Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Imperialism Through the Supernatural

Over the course of the semester we have read numerous works that comment on the imperialistic nature of England from the 1600s to the early 1900s. Throughout this time period, British citizens saw the rise, expansion, and fall of the greatest empire in the history of the world. Naturally, this resulted in both criticism and praise, and was the inspiration for many of the literary works written in England during this time. A recurring theme that I noticed throughout the semester was how the negative consequences of an imperialistic society were repeatedly portrayed through the supernatural. In works from Gulliver’s Travels to The Second Coming, the writers showed their concern with the expanding power of the British Empire through supernatural mediums.

At the beginning of the semester our class saw our first example of imperialism critique through Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. As Professor Porter showed on one of the first days in class, the British Empire was expanding very rapidly at the time Swift was writing this work. As the empire spread to the far reaches of the globe on every continent, the British people would encounter many different cultures and animals. As one may predict, the British found many of the cultures and native people they encountered to be “uncivilized” and even barbaric. Many people even thought that the British Empire benefited the lands they conquered. As the British Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, said, "There has never been anything so great in the world's history as the British empire, so great an instrument for the good of humanity." Swift criticizes this notion that England was a superior nation to others, as well as the notion that British people are more “civilized” than other people around the world who may have different views and customs.

When Gulliver gets shipwrecked and wakes up tied down on a beach, he finds himself in a world where he is a giant compared to the other people on the island, who are called Lilliputians. This supernatural element of Gulliver being a giant in a land of tiny people is the medium that Swift uses to satirize the expansion of the British Empire. Gulliver’s enormous size in this strange land represents the literal size and strength of the British Empire. In addition, the small size of the Lilliputians represents the controversial notion that people in other lands were inferior to British people. This is only reinforced by the fact that Gulliver finds the traditions and culture of the Lilliputians strange and often backward to British culture. In one of his posts, Alec argues that the satirical nature of Gulliver’s Travels is quite obvious, and I agree, at least in Part I. However, when Gulliver travels to the land of the Houyhnhms the satirical nature becomes more complicated as Gulliver himself is the object of satire.

In Part IV of Gulliver’s Travels Swift uses the supernatural again to satirize the imperialistic society of England when Gulliver finds himself in a land run by talking horses, called Houyhnhms. They seem to have a perfect society, while the people (or things that closely resemble people), called Yahoos, are the ones portrayed as more barbaric and uncivilized. This reversal of roles that makes Gulliver the object of satire and criticism is very interesting. Clara writes in her post that Part IV is the most insightful and perhaps the best criticism of British society because of this reversal in roles. She comments on how at first Gulliver sees himself as superior to the Yahoos, but when he tries to tell his master (a Houyhnhm) about his country he realizes that he is no better than the inferior Yahoos. I agree with Clara that this is somewhat of a turning point and realization for Gulliver, as he becomes ashamed to be a human and part of a culture that is so corrupt.

Often coupled with Britain’s goal of being a powerful empire was the goal to become the richest nation, often as the product of colonization and imperialism. In her poem Goblin Market, Rosetti uses the goblins and the market as the supernatural element to criticize England’s imperialistic goals of being the global commercial power through control of markets around the world. When describing the goblins Rosetti uses animal imagery from animals found around the world in the British Empire. At the same time the fruits that these goblins sell are fruits from around the world, many exotic, and many that would not all be in season at the same time. This illustrates the far-reaching influence and geographical magnitude of England at the time.

In their presentation on Goblin Market, Alec and Liz showed this illustration that depicts the goblins swarming over one of the sisters who was tempted by their intoxicating fruits. I love this image because it shows the many animal features of the goblins described by Rosetti, and also the varieties and colors of the exotic fruits from around the British Empire. I think this illustration helps to reinforce Rosetti’s criticism of imperialism and commercialism. In the poem the market is used as a representation of commercialism and how England had become addicted to wealth and capitalism. But more specifically, it shows the negative consequences of a society that is tempted by wealth and power. The sister in the poem seems to represent Britain, as she is tempted by the fruit of the goblins, or in a literal sense Britain is being tempted and misled by the prospects of wealth to exert their control on a majority of the world. This ultimately results in the sister’s fall from grace, and reflects Rosetti’s view that Britain’s quest for imperial and economic dominance will eventually result in the country’s own fall from grace.

Another negative consequence of England’s economic ambitions was the country’s participation in the slave trade. In Peter and Kathryn’s presentation, they quote Coleridge as saying “indeed the evils arising from the formation of imaginary wants, have in no instance been so dreadfully exemplified, as in this inhuman traffic [of the slave trade]” (The Watchman, 1796). Criticism of the slave trade was visible in many works that we read throughout the semester, but the one that really took the next step into the supernatural was Coleridge’s Ancyent Marinere. Coleridge uses gothic elements as well as the supernatural to convey the evils of the institution of slavery and the men who participate in the slave trade. The drive for material wealth and power made slavery an easy option for many countries, including England. In fact, England continued to participate in the trade long after they had abolished slavery, showing that the pursuit of economic dominance was restricted by virtually no barriers at all. Coleridge is criticizing England for its participation in the slave trade, and reinforces his criticism through the use of supernatural elements.

The supernatural is also used in Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland to show the corruption of British politics and imperialism in the 19th century, as many people at the time were skeptical of fairness in British government. Indeed, the issues of political fairness and accountability were two of Carroll's primary concerns. There are many similarities to the use of the supernatural in Alice in Wonderland and Gulliver’s Travels, as main character Alice finds herself in a confusing land filled with talking animals and an irrational government. In one of my posts I argued that the “caucus race” was a metaphor for the absurdity of British politics, as the talking animals ran around without any purpose or direction. In her final post Mary Beth took this a step further by arguing that it is also a metaphor for the senseless “race” Britain is in to gain more and more power. I agree with this argument, as many works we have read reflect the sentiment that as Britain kept getting bigger and more powerful, the nation ultimately just caused and encountered more problems than it solved. In addition, Carroll uses the supernatural to portray the absurdity of a monarch, as the Queen of Wonderland is a talking playing card. She speaks loudly and sentences people to death at the drop of a hat, but does not actually have any real power or control. Alice realizes this and becomes more confident and calls out the absurdities of Wonderland. I thought this was a wonderful satire of how Britain assumed so much power and influence, but in actuality assumed too much through imperialistic endeavors which in turn actually undermined the greatness of the nation.

At the turn of the 20th century and then with the start of World War I, England witnessed almost a complete transformation from a once almost omniscient empire to an empire in decline (if still even considered an empire at all). Especially because of World War I, many thought that the apocalypse was near and that their wonderful society was soon to end. Yeats was especially known for this belief, and he illustrates it in his poem The Second Coming. Yeats uses the supernatural to show the effects of the British Empire and how the goals of imperialism have led to the destruction of a great nation. Yeats describes a mythical creature walking in the desert, one with the body of a lion but the head of a man, with desert birds circling overhead. I thought this was a great depiction of a human race portrayed as something as powerful as a lion, but trapped in a desert and about to be the prey of vultures.

In our class discussion around this poem we discussed the image of the birds circling overhead. This image to the left is the image that Yeats describes. Yeats writes “things fall apart; the centre cannot hold” (line 3). With this image in mind, Yeats is implying that the British Empire has reached its limit, and now the center, or the foundation, literally can’t hold and the empire is falling apart.

I find it very interesting that time and time again we have read works that show the negative consequences of an imperialistic society through supernatural elements. I still wonder why writers chose to use the supernatural instead of the natural. Perhaps it has something to do with what we discussed with regards to Gulliver’s Travels and the use of satire. If British writers had used natural elements it might have been too obvious as to what they were criticizing and this might not have given the same effect. Either way, I find that the supernatural is very effective in arguing against England’s imperial society.

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