Under Western Eyes: European Writings on South East Asia

Key information

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Module code
FHEQ Level
South East Asia Section

Module overview

This module examines European writing about South East Asia from the colonial period to the present day, exploring how the region 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 Dermoût, the Indo-Dutch "writer's writer" and the Vietnam War-era work of African-American poet Yusuf Komunyakaa. Themes 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 ambiguous position of European women and other minorities. Texts will be discussed in the light of key theories including those pertaining to Orientalism, the tourist gaze, colonialism and post-colonialism. The focus is on novels, though shorter fiction, plays and poetry are also considered. Texts not originally in English will be read in English translation. This module complements English Literatures of South East Asia, but may be taken separately.

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 specific topics covered in the module are subject to change, but have included:

  1. South East Asia in the European imagination: Rimbaud in Java, the Malay opium-eater in London.
  2. Early modern imaginings: Fletcher's The Island Princess.
  3. Inventing race in the Malay world: Conrad's Almayer's Folly.
  4. Imperial masculinity and moral decay: Maugham's Malayan stories.
  5. Kipling, Twain and benevolent assimilation.
  6. Colonial critique: Orwell's Burmese Days.
  7. Magic realism at the edge of empire: Dermoût's The Ten Thousand Things.
  8. Against the deluge: Duras' The Sea Wall.
  9. Race, poetry, and the Vietnam War: Komunyakaa's Dien Cai Dau.
  10. Interrogating the tourist gaze: Alex Garland's The Beach.

Method of assessment

Two reaction papers of 600 words each, due on Wednesday of Weeks 4 and 8 (40%); an essay of 2,000 words to be submitted on day 3, week 12 (60%).

Suggested reading

  • 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.
  • Fletcher, John. 2012 (1619). The island princess. Clare McManus, ed. London: Arden Shakespeare.
  • Garland, Alex. 1997. The beach. London: Penguin Books.Komunyakaa, Yusuf. 2012. Dien Cai Dau. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press.
  • Maugham, W. Somerset. 1975 Maugham's Malaysian stories.
  • Anthony Burgess, ed. Kuala Lumpur: Heinemann.
  • Orwell, George. 2009 (1934). Burmese days. London: Penguin.


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules