English Colonial Language Policy and Postcolonial Literature

Bachelor Thesis 2007 44 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Comparative Literature



1. Introduction: The Impact of the English Colonial Language Policy on the Postcolonial Identity

2. In Search of a Self- V.S. Naipaul versus Andrea Levy

3. The Problems of the Postcolonial Identity in The Enigma of Arrival and Small Island
3.1. Construction of a Place
3.1.1. The Periphery versus the Centre
3.1.2 War and Migration as Change Determinants of a Place
3.1.3 A Sense of a Place
3.2 The Discrepancy between Fantasy and Reality
3.2.1 The Fantasies of the Centre versus the Illusions about the Periphery
3.2.2 Racism: Small Island versus The Enigma of Arrival
3.3 Mimicry with the Centre
3.3.1 Colonial Upbringing and Education
3.3.2 The Colonial Cliché as a Sight Determinant
3.4 Resistance to the Centre
3.4.1 Recognition and Reconnection
3.4.2 Approbation and Deconstruction
3.4.3 Narrative Strategies
3.5 The Search of Identity
3.5.1 The Motif of the Journey
3.5.2 The Arrival

4. Conclusion


1. Introduction: The Impact of the English Colonial Language Policy on the Postcolonial Identity

My paper aims at exploring the effects of English colonial language policy on the postcolonial identity and their representations in postcolonial literature. Before applying to the main works, on which I will focus, The Enigma of Arrival and Small Island, I would like briefly to introduce the reader to the objectives of English colonial language policy.

English colonial language education not only responds to the demands of access to European knowledge, but also it is a way of effective governance over the colonized people. Under the mask of the moral imperial duty to enlighten uncultivated subjects, the established discourses of Anglicism and Orientalism aim at fashioning the tastes, opinions and morals of the natives after the British imperial style, making them deny their origins in an attempt to become more English than the Englishmen. The process of reshaping the colonials’ identity is said to be for the sake of their own good, being in need to be cured of their ignorance.

The indigenous cultures and languages are regarded as unable either to contain or to convey any sort of valuable information, because of being primitive and rude as the natives themselves. This motion leads to the alienation of the aboriginal personality, which is most obvious in the construction of a place. Due to the systematically destruction of the native language and the imposition of the one of colonial power, a wide gap opens between the experience of a place and the language available to describe it. I will concentrate on the postcolonial problem of establishing one’s own place in the world as a result of cultural denigration and dislocation.

Further examples for the assertion of the indigenous culture as inferior are dichotomies like inventiveness versus imitativeness, rationality versus irrationality, intellect versus instinct, abstract thought versus concrete thought, the first item of each pair belonging to the Colonizer. These juxtapositions belong to the tradition of establishing false and romanticized motions of the colonies.

However, the image of the Mother country, created by the colonial education turns to be as illusory as the idea of the colonies. The moments of encounter between the two cultures and realization of the falsity of the colonial concepts are central for my work.

The motion of the supremacy of English, established by the English colonial language policy, leads to the phenomenon that the colonized voluntary want to be absorbed, to become replications of the colonialists. The problem of mimicry with the centre is an important point of my paper, on which both The Enigma of Arrival and Small Island elaborate. It corresponds to this of resistance to the centre, which is in both literary works represented by recognition of the colonial past and reconciliation with it, reconnection between the copy and the original, concluding that the original has lost its glory. Other methods, which the novels use to oppose the centre, are deconstruction of the cultural camouflage of the Empire and certain narrative techniques such as use of personal narrator, retrospections, juxtapositions and interweaving characters.

At last, I would like to focus on the postcolonial search of identity. Imagine the following situation: a former colonial arrives in the Mother country, the valuable original, which during the years of his colonial upbringing and education he has zealously imitated. The first that strikes him is the tremendous discrepancy between his fantasies and the reality in an Empire, undoing itself. His sole presence in the heart of the Empire is an evidence of its decay. However, the fall of his former ideal is not the only problem that he encounters. The postcolonial personality suffers, because of its internal split between the adopted imperial culture and its colonial origins, being oppressed and shown as unworthy. The attitudes of racism of the superior whites and their attempts to position the postcolonial newcomers as inferior and backward make the search of a self even more difficult. Until the arrival of numerous immigrants, the hybridity of the English society has related itself only to Whiteness (a mixture of Scotch, Irishmen and Englishmen). Historical events such as Windrush set the inevitable beginning of a multi-cultural society.

I will follow the personal journeys in search of identity of the postcolonial characters in Small Island and The Enigma of Arrival, who happen upon the same situation as the one described above. I elaborate on the motif of the journey, being a crucial period of transformation and a recursive vehicle for the reunification of the self. The final goal of the life-journey is reaching the enigma of one’s own identity. The colonial cliché loses its power of a sight determinant. The colonial past revives to live in a harmonious synthesis with the adopted western culture. Only then do our postcolonial characters manage to construct a place of their own in the hostile Mother country.

2. In Search of a Self- V.S. Naipaul versus Andrea Levy

Before revealing the central issues of The Enigma of Arrival and Small Island, I would like to apply to the difficulty of finding a self, due to dislocation and alienation of the native origins, in regard of the lives of V.S. Naipaul and Andrea Levy. This additional information is very important for the understanding of their novels.

To begin with the fact that Naipaul’s and Levy’s parents share the experiences of migration. One of Naipaul’s grandparents had migrated to Trinidad as an indentured labourer at the turn of the century, where in 1932 in the small market town of Chaguanas Naipaul was born. His parents were “high-caste Indians, who by the very act of migration defiled themselves and lost caste”.[1] A return to India was impossible because of their loss of social status and lack of money.

At the age of eighteen Naipaul won a scholarship for the Oxford University. His arrival in England in 1950 was another experience of dislocation for him. Naipaul’s education and residence there played a crucial role on his personal development and work.

In The Enigma of Arrival he chooses immigration as one of the main themes. So does Andrea Levy in Small Island, applying to the experiences of the Windrush generation, to which her parents belong. In 1948, “three years after the end of the war, the SS Empire Windrush returned with 492 demobbed soldiers from the Caribbean.”[2] Although not being so numerous in number, the arrival of the Caribbean immigrants caused racial tensions. Due to bad organisation, regarding the settlement of the postcolonial newcomers, they clustered in a few parts of certain imperial centres[3]. Their problems of finding employment and integrating in the white society are skilfully represented by Andrea Levy in Small Island.

The second problem, I will focus on, while revealing facts of the private lives of the two writers, is alienation of the native origins. Some of Naipaul’s statements about Trinidad and India are worth mentioning in the context of this issue. He considers his ancestors primitive, backward and lacking the intellect and sophistication of the West:

My attitude and the attitude of people like me is quite different from people who live outside the bush or who just go camping in the bush on weekends… These people [Trinidadians] live purely physical lives, which I find contemptible… It makes them interesting only to chaps in universities who want to do compassionate studies about brutes.[4]

His contempt of his native culture strikes me. The influence of his Oxford education and of his former education in Trinidad, where the sole aim of schooling was an acquirement of a perfect command of English, played a crucial role on Naipaul’s world view.

I am interested in the ambiguity of the Naipaul’s attitude. On one hand, he desperately wants to separate himself from his indigenous origins, on the other; he states that he feels like someone else watching the sun set at Stonehenge.[5]. It seems to me that with The Enigma of the Arrival Naipaul has eventually found his subject matter and his own form of writing. Although called a novel, the book is quite autobiographical. The writer concentrates not on revealing the drawbacks of his indigenous culture as in some of his previous books, but on deconstructing the imperial culture and landscape, to reach the conclusion that being closely observed, they lose their initial glory. The subject matter of the narrator’s meditation is the unique journey of a Hindu-Trinidadian immigrant, who leaves his small island and sails to the centre of the Empire. There he suffers solitude and alienation, till the moment he establishes himself as a writer and unveils the enigma of his identity by reconciliation with his colonial past. Besides, “Naipaul has confessed that his own internal split of “man” and “writer” could be healed only once his suppressed “colonial Hindu self” had been made to surface in his writing.”[6]

The problem of finding an identity seems ameliorated in regard of Andrea Levy. She defines herself as British. Her position is quite understanding, taking into account the fact that she was born in England and has been living there her whole life. However, the feelings of safety and acceptance have not always accompanied her in the country of her birth, especially during her childhood in racist England. In Small Island she applies to the experiences of her parents in 1948, when in her own words:

It was possible to look someone in the face and tell them you won't give them a job or whatever because they are black. In housing, there were the now infamous signs that were out in the windows to deter black people and other undesirables that read: 'No Blacks, No Irish, No dogs.'[7]

Andrea Levy makes several trips to Jamaica, exploring her origins and her family history. There she feels welcomed and sheltered, having found a network of relatives. Revising her experiences on the island of her ancestors, she concludes: “I was learning about myself… this is part of being a black Briton. Jamaica is very much part of me but I am English and that isn’t contradictory, it isn’t a difficulty, it’s just a nice thing to be“.[8]

One of the subjects of Small Island is the right of the postcolonial immigrants, arriving at the centre of the Mother country, to call England their home. Windrush brings to Britain not only 492 former imperial subjects, whose lands were parts of the territory of the Empire. These are 492 brave Caribbean, who have fought for the Mother country during World War II.

Thus, Windrush changes the place of cultural encounters, which during the years of imperial glory was the periphery.

To conclude, both V.S. Naipaul and Andrea Levy share the problem of impure origins due to migration. Finding an identity at the centre of the former Empire is one of the major issues of their works The Enigma of Arrival and Small Island, both relating to the writers’ personal experiences.

3. The Problems of the Postcolonial Identity in The Enigma of Arrival and Small Island

3.1 . Construction of a Place

3.1.1 . The Periphery versus the Centre

I would like to concentrate on the images of the colony and the Empire in The Enigma of Arrival and Small Island. My purpose is to emphasize on the similarities and contrasts between the representations of the indigenous lands and post-war England.

I begin with the picture of Trinidad in The Enigma of Arrival. The narrator’s “old memories of dark, wet, warm earth and green things growing, old instincts, old delights”[9] distribute the reader with an idea of an old Romance similar to the common concept of a colony’s warm climate, luscious vegetation and a simple life in harmony with nature. The essence of such an existence is in its simplicity, its relatedness to nature and to human instinct, not reason. Furthermore, the narrator’s childish association of the Trinidadian beach “where shallow streams- fresh water mingled with salt,… ran from the tropical woodland to the sea”[10] with “the beginning of the world, the world before men, before the settlement”[11] confirms such a perception of the land of his childhood. However, when the child becomes an adult, he concludes that his former motion was just a result of his ignorance.

The island has an ambiguous image. On one hand, it nurtures his ambitions to become a writer by giving him the subject matter of his books, the simple life of the Trinidadian. On the other, it satiates his fears, because of its primitiveness and colonial smallness. Furthermore, it evokes the memories of a life of shortages, abuse and exploitation, while working on the colonial plantations.

The motif of change also determines our perception of the island. As the narrator returns to Trinidad for the funeral of his sister, he discovers that the place has lost its magic. The landscape has become a copy of a western industrial country at the end of the twentieth century:

None of the Indian villages were like the villages I had known. No narrow roads; no dark, overhanging trees; no huts; no earth yards with hibiscus hedges; no ceremonial lighting of lamps; …; no flowers along gutters or ditches where frogs croaked the night way. But highways and clover-shaped exits and direction boards: a wooded land laid bare, its secrets opened up.[12]

The striking change of the island leads me to the conclusion that the former periphery has lost its originality and turned into a replication of the centre. This happens ironically after the independence of the colony from the Empire.

The description of Jamaica in Small Island resembles that of Trinidad during the years of the narrator’s childhood. We receive through Gilbert’s eyes a picture of a wonderful island, where all spices of nature live in harmony:

A black dash of crows flew home against the sky. A tree lizard scuttled up the bark licking grubs with its lightning tongue. Cicadas hissed rhythmic as cymbals….This was a beautiful island. As sweet with promise as the honey that would soon flow from the combs.[13]

However, after being demobbed, and having returned to his beautiful island, Gilbert feels himself like “a jilted lover”[14]. He realizes that “Jamaicans are small islanders too”[15] just as the inhabitants of all the other Caribbean islands. Now the fairy tale Jamaica transforms into a place of imprisonment for the ex-RAF man. The palm trees become his “prison bars” and the horizons “his tormenting borders”.[16] Jamaica can no longer be the land of his dreams and future. He foresees the coming shortages, because of the war. In addition, he neglects the new Jamaicans, regarding them as “angry young men, [having] not enough money to put decent clothes on their backs or keep their teeth from rotting in their heads, fighting with each other over this tiny scrap of land.”[17]

Gilbert’s first picture of Jamaica is similar to the narrator’s childhood memory of Trinidad, both sharing the motions of a beautiful landscape and a life in harmony with nature. Unfortunately, the change that occurres in Trinidad and that Gilbert foresees in future Jamaica is also similar. Both former colonies lose their magic for our narrators and turn into a copy of an industrialised western country.

Next, I will elaborate on the pictures of England, which we receive from The Enigma of Arrival and Small Island. I should emphasize on the fact that The Enigma of Arrival is written from the perspective of an already established authority, integrated in the English society, who rents a cottage, belonging to a manor near Salisbury. On the contrary, in Small Island we hear the voices of two Jamaican newcomers, having rented a small room in a lodging- house in the capital of the Empire.

The narrator draws a pastoral romantic picture of England in accordance with his romanticized concepts of the Empire, received during his childhood in Trinidad, and his schoolboy fantasies of the England of Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Hardy. “The quaintness and perfection of the landscape match the literary England of his imagination”[18].

However, his first motion of Britain changes. The manor, created at the peak of the Empire, a remnant of its wealth and glory, becomes obsolete. Boilers explode; the parts of the roof are blown by the wind. Besides, the manor with its extravagant houses signifies the British culture. I would like to pay attention to the fact that “these explosions happen not in the surrounding grounds but within the manor itself- that is, in British culture”[19].

The decay of the manor is hastened by the rooks, vandals and marauders, who having sensed the lack of an authority, turn the ancient manor into ruin. Jack’s garden, the remnant of the imperial past, “has been destroyed into stages and finally concreted over.[20] With the introduction of machines, new technologies and the destruction of the pastoral landscape, the manor turns into a modern enterprise.

In Small Island we also encounter two contrasting images of England. Dreaming of a life in the former Empire, Cecilia Langley imagines a romantic autumn picture. In her fantasy she walks through dazzling leaves, “covering the parks, the gardens, the pavements with a blanket of gold.”[21] The description of her dreamy England is followed by a contrasting image of Jamaica with its hurricanes, earthquakes and shortages of rice.

However, the reality in Britain is far away from Hortense’s expectations and Cecilia’s dreams of living in a big house with a garden and drinking English tee on the veranda. Hortense’s filthy and cold room in England seems to surpass Jamaica in terms of shortages and lack of comfort:

The room was pitiful in the grey morning light. …Plaster missing from a bit of the wall. Jacked black lines of cracking everywhere. A missing handle on the chest of the drawers. No basin in the sink. And there were lacy white patterns on the windowpane. Frost.[22]

Ironically, the only thing that warms her in her first morning in England is a blanket with bright Caribbean colours. They are the only sources of joy and light in her dreary room, a hint that perhaps her decision to leave her home island is not a step towards dreamy future.

In both books the primary vision of England is determined by the colonial cliché. However, when our characters closely observe the English landscape as in The Enigma of Arrival or encounter it for the first time, as in Small Island, the former concept of the Empire transforms into the idea of a post war country in decay. In this connection, I would like to mention the use of the word combination “small island” in both pieces of writing. Not only are Jamaica and Trinidad small islands, but also England, losing its colonies, turns to be a small island too.

3.1.2 War and Migration as Change Determinants of a Place

I will discuss the description of war in both books, focusing on the affects of war on the settings and on the people.

A perfect picture of post war England, lacking glory and territory, we receive through Bernard’s eyes. As he returns from India to Britain, he sees that:

England had shrunk. It was smaller than the place I’d left. Streets, shops, houses bore down like crowds, stifling even the feeble light that got trough. I had to stare out at the sea to catch a breath. And behind every face I saw were trapped the rememberings of war. Guarded by a smile. Shrouded in a frown. But everyone had them. Private conflicts. Scarring where touched. No point dwelling on your own pitiful story. Chap next to you was worse off. The man over there far more tragic. Silence was the only balm that healed.[23]

The destiny of all the characters in Small Island is influenced by the war. Hortense receives a message that her beloved Michael Roberts is missing, just as Queenie, whose husband is missing. Hortense immigrates to England, lead not only by her fantasies of the English life but also by a desire to cure her broken heart. Because of financial problems, Queenie lets her house to the postcolonial newcomers. Later, her husband discovers that not only the house but also the body of his wife was in the possession of the “darkies” as he called the colonial lodgers.

The tragedies of World War II are the reasons for the madness of both Cecilia’s mother, recognizing her missing father in every soldier, and Queenie’s father-in-law, being unable alone to find his way home. Gilbert and Michael Roberts just like Bernard leave their homeland to take part in the war. As a RAF man Gilbert leaves his small island for the first time and visits America and Britain.

An interesting moment in the representation of war in the Small Island is the connection between war and slavery which appears several times in the novel. I would like to mention the dark skinned Cecilia’s fear that Hitler may win the war and bring back slavery. Gilbert, having both Jewish and Jamaican origins, takes part in the war, not only to defend the Mother country, but also to contribute to defeating slavery in the world. In both cases, we encounter the racial message of slavery, where certain skin colour and origins are enough for its justification.

There is a sarcastic touch in the representation of war, because the British are conquering India, just as the Germans England. The English try to defend their castle, while the Jamaicans are fed by the illusion that they are fighting against the racial prejudice of the German Nazism, by helping the Mother country. Gilbert encounters the racist hatred of the whites even in the army, where they seemingly fight for the same goal. Besides, Bernard takes part in the war in England, only because of the opportunity it gives him to present himself as a hero.

Furthermore, Levy focuses not on World War II, not on the war in India, but on that at the centre of the Empire itself, where “another struggle is going on, a struggle about the way the British society is going to look”[24]. The message which Windrush brings to the Empire is about the end of nationalistic English society.

In The Enigma of Arrival we see the consequences of war also on the settings and on the characters. The pastoral romance of England at the beginning of the book transforms into a picture of a modern enterprise, whose servants are vandals and marauders. The former “carpenters, masons, bricklayers, might have had ideas of beauty and workmanship and looked for acknowledgement of their skills and craft and pains,…, sensing an absence of authority, an organization of decay, seemed to be animated by the opposite instinct: to hasten the decay …”[25]. The ruined manor stands for the cultural transformations in post war England. “Logic in the place of nature; efficiency violating sanctity; selfishness and greed driving out beauty: this is Naipaul’s vision of the new order of things.”[26]

Both The Enigma of Arrival and Small Island share the tendency of describing the ruined settings of post war Britain, lack of a network of family and true friends and life in isolation, which indicates a change towards a modern industrialized society.

Another important determinant for the change of a place is migration. It is one of the major subject matters of the two books.

I begin with The Enigma of Arrival, where the narrator’s position is quite ambiguous. On one hand he is fascinated by the transformation of London into a multicultural city, on the other, the invasion of numerous small islanders, “barbarian peoples of the globe, people of forest and desert”[27] scares him. The narrator describes London in 1950, two years after the arrival of Hortense and Gilbert. He is aware of the fact that “his very presence there is an instance of that decay, a consequence of the decline of empire and the movement of former colonial peoples, like himself, to the metropolitan country”[28]. The idea that the encounter with Englishness won’t happen in the periphery but at the centre, that the Englishness might be endangered by the barbarians, terrifies him. The position of the narrator implies his view of the indigenous cultures as backward and inferior and his affection for the image of old, imperial England, received during the years of his childhood and schooling.


[1] Caryl Philips: A New World Order, New York: Vintage 2001, p. 188.

[2] Virginia Richter: "Andrea Levy: Small Island". In: Tobias Döring (Ed.), A History of Postcolonial Literature in 12½ Books, Trier: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier 2007, p.2.

[3] Richter, „Andrea Levy Small Island “, 2.

[4] Phillips, A New World Order, 190.

[5] Phillips, A New World Order, 198.

[6] Elleke Boehmer: Colonial and Postcolonial Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press 2005, p.169.

[7] Robert Fleming: „Clean sweep: Andrea Levy defines what is to be black, British and a literary lioness“. (01.07.05)in FindArticles: Black Issues Book Review. URL: http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0HST/is_4_7/ai_n14858901 (15.05.07)

[8] „Interview with Andrea Levy-British-Council-Poland“ (19.05.06) in British Council Poland Homepage. URL: http://www.britishcouncil.org/poland-interview-with-andrea-levy.htm (15.05.07)

[9] V. S. Naipaul: The Enigma of Arrival. London: Picador 2002, p. 28.

[10] Naipaul, The Enigma of Arrival, 46.

[11] Naipaul, The Enigma of Arrival, 46.

[12] Naipaul, The Enigma of Arrival, 385.

[13] Andrea Levy: Small Island. London: Review 2004, 203.

[14] Levy, Small Island, 196.

[15] Levy, Small Island, 196.

[16] Levy, Small Island, 209.

[17] Levy, Small Island, 208.

[18] Timothy F. Weiss: On the margins: the art of exile in V. S. Naipaul. Amherst: Univ. of Massachusetts Press 1992., p. 196.

[19] Bharucha, Nilufer E.and Vrinda Nabar (Ed.) Mapping Cultural Spaces: postcolonial Indian literature in English ; essays in honour of Nissim Ezekiel. New Delhi: Vision Books 1998, p. 217.

[20] Naipaul, The Enigma of Arrival, 366.

[21] Levy, Small Island, 94.

[22] Levy, Small Island, 225.

[23] Levy, Small Island, 424.

[24] Richter, “Andrea Levy: Small Island”, 9.

[25] Naipaul, The Enigma of Arrival, 355.

[26] Jeffrey J. Folks: Damaged Lives: Southern & Caribbean narrative from Faulkner to Naipau l. New York: Lang 2005, p. 127.

[27] Naipaul, The Enigma of Arrival, 154.

[28] Weiss, On the Margins, 197.


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Andrea Levy Small Island Naipaul Enigma of Arrival Postcolonial Studies




Title: English Colonial Language Policy and Postcolonial Literature