Postcolonial Theory


Who?               Various

When?             1960’s – ongoing



Many of the ideas on this page again follow from the ideas of discourse and ways of looking at the world which are discussed elsewhere on this page. Particularly, postcolonial theory deals with the politics race and how different races are presented in texts.


From the 16th to the early 20th Century European countries, with advanced naval forces and a thirst for power, exotic goods and glory carved the world up through a series of wars, battles and treaties into a number of distinct empires. These countries, predominantly England, France and Spain, exploited the African, Latin American and Caribbean countries they conquered for their fantastic wealth, natural resources and manpower in the form of slaves.


The empire builders naturally used their military power and political might to impose their way of looking at the world onto the people that they conquered. Understandably, this way of looking supported the European ideals of rationality, orderliness, organisation and, at times, Christianity.


This imperialism (the name given to the building of an empire) did not, however, function only at a military level. It is also apparent in literature. Throughout this time the dominant producers of literature were the European countries and the texts produced, once again naturally enough, tended to reinforce the European way of looking at the world and therefore dismiss any alternatives as primitive, savage and barbaric. Thus, the original inhabitants of colonised countries often found themselves portrayed as irreligious heathens, savages to be tamed and saved, work-shy drunkards, vicious cannibals or any other manner of ‘monster’ in the literature of the time. Worse still, the colonial writer, denied access to education, access to materials and access to the finances required to publish work, frequently found himself without a voice that could be used to answer back and readdress this negative portrayal.


This imbalance began to change in the 20th Century when the two World Wars (the naming of which themselves clearly indicates the coloniser’s Euro-centric view of the world) destroyed the ability of France, England and the other major powers to maintain their empires. Since then colonial writers have found their voice and not only used it to point out the injustice of earlier representations of colonised people but also to show the world can be looked at from another perspective: that of the colonised.


There are a number of things that can be looked for when considering a text from a postcolonial perspective:

·         Look for stereotyped portrayals of coloniser and colonised and examine how these reinforce or undermine the white European way of looking at the world,

·         Look for clear portrayals of racism and racial discrimination

·         Look for literature that attempts to ‘rediscover’ an original culture or cultural identity that has been damaged, changed or obliterated by the imperialists. Particularly, postcolonial writers might attempt to show how these cultures were just as sophisticated, beautiful, complex or ‘civilised’ as the supposedly superior European culture that replaced them,

·         Look for examples of power struggles between coloniser and colonised that echo the struggle of military imperialism and domination,

·         Look for an attempt to define positive cultural values which are in opposition to the organised, scientific rationalism of the European. For example, a love of nature, the preference for feeling over thought, fiery passion, magic,

·         Look for writing that has attempted to capture the rhythm, timbre and sound of the oral stories that would have originally formed part of the heritage of colonised people, particularly in Africa,

·         Look for mimicry which can be reflective of the attempt of the colonised to adopt the way of looking at the world of the coloniser. This kind of mimicry, however, is doomed to fail because, coming from different origins, the colonised can never be fully like the coloniser. Mimicry can also be a form of mockery, implying that the only way that the colonised can challenge the coloniser is through a subtle and sly undermining of their power,

·         Look for ‘mixed’ characters. Perhaps characters who are actually of mixed race and contain a resolution or compromise between the differing discourses of the coloniser and colonised


Needless to say all texts, not just those written after the middle of the 20th Century can be examined from a post-colonial perspective. For example, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness written in 1900, contains many examples of implied racism in its portrayal of African society as behind that of the Europeans. Equally, not all texts that are sensitive to the issues of race and racism need be written by non-European writers.