Postcolonial Long Fiction Analysis


A discussion of postcolonial literature must first acknowledge the scope and complexity of the term “postcolonial.” Temporally, the term designates any national literature written after the nation gained independence from a colonizing power. According to this definition, all literature written in the United States after 1776 could qualify as postcolonial. Because the United States has occupied the position of an economic and political world power since the nineteenth century, however, it is today regarded more as a historically colonizing force than as a former colony of Great Britain. Within this field of literary studies, “postcolonial” refers to those nations that gained independence between the last quarter of the nineteenth century and the 1960’s.

Geographically, “postcolonial” is a global term: It designates nations of the Caribbean, Central and South America, Africa, the South Pacific islands, and Malaysia. It applies equally to India, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the Philippines. The colonizing powers to which these countries were subjected and with which they have continued to contend after gaining independence are Great Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, Belgium, Germany, and the United States.

Postcolonial studies are not limited by geography or time, however. They treat a broad span of concerns: the functioning of different empires during the colonial period and varying administrative systems left as legacies to the former colonies; the specific conditions under which independence was gained in each case; cultural, economic, and linguistic imperialism that persists after independence; and the local concerns of education, government, citizenship, and identity. Postcolonial literature tends to address opposition to imperial forces as it seeks to define autonomous national identity. In that quest, postcolonial literature explores issues of cultural alienation, and it struggles to express the specificity and particularities of indigenous cultures in languages that are not generally the original languages of the indigenous peoples but rather the languages of the former colonizers. The Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o decided in 1981, after his imprisonment and exile for coauthoring and producing two Kikuyu-language plays that criticized the postcolonial Kenyan government, to switch from English to Kikuyu as the language for his writing. Similarly, the Irishman Samuel Beckett...

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Exile and alienation

Exile and alienation are represented both physically and figuratively in postcolonial fiction. Exile occurs when the protagonist or another character, usually a member of an indigenous people subjected to the colonial power, travels to the land of the colonizers for the purpose of education or finding work. Becoming a marginal member of society in the colonizing nation, the subject takes on certain characteristics and values of the oppressing culture. Thereafter, returning to the land of birth is nearly impossible because of psychological changes the postcolonial subject has experienced while away. Physical exile also occurs for political reasons: The subject either acts out against the government and is sent away or chooses to leave the homeland because colonial and postcolonial rules have wreaked such change on the native environment that it becomes unlivable.

Figuratively, the theme of exile is expressed as alienation and represents a search for the self. Colonial conditions in the native land render native culture, language, and education inferior to the culture and governing systems of the colonizers. Such cultural repression and validation of the imperial other provoke in the postcolonial protagonist an identity crisis and prompt him or her to search for a legitimate and positive image of the self. In order to embark on this quest for the self, the protagonist must first be split, shattered, or called into question, leading to alienation from society. Alienation is similar to exile in that the subject is no longer “at home” either physically or psychologically in the native land. Physical alienation occurs when an otherwise respectable inhabitant of the native land is considered criminal or subversive by colonial law, leading to imprisonment or the revocation of societal privileges for the subject. More often, alienation is represented as psychological in postcolonial fiction: It is the state of not belonging, of not having a true home. Postcolonial subjects are alienated by Eurocentric, imperial systems that will never fully accept them, either culturally or racially; at the same time, they are alienated by native cultures that have either acquiesced to the colonial system or rejected them because they speak the language of the colonizers or have received the education of the empire.

One of the most in-depth explorations of cultural exile and quest for the self is presented in James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922). Although its main characters, Stephen Dedalus, Leopold Bloom, and Molly Bloom, never leave Dublin, the novel draws a modern parallel to Homer’s Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e.; English translation, 1614), the epic story of a man’s alienation from his home, exile to strange lands, and search for a way back home (metaphorically, a search for the self). On the surface, Joyce’s novel does not appear to be concerned with Ireland’s struggle for freedom from centuries of British rule. The action of the novel takes place in one day; the plot consists in Bloom and Stephen going about their day and in Bloom making his way home. Yet the novel operates on many levels—literally, metaphorically, and mythically—one of which emerges from its many references to the British occupation of Ireland and the Irish struggle for political...

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Struggle and opposition

Aside from the themes of alienation, exile, confusion of identity, and search for the self, postcolonial fiction is also characterized by tensions between colonizer and colonized or between the old colonial society and the emerging postcolonial one. These multiple themes that seek to define the postcolonial condition are often present in and overlap within the same novel, but it is just as often the case that one theme stands out above the others.

When the theme of social and political tension upstages the others, it can take the form of direct confrontation between colonizer and colonized. For example, in E. M. Forster’s novel A Passage to India (1924), colonial tensions make their way to the courtroom when the respectable Indian citizen Dr. Aziz is accused of attacking a visiting Englishwoman, Adela Quested, during a friendly outing to some regionally famous caves. Everyone in town takes a side as the polemics surrounding the trial against Aziz reach an explosive level. The Indians believe strongly in Aziz’s innocence, while the occupying British remain convinced that Aziz is a local savage incapable of restraining himself around a white woman. The trial marks the climax of the novel, and the turning point occurs when Adela takes the witness stand only to waver in her testimony and withdraw her charges against Aziz. Here, colonial tensions are played out on a symbolically legal level; the confrontation between colonized and colonizer is expressed as a life-or-death issue of guilt or innocence to be decided by emotional fervor and resentment of the colonial situation only thinly veiled by justice. In the end, justice prevails in that Adela recants her accusation, but the readiness of the British to bring Aziz to trial and the Indians’ protest against such an act of oppressive power reveal the prejudices, and exemplify the hatred and mistrust, that colonialism promotes on each of the opposing sides. The novel encapsulates colonial hatred and mistrust in a legal issue, the trial, yet it is a legal issue—one country’s government forcibly...

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Multiculturalism and identity

Colonial rule—the control and assimilation of other nations, their cultures and histories—was not executed without conflict, struggle, and opposition; furthermore, it has left its subjects, colonized peoples, in a state of alienation and either physical or psychological exile from places that were once unquestionably their homes. While colonialism has created two distinct categories of people, colonized and colonizer, each on the opposite side of the power divide, historically it has also caused a blending of races, languages, cultures, and systems of beliefs and values. This mixing of cultures is another principal theme in postcolonial fiction, and it is often developed in the broader context of establishing identity. With...

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Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin. The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-colonial Literatures. 2d ed. New York: Routledge, 2002. Important categorical study of postcolonial fiction in English defines the genre in its relation to English literary studies, divides postcolonial fiction among critical models, and defines and examines the textual strategies used in producing this fiction. Also offers critical analyses of exemplary works and discusses various postcolonial literary theories according to geographic divisions.

Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. New York: Routledge, 1994. Twelve essays,...

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