Post-Colonial Criticism is

Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin, authors of The Empire Writes Back (1989), are three key figures who significantly oriented literary studies towards Post-colonial studies. Post-colonial theorists and literary authors also engaged these same issues in their theoretical and literary works in the 1950s and 1960s, however, especially as countries around the world gained independence from colonial powers. Post-colonial literary criticism frequently focuses on relationships between colonizers and colonized people. Post-colonial criticism also analyzes whether a text upholds or subverts colonial ideals.

Key Terms: Dialectic; Hermeneutics; Semiotics; Text & Intertextuality; Tone

Key TermsDefinitions
Colonialismthe process of acquiring political control of a country, affecting the economics, language, and culture of the colonized country
Post-Colonial Studiesan area of study that focuses on the history of colonialism and its effects on colonized peoples and their culture, art, and literature
Decolonizationthe dismantling of colonialism and, sometimes, of colonial structures in countries previously colonized by European countries

Post-colonial literary criticism frequently focuses on relationships between colonizers and colonized people in literary texts. Post-colonial criticism also analyzes whether a text upholds or subverts colonial ideals. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word “colonialism” as a colonial system or principle involving the exploitation of weaker peoples by a larger power. Methods of colonialism may include the domination, subjugation, or enslavement of an indigenous population and their land; the exploitation and exportation of resources; or the creation of a settlement project. Post-colonial criticism is particularly important in the twenty-first century. As  John Springhall observes in Decolonization Since 1945, approximately a third of the world’s population lived under colonial or imperial rule at the time that the Second World War broke out in 1939 (1). Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin, authors of The Empire Writes Back (1989), are three key figures who significantly oriented literary studies towards Post-colonial studies. Post-colonial theorists and literary authors also engaged these same issues in their theoretical and literary works in the 1950s and 1960s, however, especially as countries around the world gained independence from colonial powers. Gender, economics, race, and ideology are all subjects for consideration in post-colonial studies, so post-colonial criticism overlaps with some of the other critical schools of thought. For example, some post-colonial literary critics argue that the central conflict of Wole Soyinka’s play Death and the King’s Horseman revolves around the interference of the British colonial officers in the ritual suicide of the King’s Horseman (Elesin). According to the Yoruba tradition, Elesin’s duty was to follow the King into the afterlife in order to ensure the King’s safe passage. Soyinka based this play on a historical incident that took place in Nigeria during British colonial rule. Although the Yoruba custom dictated that Elesin commit suicide after the King’s death, the British deemed the tradition a barbaric one. In the play, Elesin tarries in the marketplace, leading women of his tribe to accuse him of not fulfilling his duties as a man of the tribe. Elesin’s delay also enables the British colonial officers to arrest him in order to prevent him from carrying out the ritual suicide. The gendered colonial conflict affects the play’s meaning because it illustrates the refusal of male British authorities to respect traditional customs in Nigeria. The conflict takes on a tragic dimension when Elesin’s son, Olunde, who had been studying abroad in England, returns to Nigeria to take the place of his father and restore order. The play does not celebrate Olunde’s sacrifice, however, since performing the ritual suicide was not Olunde’s duty. The play also concludes by dramatizing Elesin’s suicide, which presumably resulted from his grief. Soyinka’s play invites readers to analyze how colonialism operates as an antagonistic force in the play.

Foundational Questions of Post-Colonial Criticism

  • Where and when is the work set—in a colony, a former colony, or a country that has gained its independence from Great Britain Spain, France, or another political power?
  • How does the text depict relations between the colonizer and the colonized?
  • What principles of colonialism operate in the text? Do colonial powers usurp land, exploit the economy or environment, or enslave the indigenous population?
  • How do the colonial conflicts and politics of the text affect its meaning?

Online Example:“Otherness and its pound of flesh: Body politics in the film “Dirty Pretty Things. By Melisa Cavcic.

Discussion Questions and Activities: Post-Colonial Criticism

  1. Define colonialism, post-colonial studies, and decolonization.
  2. Discuss the significance of post-colonial studies, particularly given the fact that, as John Springhall observes in Decolonization Since 1945, approximately a third of the world’s population lived under colonial or imperial rule at the time that the Second World War broke out in 1939 (1).
  3. Read an excerpt from Aimé Césaire’s Notebook of a Return to the Native Land (translated by Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith). Interpret a passage to explain how it illustrates relations between the colonizer and the colonized. For example, why does the speaker turn toward “paradises lost for him and his kin” after telling a cop to “beat it?”
  4. Compare and contrast the principles of colonialism that operate in act one, scene two, lines 385-340 of The Tempest with those evoked in the excerpt from Notebook of a Return to the Native Land.

Read this brief biographical information about Aimé Césaire and evaluate the central purpose of the excerpt from Notebook of a Return to the Native Land. Use support from the excerpt to defend your interpretation.

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