Gayatri Spivak Can The Subaltern Speak Summary

Summary Of Can The Subaltern Speak? By Gayatri Chakrovorty Spivak

Today, I am going to discuss with you a very important and famous topic “Can The Subaltern Speak?” essay by Gayatri Spivak, a prominent Indian literary critic. 

Before beginning the Can The Subaltern Speak essay summary, let me first tell you a little about its author Gayatri Chakrovorty Spivak which will be pretty helpful for you in understanding the essay as well. 

Well, Gayatri Spivak is an Indian scholar, literary theorist, as well as a feminist critic. She is a leading contemporary feminist deconstructionist and most of her works are based on the issues of gender and race as this is what she pays careful attention to. 

She is believed to be one of the most influential intellectuals of the postcolonial era and is popularly known for her essay called “Can The Subaltern Speak?” which we are going to discuss here today. A lot of people have been influenced by her due to this essay she wrote. 

The main issue that her work confronts is the muteness of the women observed in postcolonial societies.  

Gayatri Spivak Can The Subaltern Speak Summary

The essay of Gayatri Chakrovorty Spivak Can The Subaltern Speak summary is all about the condition of women in the postcolonial era. 

The essay addresses the way in which the “Subaltern” woman is constructed, as absent or silent, someone who is not listened to. No one cares about them, what they think and what they say. 

The use of the term Subaltern in this essay has been influenced by Antonio Gramsci, an Italian thinker who first used this term. 

The work Subaltern refers to “Inferior Rank” which was given to women, black people, the colonized people, as well as the working class. All these people were considered to be of lower rank and were thus, addressed as the Subalterns. 

In this essay, the question of gender and sexual difference in the work has been introduced by Spivak. 

According to her, the subaltern is referred to as those people who belong to third-world countries, that is the undeveloped nation, this is because it is impossible for these people to speak for themselves as they are divided and distinguished from others by gender, religion, caste, region, and certain other narratives. These people are not valued by the people who take them as inferior. 

Spivak, through this essay, wants to give voice to these Subalterns she has talked about, who cannot speak, or who are silent. Spivak wants them to stand up for themselves without any fear. 

She has also focused on the speculations that are made on widow sacrifice. She did this by using an example of Sati, the practice which had been observed among the Hindus in which a woman, after becoming a widow, would be burnt alive along with the pyre of her dead husband’s body.

This orthodox practice was outlawed gradually after the arrival of the Britishers to India and with the help of this, they were also able to secure their rule in the nation, according to whom, White men (Britishers) saved brown women from brown men.

And this created the notion that the white men and Britishers were civilized people and the Indians were rather barbarians (uncivilized) because they didn’t believe in such orthodox practices.  

With this, Spivak also points out that the oppressed people are being silenced. She has also refused the idea that Western people are more superior and civilized. She talked about the Subaltern people and the place that they are given in society and stood with them because according to her, they are also an active part of society.


“In the text “Can The Subaltern Speak?”, Gayatri Chakrovorty Spivak tries to analyze how the western culture investigates our own culture. She also tries to rule out the binary oppositions between self and the other, occident and the orient, majority and minority, east and west, and so on. 

The term Subaltern in postcolonial terms refers to the colonized mass who are socially, geographically and politically excluded from the hierarchy of power. For Spivak, the Subalterns are those who belong to third-world countries and are divided on the abscess of caste, class, creed, gender, color, etc. 

Can the Subaltern Speak Analysis

As we have already gone through the summary of this essay, now it is time to check out the Can The subaltern Speak Critical Analysis.

The essay discusses four major points: 

1. Truth construction – 

Here, Spivak uses deconstruction to analyze how truly the truth was constructed. She also gives the example of Sati practice for this. British intervention saved the lives of many women and according to Britishers, “white men saved brown women from brown men”. This statement points out the truth that Indians are barbarians and the British are civilized and therefore colonization can be justified. 

Spivak says that our consciousness is randomly structured and our identities are written and framed by others. This is what she means by truth construction. Somebody else’s truth may not be justified by the other person. 

2. Eurocentric knowledge is not innocent – 

Here, Spivak criticizes Foucault and Deleuze for committing Epistemic violence which refers to focusing on and projecting eurocentric knowledge to third-world countries. So, we all know that the academic thinking and ideology of the eurocentric people or Europeans are nowhere related to ours. Their knowledge, academic thinking, and ideology serve good for their interests only and not ours. 

So, the Eurocentric knowledge here is a commodity and they try to sell it out. They carry it out into third-world countries and thus, such knowledge is never innocent. 

She also says that European knowledge is ideal and they take western thinking into third-world countries therefore, our identities are constructed and written by them. 

3. Criticism of essentialist ideologies

Here, Spivak uses Marxist ideology to criticize the leftists. The leftists consider the third-world people and themselves as people who have similar identities and similar ideologies. Therefore, this has a negative impact on the subalterns. Spivak says that because of this, their major situations can happen:

  1. This paves way for colonialism.
  2. 2. It provides a logocentric assumption of cultural unity among heterogeneous people.
  3. The subalterns, rather than speaking for themselves, wait for the western intellectuals to speak for their conditions and situations. 

4. Death of Bhuvaneshwari Bhaduri

Here, Spivak speaks about Bhubhaneshwari Bhaduri who hanged herself in 1926. Her death was an instantaneous resistance against the patriarchal ideology. So, while explaining the death of Bhuvaneshwari Bhaduri, Spivak describes that she hanged herself when she was menstruating and there was a belief in West Bengal during those days that if a young woman commits suicide, people used to believe that she was into some kind of love relationship. 

Since Bhyvaneshwari Bhaduri didn’t want people to think about her like that which is why she killed herself while she was menstruating so that she could prove that she was not a victim of failed romance. She wanted to convey patriarchy that she committed suicide due to some other cause. 

Later, her family also found out that she was a member of the anti-colonial group. She failed to carry out the task of killing a political figure for which she refused and this turned out to be the cause of her death. 

Final Words 

I hope that this article conveyed the topic of “Can the Subaltern Speak?” by Gayatri Spivak the right way. If there is any query or if you want the Can The Subaltern Speak Summary PDF, just let me know in the comments. Also, check out our other articles like Towards A Feminist Poetics By Elaine Showalter Summary, and Orientalism Summary Edward Said

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