In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Whiteness in Victorian Literature

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Race Theory
  • Scientific Racialism
  • Travel Writing and Memoirs
  • Liberalism
  • Gender
  • Social Class
  • Additional Literary Texts
  • The Victorian Studies Classroom

Victorian Literature Whiteness in Victorian Literature
Alisha R. Walters
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 October 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 October 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0198


Victorian ideas of whiteness are inseparable from the expansion of British settler colonialism and the concomitant rise of racial science in the nineteenth century. In the century prior, descriptions of white skin to denote European origin had not been unusual; however, during this earlier period, racial categorization was also mapped along lines of religious difference and socioeconomic status, which largely fell away by the Victorian period. In the nineteenth century, deeply embodied and “scientific” understandings of racial difference proliferated, and race became understood as a more fixed biological category. Race was indeed “everything,” as racial theorist Robert Knox stated. It became a recognizable anatomical classification, not equivalent to other social categories like religion or class. While there has been much scholarship on the essential role of Blackness in the construction of Victorian racial categories, understandings of whiteness were equally instrumental in the creation of racialized hierarchies. Theories of whiteness are thus an integral—if critically overlooked—thread of the nineteenth century’s construction of racial ontologies. Victorian notions of whiteness were by no means coherent. Synchronic discussions of whiteness in the period were diverse and deeply contingent on spatial geographies, gender, social class, and labor production. At the same time, Victorian ideas of whiteness depended on diachronic, deeply historical understandings of white identity, an identity tied to an imagined and remote racial past. And competing and overlapping theories of Anglo-Saxonism and Celticism framed debates about the intra-ethnic origins of British racial identity. British race was thus imaged as being pure, but also hybridized, through internal European mixture. Notably, while scholarly domains such as sociology, Irish studies, and African American studies have employed critical whiteness scholarship for decades, such engagement has been relatively recent in Victorian studies. The field has newly come to reckon with its own implication with white supremacy as have other scholarly fields in recent years, such as classical studies, medieval studies, and early modern studies. In Victorian studies, scholars often cite the work of Toni Morrison, Sara Ahmed, Dwayne Dyer, Sylvia Wynter, and David Lloyd when interrogating the construction of whiteness as the invisible default subject position—both within 19th-century literature, and the profession, itself. For instance, Ronjaunee Chatterjee, Alicia Mireles Christoff, and Amy R. Wong argue for a thorough reckoning with the whiteness that underpins the praxes of Victorian studies. And others have called for more inclusive pedagogies and practices within the classroom where, as Carolyn Betensky argues, the offhanded racism of the Victorian text—taught by an overwhelmingly white professoriate—is seldom theorized sufficiently.

General Overviews

This section contains foundational texts in critical whiteness studies that form part of the body of interdisciplinary writing created on this subject. While the employment of critical whiteness studies—a form of critical race theory—is relatively recent to Victorian studies, critical whiteness methodologies have been commonly employed in the fields of sociology, African American studies, cultural studies, communication theory, and others for several decades. Delgado and Stefancic 1997 provides a comprehensive overview of the many disciplines engaged with critical whiteness methodologies. And within 19th-century studies, an emerging canon of whiteness studies of authors from a wide variety of disciplines has emerged in recent years. Dyer 1997 and Ahmed 2007 are two of the most cited theorists in critical whiteness studies. Ahmed 2007 scrutinizes whiteness, which conveys privilege through its unseen, unnoticed relation to bodies, and Dyer 1997 examines visual representations of white bodies, re-corporealizing and explicitly racializing said bodies. The noteworthy Morrison 1992 denaturalizes literary practices that equate universal experience with whiteness, and Bhabha 1998 analyzes whiteness as a form of authority that is empowered by its purposeful, structural amnesia. Brody 1998 denaturalizes the “performative nature” of whiteness and recovers the obfuscated, conscious creation of the white male subject in the Victorian period. And Painter 2011 provides an accessible visual history of the American Atlantic desire to naturalize whiteness as a racial category across history; in so doing, Painter underscores the influence of English myths of race on American racial ideology. Chatterjee, et al. 2020 is a highly influential manifesto urging Victorian studies to confront the “evasion and non-recognition” of the field’s inextricableness from histories of race and slavery. These authors’ significant work asks Victorian studies scholars to confront the unnamed whiteness that structures the field’s knowledge production and social organization.

  • Ahmed, Sara. “A Phenomenology of Whiteness.” Feminist Theory 8.2 (2007): 149–168.

    DOI: 10.1177/1464700107078139

    Ahmed’s highly cited text situates whiteness as a “phenomenological issue” (p. 150), and considers what whiteness permits bodies to do within space. Ahmed explores the materiality of whiteness, an orientation frequently deemed “invisible”—both for those who embody it and for others trained not to see it.

  • Bhabha, Homi K. “The White Stuff.” Artforum 36.9 (May 1998): 21–23.

    Bhabha assesses contemporaneous work within whiteness studies. He examines texts and authors writing about labor, literature, sociology, and autobiography. Within his discussion, he examines whiteness as an “unsettled, disturbed form of authority” (p. 21), one that shields itself from itself through a violent amnesia that solidifies its authority.

  • Brody, Jennifer DeVere. Impossible Purities: Blackness, Femininity, and Victorian Culture. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998.

    DOI: 10.1215/9780822396956

    Brody’s text seeks to “unmask the performative nature of whiteness” through the study of the nineteenth-century text (p. 9). Her work reads white bodies, especially white male ones, as raced, gendered subjects whose construction has been historically obfuscated. Impossible Purities examines the active “construction of Englishness as a ‘white’ identity” (p. 9) employing Black feminist methodologies.

  • Chatterjee, Ronjaunee, Alicia Mireles Christoff, and Amy R. Wong, eds. “Introduction: Undisciplining Victorian Studies.” Victorian Studies 62.3 (2020): 369–391.

    DOI: 10.2979/victorianstudies.62.3.01

    In this frequently cited piece, Chatterjee, Christoff and Wong address the structural whiteness of the field of Victorian studies. They argue for a shift in praxes and politics within the discipline, and underline that “race and racial difference subtend our most cherished objects of study” (p. 370). The authors advocate for “new epistemological models” (p. 371) to intervene against the profession’s “foundations in whiteness” (p. 373).

  • Delgado, Richard, and Jean Stefancic, eds. Critical White Studies: Looking Behind the Mirror. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1997.

    This interdisciplinary anthology includes contributions from Toni Morrison, Noel Ignatiev, and others. It scrutinizes whiteness in several political, social, and historical contexts. While the volume is primarily concerned with American formulations of whiteness, the second section contextualizes historical constructions of whiteness, and Reginald Horsman’s “Race and Manifest Destiny: The Origins of American Racial Anglo-Saxonism” explores the mid-19th-century white American turn to English, Anglo-Saxon racial constructions of identity.

  • Dyer, Richard. White. London: Routledge, 1997.

    Dyer’s influential text scrutinizes the racialized images and representative media of white people produced by white people. In so doing, he examines how whiteness functions as an identity that is not named or raced, and is established as the normative human body. Dyer underlines the power whiteness can exact when humanity and whiteness are correlated in visual representation and argues that, in looking at whiteness, one may “dislodge it from its centrality and authority [and] not . . . reinstate it” (p. 10).

  • Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992.

    Morrison’s frequently cited text examines the “Africanist” presence in the United States and the powerful, if often repressed, influence of such “connotative blackness” upon American literary practices. She examines the interplay between “literary whiteness” and “literary blackness” in her readings of works by Willa Cather and others. Throughout, she scrutinizes and denaturalizes the representational and aesthetic practices in which “American means white” (p. 47).

  • Painter, Nell Irvin. The History of White People. New York: Norton, 2011.

    Painter traces the idea of white racial identity from the ancient Greeks to 21st-century white American identity. Painter acknowledges that the concept of racialized whiteness did not exist in the ancient world, but notes that many white Westerners have tried to “racialize antiquity,” and his volume traces the intellectual history of this discursive attempt (p. x).

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