Globalization and the Image
Case Western Reserve University
of Empire: Colonial Fictions and the Politics of Self-Representation
Do not cite
without permission of the author.
It's only because we're not accustomed to such noses in this country.
In his country he says all people have such noses, and the redder your
nose is the higher you are. He's of the family of Queen Victoria, you
know. (Olive Schreiner, The Story of An African Farm 85)
Discourse lives, as it were, beyond itself, in a living impulse toward
the object; if we detach ourselves completely from this impulse all we
have left is the naked corpse of the word, from which we can learn nothing
at all about the social situation or the fate of a given word in life.
(M.M. Bakhtin, "Discourse in the Novel" 292)
In the nineteenth century, British political and popular terminology regularly
referred to the colonies as "wastelands." By definition, this
term referred to unappropriated and uncultivated land; however, in common
usage, it described colonial lands as empty spaces where impoverished and
unproductive British people might be well disposed (of).i As it was used
in parliamentary and popular writings, the discourse of waste, of excess,
and of the "draining" of a redundant population through colonial
emigration and settlement pervaded perceptions of the world beyond Britain's
boundaries and also becomes a commonplace figure for that world in various
nineteenth-century British fictions.ii Figuratively speaking, the lines
that connected the metropolitan center with the colonial periphery constituted
a plumb line through which excess British bodies were with state assistance
transported to the far reaches of the empire. Concurrently, discourses of
waste were accompanied by a rhetoric that extolled the promise of colonial
lands as paradises where the impoverished and degraded population in England
might be converted to productive and independent laborers. iii
Colonial literary responses to this metropolitan conflation of the colonies
with the discourse of waste and the contradictory promises of paradise are
particularly evident in the fictional narratives of late nineteenth-century
colonial writers, such as Olive Schreiner in South Africa, whose fictions
demonstrate a recognition of their marginal positions in the colonial "wastelands."iv
From a position of geographical and experiential distance, Schreiner attempts
in her fiction to redress the discursive lines that link the colony with
the metropolis. Curiously, coming from the reaches of the empire, her novel,
The Story of an African Farm makes productive use of ideas of waste rather
than refuting them; that is, Schreiner represents the colonial world as
a social and cultural wasteland, but her representation parodies metropolitan
conceptions of colonial reality rather than mirroring them. Through this
parodic frame, she embraces the idea of waste as a figure potentially in
the service of independence.
In this paper, I explore how by its setting in the desert, Schreiner's The
Story of an African Farm responds to the mandates, the assumptions and the
fantasies that accompanied the century-long project of settlement in the
British colonies. In the preface to The Story of An African Farm, the narrator
claims that this narrative will present a real picture of colonial life
in South Africa in distinction to the wild and fanciful stories about the
empire that are produced in London. This real picture presents an intellectual
and creative wasteland underlaid by a parodic narrative voice that illustrates
how colonial reality has been forged by metropolitan visions of waste, degeneracy
and excess. Through a double-edged, parodic discourse, this narrative endeavors
to produce a colonial consciousness that makes use of its own condition
of excess and eccentricity from mainstream British literature for purposes
of creative production. As a colonial parody, Schreiner's novel offers,
I argue, a form that is peculiarly geopolitical in nature. Her colonial
parody is predicated on the geographical distance and on the ideological
connections between imperial metropolis and colonial periphery, and it makes
discursive use of this double space to represent colonial conditions.
Published in London in 1883, Schreiner's The Story of an African Farm is
marked by its parodic response to metropolitan British colonial conceptions
about South African settlement. The novel is, in the sense given by M.M.
Bakhtin, double-voiced. Its pretensions towards an authentic portrayal of
"everyday" colonial life require not only an effort at representing
experienced reality but also an awareness of literary images about colonial
life that are less rigorously realistic.v Schreiner's allegiances are apparently
colonial, but this loyalty is fraught by a sense of accountability to British
conventions, both social and literary.vi It offers a fairly consistent use
of what Bakhtin calls "parodic stylization" where
the speech of another is introduced into the author's discourse (the story)
in concealed form, that is without any of the formal markers usually accompanying
such speech, whether direct or indirect. But this is not just another's
speech in the same 'language' -it is another's utterance in a language that
is itself 'other' to the author as well. ("Discourse in the Novel"
Indeed, the novel's central female character, Lyndall, defines her own relationship
to language similarly when she speaks to Waldo on the position of women:
"Do not look at me as though I were talking nonsense. Everything has
two sides-the outside that is ridiculous, and the inside that is solemn"(African
Farm 154). Lyndall warns Waldo not to be blinded by the ridiculous but to
pay heed also to that which is ridiculed. This "two-sided" language
becomes characteristic of The Story of an African Farm as it presents colonial
conditions (including those relating to the position of women) and responds
to perceptions of the imperialist mission in Africa. From the novel's beginning,
Schreiner marks a difference between an inside and an outside perspective,
between fantasies of colonial space guided by distant metropolitan realities
and the harsh realities of everyday life on a farm in South Africa. Hence
she makes a distinction between colonial language and the language associated
with imperial expansion. In the colony, the writer of integrity is obliged
to "squeeze the colour from his brush, and dip it into the grey pigments
around him" (Schreiner, xl).
Initially, the novel situates itself between colonial exotic and British
domestic literature to offer a position that responds to both while not
affiliating itself with either. The preface that heads the second edition
of the novel responds to the reception of her book particularly by a "kind
critic" who "would better have liked the little book if it had
been a history of wild adventure; of cattle driven into inaccessible 'kranzes'
by bushmen; 'of encounters with ravening lions, and hair-breadth escapes'"
(xl). In response to these suggestions (presumably made by Schreiner's acquaintance,
adventure writer H. Rider Haggard), the narrator claims that such accounts
"are best written in Piccadilly or in the Strand: there the gifts of
the creative imagination, untrammelled by contact with any fact, may spread
their wings" (xl).vii In Dreams of Adventure, Deeds of Empire, Martin
Green marks a distinction between British domestic fiction and adventure
fiction as writing that is "serious versus nonserious" (57). In
Green's terms, the domestic novel (serious fiction) dealt with subjects
such as courtship, marriage and family life and was inclined towards moral
rigor and imaginative artistic expression. "Domestic" fiction
refers to narratives originating in and about Britain; colonial writers,
it seems, were literally outside the parameters for such expression. Adventure
fiction, in "polar opposition," dealt not with the moral implications
of everyday life, but instead depicted a series of extraordinary exploits
and conquests that underlined the colonial enterprise and its relationship
to commerce, the market and global domination (M. Green 58). Green claims
that "clearly, English literature had organized itself into a system,
of which the central seriousness was hostile to the material of adventure
and therewith of empire and frontier" (65). Green further suggests
that "serious writers facing the colonial theme felt an inhibition
or a prohibition, from which they turned away to the courtship theme"
(63). While the accuracy of Green's classification is debatable, it nevertheless
provides a rudimentary scheme to situate Schreiner's colonial fiction between
the British domestic courtship novel and the colonial adventure narrative,
and it encourages a recognition of how her fiction participates in and also
rejects metropolitan literary conventions.viii
African Farm takes the empire seriously; her characters, colonial subjects,
undergo excessive ideological and physical struggles concerning their placement
in the world and these struggles are depicted in light of a discursive split
between colonial experience and metropolitan conceptions of that experience.
In the colonial setting, the narrative plays with social and literary inhibitions,
and it makes show of moral and ideological prohibitions associated with
gender, class, race and geographical place. The novel situates itself between
the polarities of adventure and domesticity while parodying the conventions
and the pretensions of both: while it does present a picture of exotic colonial
lands, it presents those lands as hostile and barren; while it is not a
colonial adventure, African Farm portrays an adventurer whose talent for
wild, untrammeled storytelling renders him dangerous; while it is not a
novel about courtship in the conventional sense, unconventional marriage,
love and desire are at issue.
In the preface, the narrator suggests that this narrative may disturb readers
as it deals "with a subject that is far removed from the round of English
daily life" (xil). This distance is, in the most literal sense, geographical
- between South Africa and England was a journey of several months and the
journey between was long and arduous. Topographically, the colonies of the
southern hemisphere were considered to be the underside of the globe; they
were perceived as the world turned upside-down or as Edward Gibbon Wakefield's
speaker claimed of Australia in his fictional A Letter From Sidney (1829):
"Remember where I am. I am standing, with my head downwards, as it
were, almost under your feet" (30). Geographical distance inspired
a conceptual metonymy that rendered the colony as an "underside"
of English life, a location where moral and social conventions were disrupted
by a dizzy dislocation.ix In No Man's Land, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar
argue that Schreiner's position outside the metropolis or her "inside"
perspective of South African farm life empowered the author to challenge
British moral and social attitudes. They place her book and the colonial
life it represents as "situated on the margins of patriarchal culture
in a space where history might be reconstituted so as to let women rebel
against the power of Him-who-had-been-obeyed in the past" (52). This
argument, based on Lyndall's subversive feminism and her nontraditional
stance towards marriage, implies that the colonial world was a realm outside
the center of metropolitan power and therefore disposed towards ideological
and social independence from British rule.
From another perspective, in his introduction to the Oxford edition of African
Farm, Joseph Bristow quotes a 1912 review by suffragist Rebecca West as
commenting that while the novel had some merit, Schreiner "was less
a woman than a geographical fact" (xxvi). West sees Schreiner's "outside"
or colonial position as a handicap to the effectiveness of her voice to
evoke real change within the metropolis. Bristow assigns this criticism
to a perceived incompatibility between "politics and poetics"
(xxvii) in British literary circles. West's sense of Schreiner as representing
a place rather than a person or a political agenda rather than an artist
offers insight how, in its reception in England, Schreiner's novel was accepted
as geographical and social exotica while discounted for its humanistic literary
value. As such, the novel (both in its reception and in the narrative itself)
becomes suggestive of an incompatibility between globalization and insular
stability. Considering her voyage to London to see her novel published and
her several subsequent journeys between South Africa and England, I would
suggest that African Farm is not quite so removed from "the round of
English daily life" as the preface claims; rather it plays with geographical
and conceptual distance between metropolis and colony to present a colonial
vision that distinguishes itself from common British understandings of the
empire. The novel encourages a global vision that does not radiate from
the metropolis but which looks back towards the center from outside. African
Farm brings a parodic vision of colonial life back to London not as an attempt
at empowerment from beyond the borders of the imperial power but as an effort
towards intervention in the prevalence of colonial fantasies and towards
artistic ideological independence.
Diverging from the exotic, the narrative is set on a farm in the Karroo
desert where the only topographical diversion is a "kopje," a
small hill, amidst the flat and barren horizon:
alone it lay there, as over some giant's grave. Here and there a few tufts
of grass or small succulent plants had sprung up among its stones, and on
the very summit a clump of prickly-pears lifted their thorny arms, and reflected,
as from mirrors, the moonlight on their broad fleshy leaves (Schreiner 1)
At the foot of the "kopje" stands the farmhouse, the surrounding
buildings and the paddocks for the livestock and beyond extends the monotonous
dessert. This setting follows the lines of the classic promontory scene
in which the explorer or traveler stands at some height above the land and
surveys the landscape below from a position associated with power. In Imperial
Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation, Mary Louise Pratt calls the convention
of the promontory view in travel literature part of the "monarch-of-all-I-survey"
genre (201) in which the travel writer produces a "verbal painting"
of the scene for readers in Europe. Pratt argues that this convention entails
an "interaction between esthetics and ideology" (205) where
the esthetic qualities of the landscape constitute the social and material
value of the discovery to the explorers' home culture, at the same time
as its esthetic deficiencies suggest a need for social and material intervention
by the home culture. (205)
However, the kopje offers a parodic figure of this pedestal. In its opening
to African Farm, the hill brings no view but expansiveness and emptiness;
there are no exotic animals except sheep and domestic ostriches and the
flora is sparse and desperate looking. From afar, the "little 'kopje'
was not itself an object conspicuous enough to relieve the dreary monotony
of the landscape" (Schreiner 139). Its value for the "home culture"
is questionable, and as the narrative indicates, there is little potential
for improvement of the landscape through the importation of European culture.
J.M. Coetzee writes "we have seen nothing to distinguish Schreiner's
farm from raw nature; it is undomesticated, and at the level I have been
describing, indomesticable" (White Writing 64). "Civilization"
as a way of life cannot penetrate the desert. The eyes that look out from
the 'kopje' are those of the farm children, Lyndall, Waldo and Em, who in
gazing at the landscape beyond, descry their own powerlessness, contemplate
a godless world and desperately long for a more intellectually satisfying
In British public and philanthropic literature, the colonies were reported
to be a virtual Eden where England's disenfranchised classes might find
financial and moral redemption. In his In Darkest England and the Way
Out, Salvation Army Organizer General William Booth claimed that the British
colonies were "supposed to be the paradise of the working-man"
(145), and he set forth a three-fold plan to transfer emigrants to the
colonies while cultivating their moral and religious salvation. Family
Emigration Advocate, Caroline Chisholm also supported emigration so that
the impoverished and degraded at home might discover financial independence
and moral redemption in the "vast and fair regions unoccupied by
man, nature alone being mistress thereof (The A.B.C. of Colonization 26).
With the publication of African Farm in the latter part of the century,
Schreiner brings reports and stories of these emigrants back to England,
but the story she tells is a distorted version of the one predicted by
advocates like Booth and Chisholm. In Schreiner's novel, there is no integration
with nature; the desert is inhospitable and the civilization promised
in these outward-looking discourses cannot flourish . Coetzee suggests
that "Schreiner is anti-colonial both in her assertion of the alienness
of European culture in Africa and in her attribution of unnaturalness
to the life of the farm. To accept the farm as home is to accept a living
death" (White Writing 66).
At the novel's opening, Waldo in a state of religious fervor attempts
a sacrifice to God. He sets his dinner on a crudely made altar and desires
the meat to burst into flame as a sign of God's recognition of his existence
in this desert. The only response is silence and the first troopers of
an army of ants who come to feast on his sacrifice. Waldo's initial response
to this unresponsiveness on God's part is to see himself as beyond the
grace of God. Two years later, however, Waldo sits at the summit of the
"kopje" and confesses to the unresponsive landscape and to an
absent God his secret that "[he] hate[s] God" (9). He has been,
he believes, abandoned. While the narrator initially defends this irreligious
declaration as the result of "intense loneliness," the narrative
proceeds to show that Waldo's alienation from religious faith is perhaps
justified by the mental and physical abuse inflicted on him in this wilderness.
The lawless and desolate colonial world, not Waldo, is presented as godless,
as a mockery of Christian goodwill.
In the novel's intermediary chapter, "Times and Seasons" the
narrator chronicles the desire for faith in the desert and the eventual
loss of faith: the child at seven likes "best of all . . . the story
of Elijah in his cave at Horeb, and the still, small voice" (African
Farm 103) but despite yearning for such reassurance, the voice of God
is never heard. In this chapter chronicling the progress of faith, there
comes an inevitable awakening because "the imagination cannot always
triumph over reality, the desire over truth" (113) and the narrator
claims that "now we have no God" (113). The "we" in
this chronicle seems not to refer to humanity in general but to persons
whose have been influenced by a sense of geographical dislocation where
one "sees no relation between cause and effect, no order, but a blind
chance sporting"(115). The value of existence becomes questionable
in what the narrator at least initially calls "this dirty little
world full of confusion, and the blue rag, stretched overhead for a sky,
is so low we could touch it with our hand"( 115). Schreiner's characters
find that the land they inhabit does not, in any sense but a twisted reflection,
resemble the Eden-like possibilities promised by metropolitan philanthropic
Carried away by his religious fervor, Waldo, himself, seems to be a caricature
of the faithful pilgrim, but any ridicule associated with him pales as
his alienation is wrought ultimately by the horrific exploits of emigrant,
Bonaparte Blenkins. Like his father, Otto, who through a sense of Christian
generosity gives his food, his money and even the clothes off his back
to anyone in need, even the trickster, Bonaparte Blenkins, only to be
driven from his home and sniggered at, Waldo receives little in return
for his goodwill. The 'gentleman' stranger who stops to speak with Waldo
asks him if he is happy to be "here with the karroo-bushes and red
sand." (135). While Waldo wonders if he is being ridiculed, the stranger
justifies his query by positioning Waldo as an intermediary between the
old world and the new:
To all who have been born in the old faith there comes a time of danger,
when the old slips from us, and we have not yet planted our feet on the
new. We hear the voice from Sinai thundering no more, and the still small
voice of reason in not yet heard. (135)
As the stranger, himself, leaves the desert for the town, he answers his
own question and decides that Waldo is indeed "happy to be here"
(137) in the desert. He leaves Waldo with a book that "may give [him]
a centre round which to hang [his] ideas, instead of letting them lie
about in a confusion that makes the head ache." Ultimately, the stranger
does not mock Waldo but he does in his final judgment render him a sacrifice
to the desert: one who cannot realize the promise of imperial expansion
into the wastelands but also one whose story, if properly centered, might
one day be of value.
In its presentation of natural desolation, African Farm offers a responsive
variation to writings by early colonial settler and poet, Thomas Pringle.
Among the 1820 settlers to South Africa, Pringle never achieved the status
of major poet in England; however, his African Sketches were well received
in England and he has had serious consideration in South Africa.x His
most popular poem "Afar in the Desert" received the praise of
S. T. Coleridge as "among the two or three most perfect lyric Poems
in our language" (quoted in Periera and Chapman 80). This poem depicts
a settler who rides far into the lonely Karroo desert "with the silent
Bush-boy alone by [his] side" (Pringle, l. 2) to escape in solitude
the sorrows and the pettiness of life in the colonial town. The speaker
carries only his "death-fraught firelock" (l. 39) and his dissatisfaction
with life to the desert, "A region of emptiness, howling and drear,/
Which Man hath abandoned from famine and fear (ll. 73-4). The poem culminates
with the speaker sitting "by the desert stone,/ Like Elijah at Horeb's
cave alone" (ll.91-2), and he hears the voice of God through the
'A still small voice' comes through the wild
(Like a Father consoling his fretful Child),
Which banishes bitterness, wrath, and fear,--
Saying-Man IS DISTANT, BUT GOD IS NEAR! (ll. 93-96)
Influenced by the Romantic ideas of William Wordsworth and Coleridge,
in this poem Pringle's speaker finds in sublime nature (the vast, godless
desert) a means to overcome the emptiness of everyday life. He represents
the natural world including the barren dessert of the colony as a force
that can indeed be subdued and contained by European man. When the speaker
looks for God, he, unlike Waldo, is not met with silence but with "a
still small voice" that comforts him and defends his place in this
wilderness. As far as this speaker is concerned, God can and does intervene
into the wilderness. This responsiveness is not merely a question of faith,
but in terms of colonial literary history, it becomes a question of the
possibilities of narrative to delineate the reality of the colonial world.
While Pringle writing in the 1820s leads the nineteenth century in his
representations of colonial life in South Africa, Schreiner's African
Farm might be seen as an after word, a parodic response to discourses
that envisioned the colonial landscape only with a vision of the empire.
Her work recasts what one might call the youthful optimism of Pringle's
" Afar in the Desert." While the speaker in that poem strengthened
by his communion with God, can ride out of the desert and back to "the
world of men," Waldo, hovering between the old world and the new,
cannot. He can only try to organize his thoughts for a coming day.
In its setting, Schreiner's African Farm provides a stylized representation
of colonial life that has an inverse relationship with metropolitan discourses.
With its "kopje," its outlying buildings and its vast monotonous
horizon, the farm, itself, points towards prohibitions associated with
colonial discourses: it presents and godless world where power, desire
and sexuality are uninhibited. he wild and indomesticable setting of the
farm offers a contextual frame in which the action that occurs, from the
hoodwinking of Otto and Tant Sannie to the ruthless persecution of Waldo
by Bonaparte Blenkins to Gregory Rose's courtship of Em and his fascination
for Lyndall, becomes a charade of and commonplace conceptions of colonial
life and also of what might be called "civilized" literary conventions.
From this desert "wasteland" Schreiner's novel writes back to
the empire and refuses to allow itself to be hoodwinked by the promises
that have attended discourses of imperialist expansion.
i See for instance, Oliver MacDonagh, Ed., Emigration in the Victorian
Age: Debate on the issue from 19th century critical journals. Edward Gibbon
Wakefield, A Letter From Sidney and Other Writings. Caroline Chisholm,
The A. B. C. of Colonization in a Series of Letters.
ii Here one might consider characters and conditions in, for instance,
William Thackeray's Vanity Fair, Charles Dickens, Great Expectations,
Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford and Mary Barton.
iii See, for instance, Caroline Chisholm's The A. B. C. of Colonization
in a Series of Letters and General William Booth's In Darkest England
and the Way Out.
iv See Henry Lawson's collection of short stories While the Billy Boils
first published in 1896.
v For a discussion o f Schreiner's literary relationship with the conventions
of nineteenth-century realism and with colonial adventure fiction, see
Louise Green "The Unhealed Wound: Olive Schreiner's expressive art,"
vi At the end of the century with the publication of a series of articles,
"Some Thoughts on South Africa," that discussed and supported
Boer lifestyles despite British propaganda against the Boers in light
of the Anglo-Boer war, Schreiner's allegiances are brought to issue.
vii See Gilbert and Gubar, 51-52. While H. Rider Haggard, himself, did
indeed live in South Africa, his many novels including Alan Quatermain
and She do not aspire to present a picture of everyday life in the colony.
viii For responses that diverge from Greens classification, see Edward
Said, Culture and Imperialism and also Richard Phillips, Mapping Men and
Empire: A Geography of Adventure.
ix For a discussion of humanist geography as it might apply to this point,
see Gillian Rose, Feminism and Geography: The Limits of Geographical Knowledge,
especially chapter 3: "No Place for Women?"
x. For discussions of Pringle and his relationship to the history of South
African literature, see Dirk Klopper, "Politics of the Pastoral:
The Poetry of Thomas Pringle" and Angus Calder "Thomas Pringle
(1789-1834): A Scottish Poet in South Africa."
Bakhtin, M.M. "Discourse in the Novel" The Dialogic Imagination.
Ed. Michael Holquist. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin:
U of Austin P, 1981: 259-422.
Booth, General William. In Darkest England and The Way Out. London: International
Headquarters of the Salvation Army, n.d.
Bristow, Joseph. "Introduction." The Story of an African Farm.
Oxford: Oxford U P, 1998.
Calder, Angus. "Thomas Pringle (1789-1834): A Scottish Poet in South
Africa." English in Africa. 9 (1). 1982: 1-14.
Chisholm, Caroline. The A. B. C. of Colonization in a Series of Letters.
London: John Ollivier, 1850.
Coetzee, J.M. White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa.
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Gilbert, Sandra M. and Gubar Susan. No Man's Land: The Place of the Woman
Writer in the Twentieth Century; Volume 2: Sexchanges. New Haven: Yale
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Green, Louise. "The Unhealed Wound: Olive Schreiner's expressive
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Green, Martin. Deeds of Adventure, Dreams of Empire. New York: Basic Books,
Haggard, H. Rider. Three Adventure Novels of H. Rider Haggard She, King
Solomon's Mines and Alan Quatermain. New York: Dover Publications, 1951.
Hitchins, Fred H. The Colonial Land and Emigration Commission. Philadelphia:
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Klopper, Dirk. "Politics of the Pastoral: The Poetry of Thomas Pringle."
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MacDonagh, Oliver. Ed. Emigration in the Victorian Age: Debate on the
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Phillips, Richard. Mapping Men and Empire: A Geography of Adventure. London:
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