Imperialism in Literature

Imperialist literature encompasses a body of work that is set in the colonies or describes colonialist attitudes, with language that often reflects the dominant paternalistic stance. Imperialism in literature is also referred to as literature about colonialism; or as imperialist or colonialist literature.

Three pieces of literature that are considered an acute exposition of aspects of imperialism are Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, George Orwell's Shooting an Elephant and Rudyard Kipling's The White Man's Burden.

Conrad's 1902 novel Heart of Darkness is studied in academic circles as a literary classic, as well as being a strong critical attack against imperialism. Although the studies currently are framed in a postcolonial manifestation, and some critics believe that Conrad was part of the imperialist regime as well, generally the book is thought to be an indictment against the ideology.

Heart of Darkness is set in deepest Africa, in the Congo. The story incorporates the savage treatment by the Belgians of the native residents of the colony. Conrad places a narrator as the teller of the dark tale. Toward the end of the novel, the narrator meets the character Kurtz, who is depicted as a colonist with a dichotomous makeup. On the one hand critics describe him as someone who is appalled by the savagery, while on the other hand he appears to have reverted to a similar behavior pattern. He is the perpetrator of immense acts of atrocity. When Kurtz appears at the later point in the narrative, he is on the verge of dying, and has become insane.

More recently critics such as Chinua Achebe have suggested that the story is not anti-imperialist but actually perpetuates imperialism. Achebe posits that the novel may be read as racist and as a colonialist parable. In this sense, the theory is that the Africans are shown to be violent and irrational, highlighting a fear that the colonialists have of something within themselves. Africa, when read in this light, is a metaphor, and the "heart of darkness" the epitome of "other." Thus the colonialist Europeans face, in that place of darkness, that which is "native" or "savage." While it is written as being about a place in the Congo, Achebe points to the place within the European mind.

George Orwell, who grew up as Eric A. Blair, wrote an essay on his life experiences in Burma, in Shooting an Elephant (1931). The essay is an autobiographical account of the time he spent as a police officer in colonial Burma. When Orwell (known then as Blair) joined the Indian Imperial Police in 1922, he was stationed in Burma (Myanmar). By 1927 he was extremely unhappy about the state of imperial affairs there and quit the police force. The experience in Myanmar influenced both his writing and his world view. While he was a member of the force that inflicted oppression on the people who were ruled by the Empire, he also eventually removed himself from it.

This conflict between being part of the oppressive establishment and the antithetical feelings regarding Empire raises pertinent questions. Orwell was at once a British person whose homeland colonized Burma and was responsible for ruling it, and thus in some ways he too was culpable. His role as a police officer placed him in a further strengthened position to consolidate the oppression. Yet he also emerges with an anti-imperialist stance in his writing.

Rudyard Kipling's poem The White Man's Burden has been described by critics as a "hymn to U.S. Imperialism." Kipling wrote the poem in February 1899, and it appeared in McClure's Magazine at that time. The poet urged the United States to adopt the idea of imperialism, as Britain and other European countries had done. The title of the poem, The White Man's Burden, was used, euphemistically, to reflect the notion of the country proceeding in the way of the Empire, by taking up this "burden." Critics who were against imperialism reacted strongly to the poem. Theodore Roosevelt, who saw the poem, was said to have criticized its literary value, but favored the content as being positive for the idea of U.S. expansion.

Postcolonialist critics, now writing about the period of imperialism, have focused on Victorian writing during Empire times, with more recent studies including aspects of the relationship between imperialism and women. Deirdre David's Rule Brittania: Women, Empire and Victorian Writing is one such example. David looks at constructions of gender and race by British colonialists and how these manifest in the literature of the time. Her studies pay attention primarily to developing countries such as India. Diane Archibald's work focuses on neo-European colonies of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United States. Archibald's postmodern postcolonialist orientation contextualizes notions of hegemony in these colonized regions.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Postcolonial Discourse and Changing Cultural Contexts: Theory and Criticism
Gita Rajan; Radhika Mohanram.
Greenwood Press, 1995
Postcolonial Studies: A Materialist Critique
Benita Parry.
Routledge, 2004
Librarian’s tip: Part Two "The Imperial Imaginary"
Reforming Empire: Protestant Colonialism and Conscience in British Literature
Christopher Hodgkins.
University of Missouri Press, 2002
Deconstruction, Imperialism and the West Indian Novel
Glyne A. Griffith.
University of the West Indies Press, 1996
Literary Culture and U.S. Imperialism: From the Revolution to World War II
John Carlos Rowe.
Oxford University Press, 2000
Imperial Knowledge: Russian Literature and Colonialism
Ewa M. Thompson.
Greenwood Press, 2000
Domesticity, Imperialism, and Emigration in the Victorian Novel
Diana C. Archibald.
University of Missouri Press, 2002
Imperialism at Home: Race and Victorian Women's Fiction
Susan Meyer.
Cornell University Press, 1996
Maps of Englishness: Writing Identity in the Culture of Colonialism
Simon Gikandi.
Columbia University Press, 1996
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 4 "Imperial Femininity: Reading Gender in the Culture of Colonialism"
Decolonizing Feminisms: Race, Gender & Empire Building
Laura E. Donaldson.
University of North Carolina Press, 1992
White Skins/Black Masks: Representation and Colonialism
Gail Ching-Liang Low.
Routledge, 1996
Outsiders and Insiders: Perspectives of Third World Culture in British and Post-Colonial Fiction
Michael Harris.
Peter Lang, 1994
American Sensations: Class, Empire, and the Production of Popular Culture
Shelley Streeby.
University of California Press, 2002
Librarian’s tip: Chap. Six "The Contradictions of Anti-Imperialism"
Empire's Children: Empire and Imperialism in Classic British Children's Books
M. Daphne Kutzer.
Garland, 2000
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