Themes

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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 362

In Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said looks at works of literature through the lens of empire. Examining canonical works of European literature, Said sheds new light by placing them in the context of the imperial domination that held sway in the 17th–20th centuries. Everything that shaped the attitudes of the dominating metropolitan center, including theories, practices, and attitudes, may be reflected in writings about distant territories. Along with more obviously imperialistically-oriented works, such as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Said places works set in the metropole, such as Jane Austen’s novels. In turn, he juxtaposes their interpretations to more recent postcolonial literary works.

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One of Said’s themes is the omnipresence of imperialism, especially during the 18th and 19th centuries, as its hegemonic force extended through the centers of power as well as the colonies themselves. Because middle- and upper-class Europeans reaped the fruits of imperialism, they were entangled in its web even when not overly complicit.

Closely related is the theme of racism, as development and maintenance of racial as well as class hierarchies characterized imperial rule. The idea of racial superiority and accompanying responsibility to “enlighten” nonwhite, nonwestern peoples was one to which Said contributed significantly with his earlier work, Orientalism. Here, he extends the attention to race with additional consideration of Africa and the Americas.

An underlying theme that his focus on empire highlights is the...

(The entire section contains 362 words.)

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