(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)


The motif of Orientalism played an important role in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literary works in Europe. Fueling the creative imaginations of artists, literary figures, and in fact all of Europe, this fascination with the Orient also influenced many of the Romantic writers, who situated novels and poetry alike in the mysterious far-off lands of Turkey, India, the Middle-East, and Asia. Relations between East and West first gained widespread political and social importance during the Crusades (1096-1271), when religious hostility between the Muslim and Christian worlds exploded into a power struggle to recapture lands taken by the “Infidels.” However, while failing to successfully recapture the Holy Land, the Crusades opened up increasingly accessible channels to the East. Returning Crusaders brought back stories and goods from the far-off lands they had seen, which excited the popular imagination and created a thirst for greater contact with the Orient. The East became an intriguing destination for travelers, many of whom went on to write about their experiences in exotic lands among unfamiliar peoples and customs. Further, the establishment of trade routes, and the placement of European diplomats, dignitaries, and a military presence in Eastern countries brought more frequent contact and greater familiarity with the once virtually unknown Orient.

Although the earliest travelogues written by Westerners depicted inhabitants of the Orient as “Noble Savages,” they also provided sources of inspiration for Western writers. Scholars point out that there were approximately seventy travel books written during the period between 1775 and 1825. One of the most famous accounts were the letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who visited Istanbul in 1717 while accompanying her husband, Lord Montagu, Ambassador of the Levant Company, on a trip to Turkey. Her “Turkish Letters,” published posthumously in 1763, described harem life for the first time for English readers. Considered scandalous because of Lady Montagu's detailed, nonjudgmental observations of Oriental sexual practices and the custom of polygamy, this work enthralled readers and became a favorite source of information for many writers. In addition to travelogues, this time period was marked by a flowering of scholarship on Eastern literature, history, philosophy, and religion. George Sale completed his translation of the Koran, and such scholars as William Jones (who translated from Arabic, Persian, Hebrew, and Sanskrit) acquainted Western readers for the first time with such texts as the Mahabharata and the Arabian Nights. The Arabian Nights in particular became a favorite in Europe, giving rise to an enormous number of imitators who wrote their own Oriental tales and romances. In a wider context, the vogue for Orientalism was also aided by historic events: Napoleon's expedition to Egypt in 1798 called attention to the military as well as the cultural importance of that region, and the Greek War of Independence (1821-28) enjoyed widespread support in England, most notably from Lord Byron, who personally traveled to Greece to join the forces fighting against the Ottoman Turks. Additionally, colonization by England and other Western countries meant that many more people traveled to the Orient and eventually shared their experiences in written form, giving rise to a large body of memoirs, diaries, geographies, histories, and manuals.

In literature as well as in art, the Orient became associated with lush landscapes, eroticism, mystery, rich costume, and fierce military campaigns. English Romantic writers in search of the unusual and picturesque soon began to incorporate Oriental themes and subjects into their works. Many scholars consider William Beckford's novel Vathek (1786) a landmark of Orientalism. An Eastern romance, it is set in an imaginary Arabian or Turkish land. Its protagonist, the Caliph Vathek, who is half human and half demon, indulges his sensual appetite, faces djinns and genii, and winds up damned to eternal torment in a variation of the Faust theme. While this work has long been considered the prime example of the Orientalist craze in Europe, more recent critics have pointed out that, despite its Oriental trappings, its themes are essentially Western ones. Moreover, Beckford relied on Oriental detail to such an excessive extent in Vathek that the work simultaneously becomes a parody of the style. Romantic writers Lord Byron, Thomas Moore, Robert Southey, and many others nevertheless continued to write in the Orientalist mode, mining the texts of Sir William Jones and other Oriental scholars for details about primitive Oriental landscape, dress, and military strategy, which they incorporated into their works. The Romantic emphasis on liberty also politicized their poetry, so that many of the Orientalist works—for example, Robert Southey's Thalaba (1801), Thomas Moore's Lalla Rookh (1817), and Lord Byron's “Turkish Tales”—depict the struggle to overthrow a powerful Oriental tyrant.

Critics who have studied Orientalism in Europe, especially in nineteenth-century literature, have pointed out that there is much that can be learned about the West's image of itself through the way Western writers have depicted the Orient. Recently, scholars such as Edward W. Said, Eric Meyer, and Jerome Christensen have focused on ways in which Orientalism reflects European preoccupations. The idea of the Oriental as the “Other,” or mysterious unknown, reflects European concerns about a changing, expanding world full of new uncertainties and questions about one's own identity. To these critics, literary Orientalism must also be viewed in light of colonial expansion by Western countries and is problematized by Western political power and the self-appointed mission of “bringing civilization” to the Orient. Some scholars have pointed out elements of this issue in the works of such poets as Percy Bysshe Shelley and Alfred Lord Tennyson, who were drawn to the mythologies of other cultures but felt bound by their Christianity to distance themselves from such influence. Critics such as Patrick Brantlinger, Reina Lewis, and Alicia Carroll have explored how Orientalism in literature influenced and, in some cases, constituted a critique of British nationalism through characterization, choice of theme, and treatment of both Oriental and domestic settings. Another avenue of criticism concerning Orientalism that has attracted attention is the handling of gender in Orientalist writings. Alan Richardson, Meyda Yeğenoğlu, and Joseph W. Lew, among others, have written about the role of women, especially in the writings of Lord Byron, where the veiled Muslim woman symbolizes the ultimate “Other” who can also reveal much about the individual confronting her as well as about Western patriarchy. The wealth of material concerning the Orient that was produced in nineteenth-century Europe allows for a unique understanding of the development of East-West relations, and ensures continued vigorous scholarly interest in Orientalism.

Representative Works

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

William Beckford
Vathek (novel) 1787

James Bruce
Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile (travelogue) 1790-91

Sir Richard Francis Burton
A Plain and Literal Translation of the Arabian Nights' Entertainments, Now Entitled The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night. 10 vols. [translator] (stories) 1885

Lord Byron
The Bride of Abydos: A Turkish Tale (poem) 1813
The Giaour, a Fragment of a Turkish Tale (poem) 1813
The Corsair (poem) 1814
Lara (poem) 1814
The Siege of Corinth (poem) 1816
Don Juan (poem) 1821-23

Samuel Taylor Coleridge
“Kubla Khan” (poem) 1816

Benjamin Disraeli
Conigsby; or, The New Generation (novel) 1844
Tancred; or, The New Crusade (novel) 1847

George Eliot
Felix Holt, The Radical (novel) 1866
Daniel Deronda (novel) 1876

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu
Turkish Letters (memoir) 1763

Thomas Moore
Lalla Rook (poem) 1817

Mary Shelley
Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (novel) 1818

Robert Southey
Thalaba the Destroyer (poem) 1801
The Curse of Kehama (poem) 1810

William Makepeace Thackeray
Notes of a Journey from Cornhill to Grand Cairo (travelogue) 1846
The Newcomes; Memoirs of a Most Respectable Family (novel) 1853-55

James Tod
The Antiquities of Rajast’han (nonfiction) 1829-32

Edward W. Said (essay date 1978)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Scope of Orientalism,” in Orientalism, Pantheon Books, 1978, pp. 31-110.

[In the following excerpt, Said explores the treatment of Oriental culture in the West, contending that the limitations of Orientalism stem from disregarding, essentializing, and denuding another culture, people, or geographical region.]

… [The Orientalist attitude] shares with magic and with mythology the self-containing, self-reinforcing character of a closed system, in which objects are what they are because they are what they are, for once, for all time, for ontological reasons that no empirical material can either dislodge or alter. The European encounter with the...

(The entire section is 17245 words.)

Eric Meyer (essay date 1991)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘I Know Thee Not, I Loathe Thy Race’: Romantic Orientalism in the Eye of the Other,” in ELH, Vol. 58, No. 3, Autumn, 1991, pp. 657-99.

[In the following essay, Meyer discusses how the recurring theme of overpowered Eastern women in Romantic Orientalist texts reflects cultural, political, and ideological struggles between East and West in the nineteenth century.]

I must go to the Orient: all great glory comes from there.


Is it some yet imperial hope
That with such change can calmly cope?
          Or dread of death alone?
To die a prince—or live a slave—
Thy choice is most ignobly brave!


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Abdur Raheem Kidwai (essay date 1995)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Image of the Orient in English Literature—A Historical Survey,” in Orientalism in Lord Byron's “Turkish Tales,” Mellen University Press, 1995, pp. 1-33.

[In the following excerpt, Kidwai presents an overview of European interest in Orientalism, starting with the Crusades and focusing on Romantic writers, whose interest in the Orient was creatively and imaginatively articulated in their work.]

It was mostly in terms of religious differences and hostility that Europe learned first about Islam and Muslims. The phenomenal rise and spread of Islam in the seventh century A.D., with its military and political repercussions, made Europe all the more...

(The entire section is 9807 words.)

Josephine McDonagh (essay date 1992)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Opium and the Imperial Imagination,” in Reviewing Romanticism, edited by Philip W. Martin and Robin Jarvis, Macmillan, 1992, pp. 116-33.

[In the following excerpt, McDonagh discusses Thomas DeQuincey's writings on the political situation in China in the 1830s and 1840s in light of what those writings suggest about the connection between his aesthetics and politics.]

The peculiar relationship between Romanticism and addiction has long been explored. Literary criticism's treatment of drugs ranges from biographically-oriented studies which examine poems as the symptoms of addiction, to those that read addiction as the symptom of Romanticism.1 More...

(The entire section is 6943 words.)

Norbert Peabody (essay date 1996)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Tod's Rajast’han and the Boundaries of Imperial Rule in Nineteenth-Century India,” in Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 30, Part I, February, 1996, pp. 185-220.

[In the following essay, Peabody examines James Tod's Annals and Antiquities of Rajast’han, focusing on his ideas regarding nationalism and the ways in which nationalism influenced Tod's description of differences between nations.]

This essay concerns the labile boundary between the familiar and the exotic in an early nineteenth-century Orientalist text, entitled Annals and Antiquities of Rajast’han, by James Tod. Written by the first British political agent to the western...

(The entire section is 15289 words.)

Daryl Ogden (essay date 1997)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Architecture of Empire: ‘Oriental’ Gothic and the Problem of British Identity in Ruskin's Venice,” in Victorian Literature and Culture, Vol. 25, No. 1, 1997, pp. 109-20.

[In the following essay, Ogden explores how John Ruskin helped to introduce elements of Orientalism into the Gothic Revival in Great Britain by shifting focus in his Stones of Venice from medieval Britain to medieval Italy.]

[T]he race of Giotto & Orcagna & Dante were a very different people from those of the present day—& I do honestly believe the Grand duke to be one of the best of monarchs, but the Italians are certainly not made to live...

(The entire section is 6125 words.)

Alan Richardson (essay date 1988)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Escape from the Seraglio: Cultural Transvestism in Don Juan,” in Rereading Byron: Essays Selected from Hofstra University's Byron Bicentennial Conference, edited by Alice Levine and Robert N. Keane, Garland Publishing, Inc., 1993, pp. 175-85.

[In the following excerpt from an essay originally written in 1988, Richardson maintains that in Don Juan, where the title character assumes the dress of a woman and an Oriental, Byron uses the motif of transvestism to critique Western patriarchy and imperialism.]

Within the Western literary tradition exoticism or (what is often the same thing) Orientalism has been largely implicated in the establishment...

(The entire section is 4324 words.)

Susan Morgan (essay date 1990)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Victorian Women, Wisdom, and Southeast Asia,” in Victorian Sages and Cultural Discourse: Renegotiating Gender and Power, edited by Thaïs E. Morgan, Rutgers University Press, 1990, pp. 207-24.

[In the following excerpt, Morgan presents an overview of Victorian women's writings about their travels to the Orient and suggests that, like Victorian men's criticism and scientific writings, they “lay claim to a wisdom that bases its truth on the extent to which it has emerged as lived experience.”]

I am content to sympathize with common mortals, no matter where they live; in houses or in tents, in the streets under a fog, or in the forests...

(The entire section is 7876 words.)

Meyda Yeğenoğlu (essay date 1998)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Veiled Fantasies: Cultural and Sexual Difference in the Discourse of Orientalism,” in Colonial Fantasies: Towards a Feminist Reading of Orientalism, Cambridge University Press, 1998, pp. 39-67.

[In the following excerpt, Yeğenoğlu explores Western writers' attitudes toward the Oriental veiled woman and discusses the link between Western masculinist and colonialist positions as these positions relate to the Oriental other.]

If one wants to understand the racial situation psychoanalytically … considerable importance must be given to sexual phenomena.

Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks...

(The entire section is 16151 words.)

J. Russell Perkin (essay date 1990)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Thackeray and Orientalism: Cornhill to Cairo and The Newcomes,” in English Studies in Canada, Vol. XVI, No. 3, September, 1990, pp. 297-313.

[In the following excerpt, Perkin discusses William Makepeace Thackeray's use of Oriental motifs in his novel The Newcomes and cites some influences on Thackeray's notion of Orientalism as presented in his travel book Notes of a Journey from Cornhill to Grand Cairo.]

Like numerous other Victorian writers, but more insistently and pervasively, Thackeray constructs an image of the east as a place of mystery, cruelty, adventure, and sensuality. The various distinct aspects of his presentation of the...

(The entire section is 7851 words.)

Joseph W. Lew (essay date 1991)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Deceptive Other: Mary Shelley's Critique of Orientalism in Frankenstein,” in Studies in Romanticism, Vol. 30, No. 2, Summer, 1991, pp. 255-83.

[In the following essay, Lew explores Mary Shelley's Frankenstein as a critique of Romantic ideology as well as of the expansion of the British empire. He focuses on her use of Orientalist motifs and images of the dream maiden and the mother.]

Frankenstein (1818) is highly conscious of the Orient and Orientalist discourse.1 Robert Walton and Henry Clerval both want to get to the Orient in a commercial and/or military capacity; Safie runs away from her father so that she need not...

(The entire section is 12342 words.)

Patrick Brantlinger (essay date 1992)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Nations and Novels: Disraeli, George Eliot, and Orientalism,” in Victorian Studies, Vol. 35, No. 3, Spring, 1992, pp. 255-75.

[In the following essay, Brantlinger discusses the ways in which George Eliot's Daniel Deronda and Benjamin Disraeli's Young England trilogy employ Orientalist themes to critique English nationalism and racism.]

He enlargeth a nation, and straiteneth it again.

Job 12: 23

Following the Gulf War and recent events in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, the question of nationalism has come to the fore in many fields. Is it possible to progress beyond our tragic modern history of warring...

(The entire section is 10080 words.)

Reina Lewis (essay date 1996)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Aliens at Home and Britons Abroad: George Eliot's Orientalization of Jews in Daniel Deronda,” in Gendering Orientalism: Race, Femininity, and Representation, Routledge, 1996, pp. 191-229.

[In the following excerpt, Lewis comments on George Eliot's depiction of Daniel Deronda as both an Englishman and a Jew, noting that his characterization within the context of Orientalism brings out the best qualities from both identities.]

This chapter sets out to examine how George Eliot's representation of Jews and Judaism in Daniel Deronda relates to the Orientalist paradigm. Daniel Deronda, published by Blackwoods in eight parts from February to...

(The entire section is 17059 words.)

Alicia Carroll (essay date 1997)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Giaour's Campaign: Desire and the Other in Felix Holt, The Radical,” in Novel, Vol. 30, No. 2, Winter, 1997, pp. 237-58.

[In the following essay, Carroll discusses George Eliot's characterization of Harold Transome in her novel Felix Holt, asserting that “he is as tainted by his identity as an imperialist Englishman as he is by his participation in barbaric Oriental custom.”]


George Eliot's novels of “English life” often touch upon the outer limits of empire (Felix Holt 79). But in her hands, the English novel may be less engaged in redrawing contemporary imperialist plots than in challenging...

(The entire section is 10891 words.)

Jerome Christensen (essay date 1989)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Perversion, Parody, and Cultural Hegemony: Lord Byron's Oriental Tales,” in The South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. 88, No. 3, Summer, 1989, pp. 569-603.

[In the following essay, Christensen surveys Lord Byron's Oriental verse tales and suggests that he may have employed Orientalist motifs to expose “the primal foreignness” of the English language.]

[Byron] has no light, cannot lead us from the past to the future.

—Matthew Arnold, Poetry of Byron

Oh! laughter for the Page that would reflect To future times the face of what now is!


(The entire section is 12615 words.)

Michael Rossington (essay date 1991)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Shelley and the Orient,” in Keats-Shelley Review, No. 6, 1991, pp. 18-36.

[In the following essay, Rossington discusses the influence of Orientalism in Shelley's works, focusing on “A Philosophical View of Reform,” “Ozymandias,” “To the Nile,” Alastor, Prometheus Unbound, and “The Witch of Atlas.”]

Much informative scholarship has provided us with evidence of the breadth of Shelley's reading of accounts of travels to the Near East, North Africa and India; of the apparent acknowledgement in his poetry of contemporary explanations of Eastern mythologies both by theologians and enlightened philosophes; and finally of ‘the...

(The entire section is 7278 words.)

Javed Majeed (essay date 1992)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Robert Southey and the Oriental Renaissance,” in Ungoverned Imaginings: James Mill's The History of British India and Orientalism, Clarendon Press, 1992, pp. 47-86.

[In the following excerpt, Majeed explores Robert Southey's two Oriental romances, Thalaba the Destroyer and The Curse of Kehama, in terms of his attempt to discern historical patterns.]


Raymond Schwab has argued that the oriental renaissance was inaugurated in 1771 by Anquétil-Duperron's Zend-Avesta, ouvrage de Zorastre. This was the first approach to an Asian text totally independent of biblical and classical...

(The entire section is 15628 words.)

John Drew (essay date 1993)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘Kubla Khan’ and Orientalism,” in Coleridge's Visionary Languages: Essays in Honor of J. B. Beer, edited by Tim Fulford and Morton D. Paley, D. S. Brewer, 1993, pp. 41-47.

[In the following essay, Drew discusses elements of Orientalism and neo-Platonism in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem “Kubla Khan,” speculating on possible influences from Coleridge's reading.]

‘… the images rose up before him as things with
          a parallel
production of the correspondent expressions …’

Preface to ‘Kubla Khan’

A landmark among attempts to take Coleridge up on his challenge to explore ‘Kubla Khan’ as a...

(The entire section is 3500 words.)

Further Reading

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Behdad, Ali. Belated Travelers: Orientalism in the Age of Colonial Dissolution. Durham: Duke University Press, 1994, 165 p.

Discusses how western cultural hegemony has influenced representation of the Orient, drawing on several different academic fields for evidence.

Cooper, Helen M. “England: The Imagined Community of Aurora Leigh and Mrs. Seacole.” Studies in Browning and His Circle 20 (1993): 123-31.

Discusses how Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh and Mary Seacole's Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands reflect England as a colonial country in the year 1857.

Harrington, Henry R....

(The entire section is 431 words.)