As implied by the title of her essay—“Can the Subaltern Speak?”—Gayatri C. Spivak aims to enunciate the individual voice of the subaltern. She tries to figure out if dispossessed, oppressed, and marginalized individuals can talk for themselves in the context of theory. As she attempts to find an answer to her question, she cites a handful of recognized European thinkers, including Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, and Karl Marx. Each of these men has written extensively about what might be called the subaltern.
The work of Deleuze, Foucault, and Marx focuses on the inimical consequences of capitalism and Western power structures. They analyze how such hegemony harms and arrests the lower classes (the subaltern). Spivak argues that these investigations don’t actually confer agency upon the subaltern. Spivak contends that their work, and work like it, tends to conceal a “privileging of the intellectual and of the concrete subject of oppression.” In other words, it's the well-off Western scholar who's speaking, not a precarious member of the subaltern.
Using suttee—the Indian custom where a widow hurls herself on her husband’s funeral pyre—Spivak (who’s from India) demonstrates how hard it is for the subaltern to speak for themselves within intellectual discourse. The slippage, variables, and heterogeneity foreclose the possibility of a true subaltern voice. As Spivak says, “Between patriarchy and imperialism, subject-constitution and object-formation, the figure of the woman disappears.” The woman is “caught between tradition and modernization.”
With suttee and the specific situation of Bhuvaneswari Bhaduri (a revolutionary Indian teen who killed herself), Spivak, somewhat paradoxically, argues her conclusion that the subaltern cannot speak. For Spivak, people’s inclination to dismiss Bhaduri’s death as “hapless” or a product of “illicit love” reinforces her thesis that the subaltern—the subaltern woman, especially—does not have the ability to talk and be heard.