In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Race

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews

Victorian Literature Race
Ankhi Mukherjee
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0097


Modern racial hierarchies draw on two seemingly dissonant lines of history: the humanist desire for freedom and universality and the legacy of colonial regimes, which needed to control the work, reproduction, and social organization of the colonized. The history of race in Victorian literature testifies to the stark reality that every Euro-American narrative articulation of freedom and universal connectedness is haunted by the racial occlusions and oppression that mark the very conditions of its possibility. “Though it would be foolish to suggest that evil, brutality, and terror commence with the arrival of scientific racism toward the end of the eighteenth century, it would also be wrong to overlook the significance of that moment as a break point in the development of modern thinking about humanity and its nature,” says Paul Gilroy in Against Race: Imagining Political Culture beyond the Color Line (p. 31). Race impinges on Victorian consciousness in five major ways: the capitalist relations of production in an era of free trade imperialism, which involved slavery, indenture, and wage labor; fears of miscegenation, hybridity, and a degeneration of the pure race concomitant to the cultural and sexual traffic in the colonies as well as rising immigration from the dark places of the Earth; a pseudoscientific social Darwinism that secularized time for the imperialist project, enabling Europeans to command a teleological narrative with nonwhite cultures low on the evolutionary scale, and sometimes below the starting point; anxieties of English ethnicity at a time of global expansion, which disrupted domestic culture; and a revolution in sexual manners in the fin-de-siècle, which seemed, confusingly, to be regressive and atavistic as well signaling a progressive modernity. This article captures different aspects of Victorian meaning-making in relation to race, many of which are yoked unambiguously to the imperialist project, and also a considerable number of cultural forms that aspire to noncoercive articulations of multiracial culture and seem desirous of hybridity and interaction as well as metonymic proliferations of identifications. The literature under consideration includes creative writing and historical fiction, travelogues, and works on sexology as well as scientific, ethnographic and anthropological treatises.

General Overviews

Brantlinger 1988, which highlights the centrality of empire for British culture in the 19th and early 20th centuries, provides the most conceptually rigorous cultural history of racist imperial ideology. Young 1995 substantiates the structuring ambivalence of colonial contact—desire commingled with dread and derision—through examining a variety of Victorian writings and social practices. Said 1993 constitutes a pioneering work in exposing the ubiquitous presence of race, both as an agent of auto-ethnography and as a means to reinforce imperial domination, in the ideological makeup of canonical literature. Spivak 1985, a feminist critique of Jane Eyre, reveals the role of the native woman as the imperialist’s self-consolidating other, while McClintock 1995 argues for the collusion of race and gender ideologies in the zone of imperial power. Adams 2009, a cultural and intellectual history of Victorian ideas and literature, provides contextual background for Viswanathan 1989, a study of the role of education in consolidating colonial rule.

  • Adams, James Eli. A History of Victorian Literature. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781444305944

    A historiographical survey that also maps the intellectual history of the period. The chapter titled “Expansion and Anomie, 1851–1873” touches on the disease of empire.

  • Brantlinger, Patrick. Rule of Darkness: British Literature and Imperialism, 1830–1914. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988.

    Brantlinger examines the tenuous hold of the ideology of imperialism on Victorian and Edwardian epistemology, literature, and culture. The objects of analysis range from the usual suspects—Kipling, Conrad, Haggard, Macaulay, Thackeray—to the domestic realism of Austen and Gaskell novels and the lesser known tales of the Sepoy Mutiny.

  • Brantlinger, Patrick. Dark Vanishings: Discourse on the Extinction of Primitive Races, 1800–1930. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003.

    The study examines race-related atrocities of empire: the decimation of indigenous peoples in Africa, America, Australia, and the South Seas; the oppression of the Irish; extinction discourse,” precursor to the genocide and eugenics of fascism and Nazism. A very useful resource that covers pre-Darwinian theories, Darwinism, the implication of science in the propaganda of empire, and the rise of anthropology.

  • McClintock, Anne. Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest. London: Routledge, 1995.

    This influential work combines several academic foci—feminism, Marxism, and psychoanalysis—to argue that gender, race, and class are related realms of experience that govern relations between imperial power and resistance. McClintock draws on diverse sources—literature, advertising, consumer culture, photography, to name a few—to examine imperialist discourse as well as postcolonial legacy.

  • Said, Edward. Culture and Imperialism. London: Chatto and Windus, 1993.

    An analysis of the constitutive force of the imperial enterprise on canonical English and French literature that affects “an adjustment in perspective and understanding.” An oft-cited chapter in this study of the relationship between empire-building and the English novel is Said’s reading of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, in which Sir Thomas Bertram’s country estate is shown to be sustained by slave labor on his sugar plantations in Antigua.

  • Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism.” Critical Inquiry 12.1 (Autumn 1985): 243–261.

    DOI: 10.1086/448328

    A seminal essay that argues that a ubiquitous imperial ideology shaped cultural representations in the West in the high noon of empire. In an influential reading of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Spivak claims that the individuation of the bourgeois female subject happens at the cost of the effacement of the Creole—perceived racially other—woman Bertha. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Viswanathan, Gauri. Masks of Conquest: Literary Study and British Rule in India. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989.

    The masks in question refer to the ruses of epistemic domination in the colony. Viswanathan frames her Gramscian argument in the context of British India’s educational history, where she finds a strong collusion between imperial policies of domination and the development of an English literary culture that produces a generation of mimic men and consensual subjects.

  • Young, Robert J. C. Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture, and Race. London: Routledge, 1995.

    Predicated on the inseparability of desire from the aversion that marks racialized thought, this study examines the heterogeneities of race, class, sexuality, and gender that mark the imagined unities of culture. Chapter 4, on the cultural construction of race under the aegis of empire, is as thorough in detail as it is meticulous in argument.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.