Colonialism in Literature Analysis

Colonial Literature

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Colonial expansion inspired interest and generated writing during the age of the empire. Novels of exploration and exotic locales, such as Rider Haggard’s or Rudyard Kipling’s work, enjoyed great popularity. Even domestic tales were tinged by colonialism. For example, Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park (1814) describes a family that owns plantations in Antigua. The madwoman in the attic in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) is a woman from Jamaica. Colonialism figured heavily in the popular Western imagination and thus found its way into literature.

During the age of empires, linguists, philosophers and historians were also studying, labeling, and categorizing different cultures. As Edward Said has noted in Orientalism (1979), Western scholars made a virtual occupation of Asia, gaining fame from publishing work on the East. While this occupation was sometimes well-meaning, and did differ in form from area to area, it was usually appropriative. The natives were to be known and classified within a Western paradigm.

Postcolonial Literature

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Colonialism was not without its opposition. Many people within and outside the colonial center began to critique the practice, engendering postcolonial literatures. Although the term “postcolonial” can correctly be applied to any writing that resists or questions colonialism, it is usually reserved for writings done by colonized or formerly colonized peoples. For example, the fiction of Salman Rushdie is more readily accepted as postcolonial than is E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India (1924) or Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899). It is also important to note that “postcolonial” does not necessarily imply national independence, for not all postcolonial writers are from decolonized areas. Seamus Heaney (Northern Ireland), for example, can be considered postcolonial.

The primary way in which postcolonial literatures resist colonization is through the creation of an autonomous identity. Instead of looking toward the colonial center, Europe, for models, these works show the perspective of the colonized. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1959) shows the havoc and destruction Western missionaries bring when they civilize Africa. Margaret Atwood’s Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (1972) attempts to recognize a Canadian tradition that is neither co-opted by the Commonwealth nor overshadowed by U.S. culture. Hanif Kureshi, in his screenplay My Beautiful Laundrette (1984),...

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(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin. The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1989.

Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin, eds. The Post-Colonial Studies Reader. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1995.

Bhabha, Homi, ed. Nation and Narration. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1990.

Boehmer, Elleke. Colonial and Postcolonial Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Hobsbawm, Eric. The Age of Empire 1875-1914. New York: Vintage, 1989.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. London: Heinemann, 1986.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Vintage, 1979.

Thomas, Nicholas. Colonialism’s Culture: Anthropology, Travel, and Government. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994.