English 451

September 20, 2011

Race relations in The Comet

Filed under: Uncategorized — kev89 @ 3:56 am

More so than most other science fiction I have read, there is an obvious deeper message present in The Comet beyond the comet itself. Rather, the themes of racism and race relations seemed to dominant The Comet, something that I did not find surprising given that the author, W.E.B Du Bois, is best known for his work with the civil rights movement. Something interesting I noticed is that this premise of an African American man and white woman being forced to work together to survive a disaster is very similar to the plot of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Within the first sentences, the sense of Jim being viewed as inferior is evident: “Few noticed him. Few ever noticed him in a way that stung.” After the comet strikes, as Jim and Julia begin to realize they may be the only humans on Earth, there is this sense that they were working together as equals, despite the fact that they clearly were not viewed as such before the disaster.

In the end, the theme of racism makes a return. When it is discovered that only New York was hit, and when they reunite with Frank and Julia’s father, Frank immediately suspects Jim of wrongdoing.While she does assure Frank that Jim did her no harm and even helped her,  immediately after the reunion, Julia never looks back to Jim, not even thanking him directly. This to me sends a message that life goes on, and that while Jim and Julia may have relied on each other for this brief period, they would now return to their previous lives, perhaps to never see each other again.  As Jim and Julia are reunited with their surviving family, racism can be seen among the bystanders, with racial slurs and someone even calling for Jim to be lynched. Still, Julia’s father offers Jim a job, and there are those in the crowd who defend Jim for his heroic actions, perhaps representing those whites who were active in the civil rights movement, making it appear that little had actually changed. More than anything, this suggests to me that the old social hierarchy was entrenched enough to survive the destruction of a major city.


  1. I wonder if the story really suggests that Jim and the woman can truly ever be equals. I’m thinking of when Jim brings her food, and she ate “what he served” (268). How does that reference to serving complicate the notion that equality can ever be achieved?

      Professor Sample — September 20, 2011 @ 4:05 pm   Reply

  2. You make a lot of good points with regard to how DuBois treats race relations in THe Comet. I agree that there is a definant segregation in both the beginning and the end of the story. Not just between the Jim and Julia, but between Jim and the world around him.
    The bank president, in particular, is shown to be “above” Jim in how he “smiled patronizingly” at Jim in the very beginning of the story. The fact that a bank president would treat anyone not of similar social stature this way isn’t the point, though. The point is that Jim feels alone in the world, that he is “Nothing!”
    The middle of the story goes a long way to keep him apart, even as the two primary characters work together to get through the horrible time they are forced to endure together. At one point, Jill realizes she’s alone with a stranger, and worse, “with a man alien in blood and culture.” DuBois doesn’t really want us to get too comfortable with the idea of blacks and whites interacting too closely.
    The one moment that the two have that feels comfortable is at the end of the tale, when they’re looking at each other on top of the Metropolitan Tower. She’s has just had the epiphany that they will be the mother and father of the new human race. He feels like a risen Pharaoh, a god among men. She sees herself as this man’s mate, and he sees himself holding a scepter.
    While I feel like this particular scene is forced and completely melodramatic in so many ways, it was an effort by the author to set things not equal, but to put the black man in a position of dominance.
    He then brings Jim’s dream crashing down around him with the honking of a car horn and the bursting of a rocket. Suddenly, Julia’s father and fiance are there and we’re back to reality. Jim is just a black man who is too close to a white woman for some white’s comfort. The division of the people showing up on the roof feels more to me like hope, then it does anything else. Hope for a future where a black man could be alone with a white woman without calls for a lynching.
    And then Jim sees the black woman with the dead baby, and is overjoyed that she’s alive. I think this final ending to the story sets everything back “the way it should be” with regards to race. This ending would have made the story more agreeable to a white audience in 1920. Their suspension of disbelief to enjoy the Science Fiction story is brought abruptly back to reality with Jim’s “sob of joy.”

      Britt — September 22, 2011 @ 1:49 am   Reply

  3. You both bring up good points. Britt, you end with a good point I hadn’t really thought of. Yes, the ending does seem to be happy in that both protagonists are reunited with their families, but to a 1920s audience, the return of people to their “proper places” could be the main positive aspect of the ending.

      kev89 — September 26, 2011 @ 4:13 am   Reply

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