The Wretched of the Earth | Study Guide

Frantz Fanon

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The Wretched of the Earth | Summary



The Wretched of the Earth analyzes the postwar decolonization movement, focusing on Africa and on Algeria in particular. Fanon argues the violence of colonial rule sows the seeds of its violent overthrow. Taking violent action restores the colonized people, giving them back their humanity. The first three chapters of the book tell a narrative. The narrative progresses from spontaneous uprising, through national revolution, to postcolonial government. The fourth chapter argues in favor of a nation rather than a culture. The fifth chapter draws on case histories to show the effects of torture and war.


The book's preface was written by 20th-century French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. He begins by describing the world's population as consisting of "men" and "natives." The "men" are the citizens of colonial empires, while the "natives" are the colonized people. Sartre does not really believe "natives" are lesser than "men." He is repeating one of Fanon's points: colonialism dehumanizes people. He also believes the book's ideas will affect Europeans, although he says Fanon's book is not addressed to Europeans. "We in Europe too are being decolonized," writes Sartre. He means decolonization will change the mindset of Europeans.

Concerning Violence

In this chapter Fanon shows how colonialism sows the seeds of its own violent overthrow. He discusses those involved in the colonial situation in terms of singular, ideal types: the settler, the native, and the native intellectual, to name just three. The settler teaches the native that they are only an animal. The settler drives this lesson home through violence. When the native realizes they are human, they are predisposed to rebel against the settler. Fanon is not arguing the native's violence is morally justified. He is simply offering a description—given these conditions, here is what happens: "Decolonization is always a violent phenomenon." Decolonization means taking the place of the settler. Despite the abstract tone, Fanon is mainly writing about Algeria, where he had lived and worked. At the time Fanon was writing, Algerians were fighting to free themselves from the French.

Violence in the International Context

In this section Fanon describes the international political relationship between newly independent nations and former colonial powers. He points out how the colonizing nations have enriched themselves at the expense of the colonies. According to Fanon the colonial powers owe their former colonies reparations payments.

Spontaneity: Its Strength and Weakness

In this chapter Fanon argues the peasants in the countryside are more resolutely anticolonial than leaders of nationalist parties in the cities. The nationalist parties are modeled on their counterparts in the mother country. But in the colonial context, the nationalist parties aren't effective. The peasants are the source of spontaneous uprising, but they cannot do it all by themselves. They must be joined by others.

The Pitfalls of National Consciousness

In this chapter Fanon analyzes a class he calls the "national bourgeoisie." They are doctors, lawyers, and administrators. He shows how self-interested they are. He argues this class must not be allowed to dominate the government of the newly independent nation. If they do dominate, they will maintain the old structures of exploitation and oppression, with themselves at the top. His solution is "decentralization in the extreme." The hinterlands must be integrated with the city.

On National Culture

In this chapter Fanon describes the damage colonialism does to a people's sense of past and culture. He sees the appeal and the psychological benefits of recovering a people's glorious past. However, he argues against promoting a global black culture or a global Arab culture. Culture must be national, he claims. He also argues the building of the nation politically and economically is more important than the building of a national culture. The struggle to create the nation will give rise to the national culture.

Colonial War and Mental Disorders

The previous chapters often focused on types rather than actual people: the settler, the native, the national bourgeois. In this chapter Fanon cites actual cases from his work as a psychiatrist. He uses the cases of real individuals to show how colonialism has affected people's minds and spirits. Some of the cases are drawn from his work at the Blida-Joinville Hospital in Algeria. Others are people he encountered while working with the FLN in Tunisia. The chapter is divided into four "series," four classes of mental disorder met with under colonialism. At the end of the chapter Fanon discusses theories of Algerian criminality.


Fanon's conclusion is a rousing call to action. He calls on "brothers" and "comrades" to turn away from Europe. He also advises against trying to catch up to Europe economically and culturally. Instead the new nations will "go forward" on their own path. Ultimately the liberation of colonized peoples will benefit all of humanity.

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