Studies in Literature, Drama, and Film
Chapter 6. The Achievement of Victorian Orientalism
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THE ACHIEVEMENT OF VICTORIAN ORIENTALISM
Reflections of the East and preoccupations with oriental matters in Victorian literature and Victorian thought reveal that the literary orientalism embodied particularly in the fiction and the poetry of the period remained very far from a uniform and unchanging receptacle of distortion and hostility, and demonstrate that Victorian thought, in its best manifestations, constantly attempted and generally succeeded in coming to terms with the oriental “Other”. This paper will try to substantiate this argument through the discussion of the oriental element in the poetry of Edward FitzGerald, the fiction of George Eliot, and the ideas of Karl Marx. Victorian orientalism, although a product of the era of high capitalism and early imperialism and hence, quite expectedly, handicapped by the limitations of its social and historical context, was surprisingly successful in transcending the limits of the age and producing a relatively accurate account as well as a fairly persuasive discourse. More specifically, the universalist dimension inherent in Victorian orientalism, particularly in the works of FitzGerald, Eliot, and Marx, was the key to its positive accomplishment and to its powerful influence into the twentieth century.
The central achievement of FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat (1859), something hinted at by his critics but never fully spelled out, is surely his great feat of “appropriation”, whereby an oriental text is fully “domesticated” to become ← 61 | 62 → accepted, spontaneously, and almost magically, as part of the “target” literature and culture. The Rubaiyat...
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