In This Article Partition Literature

  • Introduction
  • Key Works
  • Archives and Data Resources
  • Social Studies
  • Political Theory
  • Intermedial and Transmedial Studies

Literary and Critical Theory Partition Literature
Charlotta Salmi
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0013


Partition is commonly understood as the division of a state into two or more entities, where at least one successor states assumes continuity with the pre-divided whole. The most famous partition cases in modern history formed part of British devolvement or decolonization—in Ireland (1919), India (1947) and Palestine (1948)—and arose as a consequence of Cold War superpower rivalries (which divided Germany in 1945, Korea in 1953, and Vietnam in 1954). More recently, it has figured as part of democratization processes in the Balkans, North Africa, and other regions of the world. The protracted conflicts that have often followed partition, such as the Irish Troubles and the territorial disputes in Kashmir and Israel and Palestine, have linked the political and cultural phenomenon to sectarian violence, terror and ethnic nationalism. As a consequence, its impact on cultural and critical narrative has been diverse: partition figures both as a political and as a social rupture—the source of widespread violence and displacement—and as an ongoing source of trauma that continues to shape ethnic and national identities. Critical studies therefore draw not only on postcolonial theory and world literary criticism, but also on history, political theory, philosophy, and sociology more broadly. The subdivisions of this article follow a similar structure, highlighting the origins of partition studies in the social sciences and emphasizing its interdisciplinary methods and debates. As a critical category, partition first gained ground in the 1990s in South Asian cultural and revisionist historical studies. Early Marxist and feminist works gave voice to marginal narratives and previously silenced stories. Their methods influenced literary critics, such as Joe Cleary, who applied their critical concepts to literatures both stemming from partition regions and also engaging directly with state division. Cleary’s critical account of partition in Irish and Israeli and Palestinian literature, in turn, forged the comparative framework that informs the field today. Although partition has been applied as a critical lens for studying divided Germany, the Balkans, Korea, Cyprus, Vietnam, and apartheid South Africa, this article will focus on works that consider Israel and Palestine and India and Pakistan, due to the prominence of these regions in the development of partitions studies as a critical field.

Key Works

While most critical studies build on Joe Cleary’s model for studying partition as a social, historical, and cultural phenomenon, Cleary 2002 drew inspiration from Stephen Brockmann’s early work in German studies, which has also continued to influence Irish and Palestinian historiography. Brockmann 1999 applies the distinction between cultural and political nationhood to German literature, which Cleary 2002 turned into a framework for reading how state division and separatist ideologies are either ratified or challenged in cultural narratives. This approach has been further systematized by critical collections, such as Jassal and Ben-Ari 2007, and individual interventions, such as Greenberg 2005, which both theorize and analyze partition motifs in a range of partition contexts.

  • Brockmann, Stephen. Literature and German Reunification. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511519468E-mail Citation »

    An early work from German studies that juxtaposes representations of cultural nationhood (Kulturnation) and nation-statehood (Staatsnation) in German literature from 1945 to the 1990s. Brockmann’s analysis focuses on national division and reunification. The theoretical introduction is frequently cited in partition studies across the disciplines.

  • Cleary, Joe. Literature, Partition and the Nation-State: Culture and Conflict in Ireland, Israel and Palestine. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511483110E-mail Citation »

    A groundbreaking comparative work on partition literature, which explores how different cultural narratives ratify or contest state division. The study is divided into two larger historical theoretical chapters and three genre or author-based studies.

  • Greenberg, Jonathan D. “Generations of Memory: Remembering Partition in India/Pakistan and Israel/Palestine.” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 25.1 (2005): 8–110.

    DOI: 10.1215/1089201X-25-1-89E-mail Citation »

    An informative overview that maps key tropes and concepts in partition criticism across two different regional contexts. Divided into easily navigable subsections it traces shifts in collective memory and historiography through first- and second-generation narratives.

  • Jassal, Smita Tewari, and Eyal Ben-Ari, eds. The Partition Motif in Contemporary Conflicts. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 2007.

    E-mail Citation »

    A collection of essays that explores partition as a theme, motif and “organizing principle” in post-partition cultures. A theoretical introduction is followed by studies that cover a range of areas: from India and Palestine to Bangladesh, Germany, and Korea.

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