Saturday, May 1, 2010


The rapidly expanding British Empire was a controversial topic in the years preceding the 19th century. By the late 16th and early 17th century, the Empire was quickly reaching to the far corners of the globe. Before its eventual demise in the early 20th century, the British Empire controlled roughly a quarter of the Earth’s land; making it the largest empire in history and undoubtedly, the most controlling global power on Earth. However, Britain’s obsession with colonization impacted its native-born citizens in ways that were not beneficial to their society. The rapid expansion and obsession with wealth and power led to a strikingly divided class system of the wealthy and poor. Multiple wars were fought over the British colonization of lands and the acquisition of material goods, all which were detrimental to the social structure and morality of the British people. These problems were greatly felt by the British subjects, and much of the conflict made its way into the art movements of the time. Conveniently, the literature we have read this semester spans the centuries in which Britain’s Empire was at its most prominent influence; and, many of the authors incorporated their own critiques of the British Empire into their works. While each critique opposes the Empire’s expansion, the manners in which the critiques are expressed are quite different. I’vefound that each critique can be characterized into three distinct methods of expression. By focusing on the undesirable consequences facing Britain at the time, each author allegorically expresses their disdain for British imperialism.

One of the implications of British imperialism was the increasing view of British superiority, coupled with the alleged inferiority of other nations and cultures under British rule. Because of Britain’s vast power over other nations and great advancements in different fields, the British people (especially those directly involved with the British colonization) tended to see people of other cultures as barbaric and “animal-like.” Therefore, several British authors used the animalistic depictions and references in their commentary on the British Empire. In Goblin Market, Rossetti uses the animal-like representation of the goblins and the exotic fruit as the temptation for Laura to pursue.

As seen in this etching, Laura is a pale, blond girl resembling the typical Anglican representation of a young woman; while, the goblins are all depicted as animals representing various stereotypes of the lands under British rule. I argue that Laura represents Britain, and the animals and fruit represent the foreign lands that Britain seeks. In her analytical essay, Packer states, “temptation is the thematic core of Goblin Market” (Symbol and Reality in Rossetti’s Goblin Market, 375). It is clear that Rossetti’s critique emphasizes that, like Laura, Britain’s greed and curiosity of foreign markets will eventually cause trouble for the nation.

Similarly, both Alice in Wonderland and Gulliver’s Travels use depictions of animals in order to provide criticism about the expansion of the British Empire. In reference to Alice, Sam argues in his post that the Caucus Race (consisting only of animals) shows “the absurdity of the British government and politicians.” I agree with this idea, but I would like to take the argument further and state that the Race is allegorical to Britain’s senseless “race” to gain more land and make their empire more powerful. Again, the animals in the story are stereotypical characters representing the different cultures under British rule; in the race, Alice (representing Britain) is thrown into a senseless affiliation with the animals (other nations) in the relentless pursuit of winning power. While we must make more of a stretch to see the imperialism critique in Alice, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels is a direct critique on the expansion of the British Empire and its view on other societies and cultures. In her post, Celina stated that perhaps this book was in support of British colonization. However, I disagree; Swift uses the characters to show his staunch view against British imperialism. “Gulliver represents an extension of the British Empire and finds himself immersed in civilization of strange lands” (Krstovic, Literature Criticism from 1400 to 1800, 300). Swift makes this representation blatantly obvious, particularly with Gulliver’s interactions in the lands of the Lilliputians and Houyhnhms. With the Lilliputians, Gulliver’s massive size represents the massive growth of the Empire. While Gulliver means well in his actions, he tends to only cause destruction and anxiety to the Lilliputians and their society, perhaps, representing the costs and challenges aligned with supporting a growing imperialist empire. However, it is Gulliver’s interactions with the Yahoos and Houyhnhms that provide the most criticism of British imperialism. The Houyhnhms are essentially large horses, yet Swift uses them to represent the ideal society of good. In contrast, the Yahoos are humans, yet they are corrupt in their societal ways; thus, they are less than animals in that they exhibit an innate beastly nature simply in their humanity. Gulliver describes a Yahoo as “a soldier hired to kill in cold blood as many of his own species; who have never offended him, as he possibly can” (247). Swift makes this description of a Yahoo eerily similar to a British soldier, who was trained to perform the same task in the name of the empire. Because of this, I agree with Clara’s post in which she says that the Yahoos represent “fallen humanity.” Swift is describing the Empire as having fallen into an animal-like nature due to its greed for excessive wealth.

Another result of British imperialism was an excessive obsession with wealth and material goods, which the British authors saw as the primary source of corruption within the British nation. The works we have read this semester primarily focus on two main sources of corruption deriving from the expanding British Empire and market: the stark division in class structure and the issue of slavery. Criticism of these consequences of the British Empire is seen in several works we’ve studied this semester. In his post, Nathaniel says that Sherlock Holmes is an “obvious attack of class and empire.” Particularly in two stories, Doyle expresses his disdain for the effects of the British Empire. First, in “A Scandal in Bohemia,” Holmes develops a great respect for the working-class Irene Adler after she outwits him, an impressible feat for Holmes. Also, Holmes refuses to accept any reward from the King of Bohemia for solving his mystery; Holmes even goes so far as refusing to shake his hand. In “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle,” the valuable gem, representing excessive wealth, is the source of corruption for the characters. Holmes discovers that John Horner, a working-class plumber who was framed for the carbuncle’s theft, is innocent; James Ryder, a man who had been conspiring with a lady closely tied to the British aristocracy, was discovered as the true criminal. The characters and situations in both of these stories show Doyle’s respect for the working-class of Britain, and his ideas that both wealth and a vastly divided class-structure are the true sources of corruption in Britain, and both are derived from the expanding empire.

Perhaps one of the most morally degrading outcomes of the Empire was its involvement with the slave trade. Slavery was a valuable market for Britain, and not only helped them colonize other lands (such as America) but also greatly expanded the nation’s economy. However, during this literary time period, many writers expressed their deep loathing and moral opposition to the institution of slavery. One poem in particular that we have read this semester demonstrates the anti-slavery voice of the writers. In her post, Daniela suggests that Coleridge’s The Ancyent Marinere is a critique of the slave system due to its Gothic element of the supernatural. I agree, and believe that this theory is well supported by Katherine and Peter’s presentation. In their presentation, they used the quote, “He prayeth best who loveth best./ All things both great and small:/ For the dear God, who loveth us,/ He made and loveth all” (II. 647-650). I take this line in the poem to mean that God intended all humans to be equal, so the justification of slavery in that blacks are an inferior race is false; slavery is simply an institution based on the greed of an Empire, in their desire for surplus wealth. By directly critiquing slavery in his poem, Coleridge is indirectly criticizing the British Empire.

This painting’s impressionistic representation suggests the supernatural element of the Gothic. Perhaps this is a stretch, but I thought it was interesting how the ship seems to be sailing towards the darkness on the left side of the frame. I interpret this to be the slave ship sailing towards Britain, and figuratively, the darkness represents the corruption of slavery and the Empire. Thus, Coleridge’s poem and the depicted painting of the poem can both be interpreted as critiques on slavery, and therefore, critiques on the Empire.

The final manner in which the British writers exerted their critique on the British Empire was by emphasizing its obsession with control, thus leading to an ultimate loss of control. This theme is primarily seen in two poems that we studied this semester. As I stated in my post, I believe that Browning’s poem My Last Duchess greatly emphasizes this obsession with absolute control. We see that the Duke’s excessive control resulted in his previous wife’s death, and once again his control is growing to the point where he is apparently losing his agency. In this poem, I interpret the Duke to represent the British Empire; in this case, his growing obsession with control is allegorical to that of the Empire, thus, the imperialistic obsession with control will eventually lead to the Empire’s demise. Likewise, we see such a downfall in Yeats’ Modernist poem The Second Coming. Virginia stated in her post that there comes a time when all empires “spin out of control.” I think her notion is well depicted in the following painting. The opening lines of the poem state “Turning and turning in the widening gyre/ The falcon cannot hear the falconer;/ Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold” (1-3).

Like the picture depicts, Yeats suggests in these lines that the British Empire has grown to the breaking point where it can no longer support itself or hold itself together, and will eventually “fall apart.” This view is further supported in the final lines of the poem, “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,/ Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born” (21-22). While the poem itself alludes to the Biblical reference to Christ, I believe that the actual imagery refers to the Antichrist, or the “beast.” In this case, the “beast” is the British Empire’s greed, which has finally come as its downfall. It seems that the British writers were growing increasingly aware of the dangers, not simply the immorality and corruption, of the expanding British Empire, and their writings were heeded warnings to their audience.

The imperialistic nature of Britain was such a dominant force in the world for several centuries, that it only makes sense that it would appear profusely in British literature. While the Empire benefitted Britain’s aristocratic population, it had increasingly detrimental moral and economic effects on Britain’s middle and working classes. Therefore, these British authors served as the voice of those poorly affected by Britain’s imperialism, and thus, wrote their works as a call for a change in the ways of the Empire.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Chinua Achebe: Things Fall Apart

Achebe's novel Things Fall Apart takes both its title and several of its key themes from Yeats' poem The Second Coming. The novel's title comes from the line, "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold", which as many of you have noted here and in class is a comment on the nature of empire. As we said, history shows that there comes a point when all empires, every one from the Roman Empire, to Napoleon's conquests, to the British Empire, spin out of control. The lines "the falcon cannot hear the falconer" speak to how the mother empire can lose control of her children colonies. Things Fall Apart is the story of intense native tribal drama which is impossible for an British imperialist to understand. An imperial power may impose its way of life on the culture it colonizes, but it can never fully overwhelm or erase the pre-existing societal structure and customs, a fact that ultimately contributes to the empire's downfall. One quote I remember from the novel is the title a British man had chosen to document the deep-rooted tribal struggles of the novel: "The Pacification of the Tribes of the Lower Niger". One fundamental misunderstanding all empires have is that one culture can absorb another, something that is impossible. So what kind of "rough beast" will come of this flawed imperialist mentality?