Study Guide

Postcolonial Theory Texts

  • Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (1899)

    In Heart of Darkness, a European guy goes deep into the "'heart"' of Africa to save another European guy only to find out that his man has gone "'native"' and also mental. Is the whole journey futile because European colonialism is innately racist and evil? Is that because Africa is a totally insane, backwards place? Sounds like some questions only a postcolonialist can answer...

    Chinua Achebe argues that Conrad's use of Africa as "'setting and backdrop…eliminates the Africa as human factor."' Do you think Conrad uses Africa and African characters in the way Achebe describes? Is there anything redeeming about the way Conrad depicts Africa and Africans?

    Here's some more food for thought. The eloquent use of English can serve as a sign of civility and sanity in the novella. How seductive is Conrad's use of language and why might that be a problem for a good postcolonialist?

  • "I wandered lonely as a Cloud" by William Wordsworth (1807)

    A depressed guy sees daffodils and the world suddenly and poetically becomes—literally—all flowers and sunshine. What's this have to do with postcolonialism again? Here's another way to look at it: What place does a poem about daffodils have in the education of a Jamaican or an Indian?

    Stuart Hall once pointed out that when he arrived in England from Jamaica, he—of course—knew all about daffodils because he had been taught Wordsworth's poem in school. What he didn't know: the names of the flowers in Jamaica, his homeland. Kind of sad, huh?

    Coming from the perspective of a postcolonialist, would you stop the teaching of Wordsworth's poem in an ex-colony like Jamaica in favor of "'native"' literature?

    How could a student from a country without daffodils understand or experience Wordsworth's poem? And how is being forced to read about this mystery flower a tool of imperialism?

  • "Girl" by Jamaica Kincaid (1978)

    You've got a mean mom who's really not into building her daughter's self-esteem, and you've got a daughter who's pretty silent. In fact, the prose poem "'Girl"' is all about how a Caribbean mother shuts her daughter up by telling her what to do and, more importantly, how to be a "'lady."' It's also a prose poem that shows the lack of freedom the Caribbean girl has to become a strong individual while living with the neo-colonial, patriarchal values of her mother. Yikes!

    "'Girl"' is mostly a bunch of commands a mother gives to her daughter. How does the form of the command relate to the colonial legacy in the Caribbean?

    The daughter does actually get two (itty-bitty) lines in the prose poem. What do the lines reveal about the daughter, and can they show a form of resistance to her mother's oppressive values?

  • Oh, the Places You'll Go! by Dr. Seuss, (1960)

    We love Dr. Seuss with the kind of devotion a kid has for his or her blankie, but that doesn't mean Dr. Seuss is untouchable. No sir-ee! Think of this text as a good way to stretch your newly-found postcolonial imagination. Sure, the story seems totally innocent and full of positive encouragement for kids and graduating seniors. But have you noticed how the boy in the story is a white boy who, in order to find his way in the world, goes off to strange lands with purple elephants who carry a canopy over him? Africa, anyone? Things to make you go "'hmmm,"' maybe?

    So let's get poco. How do those elephants relate to the boy's journey in the book? If the elephants aren't a sign of the boy's imperialist power, then what is their purpose in the book? Why not less geographically specific animals, like unicorns or dodo birds, for example?

    Okay, so maybe you're not convinced that Dr. Seuss' book just might have some colonialist impulses in it; or maybe you are. But ask yourself this: could there have been any alternative way for this boy to become a man? Why does it take travels to distant lands for the kid to arrive at adulthood?

  • The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy (1997)

    Fraternal boy/girl twins, Estha and Rahel, are living in a small village in India when their cousin Sophie Mol comes to visit. Sophie starts the book off with a bang (or a splash) by drowning in the river that runs by Estha and Rahel's village. The rest of the book deals with how Estha and Rahel grow up while dealing with the death of their cousin. What's so postcolonial about that? Hint: Sophie's half-English—a major red flag.

    There are a few ways Roy inserts a critique of Western imperialism into her novel, from the way Baby Kochamma shows off her Shakespeare to the twins' obsession with The Sound of Music. Why might this desire for Western culture be a bad thing and a good thing in the novel?

    Even though this story is set after the caste system was outlawed in India, the book shows clear signs of how the caste system continues to operate. How does the caste system connect to colonialist attitudes in the book?

  • Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie (1980)

    How's this novel postcolonial? Do you really have to ask? First, you've got this narrator/protagonist Saleem Sinai, who just happens to be born at midnight on the eve of India's independence from the Brits.

    And if that's not enough, he's a telepathic leader of all the kids born on the eve of India's independence (hence, the title Midnight's Children).

    Add to that the fact that Indira Gandhi and her people are after midnight's children because they threaten her power over a postcolonial India and you've really got to ask yourself: how could this novel not be postcolonial?

    Saleem's constantly talking about how his body is breaking down and apart, even though he's really only in his thirties. So why is his body breaking apart? How does his body relate to the body of the Indian state after it achieves independence?

    Why does Rushdie make Saleem lose his supercool superpower—telepathy—in favor of a superior sense of smell? What does Saleem's loss (and gain) mean?

  • "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness" by Chinua Achebe (1961)

    A Nigerian-born professor tears apart Joseph Conrad's revered, classic novella and accuses Conrad of being a "'thoroughgoing racist."' It's pretty rare for an academic to make such a blunt, even offensive, statement about a VIA (very important author). If this were a boxing match, let's just say there'd be a lot of blood on the ground and it wouldn't be Achebe's. (Of course, Conrad's already long gone, so it's not exactly the fairest fight either.)

    If Conrad's use of Africa "'as setting and backdrop"' is part of what makes him a "'racist"' in Achebe's mind, then is it ever possible for a Western writer to create a story about a foreign land and have it not be racist?

    Achebe does point out that since Conrad's story is pretty complex—with a story within a story and a narrator behind a narrator and all—that maybe people could view the "'racist"' attitudes as the character Marlow's view and not Conrad's. But Achebe's not totally buying that idea. Is he being too harsh on Conrad, especially since Conrad's book came out before the twentieth century (and all the PC movements that came with it) even began?

  • The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon (1961)

    This book is like the primer on anti-colonialism and decolonization. It covers the effects of colonialism on the mental health of the colonized, the use of language as a tool of oppression, and—most important—the need for a (violent) revolution against the colonial, ruling class. Looking for some light, cheery reading? Um, keep looking.

    People often view Sartre's preface to Fanon's book as a literal call to arms, a support of revolutionary violence as a means of righting colonialist wrongs. Is that a fair interpretation of Fanon's book? Or does Fanon offer other methods of resistance other than pure violence?

    At the end of his chapter "'On National Culture,"' Fanon writes that "'the most urgent thing today for the intellectual is to build up his nation"' and that "'the building of a nation is of necessity accompanied by the discovery and encouragement of universalizing values."' How is Fanon's vision of nation-building different from the kind of nation-building colonial empires are known for? How is it similar?

  • Orientalism by Edward Said (1978)

    You know that picture movies paint of the Muslim as terrorist? Or as a rich oil producer? Or Persian ladies as harem-dwelling belly dancers? That's Orientalism in action! In his groundbreaking book, the father of poco theory shows us how everyone is complicit in the making of Orientalism—a system that caricaturizes the "'Orient"' (aka, the "'Middle East"') for the economic and political benefit of Western powers.

    Said's all about how Orientalism is a system, built up through institutions, academics, governments, etc. How is the media part of the problem of Orientalism?

    If Orientalism is a big bad thing, what solutions does Said offer to address this problem? Are there any?

  • "Can the Subaltern Speak?" by Gayatri Spivak (1988)

    Imagine you're a well-intentioned liberal academic who speaks out on injustices to "'subalterns"' (the economically dispossessed, the lowest of the low), especially those in other countries. Do you think you're actually helping these people out? Think again!

    In this landmark essay, Spivak skewers the (possibly white, probably male) liberal academic who attempts to "'speak for"' the subaltern and argues that, in fact, the subaltern can't speak, at least not in a way that wouldn't reinstate colonialist values.

    If, according to Spivak, "'the subaltern cannot speak"' for herself without drawing on the philosophies and language of the colonizer, then what can the subaltern do for herself? Does Spivak hint at any other solutions?

    Why does Spivak end with the case of Bhuvaneswari Bhadhari, a woman who practiced sati (self-immolation) as—according to Spivak—a form of "'ad hoc, subaltern rewriting of the social text of sati-suicide"' (translation: as a form of political resistance)? What does she mean to suggest with Bhadhuri's story?

  • The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literature by Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, Helen Tiffin (1989)

    Postcolonial theory isn't just for dispossessed people of color anymore (say these guys). It's for anyone who was once, or still is, a subject of some type of colonial power. That means you can be black, yellow, brown, even white, and still count yourself as part of the coolest gang of underdogs around—that is, as long as you're into resisting colonial/neo-colonial forces.

    By the by, if you haven't figured it out by now, these writers are kind of like the super-nice, accepting kids of the poco crowd. They speak and write in heavy academic jargon-ese, but they're way friendlier than the likes of Fanon and Spivak.

    Chew on this: this group is all about thinking of the ways postcolonial theory is "'deployed,"' like a weapon or a soldier, to benefit the good fight. In fact, they use that word a lot (check out the chapter "'Who's a post-colonial?"'). What do you think about all this war-like language, considering these scholars aren't actually fighting in a literal war?

    Race and race theory are a big deal to this group; in fact, they consider race studies to be a larger field than postcolonial studies. What is the relationship between these two fields exactly? How do they borrow from and mimic each other?

  • The Location of Culture by Homi Bhabha (1994)

    This book is all about the "'hybrid"' or "'hybridity."' No, not the Prius and not some vegetable mixed from an apple and a toad. It's about the way people—especially colonized people—form a mixed, "'hybrid"' identity just by imitating or "'mimicking"' the colonizer's culture and language.

    Why is this important? Because when you mimic someone, it can feel pretty strange and destabilizing for the person being mimicked. And for Bhabha, that means power and political resistance.

    Lots of academics on the left have criticized Bhabha for his theory of hybridity because they say it's not really political. What do you think? Is forming a "'hybrid"' identity based on mimicking your oppressor an effective form of political activism?

    Bhabha is kind of known for not making sense. In fact, scholars who aren't into theory point to Bhabha as an example of academic gibberish. Bhabha has defended himself by pointing out that scientists aren't expected to write or talk in the language of everyday people; therefore, why should academic theoreticians? Does Bhabha have a point that theory deserves its own jargon, like other professional fields? How is having that sort of tool especially important for a theory like postcolonialism?