As a concept frequently found in historical and sociological texts, oppression is typically defined in terms of a dominant group subjugating another minority group. In Race and Ethnic Relations (1985), Martin N. Marger explains that a sociological minority and a mathematical minority are not the same. Mathematically, a group can be the majority and yet still be victims of an oppression imposed by a more powerful yet numerically smaller dominant group. He goes on to delineate the qualities of oppressed minorities by detailing how they receive differential treatment, as they are not afforded the same rights and privileges as the dominant group. Additionally, Marger notes that minority groups are socially denied, have differential power, and are treated categorically (all members are defined by group status as opposed to individually) (37–38). Also, dominant groups can be distinguished culturally, economically, and politically (41). With this diversity in mind, the theme of oppression would include all of the “-isms” we have come to identify with prejudice. It can be based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, political or national affiliation, age, physical or mental disability, religion, and other factors. In his authoritative The Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970), Paulo Friere identifies several characteristics of oppressive societies.
For example, oppressors often refer to the oppressed in nonhuman terms. Correspondingly, oppression is against the ideals of humanity because it prevents people within the oppressed group from being fully human (43). In her article “Oppression,” Marilyn Frye expands on this: “The experience of oppressed people is that the living of one’s life is confined and shaped by forces and barriers which are not accidental or occasional and hence avoidable, but are systematically related to each other in such a way as to catch one between and among them and restrict or penalize motion in any direction” (40). This definition helps bring about a distinction between injustice and oppression. Whereas injustice can occur at any level, the more specific concept of oppression involves a systemic structure that shapes and restricts the life of an oppressed population. In Privilege, Power, and Difference, Allan G. Johnson describes the two sides of the oppressive society as the privileged and the oppressed. This terminology implies that the members who are receiving the benefits of the societal structure may not be actively oppressive toward others. Sometimes one is a member of a privileged group without feeling particularly dominant.
However, membership in the majority group opens doors for members while membership in oppressed groups tends to shut doors. Interestingly, Friere asserts that the oppressed, rather than standing up against all tyranny, often become “sub-oppressors” against others within their minority group (45). This can be seen in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, where the oppressed black men further subjugate the black women. Thus, the black women in the novels are doubly oppressed in their rural southern societies. This is specifically addressed in Their Eyes Were Watching God when the protagonist Janie is told by her grandmother that black women are the mules of the world. While the black men are oppressed by white society, according to Nanny, the black women are oppressed by both the white power structure and black men. This is also seen in the experiences of Celie, who for much of The Color Purple is beaten and oppressed by her husband, Mr. ——. In this novel, even Celie, who is subjugated for most of her life, encourages her stepson Harpo to beat his strong-willed wife, Sofia. In Friere’s view, Celie has become so enmeshed in a culture of oppression that she does not see it as aberrant. Oppression, with all its diverse implications, has been apparent throughout much of time. For example, in the Bible, not only are the Jews oppressed by the Egyptians and the Syrians, but the women of the Old Testament are also faced with laws that are inequitable. In fact, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest recorded use of the word oppression in the English language was in a 1382 version of the Bible. As an example of female oppression, in the book of Exodus, it is indicated that it is permissible to sell one’s daughters into slavery.
Unlike sons who were sold into slavery, daughters were not released after a six-year period; they remained slaves. Similar to examining the religious text of the Bible, one needs only look at various historical periods to see countless examples of groups oppressed by others. Two modern examples of oppression are the apartheid of South Africa and Adolf Hitler’s oppression and persecution of the Jewish people. South African apartheid was a system of legalized racism and segregation enforced by the National Party government. In this society, marginalized populations, particularly “black” and “colored” (which was a mixed-race designation), were subjected to laws restricting where they resided, their right to voting, their ability to marry or engage in sexual relations with members of other races, where they could work, and eventually their ability to be citizens. Similarly, the Jewish people of Hitler’s Germany were subjected to extremely differential treatment. The Nuremburg Laws prohibited marriage and sexual relations between Jews and Germans and stripped Jewish people of citizenship. Laws prohibiting where, and eventually if, Jewish people could work and be educated were part of the path that led to the Holocaust.
The memoirs Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank, and Night, by Elie Wiesel, document the oppressive experience of subjugated people living in Nazi Germany. Both of these periods are emblematic of the oppression that permeates history. Since the works written in each era can be seen to reflect the zeitgeist of that period, and since oppression is so prevalent in history, it makes sense that it can be identified in works from multiple eras, countries, and cultural/social groups. At times, the works have been written purposefully to demonstrate the evils of the oppression, as in Richard Wright’s Native Son, a novel in which the author presents the oppressive racism of America in the 1930s, as experienced by his protagonist, Bigger Thomas. Sometimes, the works studied will not intentionally describe the oppressive system; instead, through their illustration of the social structure and mores of their times, they depict oppressions that critics can analyze. For instance, literary scholars frequently examine William Shakespeare’s play The Taming of the Shrew and analyze the oppression of women.
Whether or not Shakespeare intended to subvert or uphold the patriarchy of his time, his play can still be studied to analyze the oppression of women. In terms of literary theory, critics did not always address the oppression in works. It became most apparent with the emergence of fields of criticism that are sociologically and culturally based. Because of its diverse dimensions, the theme of oppression is evident in many of these fields of literary study. For example, analyses of oppression are explored in gender studies, cultural studies, Marxist criticism, feminist criticism, postcolonial criticism, queer theory, and other sociologically influenced branches of criticism. To illustrate, books addressing South African apartheid would be of particular interest to postcolonial critics, who examine the works produced in or written about countries that have been subject to European colonial powers in their history. Since apartheid was instituted in a colonial area, where the colonizer was oppressing the native residents, works addressing this area would fall within the scope of postcolonial studies. Similarly, in feminist criticism, works would be examined to see how the patriarchal society dominates women. Historically, an admonition of patriarchal oppression can be found as far back as Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). In this manifesto, Wollstonecraft contends that familial tyranny is unjust, that women should be educated, and that the differentiation of the sexes should cease. Many feminist texts have emerged over the years. The works of Virginia Woolf, Kate Chopin, Margaret Atwood, and Toni Morrison are often analyzed to demonstrate the oppression of women. Racial oppression is frequently treated in literature. While this includes much of postcolonial studies, it is not limited to them. In American literature, there are poignant examples of racial oppression.
As a documentation of the slavery of blacks in America, Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, authenticates the experience of living in a dominated minority during the 1800s. Poetically, Langston Hughes’s works arising out of the Harlem Renaissance illuminate the oppression of black Americans at that time. One of the best examples of this is seen in his poem “I, Too,” which is an answer to Walt Whitman’s famous “I Hear America Singing.” In this, as in many of his works, Hughes asserts black humanity, one of the major focuses of the Harlem Renaissance. Remembering Friere’s point that oppressors dehumanize the oppressed, the need for the dominated to assert their humanity is understandable. In the poem, Hughes uses the metaphor of being sent to eat in the kitchen when company comes to represent the differential treatment of this era. The poem clearly subverts the current social system, and Hughes writes that the oppressed will grow stronger, indicating that one day they will bring down the oppressors. However, although the poem indicates the oppressed will rise up against the dominant, it ends with the hopeful wish that the oppressors will see their mistake and change the system themselves. These works present a small sampling of oppression evident throughout much of literature.
See also Achebe, Chinua: Anthills of the Savannah; Things Fall Apart; Allende, Isabel: House of the Spirits, The; Atwood, Margaret: Handmaid’s Tale, The; Black Elk: Black Elk Speaks; Kesey, Ken: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; Kincaid, Jamaica: Small Place, A; Kundera, Milan: Unbearable Lightness of Being, The; London, Jack: White Fang; Mistry, Rohinton: Fine Balance, A; Paine Thomas: Common Sense; Rand, Ayn: Anthem; Reed, Ishmael: Mumbo Jumbo.