Post-colonial criticism

This approach to literature has emerged with the decline of the colonial empires which had been established during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, largely as a result of the expansionist aspirations of European states in territories on other continents.

The colonies in nineteenth century literature

Colonial territories are referred to in many nineteenth-century novels:

  • In Jane Austen's Mansfield Park (1814), Sir Thomas Bertram's wealth derives from his sugar plantations in the West Indies, which he visits in the course of the novel
  • In W. M. Thackeray's Vanity Fair (1847), Jos Sedley returns from India with enormous amounts of money, and there is a fellow-pupil at Amelia Sedley's school who is clearly of mixed race
  • In Dickens' Great Expectations (1860-1), the criminal Magwitch is transported to Australia, where he makes a fortune
  • At the end of Elizabeth Gaskell's novel Mary Barton (1848), some of the characters move to a new life in Canada
  • At the end of Dickens' David Copperfield (1849-50), the feckless Mr. Micawber emigrates to Australia, where he becomes successful.

The focus of post-colonial criticism

Post-colonial critics of these novels would emphasize that:

  • These places are seen as remote and unknowable, representing difference and othernessAfrican American slaves working on a plantation
  • The narratives of these novels never follow the characters who travel to these distant places
  • They are often seen as sources of wealth with little concern as to how that wealth is obtained or the lives of slaves – on, for instance, West Indian sugar plantations
  • They are seen as ‘dumping grounds' for criminals whom society wishes simply to expel rather than to deal with them in a more constructive manner, as with Magwitch in Great Expectations
  • For novelists, as in Mary Barton and David Copperfield, the colonies sometimes provide a convenient narrative solution for characters who, for one reason or another, cannot be fitted into a future in this country.

Examples of post-colonial literature

As former British colonies have become independent in the years since 1945, new voices have emerged, anxious to relate the story of colonization from the point of view of the colonized:

  • The best-known example of this approach is Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) by Jean Rhys, which, as well as telling the story of Rochester's first wife from her own point of view, also seeks to say something about the lives of white settlers in the West Indies
  • Peter Carey's novel Jack Maggs (1997) takes Great Expectations as its starting-point and looks at the life of the title character, an illegally returned convict from Australia. Carey is an Australian writer and his novel is a clear attempt to re-evaluate the convict experience and its contribution to the country's history.

A post-colonial approach to Jane Eyre

West Indies by Visa1410 available through Creative CommonsThe aspects of Jane Eyre that would be susceptible to a post-colonial approach are its connection with the West Indies, with the island of Madeira and with India:

  • Rochester is sent to the West Indies as a young man and is tricked into marrying Bertha Mason. There is a sense that her madness is somehow related to her birthplace, which is thus represented as wild and barbaric
  • The reader is given almost no impression of what life might be like in Madeira. Its only function in the novel is a source of wealth, accumulated by John Eyre and passed on to his niece Jane
  • India is St John Rivers' intended destination, where he hopes to bring the light of Christianity to a heathen country. Its need of such enlightenment is insisted upon in the novel and so too are its dangers for English people – it seems to be regarded as almost inevitable that Jane would soon die if she went there and the same fate seems to await St John at the end of the book.
  • Re-read all the passages and sections of the novel concerned with the West Indies, Madeira and India
    • Make detailed notes on how these places are represented.
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