Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s Essay – Response
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak claims that in the discussion of nineteenth- century British Literature one should take into account two important facts. The first is that imperialism was “England’s social mission” and as such was a “crucial part of the cultural representation of England to the English” (243). The second is that literature played a role “in the production of [this] cultural representation” (243). Remembering these two facts will enrich not only the study of British literature, but also the study of other European colonizing cultures, and will enable comprehension of the narrative of the “the Third World” (243).
While feminist criticism has succeeded in raising the awareness regarding females, Spivak finds that the “native female” is still “excluded from any share in this emerging norm” (245). Thus she offers an complementary analysis of three novels, two nineteen century works: Jane Eyre and Frankenstein and a later reaction to Jane Eyre, Wide Sargasso Sea by the colonial writer Jean Rhys. In her discussion of the attitude of western novels toward the “third world”, Spivak refers to the Shakespearean names Caliban and Ariel as utilized in the postcolonial discourse by Roberto Fernandez Retama: Caliban - the untamed wild creature, and Ariel - the intellectual. She chooses examples from Jane Eyre, where the imperialist aspect plays an important role in providing an additional dimension to the characters. Jane’s reaction to the Creole girl, shows that she cannot perceive her as complete human, for her, she is a beast/human Caliban type of a creature. Another example is Rochester, who confides in Jane that he felt West India was “hell” and to return to Europe was to return to God (245-46). Spivak refers to Ariel only briefly in connection to the nineteenth century’s attitude to India, when she claims that at that time literature and literary theory were “implicated in the project of producing Ariel” (254). It is unclear whether Spivak means that at that time the representation of colonization was intellectualized, but she warns against “succumbing to a nostalgia” and sends the literary critic to find the necessary historical data in the “archives of imperial governance” (254).
Although Spivak emphasizes the fact that she keeps the “binary oppositions – book and author”, her analysis transcends the reality of the novel and sheds light on the world of its author as well (244). Introducing the aspect of imperialism into the discussion of literature helps contextualize the reality of the period when it was part of the author and her original readers’ frame of reference. An example of the relevancy of this aspect, is the scene in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park when Mr. Bertram returns home from a long stay in the plantations in the West Indies and refuses to allow his children and their friends to continue with the play they were producing (125- 140). Today’s reader cannot help but wonder about the double standards of this plantations’ owner who most likely had slaves in the West Indies, yet objected to the theatrical performance on moral grounds. However, imperialism was the reality of Austen’s original readers, and they probably were able to reconcile and accept Mr. Bertram’s rendition of imperialistic Christianity. Moreover, it is not obvious that Jane Austen herself means to convey any social comment by juxtaposing the two scenes, or that her criticism of his behavior, if exists, stems from these reasons. Awareness to the reality of the nineteenth century novel does not imply that the reader of today condones the evils of imperialism; rather it can prevent an out of place, even anachronistic rage regarding the injustices of the past.
Spivack, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Three Women’s Text and a Critique of Imperialism.” Critical Inquiry 12.1 (1985): 243-61.
Austen, Jane. Mansfield Park. Wordworth Classics: 1994.