Imperial Masochism: British Fiction, Fantasy, and Social Class

Imperial Masochism: British Fiction, Fantasy, and Social Class

Imperial Masochism: British Fiction, Fantasy, and Social Class

Imperial Masochism: British Fiction, Fantasy, and Social Class


British imperialism's favorite literary narrative might seem to be conquest. But real British conquests also generated a surprising cultural obsession with suffering, sacrifice, defeat, and melancholia. "There was," writes John Kucich, "seemingly a different crucifixion scene marking the historical gateway to each colonial theater." In Imperial Masochism, Kucich reveals the central role masochistic forms of voluntary suffering played in late-nineteenth-century British thinking about imperial politics and class identity. Placing the colonial writers Robert Louis Stevenson, Olive Schreiner, Rudyard Kipling, and Joseph Conrad in their cultural context, Kucich shows how the ideological and psychological dynamics of empire, particularly its reorganization of class identities at the colonial periphery, depended on figurations of masochism.

Drawing on recent psychoanalytic theory to define masochism in terms of narcissistic fantasies of omnipotence rather than sexual perversion, the book illuminates how masochism mediates political thought of many different kinds, not simply those that represent the social order as an opposition of mastery and submission, or an eroticized drama of power differentials. Masochism was a powerful psychosocial language that enabled colonial writers to articulate judgments about imperialism and class.

The first full-length study of masochism in British colonial fiction, Imperial Masochism puts forth new readings of this literature and shows the continued relevance of psychoanalysis to historicist studies of literature and culture.


Never completely losing its grip, fantasy is always head
ing for the world it only appears to have left behind.
—JACQUELINE rose, States of Fantasy

Masochism is often regarded as a site of social and cultural intersections. But in late-nineteenth-century British colonial fiction, it focused one particular conjunction more than any other: the relationship between imperial politics and social class. This relationship has lately been an unfashionable topic for scholarly analysis, despite the intense scrutiny being applied to nearly every other aspect of British colonialism and some noteworthy protests about the imbalance. David Cannadine, for example, recently claimed that the “British Empire has been extensively studied as a complex racial hierarchy (and also as a less complex gender hierarchy); but it has received far less attention as an equally complex social hierarchy or, indeed, as a social organism, or construct, of any kind.” Ann Stoler has registered a similar complaint, while emphasizing the interdependence of these categories: “We know more than ever about the legitimating rhetoric of European civility and its gendered construals, but less about the class tensions that competing notions of 'civility' engendered. We are just beginning to identify how bourgeois sensibilities have been coded by race and, in turn, how finer scales measuring cultural competency and 'suitability' often replaced explicit racial criteria to define access to privilege in imperial ventures.” Many cultural critics share Stoler's assumptions about the mediated nature of colonial identities. in Anne McClintock's much quoted formulation from Imperial Leather (1995): “no social category exists in privileged isolation; each comes into being in social relation to other categories, if in uneven and contradictory ways.” But methodologically sophisticated imperial studies have persistently marginalized social

David Cannadine, Ornamentalism: How the British Saw Their Empire (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 2001), p. 9. Italics in original.

Ann Laura Stoler, Race and the Education of Desire: Foucault's History of Sexuality and
the Colonial Order of Things
(Durham: Duke University Press, 1995), p. 99.

Anne McClintock, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest
(New York: Routledge, 1995), p. 9.

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