This chapter summarizes a range of different ideas about literature that all center on the identity of authors, their characters, and (in part) their readers. In each paper we find a close consideration of the way different groups interact: how they perceive and represent each other, how they talk to and about each other, and how they exert power against each other. Whether discussing the effects of colonialism in nineteenth-century Africa, the perils of assimilation for Native Americans in the early twentieth-century United States, or the economic parallels between slavery and whaling in nineteenth-century America, each paper takes seriously the cultural and political realities that underlie the creation of literature, and each sees literature as a force that can shape those cultural and political realities. When reading literary works, you should be attentive to issues of identity, power, assimilation, and/or prejudice.
If you follow these steps, you’ll be well on your way to writing a compelling paper on racial, ethnic, or cultural themes:
- Consider the racial, ethnic, or cultural background of the author. Do the characters in the work come from a similar background? Does the author come from a colonized or minority population? Conversely, does the author come from an imperial or majority population? Does the work seem intended to address issues particular to the author’s background?
- Consider the history of the work’s setting and/or composition. What were the major political realities of the day? Were there major conflicts, settlements, or economic realities that would have shaped the author’s or his or her contemporary readers’ worldviews? Are the settings in the work familiar to the author’s experience, or are they “other” or exotic settings? How might the politics of the day shape the work’s themes, images, settings, or characters?
- Research the reactions of previous critics to the work. Have they noticed particular attitudes toward race, ethnicity, or culture in the text? Do you agree with their assessment, or do you see ideas they have missed? Can you extend, modify, or correct their arguments?
- Consider the possible readers of the work. How do you think members of the groups represented in the work would feel about the way their race, ethnicity, or culture is represented? If you come from a group depicted in the work you’ve chosen, how does that depiction make you feel?
In short, you want to ask how the work you are studying represents the identities of the groups it depicts. If you can begin to answer these questions, you’ll be well on your way to a cultural analysis of a literary text. Remember that you can write a cultural analysis in many modes: you can celebrate a work’s progressive representation of race or you can critique a work’s problematic complicity in negative social attitudes. Either way, you can write a compelling argument about race, culture, and ethnicity in literature.