Essay On Exoticism

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This picture sat in the background of our middle-class colored Sunday dinners like a memento mori, and we made fun of it the way you joke about things that truly scare you.

strangeness, with a sense of risk but no real threat of danger.

But, for me, intense light—sun beating on rye fields, eyes like a bare Montana sky—can also evoke mystery and desire.

In my childhood house in Philadelphia, a huge gold-framed painting hung in the dining room, an heirloom from a rich cousin of my father’s who had travelled all over the world and died senile in a house stuffed with mementos.

Faraway exotic colonies and activities provide for Jane, almost destroy Rochester, treat Bertha cruelly and kill St John – in a novel that is only on the surface extremely English. Here, Englishman Charles Marlow enters the services of a Belgian trading company in (although never explicitly identified) the Belgian Congo.

Told to take a ship upriver and bring back the company’s most successful but now sick trader, Mr Kurtz, as well as the ivory he has accumulated through ‘trade’ with the natives, Marlow learns of Kurtz’s depraved practices, his tyrannical rule over the natives, and his relationship with an African woman.

Painted in the nineteen-twenties by a famous black woman artist, the painting depicted, in murky tints, what seemed to be a very stiffly rendered French marquise, complete with beauty patches, vapid rouged face, and powdered wig.

But, if one looked closer, the subject proved to be a large French doll—and not alone, for almost invisible behind her stood another doll, a turbaned black mammy whose eyes and gold earrings and red lips shone with unsettling vividness out of the shadows.

Europe’s colonial ambitions and activities were ongoing in the 19th century, and even Charlotte Brontë in the Yorkshire hinterland would have been ‘extraordinarily well aware of th[is] fact’, as postcolonial critic Edward Said has argued in (1848), the title heroine learns on her wedding day that, 15 years earlier, her intended husband Mr Rochester was married in Jamaica.

His first wife’s West Indies (sugar plantation) background is ideologically linked with notions of an exotic-erotic, primitive colonial otherness: Bertha Mason, who is of mixed European and Caribbean heritage, not only turns out to be ‘gross, impure, depraved’ and of a ‘common mind’ but her initial passion and sensuousness become, after her marriage, the irrational ravings of a ‘lunatic’ and ‘demon’ so that Rochester locks her away in the attic of his estate Thornfield (Charlotte Brontë, , Chapter XXVII).

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