).

Figure 1


1. Worlding and Marginalization

The premise of this study is taken from the seminal work of the Warwick Research Collective, who point out that the theory of “combined and uneven development”, which they build on, was “devised to describe a situation in which capitalist forms and relations exist alongside 'archaic forms of economic life' and pre-existing social and class relations” (WReC 11). In terms of a country’s ethnic structure, this paradox often involves the cultivation of capitalist modes of production and competition alongside its oldest social hierarchies, practices and inter-community divisions, all of which are meant to ensure a measure of stability (WReC 10-11). I am particularly interested in this dialectic between old and new, local and foreign, the nation and its minorities, since each author’s ideological position regarding the Western understanding of “modernity” also determined conflicting attitudes towards the Roma and the Jews, which were embedded in the fictional worlds and in the discursive landscapes drawn by Slavici, Caragiale and Eminescu.

In the nineteenth century and during the transition from Romanticism to Modernism (with its many distinct -isms), Romanian literature fits the evolutionary pattern theorized by Pascale Casanova in The World Republic of Letters and even the one posited by Fredric Jameson in his controversial essay “Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism”: a peripheral or semiperipheral literature which seeks admission to the “center” of the world republic starts as a national literature or, according to Jameson, by producing national allegories: “the story of the private individual destiny is always an allegory of the embattled situation of the public third-world culture and society” (Jameson 69). Or, in Casanova’s words,

[T]he autonomy enjoyed by the most literary countries is marked chiefly by the depoliticization of literature: the almost complete disappearance of popular or national themes (…) Formal preoccupations, which is to say specifically literary concerns, appear in small literatures only in a second phase, when an initial stock of literary resources has been accumulated and the first international artists find themselves in a position to challenge the aesthetic assumptions associated with realism and to exploit the revolutionary advances achieved at the Greenwich meridian (Casanova 199-200).


Of course, by the time that the Romanian “great classics” published their work, the age of Romantic nationalism, revolutionary enthusiasm and politically-committed bards had all but ended. As Andrei Terian writes in his analysis of Eminescu’s cult status, “in the 1860s, when he stepped on the Romanian political and literary scene, the ‘national rebirth’ of his country had already taken place” (Terian, Mihai Eminescu 37), after a series of uprisings, revolutionary movements and wars. The union of Moldavia and Wallachia had also taken place in 1859, so that the only historical hurdle that the poet could participate in – the recognition of Romania’s independence by the Great Powers after the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878 – was a diplomatic struggle, which he addressed by writing for the press. Nevertheless, not only was nationalism alive and well in the second half of the nineteenth century, enjoying periodic bursts of energy and violent rhetoric, but these decades were also marked by stronger connections with the West. After all, ever since the Russian protectorate (established in 1829) practically introduced the Romanian provinces to French culture and French fashion (Drace-Francis, Making 98; 103), there had been real competition between different cultural models imported from abroad, notably between French and German influences. Thus, late-nineteenth-century Romanian literature was very much part of the world-literary system, partaking in its transfers and competitive relations and simultaneously negotiating its own identity, its associated social structures and political values.

Casanova’s World Republic of Letters has come under intense criticism since its publication in 1999, either because it seems to be praising the process of denationalization, preferring European modernism to any other current or mode of writing (Thorne 61-62)[1] or because it operates with a restrictive and ethnocentric understanding of literature and literary value (Prendergast 108)[2]. Elsewhere, I have argued that the transition from a nationalized literature to depoliticization and worlding is not a universal evolutionary pattern, that worlding is not necessarily linear and that formal innovation is often born as a result of political and ethical imperatives, which temporarily overshadow the competitive mechanisms of the modern world-system (Chiorean 58-60). However, to quote Terian, “at least in the Romantic sense largely prevailing in the nineteenth century (…) [the world of the nation] is or is seen, by itself and other national worlds, as a homogenous space, and this homogeneity (…) is not only linguistic but also ethnic and territorial” (Terian, Mihai Eminescu 35). On the one hand, nineteenth-century Romanian authors carried out their work and defined their aesthetic projects through constant interaction and comparison with Western models: being educated abroad, reading French and German philosophy and regarding it as the pinnacle of human thought, noticing the inroads of capitalism into Romanian society and the local configurations of “modernity”, writers like Eminescu, Slavici and Caragiale could not help but embark on the cultural trajectory drawn by Casanova. On the other hand, worlding functioned as a two-way street, as it was not only canonized, national authors that joined World Literature. It was also worlding itself that guaranteed national canonization. Writing comparatively about Slovenian literature and Icelandic literature in their formative age, Marko Juvan has shown that “Prešeren and Hallgrímsson [the national poets of these cultures] were elevated to cultural sainthood because they were thought, in turn, to have elevated their national literatures to the level at which the national was becoming European. Thus, canonizing a poet as a nation’s cultural saint (‘sainting’) implied his or her ‘worlding’” (Juvan 48)[3].

Finally, it is well-known that, all throughout the European nineteenth century, the delineation of collective identities relied on exclusionary practices more often than on the difficult negotiation of hybridity and cultural overlapping. To quote Benedict Anderson’s famous Imagined Communities, the reflex of excluding races and ethnicities from the national body stems from “the growth of conceptions of biological and ecological contamination that accompanied the planetary spread of Europeans and European power from the sixteenth century onwards” (Anderson 58). Or, in Andreas Wimmer’s words, ethnic exclusion and ethnic conflict were common occurrences “in states that lacked the institutional capacity and organizational bases to realize the project of nation building and to offer political participation and public goods to the population at large, rather than only to the ethnic constituencies of the dominant elites” (Wimmer 4). Therefore, let us consider the following syllogism: when taking shape and competing for cultural capital and legitimacy in the World Republic of Letters, semiperipheral literatures such as those written by Romanian, Slovenian or Icelandic authors engaged first and foremost in a process of nation-building; this process involved the exclusion, othering or orientalist depiction of internal ethnic minorities, who became the deviation that confirmed the norm, alterity determining identity. Thus, it only stands to reason that the analysis of literary worlding and circulation can never be complete or rigorous unless it also involves the exploration of ethno-racial relations within the national literature.


2. Romanian Literature in the Second Half of the Nineteenth Century

By looking at the “great unread”[4] of the nineteenth-century Romanian novel, we can already assemble a list of ethnic representational patterns concerning the Roma and the Jews[5]. The landscape is rather bleak, repeating age-old clichés and tropes, from the wild, free, instinct-driven Romani adventurer to the cunning, calculated, greedy Jewish merchant. Only by the end of the nineteenth century does the narrative situation of these groups start to change: after the sporadic presence of Jewish or Romani protagonists between 1845 and 1900 – in novels such as Coliba Măriucăi [Măriuca’s Cabin] by V.A. Urechia (1855) – the beginning of the twentieth century brings more characters belonging to the two minority groups, who begin speaking for themselves, contradicting various stereotypes, introducing philosophical arguments for emancipation and undergoing change and inner conflicts. But their situation in the nineteenth-century novel and their slow evolution towards literary agency prove that the European semiperiphery has been shaped by a vicious circle of hegemonic modernity, in which the particularly Western model of literary evolution, centered in Paris and requiring the pursuit of aesthetic autonomy also conditions the self-perception of semiperipheral cultures and their understanding of what literature is or should be. In its turn, their self-refashioning as to correspond to this model leads to internal othering, orientalism and the erasure of entire social groups, thus making the national literature part and parcel of hegemonic modernity, reinforcing it and expanding it geographically (see Fig.2).  

Figure 2

What is more, nineteenth-century Romanian literature does not simply provide a case of othering or orientalism when it comes to the Roma and the Jews. It is also a case of racialization, where racialization is understood as the positing of innate, natural, genetically inscribed differences between groups – in our case, ethnicities – and, more often than not, a hierarchy based on such distinctions. It does not always rely on skin tone or geographic origin; it can just as easily manifest as the belief in a collective moral flaw or a God-given proclivity for a certain occupation or artistic field. In the economy of nation-building, racialization plays a crucial role, because it creates such deep divides between the majority and the minorities that national identity can be enshrined as a stable, ahistorical reality. As shown by Emannuel Chukwudi Eze in his work on the European Enlightenment and its obsession with classification, this applies to biological racism, which simply does not bother with context, but also refers to cultural racism, according to which these group characteristics can be explained rationally and historically but are too deeply-rooted to be “corrected” (Eze 5-6).

In this sense, racialization should be seen as one of the most severe and long-lasting components of hegemonic modernity and the policing of knowledge, since it infiltrates everything from the literary imaginary and the public discourse to social and economic policies. For Anibal Quijano, one of the fundamental elements of the capitalist model of power is “the social classification of the world’s population around the idea of race, a mental construction that expresses the basic experience of colonial domination and pervades the more important dimensions of global power, including its specific rationality: Eurocentrism” (Quijano 533). Not only has this racialized structure survived the dissolution of the most powerful Western empires, but it “should be accepted as a basic factor in the national question and the nation-state” (570), a factor that keeps generating division and conflicts to this day. As already mentioned, the Romanian literature of the nineteenth century was not a postcolonial one. Rather, as argued by Manuela Boatcă and Anca Parvulescu, the Romanian provinces were constantly disputed by multiple empires – Habsburg, Ottoman, and Russian – causing their “inter-imperial” condition, which cannot be explained away through Western expansionism alone (Boatcă & Parvulescu 8-10). After the end of Ottoman domination in 1821, “the Romanian Principalities faced the passage from a protocolonial system (…) to a neocolonial regime as Western Europe’s agrarian province (…) a new form of dependency, closely resembling the one experienced by classical colonies after political independence” (Boatcă 7). Thus, Romania was never colonized, but it was more than familiar with coloniality, that is, with typically colonial forms of dependence. Hence, the applicability of Quijano’s notion of persistent racialization in the study of nineteenth-century literature, especially considering the utterly cavalier manner in which canonical authors have often reduced minority characters to a single perceived racial identity, which carried into the interwar period and beyond. It may seem like such canonical writers from Eastern Europe only determined the mutations of nationalism and the ethnic dynamics of their own culture, being unfit for a world literary perspective. However, as Boatcă and Parvulescu put it, “small literature canons yield substantial power; they do so in a restricted space but with world-historical implications” (12). Therefore, it is imperative to reread canonical texts by paying attention to the ways in which their position in the world-literary system determines the perception and the depiction of ethnic minorities – or, in other words, their racialization.


3. Ioan Slavici. The Mill of Good Luck

Slavici’s place amongst the “great classics” of the nineteenth century is granted by his realist technique, as well as his ability to capture the multiethnic, multilingual, fast-changing society of Transylvania under the Austro-Hungarian Empire (Manolescu 429, 444; Călinescu 508, 511). He has generally been read as a conservative writer, who breaks the pretense of narrative omniscience and objectivity to provide moralizing interpretations of the characters’ fate. As for his political activity, he was the secretary of the CCE (The Central Electoral Committee of the Romanian National Party) and the assigned author of a memorandum addressed to the Austro-Hungarian monarch in 1887 in an attempt to reveal the worsening circumstances of the Romanian people under dualism. Slavici’s own conciliatory attitude towards the Hungarian population of Transylvania was replaced by clear hostility in this document, which was never actually used or even discussed in the CCE general assembly (Popovici 35-36; Dobrescu 90). Nonetheless, his rhetoric speaks volumes about Romanian nationalism in this region, about the perception of ethnic difference and the place of the Romanian principalities in the world-system: in the memorandum, Slavici compares Romanian-Austrian and Romanian-Hungarian relations, claiming that not only were the former historically amicable and mutually beneficial, but that the modernization of Transylvania could only be carried out by the Romanian people. Slavici glorifies the Habsburg family, the monarchy and Romanian loyalty to the court. He ends up pitting one oppressor against the other for the sake of Romanian prosperity and emancipation, confirming the inter-imperial strategic pattern discussed by Boatcă and Parvulescu (50)[6]. Defending the Romanians who lived in Transylvania, Slavici resorted to pragmatic arguments, claiming that the Hungarian government kept violating certain laws and previously established rights, thus defying the Emperor himself (Popovici 36). Similarly, while his nationalism was “less radical than Eminescu’s” (Manolescu 442), Slavici still protested the dissolution of Article 7 in the Romanian Constitution, which prevented the Jews from becoming citizens. In 1878, when the Great Powers requested this change as a precondition of Romanian independence, Slavici demonstrated his economically-motivated xenophobia in an article entitled Soll şi Haben. Chestiunea ovreiască în România [The Jewish Question in Romania] (Manolescu 247), but explained his antisemitic stance through the supposed superiority of the Jewish people, who would have become a dangerous competitor once they got more rights. At the same time, Slavici’s political discourse is noticeably rooted in a legal and juridical framework, which included the Romanian inhabitants of the region and condemned the Hungarians but could never be applied to other minorities, such as the Roma.

With this in mind, let us look at Moara cu noroc [The Mill of Good Luck], one of Slavici’s most well-known and critically acclaimed narratives, which tells the tale of Ghiță, a modest innkeeper who is bullied, threatened and controlled by a local criminal, Lică, and who ends up on a path to self-destruction. For the purpose of this study, the short story can be read as a case of individual morality crumbling in the face of fast-paced change: increased geographical and social mobility, new patterns of economic exchange, opportunities for commerce and ways around the law, career changes in the middle of one’s life etc. As Manolescu writes in his Critical History, even Slavici’s village is “half capitalist in its economic aspects” (446), let alone the small towns of Transylvania or an “interstitial space” (to use Daiana Gârdan’s concept)[7] like the Mill of Good Luck. More recently, Alina Bako has also written about Slavici’s depiction of early capitalism, showing how it was molded by the Transylvanian ethnic milieu (Bako 62-63). So, for Slavici, who joined many other nineteenth-century intellectuals in criticizing indiscriminate Westernization and modernization, the new capitalist world taking shape in the Romanian provinces was fundamentally unstable and could even bring tension and division between various ethnic communities whose interactions were, above all else, economic in nature.

But where do the Jewish and Romani characters fit in this social landscape? To begin with, they are not only othered and racialized, they are also narratively marginal – they never speak for themselves and they either do not appear in any scene (being mentioned but not shown) or they exist quite literally on the margins, in the background. The Mill of Good Luck has one Jewish character, a relatively wealthy administrator, who is robbed and almost beaten to death by the story’s villain and his accomplices. He remains unnamed (he is always “the Jew”) and his attackers go unpunished, but what is truly remarkable is that nobody is even remotely surprised by this event – an attack on a Jewish man in order to take away his wealth is seen as a common occurrence. “The Jew” and “the administrator” become synonyms (Slavici 116), as the profession – collecting money from various people in the region – was traditionally associated with the Jews in Central and Eastern Europe (Oișteanu 161) and was often condemned as inherently unjust or corrupt. Of course, the racialization of the publican was a historical process that can be traced back to ancient Judea and the New Testament, when “publicans were typically Jews who worked for the despised Roman government collecting various taxes from Jewish citizens” and were thus despised for a lack of moral backbone (King et al. 68). In Slavici’s prose, the victimhood of the Jewish character is not discussed any further. The robbery and his beating are mere indicators of a dangerous, lawless environment.

As for the Romani characters, the musicians brought by Lică to play at the inn make up an undifferentiated group, in which individualization happens solely due to the different instruments: the violin, the clarinet and the dulcimer. They are introduced through the following sentence: “Lică placed them on a bench in the inn and ordered them to play”[8] (Slavici 117). On a similar note, another character later announces: “We’ll load the Gypsies [in the wagon] and we’ll go to the wedding”[9] (192). In other words, the characters are being described and handled like objects, as is the innkeeper’s wife, Ana, who is forced to dance with Lică in the same scene. Just like the patriarchal society of the nineteenth century treats women as a naturally different and inferior category, the Roma are also marginalized to the point that they become exotic ornaments rather than a part of the social fabric. Their presence has no inherent value, but they are a symbol of good will, of partying, of entertainment. Not to mention that, much like in the dance scene in Liviu Rebreanu’s novel Ion, there is no mention of their getting paid in a regulated, legal manner. Rather, they are shown to be Lică’s servants, always seeking to get his sympathy and the amount of money he sees fit. Boatcă and Parvulescu have already discussed this erasure of itinerant labor from labor history when it comes to the Roma (Boatcă & Parvulescu 70, 82), which is only confirmed by Lică’s description of the musicians as “having a better sense of smell than a bloodhound”[10] (189). This comparison with an animal is not just demeaning; it also reveals that Romani work is perceived as instinctive, done out of greed but devoid of any authority in terms of obtaining a profit. The narrator also mentions that they are having a great time while contemplating the bills that have been stuck to their foreheads; that is, a narrator like Slavici’s – who knows so much about the world he is constructing and who sometimes interferes in the story, providing words of wisdom – legitimates the same racist division of labor and society: “because [Lică] was being cheerful and kind and generous, the Roma from Ineu had grown fond of him and kept coming to the inn to ask whether he was there or whether he would arrive soon, to party with his friends”[11] (182). Of course, the claim that the musicians had grown “fond” of their abusive employer is debatable. Despite the narrator’s interpretation, their constant presence at the inn is more likely to derive from the itinerant nature of their labor, which ensures no safety net, no stable income and no social mobility whatsoever. In an age of inter-imperial struggle, when the Romanian inhabitants of Transylvania were negotiating their place in the world-system and coming to terms with the rules of capitalist competition, the Roma were simply excluded from these processes and debates. Their social and economic vulnerability made them prone to further marginalization.


4. I.L. Caragiale

4.1. An Easter Torch

It must be said from the very start that, during his career, Caragiale was a well-known critic of antisemitism and, at a time when many politicians and intellectuals (including Eminescu) were denying the Jews their emancipation and their right to citizenship, he even tried writing a legislative proposal to extend Romanian citizenship to all the stateless persons living in Romania (Cioculescu 30-31). Moreover, his disdain for provincialism and ignorance resulted in a rejection of xenophobia and prejudice, as well as “an unusual appreciation of the heterogeneity and complexity of a language, in contrast to the prevailing monolinguistic propaganda of the day” (Drace-Francis, Traditions 190). Caragiale’s understanding of the Romanian language and people was never purist but rather critical, ironic and appreciative of difference: “the linguistic satire, where both the vernacular of the provincials and the cosmopolitan idiom of the capital are satirized equally: no distinction is drawn between them in point of silliness” (190).

In O Făclie de Paște [An Easter Torch], a naturalistic short story about a Jewish innkeeper who is threatened and persecuted until he descends into psychosis and attacks his tormentor, we see Caragiale’s preoccupation with the situation of the Jewish community in Romania. For one thing, even rival critics like Constantin Dobrogeanu-Gherea and Titu Maiorescu have agreed that the protagonist, Leiba Zibal, was not an isolated character but was meant to represented the Jewish people as a whole (Dobrogeanu-Gherea 122, 131). The behavior of the Romanian community checks all the boxes on the list of stereotypes, from accusing him of being a poisoner or a cowardly traitor to harassing him out of revenge. Terrorized by a former employee’s allusion to a possible attack on Easter night and being perpetually ill and feverish, the protagonist ends up mutilating and burning the arm of the intruder in a fit of cruelty. At the same time, Leiba’s portrait seems to amass a number of clichés only to deviate from each of them ever so slightly: he is an innkeeper, like many European Jews, but his situation is rather precarious, since Leiba has worked many odd jobs over the time and is by no means a successful businessman; he appears to represent the “cowardly” Jew, “an easily-troubled soul”[12] (Caragiale 44) who lost his first job after fainting at the sight of violence; but his helplessness and constant fear are revealed to derive from the authorities’ refusal to grant him protection, even though he explicitly asks for it; finally, his apparently disproportionate anguish is proven to be entirely justified and perfectly reasonable, given the real, serious dangers faced by the Jewish community in Romania and by Leiba himself. When two travelers tell the story of another Jewish inn being robbed, resulting in the brutal killing of five people, it is implied that such events are not uncommon, being triggered either by greed or by revenge or religious extremism (48).

Caragiale’s irony is also instrumental in his critical depiction of antisemitism. The same two students who bring the news of the other attack try to explain the occurrence of murderous behavior throughout history by resorting to Lombroso and Darwin. They are clearly satirized when the narrator argues that such “lyrical” phrases – said by people who have never been affected by crime or poverty – sit very well with Leiba’s good wine and with the enthusiasm of youth (48-49). But it is not only their superficiality that comes under fire; their arguments and the theories they reference have a lot in common with racial taxonomy, a discipline invented in Western philosophy precisely in order to defend colonialism, exploitation and slavery. The two visitors – a medical student and a philosopher – are ridiculous because they are discussing a social class that they are in fact unfamiliar with, but also because they explain all violence as an evolutionary anomaly rather than a socially-ingrained phenomenon. Thus, Caragiale’s satire of systemic antisemitism anticipates the critique of and departure from the purely psychoanalytical approach to racism, xenophobia and antisemitism, which has been seen by contemporary authors as reductive and decontextualizing, interpreting discrimination primarily as the manifestation of one’s inherent fear of alterity[13].

In his introduction to Caragiale’s collected works, Paul Zarifopol rejects Maiorescu and Dobrogeanu-Gherea’s ethnic interpretation of the short story. He argues that Leiba’s possible status as a representative of the Jewish people is simply inconsequential when it comes to the aesthetic value of Caragiale’s narrative: “I tend to believe that such generalizations constitute an incursion of the scientific principle into the artistic field (…) The ingenious cruelty of a man mad with fear: that is the central theme of Zibal’s drama”[14] (XXII). It is my contention, however, that only the combined use of ideological reading and aesthetic analysis can reveal the place of Caragiale’s work in the world-literary system of the late nineteenth century.

First, just like in Slavici’s story, Leiba’s world is changing fast as a result of being absorbed into the modern capitalist network. In his opinion, Podeni is an unsuitable location for an inn precisely because of the railway, which makes a detour of the marshes and leaves the place isolated yet frequented by the most diverse groups of travelers. According to Drace-Francis, not only are the railways a common setting of dangerous events in Caragiale’s work, but “in the Romania of the 1870s and 1880s, they operated as a kind of symbol for foreign domination of commerce, as well as fear of invasion” (Traditions 196). So, not only is Leiba Zibal part of an ethnic minority, but he is also a marginal character in a society so preoccupied with its place in the world that it automatically changes its internal structure to accommodate economic competition on a more international scale: although Caragiale does not explain this causal relationship between industrialization and the vulnerability of a Jewish innkeeper, his narrative exposes the mechanisms of internal othering, the increasing brutality of a competitive society and the dire results of general indifference and precarization. In this sense, we must not forget that An Easter Torch was published a decade after the Congress of Berlin and the ensuing debate about granting Jewish people Romanian citizenship, when the demands of the Great Powers were seen by many politicians and intellectuals in Romania as a form of abuse and an infringement on self-determination (Oldson 26-37). Caragiale thus captures the internal effects of nineteenth-century geopolitics and diplomacy: hostility and antisemitism, the peripheralization of ethnic minorities, suspicion towards any foreign influences.

At the same time, An Easter Torch is one of Caragiale’s best-known naturalistic narratives, providing a fresco of inter-ethnic relations and a satire of shallow intellectualism, while also using half of the text as an exercise in the graphic depiction of violence and one’s physical response to fear. It is by now a critical cliché to argue that Caragiale’s work seems to have been inspired by Émile Zola and, more generally, French naturalism (Călinescu 496; Manolescu 428-429), representing yet another case of Romanian literature catching up with the Western canon. On the one hand, Larry Duffy has argued that naturalistic fiction can be defined through its “interaction with the real world and meticulous documentation of the modern”, as well as an “obsession with the organic, with the network and above all with dysfunction” (Duffy 15-16). Accordingly, Caragiale certainly focuses on the ways in which Leiba’s place in the complicated social network of modern Romania – a semiperipheral nation fighting for independence and recognition – ends up causing the ultimate imbalance: torture and murder. On the other hand, it is interesting to notice that, while being sceptical of the project of modernization for its own sake, Caragiale also employs a manifestly Western literary form, using the Jewish character as the perfect vehicle for the exploration of tension, fear and madness. While “the Jewish question” is no mere buzzword in Caragiale’s prose, where the Jews are depicted as a complex, economically-layered and persecuted community, Leiba Zibal does end up serving the literary convention of naturalism.


4.2. Two Lottery Tickets

In another famous short story, Două loturi [Two Lottery Tickets], Lefter Popescu is unable to find the two tickets that seem to have won him a great lottery prize. During their pursuit, the Romani women who buy the protagonist’s coat from his wife end up as the victims of wrongful arrest and abuse at the hands of the police, simply because Lefter – a Romanian clerk with an honorable social status – asked for their imprisonment. His behavior and his suspicion that the women must be thieves and liars expose the ingrained prejudice governing modern Romanian society, as well as the Roma’s lack of legal protection. What is more, there are three Romani characters in the story: Țâca, a young pregnant woman, an older relative (presumably her mother) and a young girl; their ethnicity, age, gender and unregulated labor converge to create specific forms of intersectional vulnerability, because, as explained by Sirma Bilge and Patricia Hill Collins, “major axes of social divisions in a given society at a given time, for example, race, class, gender, sexuality, dis/ability, and age operate not as discrete and mutually exclusive entities, but build on each other and work together” (4). Not only do Caragiale’s Romani characters live “right on the periphery, in the slum of the plate-sellers (…) [in] a mud house, sitting sideways, isolated in a barren field”[15] (Caragiale 28-29), but it is the commissioner who gives this address, indicating that the police were previously surveying the Romani community. Not to mention that their first visit is practically a police raid: “The commissioner posted his sergeants at the back of the house, hidden from view, according to the consecrated strategy rules whenever a den is being raided”[16] (29). The police address the Romani women without a shred of respect or politeness and Lefter starts riffling through their clothes without asking for permission, revealing the double standards of Romanian law enforcement: some are entitled to the protection of their property, while others must give theirs up without hesitation.

Of course, Two Lottery Tickets is first and foremost a satire. While Lefter clearly sees himself as superior to the Romani women, as a civilized, educated man, a respectable middle-class employee, the narrator presents his greed in an unflattering light: “So many ironic, biting, sentimental remarks could be made regarding the heap of old clothes, regarding the impermanence of our world (…) but Mr. Lefter has no time for philosophy… he is searching… constantly searching”[17] (Caragiale 30). Lefter is depicted as virtually disfigured by rage, like a rabid animal, who would use whatever means necessary to get his money back. His experience as a clerk has taught him that “the Roma can tolerate the least amount of pressure out of all the ethnicities, and the Romani women – even less; as soon as you start tightening the corset”[18] they start confessing (32). These images are disturbing and grotesque, but they also point to the systemic nature of violence in Caragiale’s society. As Doris Mironescu writes, “the capital’s clumsy toponymy” in Caragiale’s work often reflects the nominal but insubstantial nature of modernity in Romania: “designations such as Emancipation Street or Fidelity Street gesture ironically to the young Romanian Kingdom’s striking disconnect between pretentious, largely inane public rhetoric and the reality of democratic and moral life” (Mironescu, How 296). Thus, the obviously ironic fact that the Romani women in Two Lottery Tickets live on Emancipation Street, despite their dire poverty, reveals one of the characteristics of “combined and uneven development”: while the more wealthy members of a semiperipheral society like that of nineteenth-century Romania scramble to become as Western, modern and influential as possible, inequalities deepen; there was no emancipation for the lower classes and especially for ethnic minorities like the Roma as long as the collective “emancipation” of Romania was actually conceptualized as a hurried replica of hegemonic modernity.

However, by far the most challenging and problematic aspect of Caragiale’s story is the use of humor. On the one hand, the main target of the author’s irony is Lefter, which becomes even more visible when the Romani women turn on him, attacking him with household objects and expressing their sense of injustice. As Michael Billig writes, “it has been claimed that the portrayal of fictional characters uttering racist remarks or jokes can be humorous, because the audience is laughing at such characters”, and, although “the reproduction of racist terminology for comedic purposes is deeply problematic” (27), Caragiale manages to walk this fine line and direct his criticism towards the white, Romanian, male figures of authority. On the other hand, there can be no doubt that certain comical scenes in Two Lottery Tickets rely on the stereotypes associated with the Roma: the women’s loudness, their wailing, the typical catchphrases in which the Romanian interlocutor appears as a wealthy and powerful master, their layered clothing and their culinary preferences (which do not coincide with their visitors’), all these elements could easily result in a parody of the Romani culture. Caragiale’s solution, however, is to alter the power relation between the women and their persecutors, using the reader’s gaze as a vehicle of criticism and zooming in on Lefter’s hypocrisy. A comparable strategy has been used in recent Romanian cinematography, which departs from the nationalistic tradition and draws on Caragiale’s humor, including in Radu Jude’s recent film Aferim! As demonstrated by Andrei Gorzo and Veronica Lazăr, in Jude’s comical scenes involving Romani slaves, the impact on the spectator – that is, tension rather than comic relief – serves the same function, alternating between familiarity and strangeness, immersion and alienation (5-6).



5. Mihai Eminescu. The Jewish Problem

Mihai Eminescu’s explicit antisemitism and his ideological prestige as the Romanian “national poet” are widely recognized by contemporary literary scholars and historians (Terian, “(Re)Politicizing” 10; Mironescu, “Retrospective” 28; Oldson 115), who comment on his blatant xenophobic and anti-Jewish sentiments, as seen in the articles from the conservative newspaper Timpul. His main ideas on the matter are rather repetitive and compatible with the conservative dogma of his time (Butaru 123): he argues against granting citizenship to the Jews living in Romania (Eminescu 76); he presents them as undesirable economic competitors (48-53), as a corrupting influence and a disloyal, non-patriotic community; he accuses the Jews of poisoning the Romanian population through alcohol and of driving them to accumulate unnecessary debts (Eminescu 19). The list could go on, because Eminescu manages to gather, nuance, and reinvent most of the European clichés regarding Jewishness and the Jewish people. As Andrei Oișteanu points out, these tropes were by no means strictly Romanian but could also be found in the discourse of French diplomats living in the provinces, as well as in other Central and Eastern European cultures, such as the Polish or Hungarian ones (161).

Rather than making a full list of Eminescu’s preferred ethnic clichés, I find his rhetorical ways around racism to be the most relevant and harmful. Fully aware that his articles were advocating for the implementation of discriminatory practices, Eminescu addresses these accusations and carefully avoids any religious component: he decries “the danger of being flooded with and conquered by hundreds of thousands of hungry and totally unproductive workers, whose only quality is their fierce greed, whose weapons are slyness and corruption, whose motherland is nowhere in the whole world and who end up seeking refuge in Romania”[19] (74); the problem is purely economic, he claims, therefore religious prejudice and racism are simply out of the question. This is precisely why Eminescu’s discourse might seem rational or even reasonable at first sight. He employs the myth of the Jewish “poisoner”, but he then explains that alcoholism is the actual vice he is referring to (31). He constructs his antisemitism as the rejection of foreign influences in Romanian politics, especially after the Congress of Berlin, while also demonstrating the typically contradictory nature of racist discourse (Bhabha 66): the Jews cannot be fully assimilated into the Romanian body politic, Eminescu argues, but at the same time, they would only stop being dangerous to the Romanian mores and way of life if they underwent a kind of cultural dissolution into their adoptive nation (Oldson 115-120).

Finally, Eminescu’s antisemitic discourse indicates a paradoxical understanding of the modern world-system and of Romania’s place in this network. Eminescu was part of the literary society Junimea, which, “unlike many such nineteenth-century East-Central European societies, which had a liberal-progressive agenda modeled on the famous anti-Absolutist Junges Deutschland of the German Romantics, (…) had a conservative orientation” (Terian, “Mihai Eminescu” 38). Thus, far from being enthusiastic about Westernization for Westernization’s sake, he developed “a vehement wholesale critique of the young Romanian State’s modernization” (38). This did not stop him from becoming synonymous with the rapid evolution of Romanian literature towards post-romanticism or pre-modernity (Terian, “(Re)Politicizing” 13) – ensuring a means of synchronization with the West – nor did it prevent his obsession with labor and productivity when it came to the Jews: in good capitalist fashion, Eminescu’s conception of citizenship as being tied up with productivity (especially for foreign individuals) brings to mind the worldview of authors upholding the Western empires, such as Daniel Defoe, for whom “naturalization is the moment when each of these fields [demographics, economics, moral philosophy] implicates the others so as to define the modern citizen as someone who possesses the right sentiments, is productive and convertible or tractable in a certain way” (Mierowsky 129). In short, despite Eminescu’s nationalistic, anti-colonial stance, his opinions regarding “the Jewish problem” abide by the Western concept of progress (implicit in the “inferiority complex” of small literatures). At the same time, upholding the nation as an absolute ideal involved the subordination of all the other ethical questions to the process of nation-building and legitimization. In one of his most violent texts on the matter, Eminescu sees the Jews as unworthy of political rights precisely because of their lack of national cohesion. He writes that “no soldier will ever be mobilized by any political power for the sake of the Jews, no Christian bones will be endangered for the sake of this race, which has been wholeheartedly despised by all the European peoples”[20] (75).

Ultimately, Eminescu’s approach to the promise of Western modernity consists of two strategies: polarization and the Oriental detour. First, his articles distinguish between a German model of modernization – based on intellectual depth and organic progress, which immediately excluded any “rotten” elements (Eminescu 78) – and a French model – the “unhealthy Parisian dramas” that had replaced the “healthy Anton Pann” in the Romanian culture (77). This preference for German “substance” also serves as an argument against Jewish naturalization, as Prussia had also allowed the Jews to apply for citizenship only once they adopted the German language in all of their activities. Second, Andrei Terian has shown that, when it comes to Eminescu’s place in World Literature, it was “his imaginary journey to India” (Terian, “Mihai Eminescu” 51) that helped him overcome his fixation with being a mere epigone of ‘greater’ European writers like Shakespeare or Goethe. It is all the more interesting to note that, although he was “one of the first European writers to de-Orientalize India” and “re-Easternize the West” (51), an ethnic minority such as the Jews could still meet with Eminescu’s constant hostility and racializing rhetoric, undergoing a discursive conversion from an internal minority to an external, transnational threat.



The combined approach employed in this paper – focusing on the depiction of ethnic minorities in connection with the place of the Romanian “great classics” in the world-literary system – reveals the particular forms of interdependence between the authors’ understanding of cosmopolitanism, modernity and the nation, on the one hand, and their perception of ethnic alterity, on the other. Seeing as G. Călinescu famously chose these canonical writers for each of the three Romanian provinces in an attempt to prove the diversity of Romanian literary genius (Moraru & Terian 10; Goldiș 103), we can confidently infer that their work also contains meaningful representational patterns for the Jewish and Romani minorities within the boundaries of the Romanian culture: whether they underwent peripheralization, stereotypical depiction, erasure from the history of emergent capitalism or, on the contrary, tentative forms of emancipation through satire and narrative innovation, it is clear that the Romanian ethnic imaginary and the situation of marginal social groups were determined by the elite’s perspective on the modern world-system.


This work was supported by a grant of the Romanian Ministry of Education and Research, CNCS/CCCDI - UEFISCDI, project number PN-III-P3-3.6-H2020-2020-0160, contract no. 55/2021.



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[1] “It’s like getting to the last page of Wallerstein and finding out that he’d been promoting free markets all long” (62).

[2] “There are variables other than nations and relations other than competition” (Prendergast 109). According to Prendergast, the writers who manage to break free from all national confines are the true heroes in Casanova’s account: “What makes them heroes is that, in besieging the citadels of the literary imperium, they succeed in conquering not only for themselves but for the institution of literature a certain ‘freedom’ and ‘autonomy’; literature not only becomes fully international, it also becomes ‘literature’” (108).

[3] In the chapter quoted above, Andrei Terian also writes about Eminescu’s literature as World Literature: “Eminescu looks for the nation but finds the world (…) he embraces it as his ‘national tradition’” (52).

[4] Margaret Cohen’s concept, coined in The Sentimental Education of the Novel and later borrowed by Franco Moretti.

[5] These conclusions are part of my ongoing research into ethnic representation in the modern Romanian novel, based on the MDRR archive (The Digital Museum of the Romanian Novel). They were presented in greater detail at the international conference The Rise of the Novel in Modern Romania (2022, Sibiu) and will soon be published in a separate article.

See Baghiu, Ștefan, Vlad Pojoga, Cosmin Borza, Andreea Coroian Goldiș, Daiana Gârdan, Emanuel Modoc, David Morariu, Teodora Susarenco, Radu Vancu, Dragoș Varga. Muzeul Digital al Romanului Românesc: secolul al XIX-lea. Sibiu: Complexul Național Muzeal ASTRA, 2019.

[6] “Various economic actors [in Transylvania] negotiated their economic and political agency trans-imperially, whether through alternative trade routes, labor migration, or civil resistance” (50).

[7] In her work on the interwar Romanian novel, Daiana Gârdan puts forward the concept of “interstitial spatiality” – neither urban, nor rural – and proves that more than 40% of the novels published between the two wars were set in such in-between spaces (Gârdan 74-75).

[8] „Lică îi puse pe laița din cârciumă și le porunci să cânte” (My translation).

[9] „încărcăm țigani