SOAS University of London

South East Asia Section, School of Languages, Cultures & Linguistics

Under Western Eyes: European Writings on South East Asia (PG)

Module Code:
Taught in:
Term 1

This module examines European writing about South East Asia, from the colonial period to the present day, and explores how South East Asia was shaped in the imaginations of English, Dutch and French writers. South East Asia as a setting and a subject has attracted European writers from the well-known, such as Joseph Conrad, who made his name with his novels of "the eastern isles," and Alex Garland's parable of the dark side of backpacking in Thailand, to the more obscure, including Maria Dermout, the Indo-Dutch "writer's writer," as well as less discussed works by major writers, like Anthony Burgess' Malayan Trilogy. Themes will include the intermeshing of the exotic and the domestic, including the formation of erotic and familial ties between Europeans and South East Asians; the uneasy position of the writer within the colonial project, especially with regard to the propagation or critique of the racial project of colonialism; and the ever-present spectres of otherness and Orientalism. Texts will be discussed in the light of key theories including those pertaining to Orientalism, otherness , colonialism and post-colonialism. The focus is on novels, though shorter fiction, plays and poetry may also be considered. Texts not originally in English will be read in English translation.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

On successful completion of this module a student will be able to:

  1. demonstrate in-depth understanding of European writings (originally in Dutch, French and English) about South East Asia from a range of historical contexts (pre- to post-colonial)
  2. apply key theories (such as those addressing Orientalism, otherness, and post-colonialism) to the texts under consideration
  3. deploy enhanced critical reading skills, both in the close reading of the primary texts and in assessing and evaluating theoretical analysis presented in the secondary texts
  4. demonstrate improved writing skills, with an emphasis on using primary texts to support their arguments
  5. show greater confidence and ability in oral discussion of ideas and in making constructive contributions to class discussions.


This module will be taught over 10 weeks with a 1 hour lecture and a 1 hour seminar per week.

Scope and syllabus

The module will encompass writings by Europeans on South East Asia from the early colonial period to the present day. Individual topic are likely to change as the course develops, but will include:

  1. South East Asia in the European imagination: Rimbaud in Java, the Malay opium-eater in London.
  2. Inventing race in the Malay world: Joseph Conrad's Almayer's Folly.
  3. Educating Thailand: Anna Leonowen's Anna and the King of Siam.
  4. Magic realism at the edge of empire: Maria Dermout's The Ten Thousand Things.
  5. Colonial critique: George Orwell's Burmese Days.
  6. Against the deluge: Duras' The Sea Wall.
  7. At empire's end: Anthony Burgess' Time for a Tiger.
  8. The changing of the guard: Graham Greene's The Quiet American.
  9. Interrogating the tourist gaze: Alex Garland's The Beach.
  10. Beyond the airport novel? Future directions for European writing on South East Asia.

Method of assessment

Two reaction papers of 600 words each (30%); an essay of 2,500 words to be submitted on day 1, week 1, in the term following the one in which the module is taught (70%).

Suggested reading

  • Burgess, Anthony. 1996 (1956). The Malayan trilogy. London: Vintage Classics.
  • Conrad, Joseph. 1994 (1895). Almayer’s folly. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.
  • De Quincey, Thomas. 2003 (1800). Confessions of an English opium eater. London: Penguin Classics.
  • Dermout, Maria. 2002 (1955). The ten thousand things. Trans. Hans Koning. New York: NYBR Classics.
  • Duras, Marguerite. 1986 (1950). The sea wall. Trans. Briffault, Herma. New York: Harper Perennial.
  • Garland, Alex. 1997. The beach. London: Penguin Books.
  • Greene, Graham. 2002 (1955). The quiet American. New York: Penguin Books.
  • Leonowens, Anna H. 1979 (1870). The English governess at the Siamese court. Bangkok: Chalermnit.
  • Orwell, George. 2009 (1934). Burmese days. London: Penguin.


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules