Moving beyond the Canons of English Literature: A Postcolonial Teacher’s Perspective

Mahua Bhattacharjee and Saswata Kusari, Sarada Ma Girls’ College, West Bengal

“…it is common to see ‘literature’ defined as ‘full, central, immediate human experience.”

Raymond Williams. Marxism and Literature.

“Why do we read literature?”- it is inevitably the first question that is asked to the undergraduate students of English Literature as they cross the threshold of school and come to the college with dream in their eyes of making it big. However, this simple and innocuous question seems to put the students in a fix altogether. The most familiar answer that we get is that reading English brings good jobs. So, as a teacher, active in the postcolonial period, it would be easy to conclude that they are living under a self-delusion and perhaps still suffering from a colonial hang-over. We concede the fact that English is needed to get jobs; but why would one enrol oneself to a course that is supposed to develop some ethics of reading, imagining and interpreting; and while doing so develop a keen sense of analysing the culture as literature itself is, possibly, the best form of cultural expressions. This leads us to some important questions regarding the politics of Education in our country itself. This paper, hence, would be interrogating the problems of perception and possible ways of overcoming these shortcomings regarding the notion of reading English literature.

The word job (chakri in Bengali; and naukri in Hindi) carries the connotation of servitude. It was during the colonial era that the native men started to recognize the essential need of chakri. In fact, the sermon singers of British imperialism, like Macaulay, wanted to breed up a class of Indians, brown in colour but white in taste, who would be able to serve the British Empire suitably. In that context, having apposite knowledge of English language became mandatory for securing a job. Ironically though, the texts that were taught in English curriculum were models of the great literatures of the West. Historians[i] have repeatedly shown that such a curriculum was chosen to impart ‘superior’ cultural values to the natives with the hope of bringing them out of their intellectual slumber. While doing so, they were able to convince their Indian counterpart of their ‘inferior’ moral values. Though students learned the language and secured jobs, they gradually moved away from their respective cultures as such a curriculum failed to recognise the indigenous values. This cultural ethos is satirically projected by Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay in his short fiction ‘Babu’ where he ridicules this class of Bengali men who believe that the British are inevitably superior to them; and while believing so, they seem to look down upon their own culture. With the idea that the natives are ‘white man’s burden’ and they need to off-load it by educating them, the British chose curriculum not only for English but also for other subjects keeping in mind the European values as it suited their political need.

Teaching in a college situated in a semi-rural area of West Bengal, year after year, we have been encountering students who are not properly conscious of what reading literature is all about; as they have barely read any literature in their life-time. Most of these students come from Vernacular medium schools and have a very vague idea about Shakespeare and Wordsworth; and scarcely any idea about the Donne, Marlowe and other Champions of the language. As they progress with the course, they find themselves moving deep into the mud by the sheer credence of the syllabus. In this situation, it is very easy, as a teacher, to distance yourself from their misery and de-motivate them by saying that they should look for some other courses appropriate for themselves. Moreover, the irony lies in the fact that those who enrol themselves in English Honours course seem to have an illusion that they have already mastered the language. It is a reality that they solve grammatical problems rather nonchalantly; write essays and paragraphs quite brilliantly. However, grammar and writing are something that they have in their school syllabus. In our country, unfortunately enough, there is nothing beyond the syllabus. The schools that cover the most amount of syllabus are considered to be the best ones. Researchers of Educational science have shown that teaching more amounts of texts does not guarantee better and more efficient learning. In our culture, greater emphasis is placed on scoring marks in examination; albeit by cramming ‘notes’. Students are seldom encouraged to think imaginatively, to read on their own, and write creatively. With such a dubious educational background, they come to college to pursue a course that demands creativity and imagination. Instead of believing in their creativity, students expect themselves to be spoon-fed by the teachers. And if that doesn’t happen they resort to ‘cheap’ notebooks that provide ‘answers’ and they try to pass the examination by cramming them down. It is unfortunate but the situation is mostly like this. And by the time they realize that they have taken a wrong approach, it is inevitably too late. Instead of pursuing the study of literature any more, after completing their graduation, most of them look for jobs that have got nothing to do with literature.

There is a tendency in a section of the academia to consider the students as ‘dumb’. However, we believe that such an attitude is highly erroneous. If we are to blame anything, it’s primarily got to be the education system. We never try to cultivate the imaginative faculty of a student. Our syllabus is strictly based on the touchstone model popularized by Matthew Arnold where the texts written by much celebrated authors are crammed in with the view of showing the students how glorious English language and culture is. In the very first year itself the students have to read Metaphysical poetry, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Pope’s The Rape of the Lock and various other texts that are considered to be the marvels of English literature. However, these texts cannot be segregated from the culture that shaped up the imagination of these Poets and authors, and unfortunately though, students seem to have no perception of those cultures. In this respect, C.S. Lewis’s observation becomes very handy, “Literature just adds to reality, it does not simply describe it. It enriches the necessary competencies that daily life requires and provides; and in this respect, it irrigates the deserts that our lives have already become”[ii]. In this respect, we might argue that it would be impossible for students to understand ‘competencies that daily life requires and provides’ by reading such canonical British texts. As literature is considered as an extension of the culture students have to read books to get a glimpse of it where these texts were born. However, such glimpses are of course not enough to shape up their imagination. Intimidated by the massive grandeur of these texts, students feel exasperated from the very beginning. Instead of appreciating the sheer beauty of a Shakespearean sonnet; or the magical charisma of Satan; or the brilliant arguments of the metaphysical poets most of the students are concerned about getting their answers ready for the exams. If the answers are ready-made, it is even better. It’s all very good to teach them Shakespeare and Milton and Pope. But as long as they don’t expand their understanding of the culture which produced these marvellous texts, their reading will never be complete. Will this situation continue to be as it is? Or can this negativity be turned into a positive atmosphere? Let us ponder upon some possibilities to come out of this apparent crisis that is going to breed even more mediocrity.

In order to eliminate the fear and inhibition, that we have seen students encounter regarding these canonical texts, we may resort to an interdisciplinary approach. According to Roland Barthes:

It is indeed as though the interdisciplinarity which is today held up as a prime value in research cannot be accomplished by the simple confrontation of specialist branches of knowledge. Interdisciplinarity is not the calm of an easy security; it begins effectively (as opposed to the mere expression of a pious wish) when the solidarity of the old disciplines breaks down — perhaps even violently, via the jolts of fashion — in the interests of a new object and a new language neither of which has a place in the field of the sciences that were to be brought peacefully together, this unease in classification being precisely the point from which it is possible to diagnose a certain mutation. (1470)

With an interdisciplinary approach we may encourage students to use her own cultural understanding in interpreting the text. We should try and intersect the study of literature and film; literature and theatre; and literature and fine arts. What this would probably do is to give a visual image of the text to the students. Instead of reading the text loud in the classroom we may start off by showing them a movie on Macbeth, which would give them a better perception of the Elizabethan and Jacobean culture rather than the printed words. The students will also develop a clearer perception of the minute nuances of English theatre as well. We believe that such an interdisciplinary approach will also encourage the students to come out of their shell, and if that happens, students would surely be able to expand their horizon of critical thinking. Such interdisciplinarity will also be achieved if the basic tenets other forms of knowledge (such as Sociology and Psychology) are corroborated with the interpretation of literary text. In our academia, such an attitude is generally taken in the Postgraduate courses. However, it will not be erroneous to look for such an attitude for the undergraduate students as well. With such an approach, the students will be able to subvert the hegemony of Eurocentric literary criticism as well.

If students can clearly visualize the culture from where a literary text emerges, then they can indulge in the practice of close reading; and we are of the opinion that close reading itself is a political act. Why so? Every text is political in its own way. For instance, when Shakespeare wrote The Tempest the text emerged out the dominant sentiments of an Imperialist where Prospero’s (white man) victory over Caliban (native) becomes a symbolic manifestation of the world that the British imperialists wanted to see. Though appreciative of the beauty of the text, we, the readers of the third world should also be able to decipher the inherent politics of the age that finds a manifestation in this Shakespearean play. The Postcolonial critics have already shown how this text is an emblem of colonial discourse. By letting the students know about the culture we might enable them to interpret and subvert the text’s hegemonic and Eurocentric parlance from their own perspective. In this respect, it also becomes important to resist the canonical and Eurocentric interpretation of these texts as well[iii]. Using Barthes words, we might encourage the students to look at the text as a ‘subversive force in respect of the old classifications. (1471)’As Interdisciplinary models focus on real-world learning, students can use the text to understand their real life, and vice-versa, by subverting the hegemonic analysis and interpretation that are available to them by a subjective involvement with the text itself.

In sync with the arguments made in the previous paragraph, it becomes imminent now to talk about the changing trends in English literature itself. English, especially in the Postcolonial era, is going through a sea-change, and students, from the beginning itself, should be made aware of the paradigmatic shift of this changing dynamics of English. Britain no more has the stranglehold over literature. New literatures in English or Postcolonial literature have emerged out of this atmosphere of change. In its own way these literatures try to destabilise the existing patterns and discourses of English literature. Over the last few decades of the previous century many a country was decolonized. Along with the decolonization of the political spectrum, there has been a sustained effort in decolonizing the minds as well. However, as it stands, things apparently haven’t really changed. The texts that were considered models of great humanistic values two hundred years ago are still considered the same. If one is willing to learn the use of rhetorical language, these texts should serve as models of excellence. However, one must be aware of the fact that such texts are also models of Euro centrism criticized by Postcolonial critics. It is not surprising that students, who have no idea of the British culture of the seventeenth and the eighteenth century, find difficulty in reading between the lines and interpreting the text on their own. Instead of limiting their imaginative faculty, it would be more rational to present them some texts which would be easier to associate with. This can be corroborated with the aspect of interdisciplinarity mentioned earlier. From our limited experience we have seen that students tend to associate better with a text that talks about Kolkata streets or Mumbai squalors rather than those situated in the Elizabethan court. As they learn to read and interpret these texts on their own, they can aspire to be more creative; and if they become more creative, the canonical texts will not pose a threat to them. Postcolonial literature, to be specific, is the expression of the third world people and students must be made aware of that expression from the early phases of their pursuit of English literature so that they can find a comfortable footing.

Suggesting a specific model of studying literature is fraught with tremendous risk as such suggestions run the risk of becoming a metanarrative in itself. However, the methods of study that we have proposed are in sync with the changing nature of the world politics, along with it, the changing nature of literature itself. We earnestly hope that by becoming more politically conscious of the cultural spectrum from which literary texts emerge students can think more imaginatively and write more creatively.


[i] Gauri Viswanathan’s important work The Masks of Conquest is an important contribution to this field of study.

[ii] This line quoted from Goodreads. Hyperlink:

[iii] By using the word resist we are trying to suggest that students must not avoid such interpretation. The politics of reading can only be realised when the students start subverting the Eurocentric, racist and heteropatriarchal reading of the text.

Works Cited:

Barthes, Roland. “From Work to Text”. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: Norton, 2001. 1470-1475.

Williams, Raymond. “Literature”. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: Norton, 2001. 1567-1575.

Mahua Bhattacharjee is currently working at the Department of English, Sarada Ma Girls’ College, affiliated to West Bengal State University. She is also the Teacher-in-Charge of the same college. Her areas of interest are American Literature, Theories of Language learning and Romantic Literature.

Saswata Kusari is a faculty member of the Department of English, Sarada Ma Girls’s College, affiliated to West Bengal State University. He is currently working as a Ph.D student at the Department of English of Kalyani University under the Supervision of Dr. Niladri R. Chatterjee. His areas of interest include New Literatures in English, Cultural Studies, Gender Studies and Postcolonial Studies.

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