The Problematic of the Kaleidoscopic Postcolonial Discourse

In Margaret Atwood's "Surfacing", Anita Desai's "Fire on the Mountain" and Chinua Achebe's "Things Fall Apart"

Term Paper 2018 25 Pages

Cultural Studies - Miscellaneous


Table of contents:


1. Psychological Colonial Traumas:

2. The Representation of Colonized Women:

3. Nature as a “Colonized Subject”:


Works Cited


Postcolonial literature is generally concerned with foregrounding the upshots of colonialism with regard to cultures, societies and individuals, namely the psychological and emotional experiences of the colonial subjects, the condition of the marginalized “Other” in postcolonial societies, the cultural encounters between the colonizer and the colonized, and the vexed question of identity engendered by colonization. Indeed, it can be theorized that these are dramatized in the psychological experiences of the colonial subjects which are quite symptomatic of the postcolonial condition. The most prominent of these psychological existential states are paranoia, alienation and identity loss. In fact, while paranoia can be perceived as the excessive or irrational fear of and suspicion towards the other, alienation can be defined as a mode of experience in which the person becomes estranged from himself, from other people, and from the world outside. At the other end, identity loss is a psychological crisis during which the individual does no longer know who he is nor what distinguishes him from others. Accordingly, postcolonial literature highlights the way through which colonization afflicts its victimized subjects by engendering an extreme sense of paranoia, alienation, and crisis of identity which may climax in suicide.

Furthermore, it is noteworthy that postcolonial literature has extended its scope so that, beside its focus on the ramifications of colonialism, it aggregates within its body of works issues centered on the denigration of women and the domination of nature, enacting, thus, postcolonial feminist and postcolonial ecocritical discourses. On the one hand, women in once-colonized societies have invariably been subjected to the prevalent hegemonic patriarchy and have been conceived of as a marginalized “Other” set in contradistinction to the dominant male. In this sense, “they share with colonized races and peoples an intimate experience of the politics of oppression and repression” (Ashcroft 172). Consequently, the condition of postcoloniality in postcolonial literature entails a meticulous examination of the status of women. On the other hand, nature, or what has recently been referred to as environment, is an integral component of postcolonial literature as is corroborated by Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin: “Place has always been of great importance to post-colonial theory, but the more material and global issue of environmentalism is an important and growing aspect of this concept” (213). In literature, nature is laden with all the postcolonial significations associated with the central concept of “space”; besides, its exploitation by humans echoes the Western egocentric utilitarianism which typifies the colonial attitude. Necessarily, this makes of the ecocritical discourse, which studies literature in its relationship with nature, part and parcel of the postcolonial discourse.

In the light of this multi-facetted structure of postcolonial literature, it can be inferred that the degree and limitations of postcoloniality in a postcolonial work of fiction can be problematically measured by analyzing this literary text in terms of the expounded features. That is to say, it is the text’s approach of the quintessential psychological implications of colonialism, notably the experiences of paranoia, alienation and identity loss, its depiction of women, and its affiliation to nature which permit the extrapolation of the degree and limitations of postcoloniality in a given work of postcolonial literature.

In this context, this paper intends to closely examine three novels, Surfacing by the Canadian Margaret Atwood, Fire on the Mountain by the Indian Anita Desai, and Things Fall Apart by the Nigerian Chinua Achebe, in an attempt to unearth the features which inscribe them within the framework of postcolonialism and to assess their postcoloniality. As a matter of fact, Desai’s Fire on the Mountain is a typical model of postcolonial literature because of the characteristics it is endowed with. Surfacing and Things Fall Apart are truly postcolonial novels, but their postcoloniality is limited due to the essentialist antagonism and the support of patriarchy with which they are laden respectively. The analysis of the three novels will be conducted through the demystification in each novel of the characters’ psychological experiences instigated by the process of colonization, of the representation of women, and of the account provided on the nexus between colonization and nature.

1. Psychological Colonial Traumas:

As a matter of fact, postcolonial literature endeavors to crystallize the insidious ramifications of colonization by delving into the psychologies and psyches of colonial subjects so as to disrupt the colonial claims of refining the peoples of the once-colonized countries and acquainting them with the joys of civilization. In this context, it is of the essence to evoke Fanon’s groundbreaking account of the intricate link between colonization as politics and psychology:

By examining some of the debilitating personality and identity effects of trying to understand oneself [...] Fanon shows how what might otherwise be understood within a purely psychological framework is far better explained in political terms, that is, with reference to understandings of violence, power and subordination. In doing this, Fanon is also, albeit strategically, using psychological concepts to political ends, that is, to draw attention to the true extent and damage of colonial/political oppression (Hook 85).

Correspondingly, bringing psychology into politics with regard to the three novels reveals manifold psychological traumatic conditions which the characters undergo as a result of the colonial expansion.

To get started with, in Atwood’s Surfacing, the new form of colonialism, incarnated in the American cultural imperialism of Canada, generates a dramatic intensification of the psychological state of Atwood’s protagonist which eventually reaches its pinnacle in the psychic malaise of paranoia.

At the outset, the narrator displays an intense feeling of abomination vis-à-vis the Americans. This attitude is, indeed, prompted by the implacable spread of the American cultural imperialism. The cultural invasion of Canada is illustrated through the three moose waving the American flag on the restaurant roof (Atwood 14); both of the two motifs, the moose and the flag, along with their higher position, insinuate the forceful supremacy of the American culture. Even worse, the American cultural imperialism is relentlessly spreading in a way that “Canadians have acquired the pattern of behaviour - careless, irresponsible and imposing” just as Americans are (Dostanic 204). This is exemplified when Atwood’s protagonist identifies the two Canadians as Americans due to their reckless and irresponsible manners, most significantly their killing of the heron that is “a metaphor [...] for Canada as a nation” (Rigney 49), which mirrors the acculturation of Canadians to American culture. Therefore, under this inexorably growing cultural colonialism, the narrator finds herself compelled to gaze at this American Other through the psychological lenses of abomination and repugnance by dint of his equation to a contagious, destructive virus:

They spread themselves like a virus, they get into the brain and take over the cells and the cells change from inside and the ones that have the disease can’t tell the difference. Like the late show sci-fi movies, creatures from outer space, body snatchers injecting themselves into you dispossessing your brain, their eyes blank eggshells behind the dark glasses. If you look like them and talk like them and think like them then you are them, I was saying, you speak their language, a language is everything you do (Atwood 101-102).

The protagonist’s psychological attitude of aversion is further underpinned through her overt claim: “I realized it wasn’t the men I hated, it was the Americans” (120). As far as she is concerned, this hatred is justified by the equation she finds between Americans and devastation; in other words, “at a higher level of metaphor, those who are destructive become, in the narrator’s mind, Americans” (Macpherson 31).

Moreover, the psychological mindscape of Atwood’s protagonist shifts to a state of enmity towards the Americans by parallelizing them to the Nazi leader Hitler:

For us when we were small the origin was Hitler, he was the great evil, many-tentacled, ancient and indestructible as the Devil. [...] All possible horrors were measured against him. But Hitler was gone and the thing remained; whatever it was, even then, moving away from them as they smirked and waved goodbye, I was asking Are the Americans worse than Hitler (102).

This comparison of Americans to Hitler is engendered by the narrator’s acquaintance with the typically American colonial attitudes of megalomania and will to power, epitomized in the dreadful killing of the heron, which are much like Hitler’s idiosyncrasies. If Canada, during the Second World War, claimed its enmity against Germany, the narrator’s private mediations on the nexus between Hitler and the Americans is, then, an evidence of the psychological state of enmity she adopts towards Americans.

As a result of this psychic inimical perception of the Americans, Atwood’s protagonist, a paragon of the neo-colonial subjects, reaches the climax of her psychological vortex through the traumatic experience of paranoia. The latter represents the culminating repercussions of colonization in Atwood’s postcolonial novel Surfacing. In point of fact, the protagonist’s paranoia allegorizes the Canadian paranoid trauma with regard to the drastically sweeping Americanization. This is evidenced through Atwood’s claim in The Journals of Susanna Moodie: “If the national mental illness of the United States is megalomania, that of Canada is paranoid schizophrenia” (qtd in Goetsch 173). This is, indeed, recurrently displayed in Surfacing through the narrator’s ponderings. For instance, taking the two Canadians for Americans, she explicitly reveals her hyperbolic fear:

From the rock where I washed the dishes I could see part of a tent, in among the cedars at the distant end of the lake: their bunker. Binoculars trained on me, I could feel the eye rays, cross of the rifle sight on my forehead, in case I made a false move (Atwood 93).

This paranoid attitude is indeed generated by the Canadian belief that the American presence in the nation is a mere attempt to extend the realm of its evil colonialism and its proclivity for devastation. More significantly, this postcolonial psychological state of paranoia is more crystallized when the narrator inwardly imparts: “the war may have started, the invasion, they are Americans” (144). Indeed, such a paranoid claim is reiterated throughout the novel by David, mainly when he purveys a whole account of a future American conquest of Canada because of water shortage (77). Nevertheless, the narrator’s claim is much more significant since it is revealed in a time of self-confrontation and of confession of inner fears, that is, during “her immersion in the wilderness [as a metaphor] for her journey through her own subconscious mind” (Rigney 53). Hence, this personal hyperbolic fear enacts paranoia as a psychological trauma ingrained in the Canadian “collective subconscious” and initiated by the process of American neo-colonialism.

Overall, this analytical account of the novel evidences its belonging to the framework of postcolonial literature, but, at the same time, it lays bare the limitations of postcolonial thought within Surfacing. That is to say, in her attempt to expound the psychological effects of the American neo-colonialism on Canadians through a gradual movement from abomination to national paranoia, Atwood falls in the trap of Manichaeism and national xenophobia. In fact, Atwood divides the psychic world of the protagonist into two opposite extremes: Canadian and American. On the one hand, the Canadian extreme incorporates everyone who is innocent, victimized by colonization and whose culture is genuinely Canadian. On the other hand, “American” becomes the term Atwood uses to describe any human being who typifies evil, destructiveness, inhumanness, savagery and sadism. The narrator, Atwood’s voice in the novel, though recognizing that the two Canadians who have killed the heron are not American, still insists: “It doesn’t matter what country they’re from, my head said, they’re still Americans” (Atwood 101). This essentialist discrepant division of the world into two antagonistic poles demonstrates that the novel is laden with an embedded Manichean attitude. Likewise, Atwood suffuses her nationalist discourse addressed to the whole Canadian nation with feelings of rampant hatred vis-à-vis Americans through her recurrent implementation of anti-American terms as “rotten capitalist bastards” (13), “fascist” (33), and “Yank pigs” (77) and through the misanthropic meditation of her protagonist: “In the distance the Americans’ campfire glowed, a dull red cyclops eye: the enemy lines. I wished evil towards them: Let them suffer, I prayed, tip their canoe, burn them, rip them open” (97). Certainly, Manichaeism and xenophobia go against the postcolonial ends which promote the management of difference and the acceptance of the Other, which problematically questions the degree of postcoloniality in the novel.

In a similar fashion, in Fire on the Mountain, Anita Desai is concerned with probing into the psyches of her protagonists so as to unveil the mental illness provoked by the British colonization of India: alienation. Indeed, “as Ngugi wa Thiong’o amongst others describes, one of the more damaging effects of colonization was the psychological dissonance and alienation experienced by colonized peoples” (Boehmer 180). Yet, unlike the univocality of paranoia in Surfacing where all the characters go through the same paranoid feeling towards Americans, Anita Desai fragments the focal psychological trauma of her novel so that it is experienced differently by her two protagonists ̵ Nanda Kaul and Raka. While Nanda is alienated from the microcosmic world, that is, her family, her great-granddaughter Raka is alienated from the macrocosmic world; both are alienated because of their exposure to the Western colonial values.

Nanda Kaul’s story opens with her close attachment to Carignano, her house on the mountain in Kasauli.

Everything she wanted was here, at Carignano, in Kasauli. Here, on the ridge of the mountain, in this quiet house. It was the place, and the time of life, that she had wanted and prepared for all her life ̵ as she realized on her first day at Carignano, with a great, cool flowering of relief ̵ and at last she had it (Desai 3).

This place is of a paramount significance to her to the extent that she identifies herself through it. In this context, it is worth mentioning that space is one of the central concerns of postcolonial literature.

A major feature of post-colonial literatures is the concern with place and displacement. It is here that the special post-colonial crisis of identity comes into being; the concern with the development or recovery of an effective identifying relationship between self and place (Ashcroft 8).



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Sultan Moulay Sliman University
problematic kaleidoscopic postcolonial discourse margaret atwood surfacing anita desai fire mountain chinua achebe things fall apart Feminism Ecocriticism Cultural imperialism



Title: The Problematic of the Kaleidoscopic Postcolonial Discourse