Contents Index

Race, Gender, and Imperial Ideology in the Nineteenth Century

Zohreh T. Sullivan

Nineteenth-Century Contexts, 13:1 (1989), 19-32

{19} When the Monster created by Mary Shelley's Frankenstein learns to read, his first lessons include an ordering of the world at once racist, imperialist, and sexist -- an oppositional, hierarchic structure finally and ironically reinforced by his own exile away from the company of man. Looking at his first family, he learns the gendering of morality and the moral ordering of nineteenth century class, caste and nationalism: Agatha, the girl with the golden hair and "gentle demeanour" who weeps, is "unlike" common farm-house servants (102); the "strange system of human society" consists of "the division of property . . . of rank, descent, and noble blood" (115); with either money or blood, a man, he knows, might be respected, but, wonders the Monster, "what was I?" The answer that some readers have found is that in his inadequacy and self-loathing, the Monster is indeed not a Man but a Woman. As nameless, suffering, and powerless object, the Monster is, like Woman, an incomplete and therefore "flawed opposite of man" (Suleiman, 147); and as textual Other, he carries, like Woman, a double status as powerful destroyer and as "miserable . . . abandoned . . . abortion" (219).

What the Monster learns from his Eurocentric and patriarchal texts are the reactionary and conservative lessons befitting the angelic ladies in the novel. "Through this monster," says Judith Weissman, "Mary Shelley begins what has become another battle cry of conservative politicians for the last two centuries -- the real danger in radical change is that it will destroy the nuclear family, father, mother, and children" (133). In learning his first lessons in history, government and religion, he follows stages in the construction of Imperial masculinity: he is led to admire those "peaceable lawgivers Numa, Solon, and Lycurgus" (MS, 125) also favored by Rousseau, to transcend feeling by moving from Werther to Plutarch who "taught me high thoughts . . . elevated me above the wretched sphere of my own reflections, to admire and love {20} the heroes of past ages" (124); he learns the lessons of Orientalism by opposing the "stupendous genius" of the Greeks against the "slothful Asiatics" (115), whose evidence of social power over women is seen in Safie's father, a version of the "Lustful Turk" (see Marcus Ch. 5). Safie, the "sweet Arabian" must flee from Asia and the bondage of the "treacherous Turk" whose religion, we are told, forbids "independence of spirit" to women (119). The Monster learns that geography, history, culture, and religion are all gendered along polarized, language lines -- the "gentle," "slothful," female, Asiatic, and Islamic are opposed to the "stupendous genius" of the Greek world and by extension of Christian Europe. The Monster's deformity poses the colonial question of racial difference and is a cultural reminder of 19th-century anxieties about the proximity and fluidity of racial and sexual Otherness. His exile, therefore, is fit reward for upstart deviants who threaten, with terror, energy, or mere difference, the enclosed domestic and national family. But the Monster's rejection by the established family of man is also a symptom of nineteenth-century cultural hegemony that insulates by separating the normal from the deviant, man against monster, and the manly from the effeminate.

I introduce this essay with the story of Shelley's Monster because its unexpected and persistent hold on the English imagination reveals the anxieties of a culture (and gender) that in its preoccupation with defense against the Other constructs the stereotype as fixed reality, fantasy and fetish. "The scene of fetishism," says Bhabha, "is also the scene of the reactivation and repetition of primal fantasy -- the subject's desire for a pure origin that is always threatened by its division (161ff.)." Frankenstein's "fetishized" relationship to his creature -- that of man to his (female) possession and of subject to object, to be made, displayed, and dismissed -- bears obvious resemblance to that of the colonizer to the colonized with all the attendent problems of alienation from "product," projection of desire and contempt, denial of subjectivity, and denial of connection or responsibility for the creature he has tried to make in his own image. Yet, the oppositional and monological structure necessary for the creation of such racial stereotypes dissolves and is problematized when the Monster is allowed to speak his story. The image and fantasy of the Other, whether monster, immigrant, Jew, or "Oriental" fueled the British conviction that their island and unitary identity was imperilled by encroaching hordes of inefficient and physically undesirable aliens (see Rosenthal 131ff.). That fear, compounded by popular science and pamphleteers, predicted the impending degeneration of Empire and the {21} mongrelization of the white race. Frankenstein's refusal to produce a female creature, of course, echoes not only Prospero's fear of peopling his island with Calibans and later fears of racial polution expressed by Eugenicists, but is psychologically necessary for defense against the hegemonic and male fear of self-loss or castration. Or, as Gayatri Spivak puts it:

the phallic mother exists only by virtue of the castration-anxious son; in Frankenstein's judgment, the hysteric father . . . cannot produce a daughter. Here the language of racism -- the dark side of imperialism understood as social mission -- combines with the hysteria of masculism into the idiom of (the withdrawal of) sexual reproduction rather than subject-constitution. (255)
But the story also introduces the multiple and dialogic problems of colonial discourse in the language of the Monster, in his complicity with the lessons of patriarchy, and in the scenes of what Said would call both latent and manifest Orientalism. The Monster's introduction to the history of the world and to knowledge itself is to Patriarchy; the Orient, represented by the silent subaltern Safie, is typically described, to use Said's words, "as feminine, its riches as fertile, its main symbols the sensual woman, the harem and the despotic -- but curiously attractive -- ruler" (Theory, 225). The Oriental female is doubly oppressed, caught between her tyrannical father and foreign patriarchy, between native and foreign imperialism.1 The Monster too is doubly oppressed, caught between his own rejecting father/creator yet internalizing the knowledge of the world as constructed by the race of the Father; denied as son he is, like the native Caliban, able to recover a voice that simultaneously resists yet confirms and colludes in the repressions of the State.

The construction of the Monster in the position of nameless, fetishized lack allowed to occupy center stage, to speak and then in spite of its destructive and pitiful pleas for recognition, to be exiled into frozen silence, therefore demonstrates how hierarchies of race and class, ideologies of empire, and gender oppositions are actively interdependent on one another. Critics now working on Orientalism, Race theory or Imperialism draw on feminist criticism along with psychoanalytic and cultural criticism in order to raise further questions about margins and centers, about the construction of sexual and political identity, about the connections between power, family, and nationhood and the construction of the male imperial subject. The feministc critique of representation, {22} therefore, has problematized not only the ambivalent image of the Monster, but also of women, of Otherness, and the Imperial and colonized subject.

We probably need no reminders of how theology, science, and ideology grew increasingly interdependent during the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries as the Great Chain of Being evolved into the ladder of Darwinian evolution. Justifying class, race, and gender inequality by locating its cause in "Nature" rather than society or God, biology became not only the "science of the political right, but the science of those who suspected science, reason and progress" (Hobsbawm 252). And Darwin's theory of the survival of the fittest, now joined with his differentiation between "weaker" and "stronger" races, resulted in a racist anthropology which presumed that Western survival and Empire were proof enough of racial superiority. Empowered by language and his civilization, the European could define, erase, exoticize, and violate the people and space he entered.

The history of Imperialism is inseparable from (though not identical with) nineteenth century racism and the gender-coded moral oppositions and hierarchies which inform its judgments. Although the intersection between race, political power and gender can be traced to the earliest literary tracts on the "Other" (Said takes us back to Euripides' The Bacchae and Aeschylus' The Persians), it is to Count Joseph Arthur de Gobineau (1816-82) that modern writers point as the father of modern racism. As ethnographer, scientist, and aristocrat, Gobineau's fear of miscegenation, democracy, and mongrelization revealed itself through his construction of an elite race as defense against the catastrophe he foresaw of the end of the human race. His Essay on the Inequality of Human Races (1853), considered by Hannah Arendt and others as the standard text of the century for race theory in history, sees the decay of race and the mixing of blood as the cause of the fall of civilizations. Gobineau distinguishes between the white, the black, and the yellow in terms of the relative limitations of reason, thought, and intellect in non-white races and the predominance of energy, desire, and intensity, combined paradoxically with passivity, to be found in the black and yellow races. The splitting of racial virtues according to familiar class and gender polarities was as apparent to nineteenth century readers as it is today. By opposing the masculine instincts of civilization, organization, law, and discipline, to the feminine instincts of creativity, art, and passive receptivity, Gobineau mapped the newly emerging science of man on to earlier philosophical (Rousseau) and {23} theological theories. Other theories of race were less sinister than Gobineau's and in some cases were directed to defending the essential humanity of other races despite their difference. But even these functioned to preserve sharp distinctions between "us" and "them" and served to police the sexual and social imagination of nineteenth-century male imperialist ideology.

Across the channel, Edmund Burke denounced the "abstraction" of human rights and the horror of the French Revolution by defending the "national" rights of Englishmen against what he perceived to be the non-existent "natural" rights of men, thereby bestowing nobility onto an entire nation as opposed to a race. Historians debate the relative claims of Carlyle and Dilke to be known as the father of British Imperialism (see Arendt 180 and Bodelsen 22ff.). But both aimed to define Saxon character in terms of masculine virtues as essential to "leaders," to "heroes" and to what Dilke called that "grandeur of race." Constructions of heroic masculinity were conflated with myths of cultural origins and common inheritance in order to create a unified idea of the Imperial mission.

But while the English were creating images of newly acquired colonies as extensions of their idealized Family with Queen Victoria as androgynous protector, the "ma-baap" (Mother-Father) to native children, the working class family in England, deprived of protection against exploitation, was being subjected to an unregulated labor market with ten-to-eight-hour working days for men, women, and children. The rhetoric of fear eventually used against extended female employment in factories was not unlike that used to describe undesirable Others: Lord Anthony Ashley warned (in 1844) that women became too independent if they had the means to support families, that they were already forming "various clubs and associations, and gradually acquiring all those privileges which are held to be the proper portion of the male sex," that they were "leaders and exciters of the young men to violence," and that, when demoralized, they "contaminate all that comes within their reach" (quoted in Gallager 124). The future of England and of domestic peace, he added, rests on limiting the labor hours for factory women. By the end of the century, women found themselves in increasingly exploitative jobs in large scale manufacture or in sweat-shops such as match-making or sewing machine factories; or women returned to more underpaid and diminishing domestic industries (lace and dress-making, frame-work knitting) that sustained them before the factory age and that allowed them to work while also {24} caring for families and homes. It was this gradual separation of home and work that encouraged patterns of gender-economic division and began a new kind of dependence and inequality between husbands and wives (Hobsbawm 198). But the growth of technology and industrialization also increased work possibilities for women and by the 1880's and 1890's, teaching and clerical and shop positions in Britain and other European countries were predominantly feminized (Hobsbawm 200ff.) Although most women stayed away from emancipation movements, those who formed the vanguard expected a new politics to transform traditional relationships between the sexes and classes, saw class and abolitionist struggles as versions of their own struggle against patriarchy, and formed a substantial part of labor unions, abolitionist and socialist movements. Queen Victoria, of course, opposed "this mad wicked folly of 'Women's Rights'" for fear that they would, as they unsexed themselves, grow "'hateful, heartless -- and disgusting'" (quoted in Miles 187).

As was the case in economics, so too were the politics of Imperialism and education dominantly masculine. The discourse of Imperialism, gendered by hierarchy and trope, mapped domestic ideology to social paternalism, repeated familiar antinomies and confirmed Victorian myths of manhood and of Empire as paternalistic enterprise that in turn informed the myths of manliness so constructed as to oppose the ordered, disciplined, rational and masculine to the chaotic, childlike, irrational and feminine. Ideas of "character" as secret keys to racial and colonial superiority were popularized by such propagandists as Samuel Smiles, whose Self-Help (1859), Character (1871), Thrift (1875), and Duty (1887) were enormously influential, easily assimilated, widely translated into almost every European and Indian language, as well as Japanese, Arabic, and Turkish. More importantly, they sold more than any of the great nineteenth-century novels. The virtues he extolled were part of his gospel of work, discipline and physical exercise -- all part of the cult of manliness and Empire:

Wonderful is the magic of drill! Drill means discipline, training, education . . . These soldiers -- who are ready to march steadily against vollied fire, against belching cannon -- or to beat their heads against bristling bayonets . . . were once tailors, shoemakers, mechanics, weavers and ploughmen: with mouths gaping, shoulders stooping, feet straggling, arms and hands like great fins hanging by their sides; but now their gait is firm and martial, their figures are erect, and they march along to the sound of music with a tread that makes the earth shake. (quoted in Briggs 127-8)
{25} So too for Baden-Powell, constructor of the masculine schoolboy Imperial subject, the founder of the Boy Scouts and inventor of the patent on English character as defense for the imperiled island, the key ingredients were discipline and obedience. The hidden agenda in Baden-Powell, as Michael Rosenthal has shown us, is the self-interested voice of the middle class defending its right to established privileges while justifying the inequalities of the class system (9). The concerns of scouting extend to the rigid and specific masculine codes that inform the mythology of Imperialism. The consensus about the ideal appearance of the Englishman weeded out those who were inefficient, narrow-chested, stunted, individualistic, excitable, or easily wearied (Rosenthal 131-3). The persistent myth of decadence, of a falling Empire, of an imperiled island, allowed a collusion between the Baden-Powells, the Eugenicists, the conservative politicians, and the ethnologists who conflated race degeneration, lost manhood, and loss of Empire. Men like Admiral Beresford, the Earl of Dunraven, and other well placed public figures supported, first, the Society for the Suppression of the Immigration of Destitute Aliens and then the British Brothers League that collected "all those who already shared his [William Shaw's] belief that the alien snatched the Englishman's bread from this lips, in order to agitate for a measure of restriction" (Gainer 68).

Whether written by missionaries, scientists, historians, or novelists, Imperial or colonial discourse struggles with the Other as a text upon which to project fantasy, fear, and desire. The historian Thomas Macaulay writes history using such familiar rhetorical tropes (reminiscent of Conrad's first narrator in "Heart of Darkness," who recalls early imperialists and sea pirates as "jewels flashing in the night of time") as exploits of romantic, strong masculine heroes against weak, feminine Others. Describing, for instance, a particular Brahmin Nuncomar in an essay on Warren Hastings, Macaulay writes "What the Italian is to the Englishman, what the Hindoo is to the Italian, what the Bengalee is to other Hindoos, that was Nuncumar to the Bengalees. The physical organization of the Bengalee is feeble even to Effeminacy" (quoted in Green 32). The eighteenth-century historian Abbé Demanet uses comparable tropes: "The African appears to be a machine, wound and unwound by springs, similar to soft wax, which can be made to take on any figure one wishes . . . eager to be instructed, he fervently grabs on to whatever is given him . . . he has nothing to hold him in place" (quoted in Miller 48). Both these passages share elements common to colonial discourse: race, class, masculinity, and power seem naturally {26} interchangeable; and the Other in each becomes an Object to be scrutinized, classified, infantilized, and marked as "female." The popular representation of Africans from 1800-1850 is predominantly one of darkness, nullity, absence, a lack. By mid-century, evolutionary anthropology had blurred the lines between ape and African, by its very denial encouraged the popular acceptance of Africans as the "missing link," and focused on cannibalism as evidence of the unimaginable depths of African barbarism. But Victorians were equally happy with the myth of African as Child, and Sir Frederick Lugard, governor of Nigeria at the turn of the century, was one of many to describe the "typical" African as "a happy, thriftless, excitable person, lacking self-discipline and foresight, naturally courageous and naturally courteous and polite . . . the virtues and defects of this race-type are those of attractive children" (The Dual Mandate in British Tropical Africa quoted in Mangan 112). George Romannes' Mental Evolution in Man (1889), Winwood Reade's Savage Africa (1863), John Lubbock's The Origin of Civilisation (1870), and Henry Stanley's Through the Dark Continent (1878) are examples of but a few of the popular texts that informed and conflated such racist and Imperialist ideas of the age.

To be perceived as blank, empty, passive, and childlike suggests a sexual, geographic, and social ordering that is at once seductive and threatening. And while the British imperialists were out finding blank spaces on maps to call their own, their novelists were metonymically engaged in other conquests -- the marital conquests and wars for domestic survival. The drawing room novel of the early nineteenth century defined itself against the intruder or alien and denied the realities of empire even as it obscured the sources of wealth that sustained its propertied heroes; and while Jane Austen was writing of Pemberly and Mansfield Park, Admiral Austen, her brother, was engaged in the First Burmese war and the eventual annexation of Burma to the British Empire.

But there was another genre of popular fiction in the age whose writers acknowledged the world of Imperial conquest, the colonial, and the colonized female even as they revealed the deepest anxieties of Imperial culture -- loss of manhood, identity, and racial purity. Charlotte Brontë's Bertha Mason, Joseph Conrad's Mrs. Almayer, Rider Haggard's Ayesha, or She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed, and Kipling's native women are all products of English anxieties, primarily about erotic desire and domination, but also about sexually taboo encounters with darker races whose embrace will result in terminal boundary disintegra- {27} tion. Bertha, Rochester's West Indian wife, as so many readers have reminded us, is a nightmare figure, a racial monstrosity: "What it was, whether beast or human being, one could not, at first sight, tell: it grovelled, seemingly, on all fours; it snatched and growled like some strange wild animal: but it was covered with clothing; and a quantity of dark, grizzled hair, wild as a mane, hid its head and face" (Brontë, 258). Rider Haggard, however, worked his way around the problem of miscegenation even in darkest Africa: his solution was either to kill the African girl before love could be consummated (King Solomon's Mines), or to have his Europeans discover, in "darkest" Africa, a lost white civilization with an almost white female at its heart (Allen Quatermain and She). In She (1887) however, the exquisite, near-immortal, and learned queen meets with a death more hideous than any other in nineteenth-century literature. Sandra Gilbert suggests that the frightful image of the female in Haggard may also be the consequence of anxiety over a new socio-cultural phenomenon -- the emancipated New Woman: Ayesha, or She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed may, she suggests, have been half-consciously modelled on other nineteenth-century works about female assertiveness and the New Woman such as Tennyson's The Princess (1847) and Olive Schreiner's The Story of an African Farm (1883). Conrad's Almayer (1895) is destroyed by two women -- his native wife and his daughter, an unthinkable type of the new half-breed woman. Although he imagines his marriage to the native Malay will evolve into a bourgeois western family with traditional power divisions, Mrs. Almayer, the "savage tigress," with witchlike claws, instead sets fire to curtains and furniture, moves outside his house into her own hut and defies all his efforts to civilize her into domesticity. Yet, Conrad does not simply caricature her. His ambivalence towards miscegenation, imperialism, and gender roles is seen in his dialogical internalization of both the racist and anti-imperialist discourses of his time (see McClure 154). Denied speech for the major part of the novel, the native woman is momentarily, but significantly, restored into both language and history as she rejects her European husband and his civilization, articulates the forbidden wish to expel the colonizer, and is finally indulged by having all her desires met even as Almayer is allowed to die of opium and a broken heart. Even more important for this genre, Conrad allows the mixed marriage to produce a daughter who is not only beautiful, but allowed to speak, smarter than the Europeans and independent enough to choose native Malay life over western civilization.

{28} Other colonial writers did not deal easily with the products of such miscegenation. Kipling, for instance, killed both child and mother in his greatest story of mixed marriage: "Without Benefit of Clergy" (1890). But not before he represents such a union in terms of Imperialist erotic fantasy: the woman is at once his servant, his slave and his "endless delight," able to love him even as he masters her. In his other stories, passion between Englishmen and Indian women meets with equally disastrous results: "Beyond the Pale" (1888) ends with the gruesome vision of the girl's arms held out in the moonlight: "both hands had been cut off at the wrist, and the stumps were nearly healed." In "Lisbeth" (1886), the girl who is seduced and abandoned meets a fate common to her lot: she ages badly, and we are told, marries a native who abuses her. But in spite of the scene of "white" writing and narrative control, she is not entirely silenced and recuperates her story and speech in Kim (1901). In "To Be Filed for Reference" (1888), the Oxford scholar Jellaludin Macintosh slides from marriage to his silent native wife into drugs, alcohol, and death. Dravot's desire for marriage to a native woman in "The Man Who Would be King" (1889) results in his decapitation, in Carnehan's crucifixion, and in the end of their empire. What Kipling ironically sees in this story and others is that the King's desire (for a native woman) is incompatible with the System he has constructed that denies desire. And the King must die. In the battle between nature/desire and culture/imperialism, it is the second and by extension the masculine member of the binary opposition that will survive. And the last surviving image in the story is the decapitated shrivelled head of Dravot crowned with a shining circlet of gold. In all these encounters, then, the love affair between the European and the Native plays out the larger Imperial design that insists, while using a discourse that questions that very insistence, on the need to retain moral, racial, and gender superiority. Love only appears to conquer the male who "falls;" each story reveals an ideological necessity to maintain boundaries, one that confirms the love as transgression, as an alien intrusion into the world of the Ruler; if the story contains a death, its cause is often the native woman, the eroticized object of the colonizer's fantasy life.

These works reveal the stresses and tensions of a culture in which race and gender roles are at once polarized as part of a scientific hierarchy, but also undermined by a plurality of discourses that disrupt and question its hierarchic and moral certainties. The hysterical masculinity of the dominant ideology, so constructed to see the Other only in terms {29} of difference and threat, fulfilled its destiny by compelling recognition, subjugation and fealty; in the process, however, it produced and depended on the existence of the Other, of a system and a desire that, like Frankenstein's Monster, chose to refuse silence, and instead threatened to displace, decenter and destroy its creator.


1. Lata Mani and Gayatri Spivak draw attention to such double oppression in their studies of Sati and the silent subaltern. In questioning the "parameters within which colonial discourse works," Benita Parry, in a splendid overview, discusses some of the limitations (inadvertent neglect of the native as historical subject, of alternative traditions, of anti-imperialist texts written by national liberation movements) in the deconstructive strategies of Spivak and Bhabha.

For further reading on the social construction and experiences of female subjects in English society, see Barbara Kanner's and Susan Bailey's useful guides to resources, Sara Ellis's 19th century handbooks to women, and the historical and critical work of Catherine Gallagher, Margaret Hewitt, Eric Hobsbawm, Barbara Kanner, Steven Marcus, Wanda Neff, and Ivy Pinchbeck. Eric Hobsbawm's The Age of Empire has a fine chapter on women, and Rosalind Miles's Women's History of the World has a chapter on the role of women as weapons of empire and reproduction designed to "keep the master-race pure" (166), as instruments of dominion and domination, as wives, missionaries and teachers. For other works that address the role of women in English empire, see Francis Hutchins, J. A. Mangan, A. P. Thornton and Rupert Wilkinson. Because their work studies official masculine Imperial administration, the lives and writings of real women in the British Empire await further study. Nigel Nicolson's biography of Mary Curzon (1977) though an important contribution, focuses chiefly on her role as wife of the notoriously anti-feminist Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon.

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