Contrapuntal Reading or Analysis

Lindsay Ferriter


By looking at a novel contrapuntally, we take into account intertwined histories and perspectives. Specifically, contrapuntal analysis, developed by Edward W. Said, is used in interpreting colonial texts, considering the perspectives of both the colonizer and the colonized. This approach is not only helpful but also necessary in making important connections in a novel. If one does not read with the right background, one may miss the weight behind the presence of Antigua in Mansfield Park, Australia in Great Expectations, or India in Vanity Fair. Interpreting contrapuntally is interpreting different perspectives simultaneously and seeing how the text interacts with itself as well as with historical or biographical contexts. It is reading with "awareness both of the metropolitan history that is narrated and of those other histories against which (and together with which) the dominating discourse acts" (Said 51). Since what isn't said may be as important as what is said, it is important to read with an understanding of small plot lines, or even phrases. Contrapuntal reading means reading a text "with an understanding of what is involved when an author shows, for instance, that a colonial sugar plantation is seen as important to the process of maintaining a particular style of life in England" (Said 66). Contrapuntal reading takes in both accounts of an issue; it addresses both the perspective of imperialism and the resistance to it.

As the Empire thought it its duty to civilize the barbarians of conquered and colonized territory, the British immediately "othered" these people as inferior and in need of British assistance to show them the way. Because certain people were different, they required ruling, supervision, order. As politicians successfully stereotyped and "othered" the colonized, the British at home had no other knowledge or agency to know otherwise. They "othered" the people of these places as well. And so did the geniuses of the time--including Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Joseph Conrad, William Thackeray, and Rudyard Kipling. Born in ignorance, the civilizing mission bred and spread ignorance throughout the motherland. The ignorance as well as the traces of imperialism found in the texts of this time provide an accurate gage with which to judge society. Contrapuntal reading necessitates a vision in which imperialism and literature are viewed simultaneously.


Said, Edward W. Culture and Imperialism. London: Vintage, 1993.