CompFAQ/Literary Interpretation/Post-Colonialism

From Gerald R. Lucas
📝 English Composition Writing FAQ 11011102📖

Post-Colonial Criticism: Principles, Methodology, and Application

Post-colonial criticism holds a unique position as an interpretative mode as it allows us to deconstruct literary works through a lens that takes into account historical, social, and cultural contexts of colonial and post-colonial societies.

Post-colonial criticism emerged in the mid-20th century, influenced by the wave of decolonization that swept across Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean. This analytical approach seeks to challenge the narratives and representations in literary texts that originate from the colonial era, perpetuated by the imperial powers of Britain, France, Spain, and others. It grapples with complex themes of identity, race, culture, power, and resistance, offering a counter-narrative to the colonial discourse, which was overwhelmingly Eurocentric.

Post-Colonial Criticism Main Points
  • Used to analyze literature, art, film, and other cultural artifacts produced in countries that were once colonies, to reveal underlying attitudes about race, power, and identity.
  • Challenges Eurocentric perspectives in literature and media, seeking to amplify marginalized voices and to deconstruct power dynamics.
  • Seeks to decolonize knowledge and reclaim histories and identities that have been suppressed or erased.
  • Influenced other areas of social sciences and humanities, including anthropology, sociology, and history.

Edward Said, a Palestinian-American scholar, is considered one of the founding figures of post-colonial theory. His most influential work, Orientalism (1978), critiques Western representations of the “Orient”—the Middle East, Asia, and North Africa—as exotic, backward, uncivilized, and at times dangerous. Said argues that these representations, pervasive in literature, academia, and media, are not innocent but rather serve to justify and perpetuate Western colonial and imperial interests. In Culture and Imperialism (1993), Said extends his earlier critiques, examining novels by canonical Western authors and illustrating how their works often implicitly support the project of Empire.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, an Indian scholar based in the United States, is best known for her essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” (1988), where she introduces the concept of the “subaltern.” Borrowed from Antonio Gramsci’s writings, Spivak employs the term to refer to the most marginalized members of society who are rendered voiceless by social structures and colonial power relations. Spivak critiques Western intellectual discourses, including certain strands of feminism, for their failure to acknowledge and represent the subaltern, thus perpetuating their silencing. Spivak’s work is known for its focus on issues of representation, voice, and the role of intellectual discourse in the colonial project.

Homi K. Bhabha, an Indian scholar working in the United Kingdom, is noted for his concepts of “hybridity,” “mimicry,” “ambivalence,” and “third space.” In his book The Location of Culture (1994), Bhabha challenges binary views of colonizer and colonized, asserting that the interaction between the two often leads to a “hybrid” cultural or identity form that is neither wholly of the colonizer nor the colonized. This viewpoint challenges the notion of static, homogeneous cultural identities and highlights the blended nature of post-colonial societies. He further discusses “mimicry,” where the colonized imitates the colonizer, resulting in an unsettling effect on the colonizer’s authority. “Ambivalence” refers to the simultaneous attraction and repulsion that characterizes the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized.

One of the fundamental tenets of post-colonial criticism is the exploration of the power dynamics embedded within colonialism. This viewpoint perceives colonialism not just as a physical occupation, but also as a psychological control mechanism. Colonial power manifested not merely through force, but also through narratives that subtly reinforced the dominion of the colonizer over the colonized. Literature from the colonial period frequently mirrored these dynamics, with the colonizers depicted as superior and the colonized as inferior. Post-colonial criticism dissects these dynamics, illuminating their influence on the portrayal of characters and narrative structures.

Another critical facet of post-colonial criticism is its intent to destabilize Eurocentric narratives. Literature, especially from the colonial era, often centered around a Eurocentric worldview that sidelined or distorted non-European experiences and realities. Eurocentric perspectives, grounded in the presumed superiority of European culture and civilization, marginalized other cultures. By critiquing these Eurocentric narratives, post-colonial criticism advocates for a more inclusive understanding of diverse cultures and histories.

The exploration of “Otherness” is also central to post-colonial criticism. This tenet scrutinizes how the colonized were frequently depicted as the “Other”—alien, exotic, even dangerous—in stark contrast to the colonizer’s “Self.” This binary construct was integral to maintaining colonial dominance, rationalizing the alleged need to “civilize” the “savage” Other. Post-colonial criticism dismantles this binary, confronting such stereotypical portrayals and offering more nuanced narratives.

Furthermore, post-colonial criticism seeks to amplify the “subaltern” voice that has been suppressed by dominant power structures. In the context of post-colonial criticism, the subaltern often symbolizes the colonized, whose experiences and perspectives are overpowered by dominant colonial narratives. This critical approach aims to give voice to the subaltern, providing a more comprehensive and authentic understanding of colonial and post-colonial experiences.

Applying post-colonial criticism to a literary text typically involves identifying and analyzing these dynamics of power, race, and identity within the work. It often involves exploring the author’s perspective, the text’s historical context, and the characters’ experiences and interactions. Importantly, it involves identifying Eurocentric biases, stereotypes, or characterizations and offering counter-readings from the perspective of the colonized.

Consider, for instance, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. A post-colonial reading of this novel would examine Conrad’s portrayal of Africa and its inhabitants, scrutinizing how they are “othered” and relegated to an exotic, unknowable backdrop against which the European characters are developed. This highlights the Eurocentric view and exoticization of African people and culture, an issue famously discussed in Chinua Achebe’s criticism of the novel as a “bloody racist” work.

Shakespeare’s play The Tempest can also be viewed through the post-colonial lens. The relationship between Prospero, the powerful sorcerer, and Caliban, the island’s native, can be analyzed as a metaphor for the colonizer-colonized relationship. Prospero’s dominance and control over Caliban, along with Caliban’s resistance, mirror the power dynamics of the colonial era.

In poetry, post-colonial criticism provides a unique perspective on the works of writers like Derek Walcott and Wole Soyinka, who deal with themes of identity, culture, and colonial legacy in their poetry. Walcott’s epic poem Omeros revisits the classical Greek tradition through a Caribbean lens, creating a rich tapestry of post-colonial identity and experience.

Post-colonial criticism offers a powerful approach to literary interpretation. It invites us to challenge dominant narratives, consider diverse perspectives, and grapple with the complex legacies of colonialism. By applying this approach, we can enhance our understanding of literature, broadening our appreciation of the depth and richness of our global literary heritage.

Writing a Post-Colonial Essay

Engaging in a post-colonial interpretation of a literary text requires a careful and layered approach. Here are some steps to guide you:

  1. Understand the Historical Context: First, you need to familiarize yourself with the historical, social, and political context of the text. Knowledge about the era of colonialism, decolonization, and post-colonial impacts in the region related to the text is crucial. It provides the backdrop against which the text is written and the themes explored.
  2. Identify Power Dynamics: Look for ways that power dynamics between the colonizer and the colonized are portrayed in the text. This may include relationships between characters, depictions of authority, or descriptions of resistance.
  3. Examine Representations of the “Other”: Seek out instances where the text portrays the colonized as the “Other.” This could include exoticization, stereotyping, or demeaning portrayals of the colonized people’s culture, language, or traditions.
  4. Analyze Language and Imagery: Pay attention to the language and imagery used in the text. Is it Eurocentric or does it reflect the local culture and experience? Are there elements of mimicry, where the colonized are imitating the colonizer? Consider both the language used by the characters and the narrative voice.
  5. Explore Themes of Hybridity and Syncretism: Look for evidence of cultural mixing and the creation of new, hybrid identities. Consider how the text might illustrate the syncretic reality of post-colonial societies, both in its content and its form.
  6. Locate Subaltern Voices: Try to identify the subaltern voices in the text. Are they given a chance to speak or are they silenced? How does the text handle their experiences and perspectives?
  7. Consider the Author’s Perspective: Reflect on how the author’s own experiences and biases might have influenced their portrayal of colonialism and its aftermath. What kind of stance does the author take, and how might this affect the representation of characters and events?
  8. Write a Thesis Statement: Based on your analysis, formulate a thesis statement that encapsulates your interpretation of the text from a post-colonial perspective. Ensure your thesis is specific, arguable, and backed by evidence from the text.
  9. Support Your Thesis with Evidence: As you write your interpretation, remember to support your claims with specific examples and direct quotations from the text. Each point you make should clearly tie back to your thesis.
  10. Revise and Proofread: Finally, review your interpretation for clarity, coherence, and accuracy. Ensure that your argument is well-supported and that your writing is free from errors.

These steps provide a roadmap for engaging in a post-colonial interpretation of a literary text. Remember, this approach invites you to challenge assumptions, highlight marginalized voices, and appreciate the complex layers of meaning within a text.

Further Reading


  • Ashcroft, Bill; Griffiths, Gareth; Tiffin, Helen, eds. (1995). The Post-Colonial Studies Reader. New York: Routledge.
  • Bhabha, Homi K. (1994). The Location of Culture. New York: Routledge.
  • Fanon, Franz (1961). The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press.
  • Memmi, Albert (1991). The Colonizer and the Colonized. Boston: Beacon Press.
  • Said, Edward (1979). Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books.
  • — (1994). Culture and Imperialism. New York: Vintage.
  • Spivak, Gayatri C. (1988). "Can the Subaltern Speak?". Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Urbana, IL: U of Illinois P. pp. 271–313.
  • Young, Robert (2001). Postcolonialism: An Historical Introduction. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers.
Written: 2002, 2022; Revised: 06-6-2023; Version: Beta 0.7 💬