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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Said and Critiques of Said
  • Reference Works
  • Women
  • Colonial Discourse
  • Karl Marx
  • The Novel
  • China in Victorian Fiction
  • Benjamin Disraeli’s Novels
  • Popular Literature and Children’s Literature
  • Islam and the Thousand and One Nights
  • Poetry
  • Theater

Victorian Literature Orientalism
Valerie Kennedy
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 October 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0132


Orientalism in Victorian literature can be seen as a development of 18th-century and Romantic depictions of figures such as the Indian nabob and of genres such as the Romantic Oriental tale and Byron’s Turkish tales. The Orientalist linguistic and cultural scholarship of William Jones and William Carey was also a significant factor in the rise of Orientalism. Jones established the Asiatic Society of Bengal (the equivalent of England’s Royal Society) and published extensive studies of Indian laws, culture, and languages, while Carey was a linguist, printer, and missionary in India. But these literary and cultural phenomena must be seen in the light of Victorian imperialist expansion, racial theories, and specific events like the abolition of slavery, the Indian Mutiny (1857–1858), and the Governor Eyre controversy (1865). Edward Said’s controversial Orientalism (Said 1995, originally 1978, cited under Said and Critiques of Said) led much discussion to be focused on the topic. Said distinguishes between the activities of Jones and the structures and discourses of what he calls “modern Orientalism,” which he defines as “a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient” (p. 3), involving military control and colonial government as well as erudition. It is sweeping claims like these that made Said’s work both controversial and groundbreaking as a study of Orientalism. Since then, many works have analyzed the interconnections between politics and literature, most often in relation to the novel and travel writing. One aspect of these studies is colonial discourse analysis, which is frequently focused on the position of women in the Orientalist and colonial context. Orientalism in Victorian literature is most important in fiction and travel writing, but it is also to be found in journalism and other forms of writing. In fiction the East often appears in the guise of allusions to events like the Indian Mutiny or habits associated with China and the Chinese, such as opium addiction. India is a particularly important source of Orientalist allusions, from the story of the diamond in Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (1868) to the portrait of Jos Sedley, the “nabob” of William Makepiece Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1947–1848); thuggee in Philip Meadows Taylor’s Confessions of a Thug (1839); the Great Game in Rudyard Kipling’s Kim (1901); opium addiction in Charles Dickens’s Edwin Drood; and the Indian Mutiny in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four (1923). Other key locations for both fiction and travel writing are Africa, the Middle East, and the South Seas, as it appears in works by Joseph Conrad. Key works for Orientalism in poetry are the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam and the works of Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Kipling. Toward the end of the 19th century, imperialism was especially important in the adventure story in the works of H. Rider Haggard and others.

General Overviews

The vision of the relationship between Europe and non-Europeans presented in Said 1995 (cited under Said and Critiques of Said, first published in 1978) had been preceded by that in Baudet 1988, a largely neglected but important account of the tendency for Europeans to view non-European peoples and cultures with ambivalence, projecting desires and fears onto them. Baudet’s discussion of ambivalence resembles that of Homi Bhabha, but it is much more comprehensible (see Bhabha 1986, cited under Colonial Discourse). Subsequent works such as MacKenzie 1995 (cited under Theater) and Irwin 2006 (cited under Said and Critiques of Said) have offered alternative visions of Orientalism in the 19th century, as well as criticism of Said. Gates 1986 and JanMohamed 1986 (cited under Colonial Discourse) develop Said’s insights in the realm of colonial discourse analysis in relation to “race” and racial difference. Baucom 1999 and Gikandi 1996 offer analyses of the construction of Englishness in relation to imperialism and Orientalism. Zaidi 2010 offers a study of Victorian representations of Islam and Muslims in Robert Browning, Matthew Arnold, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and Thomas Carlyle, paying attention to Arnold’s A Persian Passion Play and Browning’s Muleykeh, and offering an overview of the prevalence of images of Islam and Muslims in these writers’ works. Hoeveler and Cass 2006 is designed as an introduction for students to the problems of defining and teaching Orientalism, but some of its essays provide useful analyses of travel writing on Egypt and the theoretical bases of Orientalism.

  • Baucom, Ian. Out of Place: Englishness, Empire, and the Locations of Identity. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999.

    DOI: 10.1515/9781400823031

    Baucom’s analysis of the construction and political significance of the categories of Englishness and Britishness includes the Orientalist vision of the London poor in such writers as Ruskin, Mayhew, and Dickens, and various moments of “imperialist self-fashioning” in Ruskin’s writings on architecture and Kipling’s Kim, among others.

  • Baudet, Henri. Paradise on Earth: Some Thoughts on European Images of Non-European Man. Translated by Elizabeth Wentholt. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1988.

    Originally published in Dutch in 1959; unjustly neglected but excellent statement of the mixture of desire and fear underpinning European views of non-Europeans and of the ambivalence and the material and imaginary dimensions of much Victorian writing about non-Europeans.

  • Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., ed. “Race,” Writing, and Difference. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

    A collection of key essays that investigate various 19th-century dimensions of “race” as a construct and its relation to questions of gender, imperial practice, and colonial discourse. See also Bhabha 1986, JanMohamed 1986 (cited under Colonial Discourse), Brantlinger 1986 (cited under Travelers in Africa), Gilman 1986 (cited under Women), and Spivak 1986 (cited under Jane Eyre).

  • Gikandi, Simon. Maps of Englishness: Writing Identity in the Culture of Colonialism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.

    Provides analysis of Carlyle versus Mill on “The Nigger/Negro Question,” Trollope and Kingsley’s travelogues on the West Indies, Mary Seacole and Mary Kingsley as examples of women’s ambivalent position in relation to imperial power and ideology, and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as an example of “belated Englishness.”

  • Hoeveler, Diane Long, and Jeffrey Cass. Interrogating Orientalism: Contextual Approaches and Pedagogical Practices. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2006.

    Includes theoretical chapters on Orientalism as representation and in pedagogical practice and literary theory, as well as a discussion of representations of Egyptian markets in Victorian travel writing, Orientalism in Disrael’s Alroy, and the teaching of Victorian Orientalist entertainments.

  • Zaidi, S. F. Victorian Literary Orientalism. New Delhi: APH, 2010.

    Begins with an overview and contextualization of the main developments of Oriental elements in Victorian works and identifies two separate trends: historicism (Tennyson) and liberalism (Matthew Arnold and Carlyle), arguing that some of the works of Tennyson, Carlyle, and Browning are indebted to Oriental sources.

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