Race in A Single Man: A Passage That Made Me Very Uncomfortable

What's a footnote?
I have mixed feelings about the way race is portrayed in A Single Man. On one hand, it is clear that Isherwood is trying to present sexual orientation as something that turns you into a minority much the same way race does. George, privileged on numerous axes (class, race, gender), is nonetheless a minority because of his sexual orientation. I'm not sure how groundbreaking this was at the time this novel was published, but I'm inclined to think it must have been, because thinking of sexual orientation in these terms dismantles narratives that present it as a sin or a crime. And this is very obvious when George has his terrorist fantasies about the oppressing majority, including people who want to tighten the laws against "sexual deviates." He's quick to think that Mexican and black people never figure into these violent scenarios, because they're not The Enemy:
Mexicans live here, so there are lots of flowers. Negroes live here, so it is cheerful. George would not care to live here, because they all blast all day long with their radios and television sets. But he would never find himself yelling at their children, because these people are not The Enemy. If they would ever accept George, they might even be allies.
On the other hand, George is not entirely at ease among people you'd classify as minorities. (And we won't include women here.) It's fair to say that every time someone who is not white appears, George thinks of them primarily in terms of their race. Asian people are enigmatic, but "by far the most beautiful creatures in the class; their beauty is like the beauty of plants, seemingly untroubled by vanity, anxiety or effort." And they continue to be enigmatic and plantlike every single time they make an appearance. The brightest black student in his class intimidates him because he "suspects her of suspecting him of all kinds of subtle discrimination."

I can accept this hyper-awareness. It's believable. I can accept the rambling discourse about minorities he delivers to his students when they ask him if Huxley was anti-Semitic. It makes a couple of good points: how minorities are not automatically angels just by virtue of having been oppressed or persecuted, how color-blindness is bullshit etc. But it also gets into very muddy waters (we'll call these muddy waters Godwin's Creek, colloquially known as "Ah, if only the Nazis were more frank about their feelings"):
So, let's face it, minorities are people who probably look and act and- think differently from us and have faults we don't have. We may dislike the way they look and act, and we may hate their faults. And it's better if we admit to disliking and hating them than if we try to smear our feelings over with pseudo liberal sentimentality. If we're frank about our feelings, we have a safety valve; and if we have a safety valve, we're actually less likely to start persecuting. I know that theory is unfashionable nowadays. We all keep trying to believe that if we ignore something long enough it'll just vanish...
This is still okay. This is a third person subjective point of view, so we only get George's thoughts and feelings and words. And George seems the type of person who nowadays would rant against political corectness. I don't buy what he's selling, but I buy that he'd sell it. But there was one moment that made me think, "Isherwood, don't push it." It's a longer paragraph, but it has to be quoted in its entirety:
They are passing the tennis courts at this moment. Only one court is occupied, by two young men playing singles. (...) Their nakedness makes them seem close to each other and directly opposed, body to body, like fighters. If this were a fight, though, it would be onesided, for the boy on the left is much the smaller. He is Mexican, maybe, black-haired, handsome, catlike, cruel, compact, lithe, muscular, quick and graceful on his feet. His body is a natural dark gold-brown; there is a fuzz of curly black hair on his chest and belly and thighs. He plays hard and fast, with cruel mastery, baring his white teeth, unsmiling, as he slams back the ball. He is going to win. His opponent, the big blond boy, already knows this; there is a touch-lug gallantry in his defense. He is so sweet-naturedly beautiful, so nobly made; and yet his classical cream marble body seems a handicap to him. The rules of the game inhibit it from functioning. He is fighting at a hopeless disadvantage. He should throw away his useless racket, vault over the net, and force the cruel little gold cat to submit to his marble strength. No, on the contrary, the blond boy accepts the rules, binds himself by them, will suffer defeat and humiliation rather than break them. His helpless bigness and blondness give him an air of unmodern chivalry. He will fight clean, a perfect sportsman, until he has lost the last game. And won't this keep happening to him all through his life? Won't he keep getting himself involved in wrong kind of game, the kind of game he was never born to play, against an opponent who is quick and clever and merciless?
Am I wrong to read that as a clumsy allegory? The poor white man, bound to be defeated because he is too noble and plays by the rules even though they give an advantage to his cruel brown and animal-like adversary (that he'd be able to easily crush if he weren't so generous)? I don't know what to make of this. These are conceivably still George's perceptions and George's reading of the situation, but why did Isherwood go with this couple, why did he draw this particular contrast? What does it tell us about George? At one point, he thinks that the only way one can have a true exchange of ideas with someone (what he calls a Platonic dialogue) is if they are 1. men (women only talk of personal stuff) and 2. your opposites:
A man of his own age would do, if there was some sort of polarity; for instance, if he was a Negro. You and your dialogue-partner have to be somehow opposites. Why? Because you have to be symbolic figures—like, in this case, Youth and Age.
Is the other polarity - Caucasian vs. Mexican - built along the same lines? If it is, it's complicated by the fact that, at the end of the book, George has a sexual fantasy about these two boys. (And his vaguely planned trip to Mexico to "run wild around the bars" could be taken into account too.) Where does this all fit into the narrative?

This post is part of The Literary Others: An LGBT Reading Event hosted by Adam of Roof Beam Reader. If you're interested in signing up, you can do it here. If you want to check out what other people are doing for this event go here. If you want to see what else we read or will read for this event, keep an eye on our Literary Others tag.


  1. Excellent questions. I'd really have to read the book myself to engage with them, but I like that you kept the focus on the character. And that last passage is definitely complex, given how sexual it is. (I think it's already leaning toward an erotic fantasy, and I do feel that complicates things.) But definitely stuff to think about when I do read the book.

    1. I'd be very interested to hear what you think when you read the book. I agree that that passage is already very sexual (and the parts I left out were even more so). George is definitely lusting over those guys.

  2. This is the first time I'm hearing about this book! I really like what you've said about it and I'm off to check it out. :)

    I'm participating in the LGBT Reading Event to! It would be great if you could stop by sometime. :)

    Sarika @ The Readdicts