Post-Colonialism in Literature: Definition, Theory & Examples

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  • 0:03 What Is Post-Colonialism?
  • 1:04 Effects of Colonization
  • 1:21 Theory
  • 2:35 Example: Chinua…
  • 3:18 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Antoinette Regulus
Expert Contributor
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.

Post-colonialism in literature includes the study of theory and literature as it relates to the colonizer-colonized experience. Edward Said is the leading theorist in this field, with Chinua Achebe being one of its leading authors.

What Is Post-Colonialism?

In many works of literature, specifically those coming out of Africa, the Middle East, and the Indian subcontinent, we meet characters who are struggling with their identities in the wake of colonization, or the establishment of colonies in another nation. For example, the British had a colonial presence in India from the 1700s until India gained its independence in 1947. As you can imagine, the people of India, as well as the characters in Indian novels, must deal with the economic, political, and emotional effects that the British brought and left behind. This is true for literature that comes out of any colonized nation. In many cases, the literature stemming from these events is both emotional and political.

The post-colonial theorist enters these texts through a specific critical lens, or a specific way of reading a text. That critical lens, post-colonial theory or post-colonialism, asks the reader to analyze and explain the effects that colonization and imperialism, or the extension of power into other nations, have on people and nations.

Effects of Colonization

As mentioned, post-colonialism asks the reader to enter a text through the post-colonial lens. The chart will help you see how to approach a post-colonial reading of a text. As a reader, you would look for the effects of colonialism and how they are addressed through the plot, setting, and characters' actions.

Effects of Colonization


Edward Said

Edward Said's book Orientalism in 1978 is considered the foundational work on which post-colonial theory developed. Said, then, could be considered the 'father' of post-colonialism. His work, including Orientalism, focused on exploring and questioning the artificial boundaries, or the stereotypical boundaries, that have been drawn between the East and West, specifically as they relate to the Middle East. In doing this, Said focused specifically on our stereotypes of Middle-Easterners; however, these same ideas can be extended to include how we view all 'others.' This is the 'us-other' mentality that many colonizers take with them into a new country. Such simple generalizations lead to misconceptions and miscommunications, which are often the basis of post-colonial analysis.

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Additional Activities

Research into Post-Colonial Literature

Research Assignments

1. An essay by English author George Orwell called "Shooting an Elephant" has become a prime example of the effects of Colonialism on English people in the colonies of the British Empire. Orwell served a period as a police officer in Burma during the period of colonization in that country. His idea about colonialism is that it does not just affect the colonized adversely, but the colonizers as well. Read this brief essay and see if you can pinpoint how the experience of the protagonist speaks to attitudes of colonizers and the colonized.

2. Read The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing. Lessing spent time in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in the period between colonization and modern self-governance. Like the African American community in the United States, official freedom did not eliminate racial discrimination in Rhodesia after actual freedom was achieved. How does Lessing's narrative reflect lingering racial discrimination and prejudice?

3. The British Empire and France colonized parts of the Caribbean region. Read The Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, an author who is part Dominican in heritage. Discuss how colonialism affected men and women in different ways. How is this discrepancy reflected in Rhys' novel?

4. In the lesson, you read something about Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, author of the novel Things Fall Apart. Achebe was also a poet. Read the poem "Answer" and see what you think the message or theme might be. Read some information about Achebe's life and see if this information helps you to understand the poem more fully.

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