The Imperial Archive
Othering & Writing Back
Last updated 17 June 2007
The complicity of literature from the colonial centre in the colonial process has long since been noted, with Said in particular stating, “such texts can create not only knowledge but also the very reality they appear to describe” (Orientalism 877). As access to textual descriptions of the colonial margins was easier to come by than first hand knowledge, the moral or intellectual authority behind colonialism was often predicated upon literary representations rather than on reality. Similarly, attitudes in the colonial centre towards marginal, or marginalized peoples were based more often than not on the same literary representations.
Colonial relationships were often built on binary constructions similar to those outlined by Said in Orientalism. Where he states that “the essence of Orientalism is the ineradicable distinction between Western superiority and Oriental inferiority” (881), it might be read that the essence of imperialism is the ineradicable distinction between the superiority of the colonizer and the inferiority of the colonized, the division between savagery and civility. Likewise, where he claims, “the Oriental is irrational, depraved (fallen), childlike, ‘different’; thus the European is rational, virtuous, mature, ‘normal’” (880), the same binary relationship can be seen to exist in imperial thinking. ‘Othering’ is the process by which such binary divisions were created and perpetuated.
In Post-Colonial Studies: The Key Concepts, Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin outline the origins of the term, along with further definition. Coined by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, it is “a process by which the empire can define itself against those it colonizes, excludes and marginalizes. […] The business of creating the enemy…in order that the empire might define itself by its geographical and racial others” (171, 173).
Because of the binary relationship in which they exist, the marginalized, excluded, the imperial definition of ‘self’ is dependent upon its ‘other’. As Benedict Anderson reflects in Imagined Communities, “the nation is imagined as limited” (7). Likewise, the imperial definition of ‘self’ is limited. It is this limiting, the act of defining and placing the ‘other’ outside the boundaries of the self that is seen in the act of ‘othering’.
Two works of colonial literature in which this process can be seen are Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre will be drawn on as examples. Later, their revisions in Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs and Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys will be explored as examples of ‘writing back’. Both Great Expectations and Jane Eyre feature empire as a theme, but keep it largely to the margins of the text.
The ‘other’ in each text is the criminal Magwitch in Great Expectations and the insane Bertha in Jane Eyre. Although neither is a primary focus of their respective text, they play pivotal roles in influencing people and events at the centre of each, reflecting the nature of colonialism, in which the centre is dependent on its margins, as much as it tries to distance them from itself. Neither fitting into the definition of the metropolitan self, Magwitch and Bertha differences are emphasised as both characters are set outside the limits of English national identity. The text also links Bertha’s Creole roots to her madness, as in Rochester’s description: “Bertha Mason is mad, and she came from a mad family…Her mother, the Creole, was both a mad woman and a drunkard” (Jane Eyre 326). Meanwhile, Magwitch’s criminality is presented as an inescapable characteristic, even by Pip, reminding the reader of Magwitch’s sentence of transportation, rendering him no longer English, but Australian. “There was something in him that made it hopeless to attempt to disguise him …from head to foot there was Convict in the very grain of the man…there was Prisoner, Felon, Bondsman, plain as plain could be” (Great Expectations 333-4). This can also be seen to occur in the way Magwtich is represented in the illustrations of some editions of Dicken's text:
“In the deep shade, at the further end of the room, a figure ran backwards and forwards. What it was, whether beast or human being, one could not, at first sight, tell: it grovelled, seemingly, on all fours; it snatched and growled like some strange wild animal: but it was covered with clothing; and a quantity of dark grizzled hair, wild as a mane, hid its head and face” (327-8).
More recently however, postcolonial authors have sought to rewrite such colonial versions of history, which portrayed marginal places and people as exotic and savage in contrast to the civilized and enlightened centre of empire. Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin list writers such as J.M. Coetzee, Wilson Harris, V.S. Naipaul, George Lamming, Patrick White, Chinua Achebe, and Margaret Atwood, among those to have ‘written back’, undertaking postcolonial reinterpretations of works from the colonial canon (The Empire Writes Back 33). Based on a quote by Salman Rushdie, “the Empire writes back to the Centre”, in a 1982 article for the Times, ‘writing back’ is the way in which postcolonial writers and texts respond to and engage with colonial literature. While rereading colonial texts is a key part of postcolonial studies, as Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin have claimed, enabling the critic to look back and see processes such as ‘othering’ in operation, rewriting colonial texts, in the form of ‘writing back’ is potentially even more important, granting postcolonial authors agency to resist and correct the myths propagated through literature upon which colonial relationships have been premised.
Having seen the process of ‘othering’ in colonial literature in the form of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, discussion now turns to postcolonial responses to and rewritings of the texts: Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs and Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea. Both works focus on reinscribing the characters of Abel Magwitch and Bertha Mason as Jack Maggs and Antoinette Cosway, as the central protagonist of the text, not as the marginalized and excluded ‘other’.
Wide Sargasso Sea writes back to the silence of Jane Eyre regarding much of Bertha’s history. Although some is explained by Rochester, Bertha herself remains silent, spoken for, but never speaking. In Wide Sargasso Sea, this is not the case. Divided into three parts, the first and third are told by Antoinette, with the second told from the view point of the unnamed Rochester character. One issue particularly dealt with by Rhys is the act of naming by the colonial centre. Naming, in a colonial sense was important in conveying a sense of ownership, and also in describing that which is named. This can also be seen particularly in the process of cartography. Antoinette herself reflects, “Names matter, like when he wouldn’t call me Antoinette” (116). The identity of Bertha as the madwoman, seen in Jane Eyre is revealed in Wide Saragasso Sea as a fiction created by Rochester. In spite of Antoinette’s protests, “Bertha is not my name. You are trying to make me into someone else, calling me by another name” (95), it is ultimately Rochester’s naming which prevails. As the name Bertha is invented for her, so is the character of madness, as Christophine says, “It is in your mind to pretend she is mad” (104). However, as with the myths of colonial literature, where through repetition, the representations of the centre become the accepted reality of the margins, his imagining of Bertha as mad also comes to be true.
Jack Maggs also shares a similar concern with naming and identity. Although in Great Expectations, Magwitch describes taking the name Provis on board ship (326), in Carey’s narrative, no such mention is made, as Jack Maggs retains his English name and identity. This emphasis on Maggs’ identity as an Englishman, displaced and cast out from his nation against his will, is nowhere more obvious than in Maggs’ own assertion, “I am a fucking Englishman and I have English things to settle” (128).
Although Carey’s text is not a direct retelling of Dicken’s work, only alluding to characters in the earlier work rather than replicating them directly, it clearly plays upon the earlier colonial work, with Carey even inscribing his own version of Dickens in his character of the writer Tobias Oates. At one point, describing Oates' creation of his narrative about Maggs, and paralleling Dicken’s creation of Magwitch, Carey alludes to the power of such narratives, saying, “This Jack Maggs…the form the world would later know…was, of course, a fiction” (326). The Maggs of Oates’ text is as different from the real Maggs as Dicken’s Magwitch is from the reality of Australian convicts, yet, in both cases, it is the fictional representation which is more powerful and more known by the world. Carey here harnesses the power of fiction to both illuminate and correct the miswritings of the past in colonial literature.
It is in this way that both Rhys’ and Carey’s texts operate, by writing back, using literature to demonstrate the process by which colonial authors ‘othered’ and marginalized people from the colonies, while simultaneously, rewriting the pervading myths of empire they created.
Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Ed. Michael Mason. London: Penguin, 2003.
Carey, Peter. Jack Maggs. London: Faber and Faber, 1998
Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. Ed. Margaret Cardwell. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea. London: Penguin, 2001. Ed. Hilary Jenkins.
Said, Edward. Orientalism. Literary Theory: An Anthology (Revised Edn). Eds. Julie Rivkin & Michael Ryan. Cornwall: Blackwell, 1998. 873-886.
This page was written by Neil Templeton
This project was completed under the direction of Dr Leon Litvack as a requirement for the MA degree in Modern Literary Studies in the School of English at the Queen's University of Belfast. The site is evolving and will include contributions from future generations of MA students on other writers and themes.
Email Dr Litvack with your comments: L.Litvack at qub.ac.uk
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