The Essentialist Representation of the Colonial Subject in Colonial Discourse

Université de Montréal


On devrait considérer l’usage abusif et la manipulation des représentations et des images des peuples colonisés dans le discours comme l’origine même de la représentation du sujet colonisé en tant que figure de l’ « Autre » déviant, comme une stratégie-clé du discours colonial. C’est ainsi qu’on réussit à circonscrire de façon permanente le sujet colonisé dans une position signifiante fixe. Homi Bhabha considère la fixité « comme la marque d’une différence culturelle, historique ou raciale dans le discours du colonialisme, qui est un mode de représentation paradoxal puisqu’elle évoque la rigidité et un ordre invariant, mais aussi le désordre, la dégénérescence et la répétition diabolique » (The Location of Culture). On peut donc définir le stéréotype comme la cristallisation des notions de fixité et d’essentialisme qui nourrirent le discours colonial. Dans cette optique, on devrait donc analyser le stéréotype en tant que stratégie discursive centrale du colonialisme. Ce sera donc dans ces termes que je tenterai de situer et d’analyser la fonction du stéréotype dans les constructions du discours colonial.


The « trafficking » and manipulation of colonised peoples’ representations and images in discourse is to be considered as the source of the ideological representation of the colonised subject as a deviant « other », a key strategy of colonial discourse. The colonised was thus permanently circumscribed to a fixed signifying position. Homi Bhabha considers fixity « as the sign of cultural/historical/racial difference in the discourse of colonialism, which is a paradoxical mode of representation : it connotes rigidity and an unchanging order as well as disorder, degeneracy and daemonic repetition » (The Location of Culture). The stereotype can be then conceptualised as the crystallisation of the notions of fixity and essentialism that informed colonial discourse, and as such, it is to be analysed in terms of a central discourse strategy of colonialism. It is therefore within this framework that I endeavour to map the position and function of the stereotype in colonial discursive constructs.


Edward Said states in Culture and Imperialism that « we live in a world not only of commodities but also of representations, and representations-their production, circulation, history, and interpretation are the very element of culture- » (1994 : 56). Indeed, the « trafficking » and manipulation of the colonial subject’s discursive representations and images in discourse was at the basis of his/her ideological figuration as a deviant « other ». The colonial subject thus became permanently circumscribed to a fixed signifying position. Homi Bhabha considers fixity « as the sign of cultural/historical/racial difference in the discourse of colonialism, which is a paradoxical mode of representation : it connotes rigidity and an unchanging order as well as disorder, degeneracy and daemonic repetition » (1994 : 66). The stereotype can then be conceptualised as the crystallisation of the notions of fixity and essentialism that informed colonial discourse, and as such, it is to be analysed in terms of a central discourse strategy of colonialism. It is therefore within this framework that I endeavour to explore the position and function of an essentialist mode of representation in colonial discourse. To illustrate such essentialist representational constructs, I will analyse Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, a novel that insightfully portrays the workings of stereotypical constructions in a post-colonial society such as India.

Nineteenth century European colonial power exerted its domination not only by means of material, military and technological superiority but also by means of the manipulation of the colonial subject’s images and representations in discourse. The control of the colonial subject’s representations constituted an effective instrument of coercion ; actually, the ideological representation of the colonial subject as a deviant « other » was a key strategy of colonial discourse. Homi Bhabha states that « the objective of colonial discourse [was] to construe the colonized as a population of degenerate types on the basis of racial origin, in order to justify conquest and to establish systems of administration and instruction » (1994 : 70). The stereotypes exploited by colonial discourse tended to associate the notions of degeneracy, savagery and backwardness with skin colour for, as Partha Chatterjee argues, race, whose most visible trait is skin colour, is « the most obvious mark of colonial difference » (1993 : 20). Homi Bhabha concurs with Chatterjee in this respect : he argues that « skin, as the key signifier of cultural and racial difference in the stereotype, is the most visible of fetishes, recognized as ’common knowledge’ in a range of cultural, political and historical discourses, and plays a public part in the racial drama that is enacted every day in colonial societies » (1994 : 78).

According to the logic of colonial discourse, skin colour was then the visible metaphor for the essentialist traits that the colonized subject was attributed as an integral part of his/her identity. As a metaphor for degeneracy and backwardness, skin colour provided a justification for the ideology of improvement that postulated the need to « civilize » non-Western peoples, which, in turn, served as the philanthropic justification of the colonial enterprise, its deep driving force being economic profit. Stereotypes created by colonial discourse contributed therefore to reinforce and fix the ideologically constructed identities of both the colonizer and the colonized.

The stereotypes grounded in colonial discourse gave way to double-consciousness. Double-consciousness is defined by W.E.B. Du Bois as « a peculiar sensation, […] this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness » (1968 : 3-4). Du Bois vividly describes the fact that oppressed subjects are both coerced and persuaded to define themselves according to the oppressor’s stereotypical constructions of their identity, which they are made to internalise. Oppressed subjects nevertheless possess an intuitive knowledge of the workings of power, which makes them aware that, in order to survive, they need to apparently comply with the exigencies of the dominating group while resisting it in alternative ways.

Double-consciousness and the consequent drive to imitate the oppressor, which develops within the framework of a Hegelian master-servant relationship, is ultimately a survival strategy. The Hegelian « lordship-and-bondage relationship » is a paradigmatic power relation that closely resembles that established between the colonizer and colonized. According to Sandra Adell’s interpretation of Hegel, consciousness actually is double-consciousness inasmuch as self-consciousness is indeed the result of two consciousnesses that recognize each other. Self-consciousness is therefore the outcome of an act of mutual recognition. However, the relationship established by two consciousnesses involves a conflict. The outcome of these two opposed modes of consciousness is a lordship-and-bondage relationship in which one consciousness imposes its self-certainty upon the other and considers it as an object of desire that only exists to fulfill the master consciousness’ wishes. The bondsman thus loses his independence, being reduced by the lord to a servile consciousness. The bondsman then becomes defined by the lord and, in his stance as an object of desire, internalises the lord’s definition of himself. In addition to providing an appropriate model for the colonizer colonized relationship, Hegel’s approach explores an extremely important aspect of it : namely, the oppressed subject’s internalisation of the oppressor’s mode of consciousness. From this act of internalisation, the oppressed subject’s drive to imitate the oppressor is born.

Anglophilia as Double-Consciousness in The God of Small Things

Through the bewildered eyes of the seven-year-old twins, Rahel and Estha, Arundhati Roy discloses the drama and pathos of a family, whose story is determined by superimposed Eastern and Western power structures. Employing an intimate tone, Roy explores the intricate power configuration that precipitates the tragic events that cover a period of two weeks in 1969 and that form the core of this novel. Roy stresses the fact that Western liberation narratives such as Christianity, Communism and colonialism, which would allegedly eradicate the evils of Indian society, actually acquiesce in and reinforce vernacular forms of oppression such as the caste system. The encounter between the East and the West is, nevertheless, successful and fruitful in the sphere of language, particularly as it is reflected in Roy’s innovative use of English. The author brilliantly appropriates the English language to make it a medium capable of articulating the complex post-colonial Indian experience. Thus manipulated, English becomes a site of playful subversion and protest that bring to a crisis the ideological tenets channelled through it. In this manner, the author proves that aesthetics is not divorced from politics insofar as a given aesthetics is the result of cultural experience. Roy’s shrewd critique of power is then manifested not only in the novel’s main theme but also in its aesthetic code.

Even if the main action of The God of Small Things is set more than twenty years after the Independence of India, Arundhati Roy portrays Indian society as still bearing the vestiges of colonialism. Her readers are made to realise that there are still deep-rooted modes of consciousness typical of a colonised society. Particular attention is given to the sense of double-consciousness that engenders a feeling of inferiority and the drive to imitate the former coloniser. Roy suggests that the former coloniser still perceives the former colonised in a stereotypical and way, which is the result of the coloniser’s essentialist representation of Indian identity in discourse.

Mimicry of the former coloniser is defined in Roy’s novel as anglophilia, a term that suits the Ipe family stubborn imitation of the English coloniser. To illustrate the family’s deeply rooted anglophilia, Roy makes extensive reference to the Ipes’ fondness of The Sound of Music. In fact, « going to see The Sound of Music was an extended exercise in Anglophilia » (54). Roy’s treatment of the film is significant since, like a prism, it projects a multiplicity of interesting allusions. The film, which won five Academy awards and is considered as the most successful musical of all time, is a romanticised version of the true story of the Von Trapp family who managed to escape Austria during the Nazi occupation. WWII and Nazism, the peak of Western ethnocentrism, serve as the backdrop against which the story unfolds. Nevertheless, the Holocaust and the terrible crimes of Nazism are not mentioned in the film. Roy plays with this silence or absence, for both Nazism and imperialism, in their stance as ideological constructs, advocated a racialist approach, which legitimated the right of « superior » races to dominate and dispose of supposedly « inferior » races. The parallel between the political situation in the novel and that in the film is ironic. Like the victims of fascism, the enraptured Indian audience, is comprised of colonial subjects that have been historically silenced and marginalised. Moreover, the fact that the film is American is also revealing, for, after the dismantling of the European empires, many of the new nation-states sought US assistance to help reorganise their institutions. As Chacko, one of the main characters implies, going to see The Sound of Music is an act of anglophilia that subtly suggests India’s subjection to neo-colonialism.

The film inscribes an ironic contrast between the white Western von Trapp family, which embodies perfect idealised happiness to which little Rahel and Estha aspire, and the South- Asian, brown, conflict-ridden Ipe family. The contrast becomes more dramatic following Estha’s sexual abuse by the « Orangedrink Lemondrink man ». Unable to refrain from singing the film songs aloud, Estha goes out to the cinema entrance where the Orangedrink Lemondrink tricks him into masturbating him. After Estha’s abuse by the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man, he reenters the cinema, and, watching the happy family life of the von Trapp children, he cannot avoid comparing his traumatic life to theirs. He feels tainted, guilty and defenceless. The difference between his life and that of the Von Trapp children is painfully clear to him. The von Trapps are pure, white, loved and protected children whose apparently stern father manages to save them from Nazism ; Estha, on the other hand, is a « tainted », fatherless, vulnerable brown child who becomes aware that « Anything can happen to Anyone » and « It’s best to be prepared » (186). It is at this particular moment that Estha first sees himself through the eyes of Westerners and feels ashamed because he is not like them :

Estha sat down, still holding his sticky orange. And there was Baron von Clapp-Trapp. Christopher Plummer. Arrogant. Hardhearted. With a mouth like a slit. And a steelshrill police whistle. A captain with seven children. Clean children, like a packet of peppermints. He pretended not to love them, but he did. He loved them. He loved her (Julie Andrews), she loved him, they loved the children, the children loved them. They all loved each other. They were clean white children, and their beds were soft with Ei.Der.Downs […]

Oh Baron von Trapp, Baron von Trapp, could you love the little fellow with the orange in the smelly auditorium ?

He’s just held the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man’s soo-soo in his hand, but could you love him still ? And his twin sister ? Tilting upwards with her fountain in a Love-in-Tokyo ? Could you love her too ?

Baron von Trapp had some questions of his own.

(a) Are they clean white children ?
No. (But Sophie Mol is.)

(b) Do they blow spit bubbles ?
Yes. (But Sophie Mol doesn’t.)

(c) Do they shiver their legs ? Like clerks ?
Yes. (But Sophie Mol doesn’t.)

(c) Have they, either or both, ever held stranger’s soo-soos ?
N… Nyes. (But Sophie Mol hasn’t.)

« Then I’m sorry, » Baron Von Clapp-Trapp said. « It’s out of the question. I cannot love them. I cannot be their Baba. Oh no. » (100-101)

As shown in the passage, Estha’s molestation elicits his sense of racial inadequacy and double-consciousness. For Estha, watching The Sound of Music constitutes, in Homi Bhabha’s words, « the primal moment when the child encounters racial and cultural stereotypes in children’s fictions, where white heroes […] are proffered as points of ideological and psychical identification. Such dramas are enacted every day in colonial societies » (1994 : 76).

The fact that Maria, the babysitter at the Von Trapp’s residence, is a novice establishes still another ironic contrast with Baby Kochamma’s life story. At eighteen, approximately Maria’s age, Baby Kochamma, Rahel and Estha’s grandaunt, fell in love with Father Mulligan, a missionary Jesuit monk, whose reason for staying in India was to study Hindu scriptures to better contest them and prove the superiority of his faith. The Jesuit frequently visited Baby Kochamma’s father, Reverend E. John Ipe, who in his childhood had been blessed by the Patriarch of Antioch, the leader of the Syrian Christian Church. After a year of unsuccessful attempts at seducing Father Mulligan, Baby Kochamma decided to embrace the Catholic faith against his father’s wishes as a last desperate attempt at conquering the Jesuit’s heart : « She hoped somehow that this would provide her with legitimate occasion to be with Father Mulligan. She pictured them together, in dark sepulchral rooms with heavy drapery, discussing theology. That was all she wanted » (25).

Upon realising that, by taking the vows, she made a terrible mistake, Baby Kochamma started writing letters to her family in which she covertly told them about her grief and her desire to return home. In her letters, she adopted the pseudonym of Koh-i-noor, for, in his will, his grandfather referred to his grandchildren as seven jewels, one of which was his Koh-i-noor. Here, Baby Kochamma mistakenly presupposed that she was the Indian diamond that originally belonged to the Mughal dynasty, the Muslim rulers of India, who were supplanted by British colonial power (Brians 4). The reference to the jewel is significant, since, in 1850, Koh-i-noor was sent to Queen Victoria, the Empress of India, as a present from India. The diamond is now part of the crown jewels of England. In the novel, Koh-i-noor becomes a metonymy for India’s subjection to British rule, and the fact that Baby Kochamma adopted its name hints at her drive to mimicry and assimilation of colonial tropes.

Baby Kochamma’s drive to mimicry is most clearly reflected in her life-long effort at imitating Father Mulligan by adopting his beliefs and way of life. She perceived herself through the Jesuit’s Western perspective, and, on account of this, she tried to adapt to his expectations and desires. Her conversion to Catholicism therefore illustrates the drive to mimicry that results from her internalisation of the coloniser’s essentialist representation of her identity and constitutes an unconscious strategy to gain acceptance and legitimisation. Her mimicking drive even acquires a linguistic dimension, since, to identify with the coloniser, it is necessary to imitate his speech ; as shown in the novel, Baby Kochamma becomes a linguistic dictator in the Ipe house. In this respect, Celia Britton argues that the subject « who wants to be white will be the whiter as he gains greater mastery of the cultural tool that language is » (1999 : 88). This belief springs from a « humanist conception of identity [that] allows it to incorporate ’naturally’ a spontaneous and authentic language, which expresses it and forms an important element in its constitution » (Britton 1999 : 18). Ultimately, Baby Kochamma’s obsessive infatuation with Father Mulligan is rooted in her illusory wish « to be desired as white-to become white by being desired by the Other ». Father Mulligan becomes Baby Kochamma’s object of love « for [his] ability to confer the magic whiteness » (Britton 1999 : 86).

It is interesting to note that Father Mulligan’s mission in India illustrates how, under colonial rule, religion was employed to persuade the Indian people to adopt Western narratives. The Jesuit monk aimed at demonstrating that Hinduism, an expression of Indian culture, is inferior and backward in comparison to Western forms of spirituality. Actually, Father Mulligan’s intention to study and understand Hindu scriptures was ultimately motivated by a will to debase this aspect of Indian culture. By attempting to prove that the ideology he represented was superior, Father Mulligan endeavoured to inculcate mimicry in Indians. This incitement to mimicry can be seen, in Homi Bhabha’s words, as « one of the most elusive and effective strategies of colonial power and knowledge » which has the purpose of creating « a reformed, recognizable Other, as a subject of a difference that is almost the same, but not quite. Mimicry is therefore the sign of a double articulation ; a complex strategy of reform, regulation and discipline, which ’appropriates’ the Other as it visualizes power » (1994 : 85-86).

Education, the Literary Canon and Colonialism

In Rajanit Guha establishes that colonial dominance was achieved through the Dominance without Hegemony : History and Power in Colonial India, « coercion/persuasion » dyad. Once British colonial institutions were properly established, dominance, until that time exerted only through coercion, was now equally exercised by means of strategies of persuasion, which aimed at compelling colonised subjects to internalise ideological representations of their identity that exploited the images of the degenerate, primitive and backward colonial subject. These doctrines were mainly channelled via the discourse of « improvement », derived from Utilitarian thought, and were employed to persuade indigenous elite groups of the need to adopt Western cultural forms. Education and religion were two of the most important elements employed by the ideology of improvement to persuade colonial subjects of the superiority of Western cultural forms.

The teaching of canonical literary works was central to the colonial education system. The literary canon taught in the colonies was supported by an aesthetic theory that presupposed the universality of the themes and aesthetics of the works that comprised it. It was alleged that true art transcended ideology and this tenet cleverly disguised the ideological and political nature of the canonical works taught. Henry Schwarz argues that the aesthetic theory prevalent at the time derived from Kantian philosophy. Kant’s aesthetic thought postulates that the aesthetic experience raises the subject to a state of pure contemplation and mental freedom in which the subject, free from the impositions of either moral or rational concepts, enjoys a disinterested satisfaction (1997 : 18). According to Kant, all human beings are potentially capable of enjoying the state produced by the aesthetic experience (18-19). Nevertheless, according to Schwarz, « Kant’s system is profoundly Eurocentric, even racist, in its imputing of the qualities that enable ’everyone’ to partake of the grandeurs of aesthetic judgment, for he makes it clear that these qualities are not shared by the Iroquois, the Negro, the Chinaman, or the New Zealander » (19), in a word, non-Western peoples. It is this prejudiced thought that grounded the aesthetic theory of the time reflected in Macaulay’s comment that « a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia » (Brown 1994 : 79). Macaulay’s comment was therefore grounded in « a conception of art which views itself as transcending ideology even as it raises a single object, English literature, to the status of self-contained totality » (Schwarz 1999 : 21).

The selection of the canonical works to be taught in the colonies was then far from being haphazard or naïve ; ideological considerations were decisive in such a selection. The canonical works taught were legitimated by the imperial discourse as long as they reinforced the prevailing ideology for, as Pierre Bourdieu maintains, « the cultural arbitrary is used by dominant groups or classes because it expresses completely, although always in a mediated way, the objective and material interests of the dominant group » (quoted in Rajan 1995 : 139). The idea of power establishing a canon and parameters of taste is expressed by Edward Said as well, for whom authority, in this case colonial authority, is a pervasive force that is « formed, irradiated, disseminated ; it is instrumental, it is persuasive ; it has status, it establishes canons of taste and value » (1978 : 19-20).

To become literate in English, colonial students were required to study canonical English literary works employed as an instrument of acculturation and a means of conveying the supposedly superiority of the British people. Henry Schwarz states that « European literature contained a sum of ideological messages sufficiently copious to guarantee submission of the Indian people to the British rule without undue ’effusion of blood’ » (1999 : 19). Native students were thus implicitly forced to accept the ideological messages contained in the canonical literary works they studied, works that postulated the existence of « inferior races » and the inherent « degeneracy and primitivism » of natives. In most canonical works, Western imperialistic values were presented as the universal truth, their nature as a social and cultural construct remaining well hidden. In this respect, Helen Tiffin states that

colonial education – in the language « English » and in its specific studies of the literature of England […] was designed for, and continued to be promulgated in the service of, colonialist control. It stressed the ‘universal’/imperial at the expense of the ‘local’ ; it fostered and validated the centrality of and belief in the excellence of all things English […] and since its aim was a social control whose effective mechanism was the spread of English values, it focused […] in particular, [on] the literary culture of England. (1996 : 145)

Intertextuality in The God of Small Things as a Questioning of the Colonial Subject’s Representation in Canonical English Literature

Roy’s various references to canonical English literary works, which are to be counted as part of the various characters’ reading habits, are significant. The God of Small Things establishes a dialogue, to use a Bahktinian concept, with the literary works mentioned in it. Roy’s novel can therefore be described as dialogic, open and intertextual inasmuch as meaning is partly built by the dialogue established with other literary works ; instead of being established from the onset, meaning is negotiated in this dialogue and remains in constant flux. The works mentioned in The God of Small Things are, on the other hand, monologic, for they offer a single totalizing perspective that centralises meaning and exerts a violent homogenisation. The dialogue between The God of Small Things and the canonical works mentioned in it makes patent that the latter became a vehicle for the imposition of ideological messages related to the colonial subject’s identity. Roy’s novel specifically questions the ideological representation of the colonial subject as a « degenerate other » and the inextricable relationship between representation and imperial power.

Central to Roy’s dialogism is Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which describes the experience of colonialism in Africa from the perspective of imperial power. The repetition of the title and the pun derived from it are highly revealing and meaningful ; indeed, the pun is a major trope in the novel. In chapter eighteen of Roy’s novel, « The History House », Roy creates the pun based on the title of Conrad’s novel : « Dark of Heartness tiptoed into the Heart of Darkness » (290) [1]. The police are thus represented for they are the instrument of the powerful : colonialism in former times and high caste elite groups after decolonisation. The colonial institution enforces the principle of danda or absolute authority, becoming, in this way, a mere instrument of caste custom and privilege « Sent to square the books and collect the dues from those who broke its laws » (292). At another level of interpretation, « dark of heartness » refers to power structures that oppress the underdog like Velutha. The pun ultimately stands for the drive to power inherent in human nature ; it alludes to « human nature’s pursuit of ascendancy. Structure. Order. Complete monopoly » (292-293).)

Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness consists in Marlowe’s narration of his journey to the heart of Africa in search of Kurtz, a colonial official in charge of a trading post in the jungle. His audience is a group of former English seamen on the deck of the Nellie, anchored on the Thames. Marlowe opens his story by establishing a parallel between England under the domination of the Roman Empire and certain regions of Africa that were at the time colonies under the British Empire. Marlowe states that the main difference lies in that, for Romans, colonisation was an act of mere violence. He implies that the only thing that redeems English imperialism and colonial policy is the discourse of improvement, a poignantly ironic comment in the light of the events he further narrates. Conrad evidently privileges the voice of imperial power incarnated in Marlowe. From the very beginning, Marlowe establishes a clear dichotomy between the English and the African worlds. The « civilized » English audience on the deck of the Nellie functions as the counterpart of the silenced « savage » Africans, depicted as forces of nature that form part of the nightmarish landscape of the African jungle. In his narration, the natives have no voice ; they exist only through Marlowe’s discourse. London and the Thames are also the counterpart of the wild African continent. In this way, Conrad structures the discourse of his novel on the basis of the dichotomy « self / other » that is at the core of imperialism. Marlowe and the European audience on the deck of the Nellie are the « self » whereas Africans are the « degenerate other ». London consequently is the centre and Africa is the periphery. The Western world is thus erected as the measure of the colonial world that is represented as deviant, primitive and incomprehensible.

Roy’s novel is in active dialogue with Conrad’s, challenging and reversing its ethnocentric representation the colonial subject’s identity. Contrary to Conrad, Roy privileges the voices of former colonial subjects, and it is through them that readers become acquainted with the representatives of colonial power. Kari Saipu, the English landowner, is presented through the discourse of the former colonial subjects ; in this way, Roy does exactly the opposite of what Conrad does in Heart of Darkness. The dialogic relationship established between Roy’s and Conrad’s novels is then based on reversal. The Africans in Conrad’s novel are portrayed as ghost-like, mask-like and incomprehensible. In Roy’s novel, Kari Saipu is the one who is characterized as a spectre, and it is the Untouchable Vellya Paapen, who, from an imperial perspective could be compared to Conrad’s Africans, who describes Kari Saipu as a ghost (189). Vellya Paapen claims that Kari Saipu has a malignant influence on the characters ; he is the one « who captured dreams and re-dreamed them » (190). As I have earlier stated, another clever reversal Roy effects is that, whereas in Conrad’s novel « heart of darkness » stands mainly for the allegedly primitive and deviant world of colonized subjects, in The God of Small Things, « heart of darkness » represents the Western world incarnated in Kari Saipu’s house.

Roy establishes a dialogue as well with Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The references to the play are highly revealing, since a parallel can be established between imperial representations of colonial subjects, and the portrayal of Caliban and his mother Sycorax in The Tempest as the embodiment of degeneracy. Their debasing depiction corresponds indeed to the ideological construction in imperial discourse of colonial subjects’ identity. When Prospero and Miranda arrive on the island, the Duke of Milan cunningly manages to gain Caliban’s confidence in order to dispossess him of the island he inherited from his mother, Sycorax the witch. The native inhabitants of the island, Caliban and Sycorax, are depicted as evil and deviant. In a Platonic way, their physical ugliness reflects their fundamental degeneracy. Caliban is represented as a beastly, primitive, foul and illogical creature who tries to rape virginal Miranda. The oppression of lecherous Caliban, who dares lust after a European white woman, to the power of the enlightened Prospero is thus justified. W.H. New states that

Shakespeare’s Caliban in The Tempest is characterized as a subhuman monster, a kind of plaything controlled by the magus-figure named Prospero ; the central issues in this play involve the competing attractions of love and power, not colonial politics, yet the pseudo-tropical setting, in which a European intellect rules over an unreasoning native, has long been read as a paradigm of imperial relations. (1996 : 108)

Like Conrad’s novel, Shakespeare’s play is permeated by the binary thought typical of imperialist discourse. Caliban is the exact opposite of Prospero ; whereas Prospero stands for the norm, Caliban stands for deviancy. Prospero then becomes the measure of Caliban’s degeneracy ; Prospero is the « self » while Caliban is the « degenerate other ». The relationship between Prospero and Caliban actually parallels the dynamics of the coloniser-colonised relationship. Another aspect of Shakespeare’s play that echoes the colonial situation in India is Prospero’s imposition of his language on Caliban. As a result of being forced to adopt his master’s language, Caliban cannot express his individuality as shown when he is unable to find the words to express his rage against Prospero. He is completely silenced by the violent imposition of an alien language and his individuality is utterly suppressed by the ideological construction of his identity.

The Tempest definitely mirrors India’s history of colonisation, and, because of this, it functions as a mise en abyme in Roy’s novel. The twins, for whom English is an imposition, read Caliban’s story, that of a colonial subject, who, like themselves, has been forced to speak an alien language. Thus, when the twins are required to read The Tempest in English, the language imposed by colonial administration, they are actually reading a story about themselves, the Indian people as the colonised, told from the perspective of the coloniser. Indians are then identified with Caliban and Sycorax, and the British are identified with Prospero and Miranda. Roy’s ironic allusions to The Tempest are therefore destined to denounce the ideological representation and silencing of colonial subjects in imperial discourse.

Roy makes reference as well to Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. The 1907 Nobel laureate devoted most of his work to the exploration of the colonial experience in India. He was the Imperial poet par excellence and an apologist for the British Empire. Kipling produced the most important part of his literary work during the golden period of the British Empire. A few of his phrases like « the white man’s burden » and « East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet » became leitmotivs in the Victorian imperialist era. In The Jungle Book and other of his literary works, he builds a mythical exotic colonial world, and, in them, the British found a convenient interpretation of colonial reality. Actually The Jungle Book « orientalises » India, since, in this jungle tale, Kipling constructs India as an exotic and wild country. What is interesting in Mowgli’s story is that the Indian village boy is adopted and raised by wolves. It must be remembered that imperial representations of the colonial subject’s identity emphasized the primitivism and irrationality that supposedly characterised non-Westerners. Therefore, in the collective consciousness of imperialist societies, colonial subjects were associated with animal-likeness. Kipling’s The Jungle Book then reinforces stereotypes of colonised subjects. The novel sharpens the differences between Westerners and Indians ; it appropriates the « other » and transforms the colonial subject into an exotic individual. Roy’s subtle sense of irony is once more revealed in the fact that Rahel and Estha listen to the story, written by an apologist of the empire, of an Indian boy their age raised by wolves. What Roy aims at showing is that, to eurocentric individuals, Estha or Rahel could be compared to the exotic Mowgli. In addition, the twins learn about their own country through an imperialist novel that, like a mirror, gives them back a distorted image of themselves. This is a subtle and brilliant illustration of the mechanism employed by colonial power to lure colonial subjects to internalise ideological constructions of their identity based on negative and exotic images of themselves. Kipling was able to construct an exotic « other » on account of the bond existing between power and knowledge during the golden age of the British Empire. As Said argues in Orientalism, « the power […] to represent what is beyond metropolitan borders derives from the power of an imperial society, and that power takes the discursive form of a reshaping or reordering of ’raw’ or primitive data » that suits the ideology of the imperial power (1978 : 99).

The former discussion aims at illustrating how the literary canon taught in European colonies such as India was one of the instruments that elicited double-consciousness and the drive to mimicry, for the works that comprised it channelled a sum of ideological representations of the colonial subject’s identity. Roy’s ironic references to English canonical works intelligently and obliquely question the representation of colonial subjects and contest the eurocentric tenets these works promulgate. Altogether, the author’s depiction of the acculturating effects of English, Western-style education and the English literary canon reveals her preoccupation with the ongoing negative consequences of colonialism on post-colonial India.

Conclusion : Binary Thought, Colonial Discourse and Stereotypical Representations

Colonial discourse was fundamentally based on a binary type of thought grounded on dichotomies such as self/other, coloniser/colonised and East/West. Said claims that the terms of the dichotomy Occident/Orient, as well as the array of presuppositions, images and representations they involve, are man-made constructs that have a history and a tradition (Said 1978 : 5). The critic further argues that the most important trait of the relationship between Occident and Orient or West and East is that it was and still is one of « power, of domination, of varying degrees of a complex hegemony » (5). In colonial discourse, the West became the « enlightened self » that defined the « benighted other » represented by the non-Western world. This binary way of constructing reality implied an hierarchical conception, since the interdependent terms « self », « coloniser » and « Western » were accorded a superior status and a positive value whereas « other », « colonised » and « non-Western » were accorded a subordinate status and a debased value. The West thus became the norm and the East was made to stand for deviance. Consequently, the positive term of the dichotomy drew its authority and power by means of debasing, degrading and excluding the negative term, and both terms acquired their identity by virtue of their mutual exclusion. In this manner, a non-mutual hierarchical relation was imposed by colonialism, whose rhetoric of difference served the purpose of justifying inequality and dominance. As Ranajit Guha states,

politically that difference was spelled out as one between rulers and the ruled ; ethnically, between a white Herrenvolk and blacks ; materially, between a prosperous Western power and its poor […] subjects ; culturally, between a higher and lower levels of civilization, between the superior religion of Christianity and indigenous belief systems made up of superstition and barbarism-all adding up to an irreconcilable difference between colonizer and colonized. (1997 : 3)

It is then on account of the Western world’s « flexible positional superiority, » which conditioned and determined all possible relationships with the East, that stereotypes became fixed once and for all in colonial discourse (Said 1978 : 7). The hidden discursive nature of such stereotypical representations contributed to their becoming fixed not only in discourse but also in the very tissue of culture. The ensuing manipulation of colonised peoples’ representations and images was thus turned into a means of domination. By circumscribing the colonised to a fixed signifying position, colonial power ensured that the colonial subject develop a sense of double-consciousness and the consequent drive to mimicry. Ultimately, the essentialist representation of the colonial subject in discourse can be analysed in terms of a central discourse strategy of colonialism conceived in order to perpetuate the status quo, i.e., the colonial system.


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[1] In addition to playing with the meaning of the title of Conrad’s novel, Roy inverts and alters the grammatical category of the words that comprise it ; the noun « darkness » becomes the adjective « dark, » and the noun « heart » is transformed, via a process of analogy, into the more abstract noun « heartness. » Whereas Roy identifies « heart of darkness » with Kari Saipu’s house, which symbolizes the recent colonial past, « dark of heartness » stands for the police, which is also alluded to as « Dark of Heart » (289).