Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 943
Imperialism and Empire
Attention to the aims and ends of imperialism is a repeating theme of colonialist literature. As a political term, imperialism refers to the policy of an outside power acquiring colonies—whether settled or not—for its own political and economic advantage. Though Europeans had participated in imperialist activity for centuries, in the late nineteenth century imperial powers, including England, France, Belgium, and Germany, began competing fiercely to increase their colonies, resulting in a high level of aggressiveness and a greater degree of intrusion into previously independent areas. In addition to economic motives, imperialism was fueled by a widely held, selfjustifying belief that the “superior” white race of Europe should bring civilization to the “less developed” peoples of color living on other continents. Colonialist literature both affirms and critiques this belief, often at the same time, in keeping with the ambivalence of even the most sympathetic Europeans. Dinesen’s Out of Africa, for example, has been praised for its positive portrayal of Africans even as it has been condemned as the work of a racist. Such conflicting readings can exist because the book, like many other works of Colonialism, contains both ideas.
Colonial practices redefined national boundaries. As the British Empire grew, it came to draw its boundaries over a larger and larger portion of the globe, and at its greatest it controlled onefourth of the globe. While this control was a source of English pride, it was also a threat to British national identity: if Indians, Africans, and inhabitants of the West and East Indies were British subjects, were they also British? And if not, what constituted British national identity? Colonial authors sometimes depict British colonists clinging to British mores, as in Mansfield’s short fiction or Forster’s A Passage to India. Others, like Kipling, appear more confident, using exotic portrayals of “primitives” and their customs to suggest an inherent, unbridgeable difference between the colonizers and the colonized. Some authors also explored the possibility of “going native,” which was sometimes considered an abasement, sometimes a mark of increased nobility. This theme is hinted at in Kim, Lord Jim, and Heart of Darkness, among other works.
Gender and Sexuality
Ideas of the masculine and feminine underlie much of colonialist literature. The very act of colonization is often seen and described as a form of penetration, and such disparate works as Heart of Darkness and She portray the white male journeys into a feminized dark landscape. Depicting the colonizer as masculine and the colonized as feminine creates an essential difference between the two and implies the latter needs to be mastered and possessed. Yet for white women authors, Colonialism offered a kind of freedom unavailable to women remaining behind in developed countries, especially in Victorian Britain. Dinesen frequently commented on the freedom afforded her by living in Africa. Single women could travel unaccompanied as missionaries, and many women took the opportunity to advance the cause of women’s education through missionary work. The daughter of missionaries, Schreiner takes on some of these issues in The Story of an African Farm. As she decries the treatment of native women, she makes the argument that all women have inherent human rights and deserve the same advantages men enjoy.
No white colonial author has escaped the charge of racism, in large part because of the totalizing nature of the imperialist worldview that maintained white European superiority—whether biological or cultural in nature. Even Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which is widely believed to be highly critical of imperialist policies and practices, cannot envision a worldview outside imperialism, and one of the foundations of imperialism is an abiding belief in racial difference. Kipling provided a straightforward articulation of these beliefs in his poem “The White Man’s Burden,” which suggests that whites were under a moral obligation to educate, civilize, and Christianize the darker races, or even to care for them as their stronger “protectors.” By contrast, Forster’s A Passage to India depicts Indians as professionals and intellectuals, although the novel closes by suggesting that the differences between Indians and Europeans are too great to be bridged even by the most well-meaning individuals in either culture.
Questions about racial difference and national identity reflect narrower aspects of larger concerns about the nature of humanity. The benevolent paternalism of some literature relies on an optimistic view of human nature: progress is the natural course of human evolution, the wealth of the imperial powers is evidence of their progress along this course, and the “backward” societies of tribal peoples reflect their need for assistance toward higher evolution. Here again is the attitude of “The White Man’s Burden.” At the peak of the colonial movement, however, this view became suspect. Conrad’s novels perhaps reflect the bleakest view of progress, civilization, and human nature, although Forster’s work also expresses grave doubts about civilization’s advancement.
Although works such as She and Kim are the most straightforward celebrations of Colonialism as an exotic adventure, the romantic ideal of the wanderer appears in colonial writing of several varieties. In Out of Africa, Dinesen writes of her affair with the pilot Denys Finch Hatton, who is depicted as an exciting, independent adventurer who bravely faces danger on safari. Lord Jim is a darker tale of adventure, which casts its wanderers as morally ambiguous at best, ruthless thieves and murderers at worst. Mansfield’s story “The Woman at the Store” deflates the romantic image of adventure travelers by contrasting the wealth and privilege that allows Europeans to travel by choice with the poverty and hopelessness that entrap those who inhabit the tourist destinations.
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