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Eurocentrism seen in the News of the World

By Gene Tanaka

Eurocentrism, a term created in the 1980’s, refers to the worldview revolving around
ideals of Western civilization. Since the end of European colonialism, this social darwinist
philosophy has been brought into question (Schipper 5). Yet, like the issues of racism and
sexism, it is deeply rooted in modern society, and is still relevant to this day. This theory of deep-
seeded eurocentrism is best demonstrated by literary works. News of the World (2016 National
Book Award Finalist), Paulette Jile’s fiction novel, tells the story of Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd,
a former soldier who delivers news across a Post-Civil War Texas. When asked to deliver a
captive girl 400 miles South, he embarks on a dangerous journey through the South. The girl,
named Johanna by Captain Kidd, considers herself to be a Kiowa Indian despite being physically
white. As the pair’s relationship develops throughout the novel, their cultural differences shine a
light on the prevalence of eurocentrism in not only the novel’s time frame, but also in the
reader’s mind. Paulette Jiles elucidates the perspective of eurocentrism through Captain Kidd and
Johanna’s actions, Kidd’s internal thoughts of Johanna, and vocalized assumptions about
Johanna from minor characters.

First, Jiles conveys the universal presence of eurocentrism through the actions of Captain
Kidd and Johanna. Early on, when Kidd first meets Johanna in chapter five, he does not treat her
properly merely because she does not understand English: “He jumped down and grabbed the
girl by the upper arm. He made the sign for ‘good’ in front of her face” (Jiles 41). By being
overly physical, Kidd treats Johanna as one would treat and infant. This supports the Eurocentric
theory, as Kidd refuses to accept Johanna’s Kiowa Indian culture as a sophisticated form of
communication. Instead, he automatically concludes that she can only communicate in the most
rudimentary form. Johanna, perhaps in response to her unjustified treatment, attempts to return to
the Indians: “Johanna called again. I have been taken prisoner, rescue me, take me back” (Jiles
64). Yet, to her dismay, the Indians refuse to take her back, and instead begin firing their guns at
her. Despite growing up with Kiowa culture, Johanna appears to be white; for this reason,
Indians who do not know her circumstance merely see her as the threat that other white people
pose. As highlighted by Mineke Schipper in Eurocentrism and the Study of Literature, this
conflict between Native Americans and European settlers also stems from Eurocentric ideals.
Historically, white settlers have encroached on inhabited land out of “God-given” self-
righteousness and superiority. Thus, through the interaction between Johanna and the Indians, the
text clearly conveys the presence of eurocentrism.

The theory of eurocentrism is also clearly portrayed by Captain Kidd’s internal thoughts
about Johanna. Though written in the third person, the novel’s descriptions of Johanna can be
inferred to match the point of view of Captain Kidd. Throughout their journey, the Captain
attempts to teach English to Johanna: “Let’s try an English lesson…Hand, he said…Hont, she
said…Horse…Hoas…The Captain knew nothing of the Kiowa language…Very good!…Felly
good” (Jiles 67). Here, Jiles makes it clear that Johanna speaks with an accent that deviates from
the norm. Yet, what is considered to be “normal” is merely another Eurocentric perspective.
Readers can easily discover that the difference between the correct words and “incorrect” words
spoken by Johanna is slight. Jiles’ dialogue can simply be seen as an exaggeration of Kidd’s
internal thoughts, which are indeed a prime example of Eurocentrism. Later, when Captain Kidd
leaves Johanna for some time, he contemplates her perception of time: “He took out his hunting
watch. Then he put it back. Johanna had no idea of time. it was pointless to tell her he would be
back in an hour. So he just said. Sit. Stay” (Jiles 70). Here, Kidd once again doubts the
sophistication of Johanna. In his mind, he believes Johanna is a savage because of her alien
background. Due to this Eurocentric thought, the Captain once again ends up treating her like an
animal who obeys commands to sit and stay. He later has similar thoughts as he watches Johanna
struggling to eat with utensils: “… saw her struggling with the fork, the knife, the stupidity
of it, the unknown reasons that human beings would approach food in this manner, reasons
incomprehensible, inexplicable, for which they had no common language” (Jiles 76). Captain
Kidd explicitly states his failure to understand cultures different from his own Western one.
Rather than respecting the cultural difference, he concludes that Johanna’s struggle to use a fork
is “stupid.”

Finally, the Eurocentric theory is supported by the reactions of minor, background
characters in response to seeing Johanna.When going through the town of Durand, Captain Kidd
and Johanna encounter a group of men who immediately judge Johanna for her differences: “The
savages, the man said. He regarded the child…Why they go and steal children I will never
understand. Do they not have ary of their own?…the Indians know as much about soap as a hog
knows about Sunday” (Jiles 128). These men are openly vulgar about their condescension to
Native Americans, calling them savages and disparaging their hygiene. Their openness to
literally labeling Indians as dirty clearly demonstrates their feelings on European superiority. In
addition, their position in the novel as background characters makes their opinions significant, as
they represent the beliefs of common members of this society.

Thus, News of the World by Paulette Giles illuminates the theory of Eurocentrism through
interactions and thoughts shared between the Native American culture of Johanna and the
Western ideals of Captain Kidd. As stated by historian Jeffrey Wasserstrom, underlying themes
of this novel raise important concerns, including the idea that the rise of the West happened by
chance, not due to a predetermined superiority of white people. In fact, the conflict stemming
from Eurocentrism in the novel is still prevalent today. In order to solve cultural issues, not only
historians, but all people must begin looking at humanity from various cultural perspectives.

Works Cited

Berne, Suzanne. “Paulette Jiles’s National Book Award Finalist Reviewed.” The New York
Times. The New York Times, 07 Nov. 2016. Web. 01 Apr. 2017.
Jiles, Paulette. News of the World: A Novel. New York, NY: William Morrow, an Imprint of
Harper Collins Publishers, 2016. Print.
Schipper, Mineke. “Eurocentrism and the Study of Literature.” N.p.: Leiden U, n.d. N. pag. Print.
Wasserstrom, Jeffrey. “Eurocentrism and Its Discontents | AHA.” Eurocentrism and Its
Discontents | AHA. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Apr. 2017.