→ Critical analysis – British Lit
North Carolina State Univ. 
FALL 2022

The Wounds of Colonialism in Art

There is a vastness to British literature that is difficult to contain in one flavor of analysis. The experiences of British individuals vary widely from place to place, gender to gender, race to race, and so forth. A significant piece of this variation may, however, be attributed to the overwhelming colonial history within the British Empire. There is a deliberately crafted division between British citizens from England proper and British citizens from British colonies. This has always been true, from the very beginning of the colonial era to modern postcolonialism. As such, British literature hinges on colonial rhetoric and the subjugation of colonized peoples because they invaded such a significant percentage of the planet.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has commonly been considered a feminist tale of warning about hubris. However, even if this is true, the text itself is not free from colonial attitudes and language. One of the premises of the story is reliant upon Frankenstein’s Creature being different from the other beings around him, and as such, is considered foul. Upon the Antarctic expedition finding Dr. Frankenstein drifting about in the sea a few days after seeing the Creature in the same way, Captain Robert Walton notes that “[Frankenstein] was not, as the other traveler [the Creature] seemed to be, a savage inhabitant of some undiscovered island, but a European” (Shelley). Certainly, the word “savage” must be read with the understanding of its derogatory use towards Indigenous peoples of colonized lands. The direct juxtaposition with “but a European” makes it very clear that even Shelley makes this distinction. The Creature, in this comparison, then becomes representative of the victims of colonization and the impact that colonial violence had upon Indigenous peoples. The Creature becomes the out-group that was manufactured by the in-group. Later in the text, when the Creature navigates his way to the outskirts of a village after suffering horrible violence at the hands of some other villagers. The Creature “remembered too well the treatment [he] had suffered the night before from the barbarous villagers, and resolved, whatever course of conduct [he] might hereafter think it right to pursue, that for the present [he] would remain quietly in [his] hovel, watching, and endeavouring to discover the motives which influenced [the villagers’] actions.” (Shelley). This reflection from the Creature’s point of view enables the reader to perhaps shift their view from the in-group to the out-group as readers may feel pity for the Creature in his forced solitude, especially after the violence he endured the night before. Both of these moments, in juxtaposition to one another, may lead the reader to consider the divide between the two ‘groups’ — if the reader is allowed to consider the Creature as a being forced to endure violence at no fault of his own, they must also consider why Captain Walton first thought he was “a savage inhabitant of some undiscovered island,” and why that may be considered a negative thing.

Perhaps the most obvious character to suffer from the colonial language so present in British literature is Charlotte Bronte’s Creole Bertha from Jane Eyre. Jane describes Bertha as being "fearful and ghastly…It was a discoloured face—it was a savage face” (Bronte). Similarly to how Shelley utilized the word “savage” to dehumanize and other the Creature, Eyre uses it here to dehumanize and other Bertha. It immediately racializes Jane’s response to the discovery of Bertha. She is hardly an animal, being referred to as “it” frequently—subhuman to Jane and Rochester. Her Creole background is emphasized time and time again. The primary thing that Jane is communicating having fear about is Bertha’s dark skin tone—Jane says she “wish[es she] could forget the roll of the red eyes and the fearful blackened inflation of the lineaments!" (Bronte). Very little distinction is made in the text between what would be considered dirt or filth and Bertha’s natural skin tone, and this too contributes to the dehumanization of Bertha. Rochester even dehumanizes Bertha in an attempt to defend himself and his choices—to Jane, he says that she “shall see what sort of a being I was cheated into espousing, and judge whether or not I had a right to break the compact, and seek sympathy with something at least human” (Bronte). Bertha is nothing but a “sort of a being,” even though Rochester throws in that she is “at least human.” This is the kind of sinister dehumanization that amplifies the larger systemic issues that exist as a result of colonization—the amalgamation of stereotypes and negative viewpoints towards out-groups reiterates the harmful structures that made them out-groups in the first place.

Even in modern (or postcolonial) literature, the deep wounds of colonial violence are still vivid and impossible to ignore. Jamaica Kincaid explores these injuries closely and sharply in A Small Place, the entirety of which is written in the second person. The second person forces the reader to consider the choices Kincaid is making in diction and syntax more personally than they might if it was written in the first or third person. This is important because Kincaid uses the same strong rhetoric and diction that traditional British authors have used against out-groups— “you” are forced to be the incoming tourist who “disembark[s] from your plane. You go through customs. Since you are a tourist, a North American or European—to be frank, white—and not an Antiguan black returning to Antigua from Europe or North America with cardboard boxes of much needed cheap clothes and food for relatives” (Kincaid). Consider the emotional impact of phrases like “much needed cheap clothes” — there’s only one way to interpret how “you” feel about the native Antiguans, and it is certainly negative. Kincaid’s choice to directly state “to be frank, white,” is reminiscent of how quickly older British writers would indicate the main characteristics of an individual meant to be part of an out-group. The usage of the second person makes this statement feel even more uncomfortable, especially for white readers—the white reader is forced to reflect on their own opinions and reactions. Kincaid also explores the more modern ways in which colonialism perpetuates issues in colonized spaces—she notes that “If it were not for you, they would not have Government House, and Prime Minister’s Office, and Parliament Building and embassy of powerful country” (Kincaid). The lack of articles before each of these locations is an indication that even the speaker has difficulty seeing these places as things that belong inherently in Antigua. From the colonizer’s side, it’s easy to consider these places as gifts of sorts to the previously described “savages” of “some undiscovered island” (Shelley). On the other side, however, those colonized peoples likely see each of these things as part of the colonial invasion that they have experienced, and continue to experience.

Because such a significant portion of the impacts of colonialism are not closely examined in the modern day, and instead considered to be errors of the long past, the prejudices with which colonialism damages colonized areas continue to create issues. These problems are amplified through literature and art that may or may not be aiming to create such a distinction between different cultures and groups of people. For the true impacts of colonization to be understood, the sins of the past must be exhumed and owned.