Twentieth Century Novels and the Reconstruction of British Identity
During the twentieth century, particularly from 1920 to 2000, the British national identity underwent a dramatic transformation in response to the major historical events of the century: the conclusion of World War I, the decline of imperialism, and the immigration from former colonies to England after World War II. Three prominent twentieth-century novels reflect the changes in British identity. Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway demonstrates how, in the aftermath of World War I, the traditional British identity suffered a devastating blow as the heavy causalities of the war shattered the country’s nationalism. In 1923, when the novel takes place, the Age of Imperialism was dwindling and the British Empire’s colonial influence began deteriorating. Set in the mid 1920s, E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India illustrates the fractured, racially-stratified British identity that existed after the destruction of Britain’s traditional national identity. Zadie Smith’s novel White Teeth takes place during the mid to late twentieth century and details the formation of a contemporary, diverse British identity in response to increasing immigration from former colonies. The three novels use fiction to demonstrate how Britain’s national identity evolves over time from a closed-off, traditional British identity based on national pride to a muddled, race-based British identity to a modern, multi-ethnic national identity during the twentieth century.
Virginia Woolf’s novel, Mrs. Dalloway, uses two characters to portray the breakdown of the traditional British identity after the Age of Imperialism comes to a close, thereby crushing the imperial basis of the nation’s identity, and after WWI obliterates a fundamental aspect of the national identity, British nationalism. The novel takes place in 1923 London as Britain’s Age of Imperialism draws to a close and the Empire begins to lose influence over its colonies. One character, Lady Bruton, represents imperialism in the British identity because of her military lineage and her devotion to the imperial beliefs of the British Empire. A description of Lady Bruton states, “one could not figure her even in death parted from the earth or roaming territories over which… the Union Jack had ceased to fly. To be not English even among the dead-no, no! Impossible!” (Woolf 181). The narrator claims that even in death, Lady Bruton’s British identity would remain steadfast. However, the exclamations “no, no! Impossible!” about the loss of national identity reflect denial and self-reaffirmation rather than validity. Instead of convincing the reader of the British Empire’s invincibility, the two fragmented, random utterances presage Britain’s downfall. The narrator mentions the “roaming territories” under British control, which alludes to the British Empire’s imperial conquests. In contrast, the narrator references territories where “the Union Jack had ceased to fly”, which exemplifies Britain’s imperial influence fading after World War I. Through the description of Lady Bruton, Woolf demonstrates the pivotal role imperialism plays in the national identity and how the weakening imperial influence of Great Britain after the war destroys part of British identity.
On the other hand, the novel’s protagonist, Clarissa Dalloway, represents nationalism’s central role in British identity. After ambling around London running errands in preparation for her party, Clarissa Dalloway describes the sensation caused by the presence of a nobility-filled and says, “for in all the hat shops and tailors’ shops strangers looked at each other and thought of the dead; of the flag; of Empire” (Woolf 18). Seeing a regal car incites nationalistic thoughts among the townspeople, which causes the crowd to contemplate “the dead”, “the flag”, and the “Empire.” The mention of “the dead” refers to the deadliest conflict in history at the time, World War I. The “flag”, or the Union Jack, serves as the ultimate symbol of Great Britain’s nationalism when it flies over England but when the flag flies above foreign territories, it represents the nation’s imperial ambition. Another interpretation of the three words, however, signifies the death of British nationalism by associating death with the flag of the Empire. After the British Empire suffers through the brutality of World War I, the nation emerges victorious but with heavy casualties and its nationalism-based British identity shattered.
E.M. Forster’s novel, A Passage to India, uses fiction to portray the fragmented, race-based British identity that emerges in the aftermath of World War I and the Age of Imperialism. Throughout the novel, Forster uses the attitudes of British characters to critique British society’s over-inflated sense of nationalism that led to the nation’s aggressive imperialist tendencies and the racism that justifies Britain’s imperialism. In describing a group of Englishmen discussing the polarizing trial between an Englishwoman and the Indian accused of assaulting her, the narrator says, “[those] simple words had reminded them that they were an outpost of Empire” (Forster 202). The discussion of the trial inflames the imperialistic views of the Anglo-Indians. They remember that they represent “an outpost of Empire,” which separates them from the Indians. The word “outpost” has two meanings; it can be defined as either a military camp distant from the main base or a remote part of an empire. Both definitions allude to separation between the English and Indians, which would breed a strong sense of nationalism in the British outpost and foster their connection to the homeland. The Anglo-Indians’ perception that they represent the empire allows them to channel their patriotism and feel proud of their national identity. In addition to strong nationalistic beliefs, paternalism and perceived racial superiority fuel British nationalism and imperial conquests. At the Bridge Party, where the British segregate themselves from the Indians and vice versa, Mrs. Turton tells Mrs. Moore, “you’re superior to them, anyway. Don’t forget that. You’re superior to everyone in India” (Forster 42). Mrs. Turton embodies the racism that pervades the imperial British identity. She expresses the British viewpoint and interprets British identity as racial superiority rather than a common cultural identity. Her ethnocentric perception of “superiority” epitomizes the foundation of British nationalism and imperialism. Through the novel’s depiction of British characters’ attitudes, Forster criticizes British society’s reliance on racism to bolster national pride and maintain its national identity.
White Teeth, a novel by Zadie Smith, explores the formation of a modern British identity that encompasses the multi-ethnic population of contemporary Britain. The novel details the experiences of first-generation and second-generation immigrants to illustrate their inclusion in modern British society. While the main characters listen to the news, the broadcast states, “the twenty-eight-mile-long scar—the ugliest symbol of a divided world, East and West—has no meaning anymore” (Smith 199). The newscaster recounts the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The destruction of the wall, a symbol of the Cold War’s divisiveness, signifies the integration of Eastern immigrants into British society. The “divided world” that the narrator mentions applies to not only the conflict between communism and democracy but also the general tension between East and West. Immigrants from the East encountered resistance from the British and often faced discrimination. The idea of the divide having “no meaning anymore” reflects the creation of a unified British identity to include all ethnicities, religions, and classes. While reflecting on the influx of immigrants to London during the mid twentieth century, the narrator says, “it is still hard to admit that there is no one more English than the Indian, no one more Indian than the English” (Smith 272). The narrator notes the close ties between English and Indian mannerisms. By tying together the British and the Indians, the narrator hints at the colonial history of India as a colony of the British Empire. However, the quote also alludes to the blurred lines between colonial peoples and colonial rulers in the reformed British identity. Irie, the daughter of a Jamaican immigrant and an Englishman, ponders her British identity and says, “she wanted to, well, kind of, merge with them. She wanted their Englishness…It didn’t occur to her that the Chalfens were, after a fashion, immigrants too (third generation, by way of Germany and Poland, né Chalfenovsky)… to Irie, the Chalfens were more English than the English” (Smith 273). Irie believes that the Chalfens represent the paradigm of Englishness and, therefore, she wants to merge with them to gain their British identity. Irie’s perception of the Chalfens’ British identity reflects the more open national identity of contemporary Britain. She “wanted their Englishness” because she views the Chalfens as British despite the fact that they “were…immigrants too.” Irie’s perception of the Chalfens as “more English than the English” demonstrates the openness of the modern British identity and the inclusion of immigrants in the national identity. The novel’s depiction of crumbling barriers and inclusivity in British society mirrors the shift to a modern British identity that incorporates the multi-cultural population of contemporary Britain.
The three prominent twentieth-century novels reveal the modernization of British identity. Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway demonstrates the complete annihilation of British identity after the devastation of World War I and the decline of imperialism destroyed two key aspects of the national identity: nationalism and imperialism. A Passage to India continues to trace the transformation of British identity by focusing on the convoluted, race-based British identity that emerges after World War I destroys Britain’s traditional identity. The novel White Teeth reflects the final form of Britain’s national identity. In the novel, British identity undergoes reconstruction to apply to people of all ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, religions, ages, and socioeconomic statuses. The three distinguished novels from the twentieth century reflect the transition from the destruction of British identity after World War I to the disjointed, race-based national identity and finally, the rebirth of British identity as a diverse, open national identity.
Forster, E. M. A Passage to India. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984. Print.
Smith, Zadie. White Teeth: A Novel. New York: Random House, 2000. Print.
Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. New York: Harcourt, 1981. Print.
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