Post-colonial criticism

The emergence of a post colonial perspective

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 emmigrates to Australia, where he becomes successful.

The focus of post-colonial criticism

Post-colonial critics of these novels would emphasise that:

  • These places are seen as remote and unknowable, representing difference and otherness
  • The narratives of these novels never follow the characters who travel to these distant places
  • The colonies 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, 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, as in Mary Barton and David Copperfield.

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 colonisation from the point of view of the colonised:

  • 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 (see Wide Sargasso Sea)
  • 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 Persuasion   

The aspects of Persuasion that would be susceptible to a post-colonial approach are its connection with the East Indies (India and the islands of Southeast Asia), and the West Indies:

  • Mrs. Croft has travelled extensively, but when she mentions the East Indies, she seems to emphasise how far away it is by mentioning the journey there and back, and repeating twice that she has only been there once. She takes pains to point out that she has not been to the West Indies
  • Except for the dangers and excitements on board ship travelling to the colonies, we are given no impression of what life in those places was like
  • Captain Wentworth's trip to the West Indies is associated with the misery incurred by Anne's refusal of him
  • Mrs. Smith recovers some of her wealth and regains her position in society through the sale of her husband's property in the West Indies. This could have been a plantation, which would have undoubtedly involved the use of slaves
  • The landed gentry are losing their grip on their position of power and prestige in part due to the new wealth generated by the trade from the colonies, although this is never acknowledged in Persuasion.
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