Death of the Critic

Light vs. Dark

Written by: Tom Blaich

One of the central and most widely used theses in literature is the idea of a battle between good and evil. It could be waged with blades and bullets, or through a battle of sharp wits and razor tongues. These two sides clash over and over, and so many times we will see them indicated by the idea of light versus darkness. Light is good, virtuous and just. It is pure, an angel decked out in gleaming white robes, or a doctor in an unblemished gown. Darkness is sinister, violent and evil. It is corrupt, an ashen demon eager to tear apart all who stand in its way or as an assassin wreathed in a dark suit.

It has always served as an easy way for us to distinguish between what is “good’ and what is “bad”, but with this compartmentalization and labeling come rather entrenched ideas of racial relationships and dynamics. For a long time, societies have looked upon pale and white skin as being better than darker skin. You can see comparisons being draw between dark skin and “dirtiness” or lack of civilization. It ties closely into the idea of otherness that we’ve talked about before, and it has roots in centuries of literary history.

Much of our established literary canon comes from white writers, and this led to a view of whiteness as the default and the dark skinned other. The savage. The demon. Something to be feared because we fear the unknown, we fear that which is not a part of our group. You can see it in Joseph Conrad’s
Heart of Darkness, where a British man travels to the heart of the Congo, and the way in which he talks about the nation’s population is… less than flattering. To him, these people are mindless savages who need the guidance of the west, dirty and uncultured, unlike the more enlightened portions of humanity.

It is an attitude we can see in our illustrations, where a
Middle Eastern Jew is often portrayed as having light skin, because he is supposed to be the paragon of virtue and righteousness. In common depictions of hell, we see a dark, desolate, and fiery place, all blacks and reds, dripping with anger. Heaven is bright and cool, clouds and water, all white and blue. The color of calmness, goodness and peace.

The usage of the motif is not always sinister. Far from it in fact. The majority of the time, people use it because it is an easy way to portray the conflict of good vs. evil in a visually recognizable way. But understanding where it came from is vital in examining the relationship that it portrays. Much of criticism is about the implicit, the biases that sneak in under our noses and manifest within a text. Why is white inherently good? Why is black intrinsically evil? Taking a critical look at these questions can help us understand how our canon was created.


Tom has been writing about media since he was a senior in high school. He likes long walks on the beach, dark liquor, and when characters reload guns in action movies.

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