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Writing from the Margins of Europe

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


Rachael Sumner

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.
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Chapter One: Key Issues in Postcolonial Theory

← 32 | 33 →Chapter One


Historical narratives carry immense significance for imperial cultures; their dissemination within colonised societies has a profound impact upon the identity of a subaltern people. The erasure of collective memory and its replacement with an alternative model of historical development and progress can ultimately lead to a sense of cultural alienation. In such a case, a subaltern society is severed from its own forms of communal identity and the catachrestic narratives of the coloniser become privileged as the only available means of historical representation. Thus, the history of the colonised becomes the history of the coloniser: an occupation of psychic territory which finds its physical parallel in the occupation of land.

Furthermore, it could be argued that many sectarian and territorial conflicts of the contemporary world have their roots in the activities of colonisers who annihilated alternative forms of cultural knowledge. As Joe Cleary suggests, the partition of territories such as India, Ireland and Palestine cannot be explained simply in terms of local differences. Former imperial powers have a duty to recognise their role in deliberately creating or exacerbating social tensions: “At the most obvious level, the British imperial state had a long history in moulding ethnic identities and manipulating inter-communal conflicts within the various colonies as a means to maintain its own power” (2002: 25). Analysis of such policies of cultural subjugation has played an indisputable role in determining the direction of postcolonial theory, enabling scholars to establish the long-term effects of the erasure of collective memory and...

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