Writing from the Margins of Europe

The Application of Postcolonial Theories to Selected Works by William Butler Yeats, John Millington Synge and James Joyce

by Rachael Sumner (Author)
©2014 Monographs 310 Pages


The application of postcolonial theories to Irish literature remains a contentious issue. Unlike other colonised nations, Ireland shared a long history of political, economic and artistic ties with its empire-building neighbour, Britain. Yet the Irish response to the project of British imperialism bears comparison with postcolonial models of the relationship between colonisers and the colonised. Writing from the Margins of Europe assesses the potential for postcolonial analysis of works by W. B. Yeats, J. M. Synge and James Joyce. In this exploration of postcolonial parallels between these writers, the author focuses on four core issues: historiography, nationalism, language and displacement.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • Background and Aims
  • Why Yeats, Synge and Joyce?
  • History, chronology and the postcolonial status of Yeats, Synge and Joyce
  • Terminology
  • Ideology
  • Imperialism and British/English identities
  • Subalternity
  • Discourse
  • Differentiation between literatures of resistance and postcolonial literatures
  • Criteria and Methodology
  • Chapter One: Key Issues in Postcolonial Theory
  • Imperial narratives of history
  • Historiography and Discourse Theory
  • The Break with Postmodernism
  • The Adequacy of the Term ‘Postcolonial’
  • The “Other”
  • Nationalism
  • Nationalism as Discourse
  • Tradition versus Modernity
  • Re-evaluations of Nationalism
  • Language and the Problematic of Writing in English
  • Literary Form
  • Hybridity
  • Writers and Displacement
  • Displacement and “Collective Trauma”
  • Displacement and Mass Migration
  • The Role of Postcolonial Studies
  • Chapter Two: Waking from the Nightmare – Narration of Ireland’s Histories in Yeats, Synge and Joyce
  • Ireland as “Other”
  • Yeats, Synge and Joyce: Critiques of Western Epistemology
  • The Cultural Archive and Anthropological Fallacies
  • Joyce: The Paralysis of the Colonised
  • Alternative Models of Historical Discourse
  • Yeats, Synge and Joyce: The Role of the Artist
  • Chapter Three: “Combat Literature, Revolutionary Literature, National Literature” – Irish Nationalism, Postcolonial Theory and the “Drama” of Yeats, Synge and Joyce
  • The Cultural Dynamics of Irish Nationalism
  • Tradition versus Modernity in Ireland
  • The Narrative of Cultural Decline
  • The Gendering of Irish Nationalism
  • Nationalism and Drama
  • On Yeats and National Culture
  • Synge and the Gendering of Irish Nationalism
  • Joyce: Towards a Postcolonial Modernity
  • Chapter Four: “I’ll give them back their language. I’m not destroying it for good.” ‒ Language and Literary Style
  • The Decline of Irish Gaelic and the Rise of English
  • The Decision to Write in English
  • Folktales, Myths and Legends
  • Yeats and the Irish Oral Tradition
  • The Challenge to Authenticity
  • Towards Hybridity: A Marriage of Traditions
  • Synge and the Inscription of Culture
  • Metonymy
  • Finnegans Wake – The Transformative Text
  • Joyce and Glissant – Towards a National Literature
  • Chapter Five: “I had no nation now but the imagination” ‒ Emigration, Diaspora and Displacement
  • Imperial Economics and Irish Emigration
  • Irish writers in London and Europe
  • Physical Displacement
  • Psychological Displacement
  • Healing a Fractured Psyche
  • Conclusions
  • The application of postcolonial literary theory to the works of Yeats, Synge and Joyce
  • Comparative and contrastive analysis of Yeats, Synge and Joyce within the given theoretical context
  • Areas for further consideration/study
  • Notes
  • References
  • Index

← 8 | 9 → Acknowledgements

Writing from the Margins of Europe is based on a doctoral dissertation I completed at the University of Opole in Poland. In spite of the fact that Poland is not my native country, I have always felt very much at home here. This is due to the kindness and hospitality of all those it has been my privilege to meet or to work with over the past decade. It was the encouragement of friends and colleagues which gave me the confidence to see this project through to its conclusion.

Of all the people to whom I am indebted, I would first like to thank my doctoral supervisor, Professor Ryszard Wolny, who never failed to offer much needed advice when I required it. As a British student, I initially found the prospect of navigating my way around a foreign university system daunting, to say the least. However, Professor Wolny’s motivational approach to doctoral supervision and his unwavering patience helped me to overcome such concerns. He continually sought to provide invaluable suggestions with regard to my research itself, and helped me find my feet in the world of Polish academia. Furthermore, the suggestions made by the reviewers of my dissertation: Professor Andrzej Ciuk and Professor Tadeusz Rachwał proved invaluable when it came to the completion of this book.

I would also like to thank all my friends and colleagues at the Higher State Vocational School in Racibórz. They inspired me to begin this research, and offered much sought after coffee and sympathy during the more stressful moments.

I owe a massive debt of gratitude to my parents who have always been thoroughly supportive of my decision to live in Poland. In spite of the distance between us, they have never ceased to offer encouragement for my work and studies.

Last but never the least, I believe that none of this would have been possible without my partner, Marian Opic, a man who had much to endure while I was focussed on this project, and who did so with patience and kindness.← 9 | 10 →

← 10 | 11 → Introduction

Background and Aims

In 1171, a fleet of ships under the command of King Henry II of England set sail for Ireland. Arriving in County Waterford, the Normans attempted to subdue the native kings, claiming the island for the English Crown (Dudley Edwards and Hourican 2005: 33–35). This invasion marks the onset of a complex, often fraught relationship between the two islands of Ireland and Britain, scarred by acts of economic exploitation and territorial encroachment which have led to a perception of Ireland as the first site of British colonisation.

Yet, if the relationship between both countries has been damaged by the belligerent incursions of the British, on the one hand, and Irish resentment at British domination, on the other, it has also been determined by the interaction of their two cultures. The task of forging appropriate representations of Irish identity given such a complex set of culturally-determined circumstances has invariably fallen to writers, who have consequently been charged with a certain degree of social responsibility in terms of addressing some of the traumatic events which have informed Ireland’s history.

It is evident that the political and cultural dynamics which have influenced the relationship between Britain and Ireland have provided a central focus for much Irish writing. However, application of the term “postcolonial” to Irish literature has been met with a certain degree of critical dubiety. The implication that an ostensibly white, European literature may be analysed on the same terms as non-white, non-European writing has – at least until quite recently – provoked unease amongst certain postcolonial theorists and literary critics including Elleke Boehmer and co-writers of The Empire Writes Back (1989), Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin. The British Imperialist project, it is argued, could not have been played out on the same scale or on the same terms over a territory with which, geographically and culturally, Britain already had so much in common. Moreover, the complexity of the relationship between the two countries – the long, convoluted history which had witnessed centuries of British intervention in Ireland – was markedly different from the relatively recent dealings of the British Empire in Asia and Africa. As Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin have asserted in considering not only ← 11 | 12 → Ireland, but also Scotland and Wales within this context: “While it is possible to argue that these societies were the first victims of English expansion, their subsequent complicity in the British imperial enterprise makes it difficult for colonized peoples outside Britain to accept their identity as post-colonial” (31–32).

In spite of the doubts expressed over the analysis of Irish literature and culture in terms of postcolonial theory, developments within the scope of that theory itself have taken a more inclusive direction. This has, at least in part, resulted from the observation that a denial of the plurality of postcolonial experience will ultimately lead to a prescriptive, limited theoretical framework which may well overlook the inherent differences of cultural specificity. Indeed, the extent to which theorists have come to reappraise the expression “postcolonial” in terms of its range of application is demonstrated by the most recent edition of The Empire Writes Back (2002) with its additional chapter, “Rethinking the Post-colonial”:

The attempt to define the post-colonial by putting barriers between those who may be called ‘post-colonial’ and the rest, contradicts the capacity of post-colonial theories to demonstrate the complexity of the operation of imperial discourse. We have suggested … that we need to ground the post-colonial in the ‘fact’ of colonial experience. But it is probably impossible to say absolutely where that experience and its effects begin or end. (200)

The imperialist project functioned according to an opposition which pitted coloniser against subaltern: dominant nation against subject state. Yet, it has been argued, this opposition could be adjusted in terms of the cultural and geographical alternatives it encountered. In fact, Ireland has increasingly come to be regarded as a test-zone for the strategies of subjugation which would later be applied in other areas of empire. Chapter Two, for example, considers the conceptualisation of the Irish as “Other” to the cultural “norm” which the English believed they alone supplied. In this respect, historically-determined perspectives of the Irish as savage, perverse or intellectually-inferior fed into nineteenth-century models of evolutionary hierarchy which provided imperialism with its self-proclaimed raison d’être: to bring civilisation to the less enlightened peoples of the world.

The criminalisation of indigenous cultural practices and the denial of political independence occurred in Ireland both during and even prior to the emergence of imperialistic ventures in other territories. The penal laws of the early eighteenth century, for example, legally enshrined the opposition between Anglo-Irish ascendency class and Catholic population which would set the tenor of relations between Britain and Ireland for the next two centuries1. The teaching and usage of Irish Gaelic was forbidden by the 1831 Education Act, while Dublin Castle became a symbol of British rule until the onset of independence in 1922.

← 12 | 13 → Such features of colonial existence have their parallels in other areas of Empire where, for example, the English language became the tool of education (see Chapter Four), Protestant Missionaries established Anglican Churches in an attempt to oust indigenous forms of religious practice and local autonomy was suppressed2. As the Australian critic C. L. Innes observes; “The inclusion of Irish literature under the postcolonial remit takes account of changing perspectives which are to some extent revising the earlier frameworks for viewing postcolonial writing” (2007: 14). Thus analysis of such writing may explore the re-inscription of colonial discourse within given geographical and cultural contexts. It may also reveal the extent to which writers in different areas of empire influence one another in terms of the development of resistance to the discursive models of imperialism.

In view of the fact that such correlations can be drawn between Ireland and other societies colonised by the British, postcolonial theory appears to offer a relevant interpretive framework within which such power relations might be analysed. Since the publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978), scholars working within this field have attempted to outline the discursive strategies which a dominant culture uses in maintaining its control over a subaltern people. Not all such critics have adopted the poststructuralist approach demonstrated by Said. Materialist critiques of colonial and postcolonial relations have been offered by theorists such as Benita Parry, while Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak advocates the deconstruction of imperialist discourse alongside an awareness of the need for forms of political representation (see Chapter One). Such varying and occasionally conflicting approaches to the issue of colonial/subaltern relations offer considerable potential for analysis of British and Irish cultures given the complexity of their shared histories.

Postcolonial literary theory appears to offer a credible approach to analyses of Irish literature in view of this capacity for self-interrogation of its own intentions and methods. The debates and arguments which characterise this field of study – the contrast between materialist and deconstructive lines of critical inquiry, for example, and the insistent questioning of theory’s relevance to cultural and political realities – ensures that it does not impose a monolithic narrative of postcolonial experience upon a particular society or culture. Instead, it attempts to comprehend the processes through which a subaltern community comes to terms with its own history and forges an awareness of its cultural identity. As the literary text is frequently regarded as a discursive entity in which political, cultural, social and aesthetic forms of representation may be given free reign, postcolonial analysis of Irish literature emerges as a feasible and even in some respects as an inevitable scholarly project.

← 13 | 14 → It is this perception that postcolonial theory carries methodological relevance for criticism of Irish writing which has led to its use by certain Irish literary critics. Amongst the first to identify the influence of colonial politics upon literary production was Seamus Deane who, in his introduction to Nationalism Colonialism and Literature (1990), makes this point quite explicitly:

Ireland is the only Western European country that has had both an early and a late colonial experience. Out of that, Ireland produced, in the first three decades of this century, a remarkable literature in which the attempt to overcome and replace the colonial experience by something other, something that would be “native” and yet not provincial, was a dynamic and central energy. (3)

Deane’s assertion that socio-economic and political factors feed into the literature of Irish writers offered a new direction for analyses of Irish literature, notably in the case of Joyce, whose use of linguistic innovation could now be read as an act of political subversion: an appropriation of the language of the coloniser (see Chapter Four). Declan Kiberd has also made considerable use of postcolonial theory in his analyses of Irish literature, particularly in a major contribution to studies in this field: Inventing Ireland – The Literature of the Modern Nation (1995). Relying upon theorists such as Frantz Fanon, Kiberd offers convincing readings of writers ranging from Maria Edgeworth to Samuel Beckett in an attempt to demonstrate the extent to which Hibernian and British identities were inter-relational in origin.

Taking a definitively political focus to his work, Joe Cleary, a former student of Edward Said, attempts to locate Irish cultural activity within the context of geo-political relations and argues for parallels between the partition of Ireland and that of other postcolonial territories, including India and Pakistan and Palestine and Israel. Cleary then offers readings of contemporary Irish literature in relation to this concept of a divided heritage in Literature, Partition and the Nation State (2002). Other Irish critics who have made use of postcolonial theory include Emer Nolan, who adapts the research of Indian scholars such as Partha Chatterjee and Dipesh Chakrabarty during her analysis of representation of Irish nationalism in Ulysses in “State of the Art: Joyce and Postcolonialism” (2000: 78–95). Certain British and American critics have also come to regard debates in the sphere of postcolonial theory as relevant to discussions of Irish literature. Among these, Terry Eagleton’s text Heathcliff and the Great Hunger (1995) draws heavily on analyses of the power imbalance between the Anglo-Irish governing class and the Irish population, despite Eagleton’s disavowal of postcolonial theory at an earlier stage in his scholarly career3. The American critic, Gregory Castle, has done a great deal to promote postcolonial readings of J. M. Synge’s drama and prose works, particularly in his volume Modernism and the Celtic Revival (2001). ← 14 | 15 → Other scholars taking a similar approach to Irish literature include Derek Attridge and Marjorie Howes in Britain, along with David Lloyd and Leonard Orr in the United States.

Building upon the work of critics of Irish literature and postcolonial scholars alike, the main aim of this research is to establish the extent to which postcolonial theory may be successfully applied to the works of W. B. Yeats, J. M. Synge and James Joyce. It is the author’s contention that postcolonial interpretations of their texts will foreground their political and cultural preoccupations. With regard to this aim, it must be stated that critics such as the aforementioned Deane, Kiberd and Attridge have made substantial contributions in the field of Irish literary research through their use of postcolonial theory as an interpretive tool. This has particularly been the case with regard to James Joyce, although postcolonial readings of Synge and Yeats have also become more acceptable. Writing from the Margins of Europe aims to build upon such writer-focussed analyses. It remains at heart, however, a theory-oriented study which differs from previous critical enterprises in the sense that it is structured entirely in relation to theoretical concepts. In this way, it sets out to determine whether the application of postcolonial theory is appropriate to the literature of Yeats, Synge and Joyce, or whether, given the intellectual and philosophical currents which characterise twenty-first century thought, it is an anachronistic project.

This is not to suggest that any artist who touches upon the issue of colonial/subaltern relationships may be automatically labelled “postcolonial.” Attempts to enlist Yeats, Synge or Joyce to a theoretical cause or project will prove limiting and ultimately futile. Each writer resists such forms of generalisation, be it through textual ambiguity, or through the circumstances of their own actions and attitudes which may prove irreconcilable with the critical expectations of much postcolonial scholarship. Such difficulties are, however, fundamental to the overall aim of this research, the intention of which is not to somehow manipulate its subject until it fits a prescribed theoretical formula but to apply theory to literature in a way that will ascertain its limits and usefulness in relation to the texts of Yeats, Synge and Joyce.

As a supplementary aim, a comparative study of Yeats, Synge and Joyce within the given theoretical context is offered, which traces points of textual consensus and divergence. To some extent, a critical line has been drawn between the project of the Celtic Revival – defined in terms of its engagement with an exclusively Gaelic cultural legacy – and the pluralistic vision of Irish history presented in Joyce’s work. Thus, Yeats and Synge tend to be associated with the former, more nationalistic and essentialist vision of Irish identity. Writing from ← 15 | 16 → the Margins of Europe explores the extent to which such a clear-cut division between Joyce and the work of his immediate literary predecessors is justifiable. In seeking to establish a correlation between political belief and textual production, it may be hypothesised that postcolonial theory is capable of revealing lines of continuity between these three writers, just as it can contribute to analyses of their differing approaches towards the issue of national identity and Anglo-Irish relations.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2014 (June)
Irische Literatur Historiographie Nationalismus Vertreibung
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 310 pp.

Biographical notes

Rachael Sumner (Author)

Rachael Sumner studied English and European Literatures at the University of Essex (UK) and Twentieth Century British and American Literature at the University of York (UK). She received her doctorate from the University of Opole (Poland) and lectures on British and American culture. She has published several articles on postcolonial theory and Irish literature.


Title: Writing from the Margins of Europe
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312 pages