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Books About Exile And Alienation English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 4129 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The Mimic Men(1967) , The Lonely Londoners (1956)and Second-Class Citizen (1974) are three novels highlighting questions of exile and alienation, both physically and figuratively. All of the novels contain characters who are all placed as marginal members of society at some point, and are forced to adapt their lives accordingly. The difficulties they are faced with, determine the ‘new’ identities they come to adopt. Craib states that “The self, identity, becomes a product to be revamped and relaunched at regular intervals [1] “. The question of identity arises when there is a challenge to a fixed notion of who we are as subjects, and identity is crucial in a capitalist western culture and society. Identity formation and creation is made more complicated through the role of colonialism, imperialism and post-colonialism. As Boehmer suggests in post-colonial literature issues, of identity come to the fore by writers who are “Seeking self-representation, colonial nationalists incorporated European ideals of subjectivity and its rhetoric of rights [2] ” The nature of post-colonial discourse in questioning the values of both the colonised subject and the colonising nation make identity a area for debate. By being exiled from their own ‘home’ cultures the theme of exile is figuratively expressed as alienation, and results in the representation of a search for the self by individuals who are removed from cultural values and norms. The search for a new identity, which allows the characters to adapt and progress as subjects in their new surroundings, is a key topic in post-colonial literature.

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V. S. Naipaul’s The Mimic Men, tells the story of Ranjit “Ralph” Kirpal Singh, a forty-year- old Indian colonial official, now living in exile from the small Caribbean island of Isabella. The story begins with Singh living considering how he his life is “the shipwreck which all my life I had sought to avoid [3] “. The narrative is complex and has no chronological order, Ralph reflects on the four main periods of his life, as Nazereth points out that the novel is divided into three main parts. Ralph is both a narrator and a participant in the narrative. He describes himself through the various ‘identities’ he has experienced, as a student, politician and now as a ‘recluse’. As a young man in London Singh meets and marries Sandra, an English woman and they return to Isabella, where they gain considerable wealth and success. However, they feel alienated and have “a feeling of having been flung off the world [4] “. The second part of the novel, describes Singh’s childhood, his father also recognizes that he is detached from his country of origin, condemned to being “shipwrecked [5] ” on a tiny Caribbean island.

Singh’s changing identity is illustrated in school, when he discards his first name Ranjit, in favour of Ralph and breaks his surname ‘Kripalsingh’ into two names ‘Kripal’ and ‘Singh [6] ‘. This can be seen as his first act of ‘mimicking’, as Boehmer suggests “….dominant cultural myths and languages…European conceptual traditions in history, philosophy, literature…had first to be displaced by an act of repetition, even ‘slavish’ copying. Success lay in the camouflage and subterfuge [7] ” This is a key moment of desperation in trying to integrate into his surroundings in fracturing his surname into two ‘manageable’ halves, discarding a crucial identity label and changing from the Indian to the ‘English’ or ‘international’ name Ralph. He thinks he will be more accepted by those around him and complete his own sense of identity. His mistaken childhood belief is that the linguistic change will be enough to bridge the gap between the cultural and social alienation and loneliness, and create a ‘real’ identity just through the change in his label/name. However ‘Ralph’ is an English name, and Singh is neither Indian, nor English.

Englishness is a recurring theme in the physical places of Singh’s life, with memories of colonial India, arrival in England, and the reflection of Englishness as seen through the post-colonial experience of being an ‘Indian’ in the Caribbean. The difficulties which Ralph has had to navigate in his lifetime represent the dynamics of the relationship between the ‘black West Indians’ and the ‘Indian West Indians’ as Nazareth suggests “The blacks have a deep contempt for all that is not white, their values being those of imperialism at its worst. The Indians despise the blacks for not being Indian. Such a society understandably has no inner values. It merely copies its way of life from Western consumer society [8] “

Issues of isolation, alienation and racism cut across the shared West Indian cultural experience, and ethnicity comes to the fore. People are alienated, dismissive and hostile to one another because of imposed barriers of differences. The shared experience of Isabellan life are not enough to determine a coherent identity; instead the characters feel threatened by issues of difference and prefer to focus on the ‘racial’ differences with their fellow islanders. For Ralph the question of identity is “…somewhat typical of colonial experience…he has to borrow, to mimic the examples which have been set for him by others. The result is restlessness and disorder; and it is to combat this that he finally withdraws form life and undertakes writing [9] “

For Singh his West Indian identity in a society which itself lacks a coherent sense of identity is “an obscure New World transplantation…born to disorder [10] “. Writing gives Ralph Singh a focus where he can determine his own identity, reflecting on the various roles he has played in life imitating others; reinforcing that he has become one of the mimic men. He longs to escape “to a place unknown, among people whose lives and even language [11] ” in such a society he is a visible outsider never fully accepted as English, whereby he can take ‘comfort’ in his identity as the alien. However, he realises that his conception of identity, is merely the reflection of what others see him as. Without a ‘authentic’ individual identity, he is free to imitate others and thus becomes a mimic man.

Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners is a depiction of the lives of a group of newly arrived West Indian immigrants in London. The language is in the native Trinidadian dialect reflecting the experiences of the new immigrants as they are not fully integrated into English society. The characters in Londoners clearly possess a Caribbean identity and are too busy building their new lives to subject themselves to internal conscious debates about adopting new identities, but identity formation is inevitable for the new immigrants. Moses is an authority figure, mentor, and guide in the eyes of the newcomers. He is aware of the changes to his own position as an immigrant and more importantly in the English attitudes towards the newest influx of West Indians. Although Moses has a sentimental side which obliges him to fulfill his duty as ‘guide’ and introduce the new arrivals to London life, their shared identity as foreigners, aliens and outsiders, binds them into a mutual understanding of how it feels to be a minority in a big metropolitan city such as London. The alienation that the characters feel away from home is captured when Selvon shows Moses reflecting on his life in London “…. sometimes tears come to his eyes and he don’t know why really, if he is home-sickness or if is just that life in general beginning to get too hard [12] “

Moses yearns for the opportunity to return home to his own society and culture and he is disappointed in his experiences in London because he will never be ‘English’ and reflects “as the years go by wondering what it is all about [13] “. Galahad on the other hand is willing to make an effort of assimilation into London and English society, he is aware that his behavior is a cause for concern and thinks that “people…must bawl to see black man so familiar with white girl [14] “. The notion of identity is closely linked throughout the book with ideas of the masculinity and sexuality, and Galahad’s desire for the white women he is now meeting in London “is something he uses to dream about in Trinidad [15] “. The West Indian men are given opportunities to enter into English society through the sexual liaisons they have with white English women. The role of sexuality and the sexual identity of the black men and white women becomes a place of interaction, which is symbolic of the colonized minority gaining an element of control and subverting the power relations between black and white Londoners. As Galahad reflects “The time when he was leaving, Frank tell him: “Boy, it have bags of white pussy in London, and you will eat till you tired.” And now, the first date, in the hear of London, dressed to kill, ready to escort the number around town, anywhere she want to go, any place at all [16] ” There are difficulties in the attitudes of the men who are inherently sexist in how they view the white women who are available to them as sexual partners. It would appear that the black men are playing into the stereotypical representation of ‘over-sexualized’ black men. Their identities are mediated and distorted as objects which are alien and the perceived ‘norm’ of English society. But for Galahad this is an area of pure enjoyment and unrestrained pleasure, and as a young sexually active black man he is happy to negotiate this stereotype, and take on the identity of the sexual object as it offers him sexual reward and freedom.

The rooms that the characters are lodged in are single closed rooms and emphasized how London can be “powerfully lonely when you on your own [17] “. Areas of London are given nicknames by the immigrants such as “the Grove [18] “, “the Water [19] ” “the Gate [20] ” and adopted as recognized areas where other black immigrants live. Yet at the same time these areas and the immigrants, are marginal, detached, and disengaged from mainstream London culture and society. The identities of the new immigrants concern the fundamentals of life sharing a pursuit for good times and financial gain; this is something shared with the English working class communities. Despite their efforts, there is little chance that the immigrants will be able to relieve the loneliness. There is an underlying alienation from the native English Londoners, where the immigrants are often treated as objects of curiosity and sometimes ridicule. The identity of the immigrants is marked as physically different and as a basic question of skin colour. For Galahad this is illustrated when he pats a ‘curious’ young white child on the cheek and her reaction is to “cower shrink and begin to cry [21] “.The mother is unable to engage in conversation with him and she pulls the child away, walking off, Galahad’s reaction is to “give a sickly sort of smile, and the old Galahad, knowing how it is, smile back and walk on [22] “. The other obvious difference of their ‘race’ is what sets them apart from the white English, yet binds the black immigrants together in their ‘alien’ identity. The racism and discomfort they experience is part of the progression of identity formation, for both the host nation and for the minority subject as Bolaffi points out “These transformations have inevitably impacted on the forms which ethnicities and racisms are now taking in various parts of the globe [23] ” There is a sense in the book that each character is unable to escape the physical presence of their race. This ‘racial’ identity is highlighted in the attitudes of the host community; for the immigrants their sense of shared identity and experience is one of a minority coming into a majority.

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Buchi Emecheta’s novel Second-Class Citizen focuses on the experiences of Adah as she negotiates her desires and aspirations as a woman in Nigeria and as a black immigrant minority in London. It follows the protagonist Adah through the turmoil, difficulties, disappointments, and achievements she faces in life. The narrative is told in the third person in a traditional linear structure where Adah develops as a character, questioning the social values, norms and expectations of her identity, in both societies. Adah faces prejudices, and racial and gender based expectations. She is forced to comply and conform to the cultural values and societal norms of her identity as a black women, and always placed as a ‘second-class citizen’, saying that “nobody thought of recording her birth. She was so insignificant [24] “. Adah is different from the characters in Lonely Londoners and The Mimic Men, in that even as a child, she has a definite sense of identity in her aspirations to be educated and becoming a writer.

Adah’s identity as a writer is definitive in the position of a Postcolonial writer, as Boehmer suggests postcolonial “writers sought the freedom to name the world for themselves [25] “. Adah is adamant from a very early age that she will be educated, is intelligent and single minded in her pursuit of her dreams. For Adah education will free her from the constraints and restrictions of African society, and can only be achieved through an education in England which is the “holiest of holies [26] ” for education. This ambition is a constant ‘presence’ in her psyche throughout her life (Emecheta 1974, 11). However, on arrival she discovers, her childhood dreams of the land of educational opportunity are misconceptions. England does not extend the warm open welcome to the educated middle class affluent Nigerian Black woman that Adah has become; and she is positioned as a nuisance, a minority, and discriminated against as a ‘second-class citizen’

She can never fully escape the patriarchal values of her native Nigeria as she is bound in marriage to a man who only values her for her ability to earn money and reproduce. Francis her husband considers Adah’s sole purpose in life is to serve him, physically, sexually, while providing an income for him. Adah questions her role as a wife and as a woman; she experiences an awakening challenging the values and customs that are enforced on her. By refusing to conform to the prescribed gender roles and cultural Nigerian expectations, Adah draws on her own independence and strength to forge ahead with her ambitions and this is disconcerting for both the men and women around her. Adah is mocked, and alienated by members of the immigrant Nigerian community, because she has a strong sense of identity, and believes in her own rights and concepts of freedom as a woman. Adah’s own conceptions of the superiority of the English are called into question when she confronts her children’s babysitter Trudy. She is shocked and surprised at the working class English woman who falls far below her standards an African woman and an ” Igbo tigress [27] “. She comes to realise the destruction of the myth “that the white man never lied [28] ” (Emecheta 1974, 51). This causes her to revalue the notion of superiority that is being forced on her by parts of the white community and also serves to reinforce her sense of ‘superiority’ in her own being; that she is better than how she is treated, or made to feel. As Gikandi points out “Postcolonial subjects seem, however to face an intractable problem here: even when the mythology of Englishness displaced by alternative national histories, the imperial myth still continues to have a sacred presence, if not in the colonies themselves, then at “home” in England [29] ” She also challenges the role she is prescribed as a mother, and decides that as a working Nigerian mother and as a black woman who is a “second-class citizen” she will fight for the right to keep her children and send them to nursery and has “exploded another myth [30] “. Again, Adah challenges the norms and expectations of her domestic role as a wife, as an African woman and as a minority immigrant in London (Emecheta 1974, 67).

Francis’ sense of masculine pride is infuriated when Adah decides to seek contraception, he discusses this with other Nigerian tenants and back home with family members (Emecheta 1974, 155). This humiliation marks the end of the marriage in Adah’s mind (Emecheta 1974, 155). Adah’s refusal to be oppressed by Francis culminates in the realization of her dream and writing her first novel. Francis burns her manuscript and revels in the pain he will inevitably cause her in this action (Emecheta 1974, 179); this is a key turning point and she challenges Francis saying: “Bill called that story my brainchild. Do you hate me so much, that you could kill my child? Because that is what you have done.”… That to Adah was the last straw. Francis could kill her child. She could forgive him all he had done before, but not this [31] ” (Emecheta 1974, 181). She realizes she will no longer be a wife to such a man. For Adah her role as a mother and as a writer are the two positive facets of her identity which she give her hope and she chooses to adopt. Adah never loses her sense of self and her dreams and changes her position from a victim of violence and oppressed sexual object, by gaining financial control and independence from her husband, and she eventually leaves him. Adah has a strong sense of her own individuality and her identity does not necessarily fit in with the expectations of the Nigerian community or the English society she comes to live in. Throughout the novel Adah’s identity as a woman is central to her actions and motivations for wanting more than is prescribed for her, she fulfils her ambitions as a writer and as a woman, and progresses to find the independence and freedom from restrictions she has craved as a child.As seen in the three novels the characters embark on journeys which cut across colonial and post-colonial discourse of identity, this is a crucial question which arises at a time of crisis, as Bolaffi et al state:

“Issues of identity come to the fore when there is a crisis of identities, and there did indeed seem to such a crisis of identities in the last part of the twentieth century, and will be for the foreseeable future into the new millennium [32] ” The postcolonial protagonist then undergoes an identity crisis, which prompts him or her to search for a legitimate and positive image of the self as subject. In most cases in order to embark on this quest for the self, the stable current notion of identity in the protagonist must first be split, shattered, or called into question, further leading to his or her alienation from society. Boehmer states that “…colonials who migrate to the capital do not escape alienation…they must learn to overcome the ‘fracture’ which divides their lived experience from their fantasy of metropolitan life, they must…make their adopted language their own by speaking of such fractures, bringing discordances into prominence in their work [33] “. This sense of alienation is similar to exile in that the subject is no longer “at home” either physically or psychologically in their native land, in all three novels the alienation is represented as having a strong psychological affect on the characters. Hall states that “Identity is not in the past to be found, but in the future to be constructed [34] “. It is the state of not belonging, of not having a true home where postcolonial subjects are alienated by Eurocentric, imperial systems that will never fully accept them, either culturally or racially. Above all the novels all take the position that postcolonial identity is not stable, absolute, or fixed; instead it is a continuous process of flux, renegotiating itself depending on the context and particular experiences of the individual subject.


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