Colonialism in Victorian English Literature Introduction - Essay


Colonialism in Victorian English Literature

The Victorian period in British history marks the high point of British imperialism. Though the British policy of colonial expansion had begun earlier, during the nineteenth century Britain not only consolidated its existing empire, but also experienced an unprecedented expansion in its colonial possessions. This process began after the 1857 Mutiny in India, when India was placed under the direct control of the Crown, and continued through the scramble for Africa in the late 1800s, so that by the end of the century it could be proudly proclaimed that "the sun never sets on the British Empire." The tremendous upsurge of imperial activity during the nineteenth century, though physically taking place in areas distant from British shores, had a broad and pervasive impact on British culture. The literature of the period is thus inextricably embroiled in the imperialist project. In the view of many critics, irrespective of the direct involvement of individual literary works with the colonial enterprise, the overall contours of Victorian literature are consistently shaped by the influence of colonial ideology, which informed the collective unconscious of the British public during the entire period.

The most obvious influence of colonialism on Victorian literature is evident in the colonial novels of writers like H. Rider Haggard, Rudyard Kipling, and Joseph Conrad. These novels, which include works like Haggard's She (1889) and Kipling's Kim (1901), are usually set in the distant lands that Britain colonized and attempt to expose the insular domestic public to the exotic strangeness of their country's colonial possessions. The reality of colonialism enters these texts as the necessary background that makes possible their narratives of adventure and romance. The linking of colonialism with the genre of the romantic adventure story is also evident in the abundant children's fiction of the time, which includes works by Robert Louis Stevenson and R. M. Ballantyne. While using Britain's colonial enterprise as the setting of their narratives, such novels also participate in the construction and propagation of colonial ideology by providing an implicit justification for British imperialism. Colonialism, therefore, appears in these colonial novels not only as the literal backdrop for their narrative action, but also as the ideological framework that provides the raison d'être of the action.

The impact of colonialism, however, is not restricted to the so-called colonial novels. The nineteenth century's dominant genre of domestic fiction is also implicitly informed by colonial ideology. Though the novels of writers like Jane Austen, Charlotte Brönte, Charles Dickens, and George Eliot focus on domestic British society, Britain's overseas possessions frequently play an important role in the action. Thus, Sir Thomas Bertram's estate in Mansfield Park is maintained by his possessions in Antigua while David Copperfield's Mr. Micawber achieves success in Australia and St. John Rivers in Jane Eyre leaves for India to fulfill his missionary aspirations. Colonialism thus provides an expanded canvas even to the domestic novels, which reveal the inextricable involvement of domestic British society in the colonial enterprise. At the same time, the implicit presence in these novels of ideas such as the savage nature of natives and the white man's burden of bringing civilization to them also involves these texts in the dissemination of racial and colonial ideologies that provided the conceptual framework for colonialism.

Though an awareness of the colonial presence in Victorian literature is evident in critical studies during the first half of the twentieth century, such criticism is usually restricted to an examination of colonial novels and an evaluation of the authors' differing attitudes to the colonial enterprise as reflected in their writings. It is only in the latter half of the twentieth century, in the so-called postcolonial period, that critics have explored the pervasive influence of colonial ideology throughout nineteenth-century British culture and society. Edward Said's Orientalism (1978) is a seminal work in this respect, providing an exhaustive analysis of the West's construction of the Orient as its "other." Such a construction, Said argues, is not motivated by any desire to represent faithfully the reality of the colonized cultures and their people. Instead, it works as a form of ideological control, allowing the West to create a series of Manichean oppositions between the colonizer and the colonized that make the latter manageable and provide a moral justification for the colonial enterprise. Even literary works like Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1902) that overtly question the validity of colonialism are informed by this Manichean aesthetic, which problematizes their critique of imperialism. In such cases, while the colonized "other" functions as a vantage point for a self-critique of Western civilization, it is still not allowed to articulate a distinct subject-position of its own.

The use of the "other" for self-critique and the construction of alternative subject-positions within the British context is also explored by feminist postcolonial critics like Gayatri Spivak and Jenny Sharpe. These critics analyze the relationship between colonial ideology and the growth of British feminism in Victorian England evident in the works of writers like Jane Austen and Charlotte Brönte. Similarly, colonial ideology is also seen to have an impact on the representation of domestic class relations, whereby the lower classes are frequently portrayed as internal "others" who share the characteristics of the colonized and hence require similar strategies of control. By thus exploring the class, gender, and racial politics that inform colonial ideology, postcolonial critics reveal the complexities of colonialism and its multi-faceted influence on Victorian society and literature. At the same time, such criticism reveals a contemporary relevance to the literary output of the nineteenth century. The exploration of the ideological complicities and resistances that characterize Victorian literature provides an insight into the complex ideological configurations of neo-colonialism that are an inescapable reality of late-twentieth-century culture and politics.