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  • Gypsies, Nomadism, and the Limits of Realism
  • Amit Yahav-Brown

Genre scholars often contrast novelistic realism with romance, epic, or myth. These different comparisons all suggest that earlier forms represent characters that are more like generalized types and narratives that foreground unity and recurrence (and thus predictability), while novels represent individualized personalities and foreground diversity and change.1 Representations of gypsies within British novels, however, rarely conform to either of these requirements.2 While the heroes and heroines of novels are highly individualized and characterized with concern for detail and deviation, gypsies are usually stock figures with a one-dimensional and predictable symbolic function. And while novelistic plots tend to follow their characters—even the most marginal—through several narrative transformations, gypsy figures usually make momentary appearances, vanishing from the horizons of the represented world after a single episode. Take, for example, the gypsy in Samuel Richardson's Pamela,3 who is more like the bull (that appears in the meadow when Pamela attempts to flee) and less like Colbrand or Jewkes; she has no particularly notable features and simply disappears from the novel after delivering her message. Or take Henry Fielding's Tom Jones,4 which allegorizes gypsies as either the devil incarnate or personifications of honor, despite the narrator's emphatic protestations that in the gypsy chapter—as in the entire novel—he is imparting an historical narrative that features historical characters.

Nineteenth-century authors have scarcely been more successful at realizing gypsy characters. They continue to introduce them to make [End Page 1124] momentary points—Jane Austen's Emma or George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss come to mind. When gypsies are referred to throughout a text, they function more as figures of speech than as characters. Think of the dark and foreign overtones of Emily Bronte's Heathcliff, or of Charles Dickens's "Pancks the gipsy at his fortune-telling" from Little Dorrit. Of course, as with every rule, there are exceptions. There's George Borrow's Lavengro (an exception that is itself exceptional because of its liminal literariness).5 And there's Walter Scott's Guy Mannering and Eliot's Spanish Gypsy, rare cases which realize gypsies as heroines (and which I consider more extensively later in this discussion). But even when these exceptions are acknowledged, the difficulty of realizing gypsies remains a fairly consistent problem across the British tradition.

Racism has been the prevailing explanation in the scholarship for such persistent nonrealist characterization. According to this explanation, gypsies are thought of as less than fully human, deficient in reason, and unworthy of full membership in society, and they are therefore excluded from the realist texture of western literature. Such an understanding informs Katie Trumpener's influential "The Time of the Gypsies: A 'People without History' in the Narratives of the West," where she impressively surveys three centuries of representations of gypsies from Britain and from the European continent, and reads these back through the lens of Nazi persecution.6 She is very forthright about her teleological perspective, beginning her account with a discussion of Nazi propaganda and with stories from the gypsy barracks in Auschwitz. She then moves back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, arguing that already in these periods one can see how gypsies are excluded from equal membership in humanity, an exclusion that is reflected in literature in what she calls "literarization." Her account serves, importantly, to remind us that not only jews but also gypsies were victims of Nazi racism; however, her teleological framework also entails that a very peculiar codification of intolerance—literary representation in non-realist terms—is quickly attributed to a rather nonspecific motivation—racism. And while racism, no doubt, contributes to the history of western attitudes towards gypsies, some significant cases pose problems for an explanatory model that privileges racism above all other exclusionary logics.7

British legislation pertaining to gypsies, for example, changed over the course of the eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries from defining this population as a genetic foreign community, to defining it by certain behavioral preferences. The Egyptian Acts of 1530 [End Page 1125] and 1554 banned immigration of gypsies and made their presence in England illegal under penalty of...


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