Identifying the Cultural Point of View Reflected in a Literary Work

Instructor: Ginna Wilkerson

Ginna earned M.Ed. degrees in Curriculum and Development and Mental Health Counseling, followed by a Ph.D. in English. She has over 30 years of teaching experience.

Part of understanding the theme and underlying message of a narrative text is the cultural viewpoint from which the author writes. This lesson will look at two cultural viewpoints about a single situation in order to help you learn how to recognize this element of fiction.

What is Culture?

First, we need to look at the meaning of the word culture itself. Culture usually refers to the beliefs, customs, and everyday life of a particular ethnic, regional, or national group. Culture might also be used in speaking of a group that is not racially or ethnically based, such 'the culture of higher education' or 'the culture of the LGBT community'. Sometimes these labels can cause more harm than good when they are used to separate people into artificial categories. Yet, it is important when looking at literature to recognize the cultural perspective taken by an author telling a story.

Recognizing Cultural Viewpoint

Let's look at a particular issue that has been addressed many times in literature: European colonization of 'third-world' countries, particularly in Africa and Asia. A look at this map from the early 20th century will give you an idea of the widespread domination of Africa by European nations.

Colonial Africa
map of Colonial Africa

As you can imagine, having a foreign culture from another continent come in, possess your country and try to change it has a deeply-felt and widespread effect on the original (indigenous) culture. Particularly when the conquering group has strong beliefs about the overtaken group, including beliefs about racial characteristics, there is bound to be difficulty - if not violence and tragedy. We know that most African nations had to fight to reclaim their countries, and the influence of the Colonial Period remains today.

So, what does all this have to do with fiction? Let's use two novels set in Colonial Africa to compare cultural perspectives.

The Grass is Singing

The first novel is Doris Lessing's The Grass is Singing, published in 1950 and set in Southern Rhodesia, which is now known as Zimbabwe. Rhodesia was a British colony at the time the story takes place. The protagonist of the story is Mary Turner, a white woman living a happy single life. However, once she marries a small-time farmer and moves to the country, she becomes more and more discouraged and negative about life.

Mary and her husband Dick struggle to keep their farm going, especially after he falls ill and Mary has the task of running the farm. Her attitude toward the African native men who work the farm is one of fear and disgust. She does not understand them or their ways, and tries hard to keep her distance. Yet, in the end, she develops a strange friendship with Moses, a black man, who kills her at the end of the story and then waits for the police to take him.


When Things Fall Apart

The second novel is Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, published in 1958 and set in West Africa during the beginning of European Colonialism. The protagonist is the male-head of a large and prosperous family. Okonkwo is a mighty warrior, well-respected in the Igbo community, yet he has a raging temper and a fear of showing any weakness. Things start to fall apart when Okonkwo violates local custom during a designated time of peace by beating one of his wives. He gives in to his temper and loses control.

Meanwhile, white Christian missionaries are invading the communities slowly, first converting young people who will then convert others. Before the Igbo leaders realize it, British law has joined British religion in forever changing the African landscape and culture. Okonkwo cannot adapt to this change.

Tradition and Change
Igbo Man

Cultural Perspective

Now that we have two novels to discuss, let's see if we can identify the cultural perspective of each. Here are some points to consider:

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