Performing the Identity

The fact that Leonard Woolf chooses to entitle his autobiography “Growing” amuses me for I do not really see signs of progression in this week’s reading but rather using a different form to articulate “old idea.” The authencity of his experiences is questionable but his autobiography also revisits the ambiguity of the representations which we have seen in the texts that we have talked about in class. One cannot help but notice that even though Woolf does not come close to the sorry figure of Flory, he does experience and portray the reluctance of having to live up to his reputation of being the imperial white man. With this in mind, while he is an enforcer of the imperialist system, I cannot help but wonder if he is a victim entrapped within the structure even with his complicity in it. This is similar to the discussions we have had of Elizabeth and Ma Hla May in which they are complicit in their entrapment. The question then to be asked is if we are also complicit in reproducing this system of entrapment when we choose to locate and revisit this continually in our readings of the texts?

Shannon Forbes wrote an article on equating performance with identity and in this piece of writing, she mentioned that an identity is re- constituted within a social structure with repeated performance of a particular role and responsibility. The repeated performance which constitutes an identity then gives rise to a social cohesion. To me, this social cohesion is bounded with the social contract in which each of us has to act out the responsibilities that are given to us. Identity then becomes a responsibility and this can be seen in Woolf who says that he has to maintain a facade among his own group for he has learned that to be different is to be condemned. Much has been said about the white man and his performance as the superior imperialist. In reading Woolf’s autobiography, I find myself thinking that the natives are also “guilty” of maintaining the binaries between the colonised and colonisers. Once they are emboldened by the knowledge that they are capable of reproducing the white man’s structure of power, colonialism is enacted by the natives on the natives. Colonialism then becomes a form of identity which materialises in different structures.

The world reacted with horror to the white man’s colonialism but initially thought that Japan’s participation in World War Two was an act of Asian bravery to the onslaught of the Europeans. Perhaps then, striped of all the focus on the white man’s superiority and natives’ inferiority, the matter boils to a fact that we live in a dog- eat- dog world. In Woolf’s words: “it is questionable whether in the end either will have the strength to eat the other.”

Modernism and Woolf- Creation of “the Real”

Honestly, when i read the first 3 pages of Woolf I thought the entire thing was going to be insufferably boring- but I ended up reading the entire thing in one sitting. I really liked his writing style (the Modernist tendency if that is what you want to call it) because it really draws on aspects of story-telling and self-consciousness.

Woolf is precise at times and very vague at times. When he says that “there was something extraordinarily real and at the same time unreal in the sights and sounds and smells” (first page), I get the sense that he is describing his writing too (in terms of the kind of detail he uses/doesn’t use). This idea of self-consciousness continues when he says that he feels as though he is “acting in a play or living in a dream” (same page). I like the way in which this very self-consciousnessness in “fictional autobiography” spills over into “reality” (reality = the reality we are in as readers). In other words, as Woolf  (the young man in Jaffna) “play[s] a part in an exciting play” (page after that), we see the same Woolf (though “same” is questionable) playing the part as writer, and of course, us as readers playing our part as well.

The way in which he constructs a picture of Jaffna for us is interesting, because even though he seems concerned about providing “authentic” details (name-dropping of islands, people and companies), he undermines this at times. For example, he makes direct reference to the content and form of his writing when he mentions “leav[ing] this subject of animals”; coupled with the fact that he deliberately mentions his “readers” (page number is cut off), this adds an interesting element of self-reflexivity to his writing. Concerns like ‘subject content’ and pleasing the audience are indeed important to a writer, and the fact that Woolf makes reference to something OUTSIDE his own text’s fictional/non-fictional reality identifies it as “modernist”, and outside the realm of “realist” 19th-century novels.

Thus, while Woolf remains a master story-teller, we question the “real” authencity of his experiences. Woolf provides us with little episodes and little impressions that are either not the “full story”, or not the “true story”. However, in true post-19th-century fashion, if all “reality” before has been constructed for us, then does authenticity matter or even exist?


I would just like to briefly run through a few things I found interesting in Woolfe’s piece, “Growing.” First of all I would like to mention his literary style. I find it funny that he can put in so many details when he recalls a story. For instance, he makes sure to tell readers what side of the island he was on when a certain incident happened. However, there are many times when he blatantly says he doesn’t remember specifics about certain incidents. Of course, this is probably attributed to the fact that he had letters and his own journal entries that aided him in recalling specifics of incidents, but it comes across as paradoxical and gives the whole piece the tone of an old man telling his grandchildren about when he was an imperialist.

This brings me to my next point. The section where he describes when he first began to realize what it meant to be an imperialist was an eye-opener. It made me realize that young civil servants at the time came to the colonies because it was viewed as just another job. He talks about having to put on a façade in order to live and work in the colonies. However, I don’t think he viewed the façade and imperialism, as he came to understand it, together until he was being accused of striking Mr. Harry Sanderasekara.

Just a couple of the things I enjoyed about the piece. There were some images and turns of phrase that were comedic. The inclusion of photographs made the reading much more real, but at the same time contributed to a sense of the surreal in Woolfe’s recorded memories. I think it will be interesting to compare this piece to Burmese Days in that there are a lot of similarities. However, the tone is totally different.

Misery loves company

Since we were on the topic of gender, and particularly the representation of women in the modernist colonial texts, I think it will of interest in our study to highlight the profoundly telling similarity in the dialectic between surface and depth in the subjectivity of the female/colonized other in Leonard Woolf’s Growing.

Introducing the readers to Sinnatamby at the Jaffna country club, Woolf writes: “I used to watch Sinnatamby with some interest, a big stoutish Tamil in a voluminous white cloth and towering maroon turban… He was extremely respectful, but I sometimes thought that I caught in his eye a gleam which belied the impassive face when some more than usually outrageous remark… echoed up into the heavy scented immense emptiness of the tropical evening sky… I could imagine generations of Sinnatambys standing respectfully behind their white masters in India right back to before the Mutiny – and some of them with that gleam in the eye getting their own back during the Mutiny.” (45-46)

This image of Sinnatamby in a “voluminous white cloth and towering maroon turban” is later uncannily mirrored by Mrs. Dutton, “dressed completely in white in a voluminous, bride-like dress”, her “glossy black hair parted in the middle”. Looking as though “filled with bridal veils”, the “overpowering smell of clean linen” betrays a “feeling of unmitigated chastity”, and the Dutton’s bedroom figures as a kind of virginal prison chamber. If women can only achieve legitimized status through marriage, then Mrs. Dutton’s unconsummated marriage would make her an less than a legitimate entity, thus marking an affinity between the conditions of the English woman in the outpost and the colonized native; both are colonized subjects and held in servitude to the white man.

Sinnatamby’s white garb of servitude is undercut by the gleaming eye, the deep though unspoken intent of “getting their own back”. Interestingly, the women characters are portrayed to have more constrains set upon them by the natives. Mrs. Dutton suppressed her unhappiness over her marriage in a “patter of expressed and unexpressed misery” while Mrs. Price, conscious of maintaining an appearance of ladylikeness tired to conceal her misery, “except for the unhappiness terribly stamped upon her face. In Woolf’s narrative of displacement, the European women in the colonial outpost are presented as severely displaced, and it is as though only by wearing bride-like dresses and signing off with conviction her husband’s name – both acts as validation of the male figures’ masculinity – can the women validate their legitimized status as married women.

Fierce Creatures!

I find Woolf’s protrayals of animals very “strange”, to use a word he seems to like. It is not just that he’s sentimental to an almost Disney-like level, but that he seems to portray more identification with the animals than with other people. Where his descriptions of people are so often laced with a wry cynicism, his descriptions of animals are straightforward and almost contain a sense of awe in them. Woolf sees the possibility of developing with them an “affection of a purity and simplicity which seems to [him] peculiarly satisfactory”, and in that I believe there exists Woolf’s take on the modern world: it is easier and more satisfying to develop kinship with animals without the petty politics and quest for control that was not only pervasive in the age of colonialism, but even til today.

Impressionistic Aesthetics in Growing

I’m going to hop on the fictionality bandwagon here too. I found the autobiography to be strangely surreal and impressionistic in the way everything is portrayed such that, like Russell, Peiyi and Yuying, I found the believability of this self-claimed autobiography quite questionable. However, to me what really highlighted the artifice of this autobiography is not just the references to the fictional characters or the theatrical elements mentioned in the text that my classmates have already brought up. Instead, I believe that this questioning of the text’s reliability can also be examined via its aesthetics.

The impressionistic way in which the landscapes are drawn up in Growing – the descriptions elephant pass and the “thick jungle thin[ning] into scrub jungle and then into stretches of sand broken by patches of scrub” and the “gaunt disheveled palmyra palms […] sticking up like immense crows” – sounds a lot, to me, like rather vague and brush-stroke-blending way of glossing over the landscape. While the writing of an autobiography banks a lot on memory and remembrance, I couldn’t help but notice how the writing is really veiled by a layer of rose-tinted of nostalgia, and that the descriptions are reflecting psychological landscapes and the overall impression of the place rather than placing emphasis on any type of accurate representation. And this is why I want to suggest that his writing is actually very impressionistic; because the attention he pays to detail in the landscape isn’t really a matter of trying to convey accurate and realistic portrayals of landscape-mapping but rather, his descriptions perform an attempt in trying to achieve an overall effect of what it looks like the perceiver’s mind’s eye. And it is the impressionistic element of his writing that, to me, undercuts a lot of the reliability of what he is saying in the text. I’m not suggesting that he is deliberately lying or changing facts but I think the impressionistic aesthetic really highlights just how re-constructed his stories and recounts are and we really ought not to take everything he says to the last word, because there is a sense that these stories are told as he remembers them in the overall memory he has of Ceylon, more so than what exactly transpired in that land.

Performing a Sahib

When reading Leonard Woolf’s growing, what stood out especially was the performance element of the sahib as a stock character which everyone is required to play in the same way against the backdrop of imperialism in order to qualify as a good fellow. Mundane things like a game of tennis followed by the routine conversation revolving around banal topics are given an almost religious, ritualistic aspect. This element of performance is seen in texts like Burmese days, Passage to India and Shooting the elephant but not as explicitly as in Growing.

Set in this unreality, it is no wonder the sahibs are able to divorce themselves from their natural and perhaps more humane selves which they have left behind in the real world England and become fully immersed into their roles as the colonizers where aggression and a propensity for violence and even odd behaviors are encouraged. When the protagonist’s dog displays  an uncharacteristic violence toward the native animals, its aggression elevates him in the eyes of the other sahibs and this suggests that a similar attitude from him towards the natives would be encouraged.  Indeed, the native may even be seen as below the rank of the sahib’s dog because when the sahib’s dog vomits on a native, it is treated as nothing offensive or out of the ordinary. 

The effect of living in the performative space is that when one is onstage, one is expected to play one’s role and sustain the illusion. In sustaining the illusion, it does not matter if one is required to play the villian because it is only after all a role which does nothing to change the notion of one’s true self. Thus, the sahibs both have the liberty/ and are compelled to do what they need to do in order to sustain the illusion of empire and that is performing over and over what it means to be a superior sahib in a self- reaffirming lie.

Fiction vs. autobiography

Like Russell and Peiyi, I was also struck by the rather ‘fictional’ feel of Leonard Woolf’s Autobiography. Not only does he make allusions to literary figures and fiction in general, the general tone, pace and structure of the writing seemed very Victorian-fiction to me. What particularly struck me was this sentence: “I set out for Jaffna with a Sinhalese servant, my dog, a wooden crate containing Voltaire, and an enormous tin-lined trunk containing clothes” (23).

If this were a piece of fiction that we were doing a close reading of, I think we’d all fixate on the choice of these things that accompanied him on his journey, and look for structural symbolisms and other, deeper meanings to them. Yet, I’m not sure if this speaks more to our ‘over-enhanced sense’ as literature students, or the blurred lines between fiction and autobiography. At the same time, it occurs to me that the most enjoyable autobiographical writings are those that read like fiction (here I can’t help but think of Roald Dahl’s Boy). I mean, that is precisely the reason I find Virginia Woolf so unreadable—’high Modernist’ writing that rejects the conventions of rigidly controlled linear-narratives propelled by events might be closer to ‘life as it was lived’, but it’s definitely hard to read, or it is for me at least.

Taking the consideration of fiction-vs-reality in another direction, can autobiography ever really capture ‘truth’, or recap events as they happened? To a certain extent, isn’t all writing re-creation, fiction? Personally, whenever I’ve read autobiographical works, I’ve always wondered how on Earth the authors remember tiny details—for example how could Leonard Woolf possibly remember what he brought with him on that journey, much less the details of what type of trunk his books were packed in?

Woolf’s “Growing”

“… the cafe waiter who is doing his job just a little too keenly; he is obviously ‘acting the part’. If there is bad faith here, it is that he is trying to identify himself completely with the role of waiter, to pretend that this particular role determines his every action and attitude. Whereas the truth is that he has chosen to take on the job, and is free to give it up at any time. He is not essentially a waiter, for no man is essentially anything.” – Sartre on “bad faith”

With Sartre’s quote we may try to apprehend the moral crisis of identity which often faces the figure of the reluctant colonist – be it Woolf or Orwell – in his uncomfortable feelings towards imperialism and empire. In Growing I feel that Woolf paints his autobiographical character with greater depth and conviction, for if Orwell’s Flory’s interests and contemplations are often self-serving, Woolf incorporates both the psychological interior and exterior dilemmas of the reluctant colonist in his theatrical personae, the public mask and façade of the surroundings, as well as the dilemma of being the colonial administrator which entails making difficult decisions affecting the native people in various operational duties.

Woolf likens his initial experience in Ceylon as a kind of ‘second birth’ and I feel the need to link this second trauma of alienation and estrangement, of being brought into an entirely new world, to explain why the colonizer acts as he must as the enforcer of imperialism. He has to validate his existence in an alien world and justify his righteous power over the people. Coupled with Woolf’s moralistic ideals and his altruism, such tensions doubtlessly surface in his self-reasoning: ‘to them I was part of the white man’s machine, which they did not understand. I stood to them in the relation of God to his victims: I was issuing from on high orders to their village which seemed arbitrary and resulted in the shooting of their cows. I drove away in dejection, for I have no more desire to be God than one of his victims’.

The way in which Woolf depicts his orientalist attitudes towards native life and culture, together with his humanist philosophy towards animals, nature and even Buddhism, are at odds with the façade of his public personae as the  harsh and no-nonsense colonial administrator. But like Orwell, Woolf is at least faithful to a genuine depiction of colonial experience through the lens of a former colonist. One cannot begin to attack a system until one has had real experience of being in it, as is the case for imperialism and the complicity of the reluctant colonizer.

Inscrutability of the colony

Leonard Woolf’s autobiographical account in Growing reminded me of Orwell’s ‘Shooting an Elephant’, in that they both highlight the white man’s increasing sense of alienation and unease in the colony. Woolf’s recounts his life in Ceylon as a civil servant stating that there “always retained for [him] a tinge of theatrical unreality”. This reminds me of the idea of performativity that we have discussed in Orwell’s narratives where colonial masters are required to act according to the code of the sahib. For Orwell, the expectation to act accordingly resulted in the loss of individual freedom for both the white man and the native. He then saw this as the oppression of the machinations of imperialism that he desired to extricate himself from. However in Growing, the “theatrical unreality” that Woolf describes seems to hint at his own sense of unfamiliarity with Ceylon (which is after all, geographically and culturally far removed from England), and the uncanny feeling that the colony produces in Woolf. In addition, Woolf also states that “the whole of [his] past life in London and Cambridge seemed suddenly to have vanished, to have faded away into unreality”. This alludes to his own displaced identity onto a foreign land, detached from his own history. His new environment was vastly different from what he was familiar with (even the pace of life and ease of accessibility in London and Ceylon are seen in contrast to each other), and this unfamiliarity made him uncomfortable within the colony, despite his privileged ruling position.

Woolf’s description of Jaffna country also reminds me of the inability to understand the essence of the colony due to the inscrutability of India in A Passage to India. The “long distances and difficulties of transport” and the immensity and vastness of Jaffna allude to the difficulty of accessing the place both literally and metaphorically:

Here again is one of those featureless plains the beauty of which is only revealed fully to you after you have lived with it long enough to become absorbed into its melancholy solitude and immensity.

Plainly speaking, the colony was inaccessible to the imperialist because it seems to be limitless (the sands “stretch far away” under the “enormous sky”) and existing outside the scales of comprehension. Thereby creating the sense of “theatrical unreality” that Woolf feels in his participation in the colonial enterprise.

To Convince Oneself: The Unconscious Discourse of the Lie in Woolf’s “Growing”

I found reading Woolf’s “Growing” both an exercise in amusement and one of irony. I was certainly entertained by his anecdotes, and found it refreshingly straightforward, much like Orwell’s account of life in Burma. At the same time I was amused / entertained, I was also (perhaps as product of this course) skeptical of his account, particularly what I considered his romanticisation of the native figure.

Surprisingly, he denies that he is “sentimentaliz[ing] or romanticiz[ing] them”, yet goes on to discuss how they are “nearer than we are to primitive man… [it] is not their primitiveness that really appeals to me. It is partly their earthiness, their strange mixture of tortuousness and directness, of cunning and stupidity, of cruelty and kindness…” I do not believe it is possible for Woolf, in his capacity as an outsider, to be able to objectively observe the native people without imagining them in an idealised frame of reference.

This is not really the issue. Said would vehemently disagree but in any case I think it’s natural that in the absence of more complete knowledge of anything, much less something as foreign and as contrary to the familiar as the “native figure”, one naturally employs one’s own frame of reference to understand something else.

What I take issue with is the defensiveness with which Woolf insists even in using a European frame of reference (alluding to a Hardy novel at that!), that he is not romanticising the native. It is as if the very idea that one should be romanticising the native figure is wrong and therefore as long as one says one is not, one isn’t. It is an unconscious lie he engages in, unconscious because of the very reflexivity with which he says “I’m not doing this” then proceeds to do it anyway. And in some ways it is an interesting indication of the meeting of the reality of the East with the discourse of the West. The two are incompatible to the European mind, one cannot admit to orientalising even if it is the most natural way of expressing what one sees and understands of a foreign world. What an artificial declaration this proves to be, since what Woolf really is doing, is romanticising the noble savage.

finding merit in Woolf’s life

My first reaction to Growing was “gee… i’m glad he doesn’t write like his wife.” I think in many ways, Leonard Woolf led a fascinating life and the autobiographical mode in which he tells his story makes it more personal for us. But as Russell and Kaiquan have suggested, one has to question his motives in claiming this text as an autobiography. can we indeed take his word for it when he says,”I had entered Ceylon as an imperialist … The curious thing is that I was not really aware of this.” I think in some ways we can.

His experiences in Ceylon made him increasingly anti-imperialist, so he quit the service in 1911, married Virginia and he became a left-wing realist and one of the key players in the Labor Party. There is no doubting that his role in the British administration made him jaded and dispassionate towards the natives and we shouldn’t condone his exploitation of the native women through prostitution. But that being said, i do sense that he felt uneasy being a part of the system of imperialism:”strange and disconcerting. The backcloth … was imperialism” and how he felt a “twinge of doubt in [his] imperialist soul.” And i think that Woolf does suggest that a radical change is necessary and that the colonial government no matter how ‘good’ it is, is no replacement for self-government of the native people. And he took this 7 years of experience back with him and tried to use his writing to advocate world peace (International Government) and use his position as secretary of the Labor Party to better the conditions of the poor. I think that Woolf recognized his inability to fight the colonial system (like Orwell in Shooting an Elephant) and so he leaves and tries to influence social change in other ways (way better than to perpetuate the system and kill an innocent animal in my opinion). And i think that that is his own way of negotiating imperialism and dealing with the guilt that it brings. It might not be the perfect solution, but at least he tried and i think that that in itself is commendable.

On Leonard Woolf’s autobiography

I must say I really quite enjoy this piece of autobiographical work by Leonard Woolf. However, the reason why I thoroughly enjoy the work is mainly attributed to the fact that it read like a work of fiction/travel literature more than anything else, a work of memoirs that had been dramatized and enhanced through whimsical and even hyperbolic expressions. This really raises the concern of slippages between fact and fiction, though. If the work is meant to be autobiographical, the contents would more or less be seen as factual events that had transpired in the author’s life, how then do we draw the line when it comes to interpreting the truth behind the elegantly composed and fictionalized aspect of the work? Woolf draws much amusement when he compares certain real life personalities to Jane Austen’s characters and at one point even suggested that ‘people in rotten novels are astonishingly like life’, further blurring the boundaries between reality and representation, and almost evoking the idea that there isn’t one to really begin with in the first place.
However, certain statements in the writing are reminiscent of ideas underscored by Orwell’s Shooting an Elephant and Burmese Days -the performativity aspect of identity. Woof also points out that the Anglo-indians and imperialists were essentially ‘displaced persons’ and that they all ‘pretended to be tougher, more British, more homesick….’, etc. And if we take into consideration that Woolf himself, having similarly undergone the pressure of an imperialist just as Orwell did, there is certainly a similar tract in their portrayal of the psychological stress that the white, imperial figure finds himself being entrapped within.

Performance of Britishness.

The colonialists had their own struggles with identity. While in the colonies, they bonded together by pretending “to be tougher, more British, more homesick than we really were, yet there was a pinch of truth and reality in all our posturings” (47). In actual fact, the colonialists were much better off in the colonies than at home as Leonard says,”we were all grand, a good deal grander than we could have been at home in London, Edinburgh, Brighton or Oban. We were grand because we were in the ruling class in a strange Asiatic country” (24).

Here, we see the British colonialists themselves trapped within this concept of ‘Britishness’. They are caught within their loyalty to their home country, and their enjoyment of their grander lifestyle. They feel as if they are constantly forced to perform the part of the colonizer. Woolf calls it acting upon a stage and constantly uses the words ‘facade’, ‘masks’ and ‘perform’, in addition to other words that allude to acting. We see this in Orwell’s ‘Shooting an Elephant’  as well, where the protagonist feels pressurized by the natives into killing the elephant even though he does not want to. He is compelled to perform his role as a colonizer, and feels like a great pretender. Similarly, Woolf echoes this when he says “I had put the finishing touches to a facade behind which I could conceal or camouflage my intellect and also hide from most people, both in Ceylon and for the remainder of my life, the fact that I am mentally, morally, and physically a coward” (37).

Perhaps the colonizers felt this need to act the part of a colonizer over the natives in order to maintain and reinforce their power over them. This also reveals that these differences are constructed and exacerbated. Once this wall between the colonizer and the colonized is broken, the colonial social order may crumble.

The Autobiographical Genre

What struck me while reading selections from Leonard Woolf’s Growing this week was the autobiographical genre that the work classifies itself under. Why claim that a work is autobiographical? Does it make the work more believable? Interestingly, many fictional references appear in this autobiographical work, such as Woolf’s mention that in moving to Ceylon, ‘one feels as if one were acting in a play or living in a dream, and plays and dreams have that curious mixture of admitted unreality and the most intense and vivid reality’(21). This juxtaposition of autobiography with fiction continues with Woolf describing his life as a ‘theatrical unreality’, performing on ‘the stage [that] was imperialism’ (24-25). Woolf even describes the people he meets as a ‘Jane Austen character’ or a ‘character in a Kipling story’ (42, 46). All these deal with the relationship between fiction and reality, summed up in a nutshell by Woolf himself: ‘I could never make up my mind whether Kipling had moulded his characters accurately in the image of Anglo-Indian society or whether we were moulding our characters accurately in the image of a Kipling story’(46). How do we reconcile the autobiographical genre of Woolf’s work with the fictional aspects of it, keeping in mind that the Conrad works we read earlier in the module were also highly autobiographical, but that Conrad classified them as fiction? Is there some form of narrative ethics being negotiated here?

Filtering the self through fiction

In ‘Growing’, Woolf often compares the people he comes across with literary characters in order to illustrate better for his readers that which he is talking about. The first instance of this (in ‘Jaffna’) was when he compared the G.A’s wife, Mrs Lewis to Mrs Jennings of Jane Austen’s ‘Sense and Sensibility’, and it struck me as being amusing.

But I soon realized that his tendency to look at people with ‘literary lens’ reveals the political nature of reading – it is very much about power. An example is when he compares the white residents of Jaffna to characters in Kipling’s works:

The white people were also in many ways astonishingly like characters in a Kipling story. I could never make up my mind whether Kipling had moulded his characters accurately in the image of Anglo-Indian society or whether we were moulding our characters accurately in the image of a Kipling story. (p.46)

Not only does this bring to attention the power of representation – it is not only the colonised, but also the coloniser who is perhaps mis-represented, and consequently, influenced and changed by those mis-representations:

We all pretended to be tougher, more British, more homesick than we really were, yet there was a pinch of truth and reality in all our posturings. (p.47)

Along the same lines of reading the self, as well as colonial relations through texts, Woolf includes letters from this past. These he suggests show clearer his state of mind at those points in time. It seems to me that in reading his ex-self, he works to exculpate his present-self – he distances himself from his past, a past which he underscores already give ‘exaggerated, one-sided picture[s] of the writer’s state of mind’ (p.61).

Thus his candidness in talking about his ex-self as ‘imperialist’ needs to be reconsidered – to what extent does he assume responsibility for his part as agent of empire? Or does he use texts to evade the blame, casting his ex-self as simply some character whose motivations could be deferred and excused by writing and by fiction?

The empty shell

Leonard Woolf’s chapter on Jaffna seems to highlight the oppressiveness of colonialism which represses individuality, forces the creation of a façade, and therefore creates a kind of spiritual void in the colonizers themselves.

Woolf “feels as if one were acting in a play or living in a dream” and felt as if the civil servants in Ceylon, himself included, “were all always, subconsciously or consciously, playing a part, acting upon a stage”. He then speaks of how he “developed, in part instinctively and in part consciously, a façade or carapace behind which [he] could conceal [his] most unpopular characteristics”, in order to keep up the image of him as one of the good fellows. The idea of  a façade and theatricality serve to highlight the daily performance required of the colonizer (think of the narrator in Shooting An Elephant), while I found the choice of the word “carapace” extremely apt in suggesting that the colonizer is but an empty shell, forced to be devoid of individuality and spirituality. In contrast, Woolf reflects how the natives “do not conceal their individuality”.

As such, Woolf shows how as “displaced persons”, they become “unreal, artificial, temporary and alien”.  Human beings become no different from “manikins”. This induces in Woolf “a feeling of impotence, the dwarfing and dooming of everything human in the enormous unpitying universe”.  I think this very pertinently describes the effect of colonialism on its colonizers; that it robs even the colonizers of their individuality, resulting in a loss of vigour, and thus an emotional and spiritual sterility.

“We may live our whole lives behind our lace curtains in the image, not of God or man, but of the rubber stamp and the machine”  – This sentence neatly illustrates the oppressiveness of  the system of colonialism on the colonizer, pointing to the futility of existence in having to repress his individuality and become a soulless, mechanical replica of the model colonizer. Not just for Woolf but for the other civil servants, they are shown to be no more than cogs in the machine.

“Other-ing” the White Man

In Growing, there are several instances of Woolf outright “Other-ing” the white man, of saying quite explicitly that the white man in the colonies is the “Other”, someone who should not be there. For example, he ponders how “my sitting on a horse arrogantly in the main street of their (the natives’) town was as good as a slap in the face”. Thus, at least on the surface, Woolf appears to take his anti-colonialism rhetoric to the point of openly recognizing that the white colonist is taking over another people’s country, and that there is something morally questionable about it.


What I’m trying to figure out however, is this holier-than-thou attitude that Woolf seems to adopt in the text. On the one hand, he seems to produce a critique of the colonial system by portraying it as lacking and superficial. On the other hand, he seems to suggest he is superior to everyone else (whites and natives), by showing how he plays the games of the colonist to establish himself as a “good fellow, a Sahib, a man not to be trifled with”, and how he manages to single-handedly control the thousands of Arabs at the Fisheries. It seems that he is trying to portray himself as someone who has the right to judge, by virtue of his superior qualities (i.e. he is not some silly man whining about something he does not understand completely). Thus, this lends credence to his thoughts about the questionable activities and presence of white men in the colonized countries. On the other hand, by portraying himself as above everyone else, is this not also a form of colonization, as he credits himself with the ability to judge and label not just his own people but the local people as well?

Autobiographical Fiction?

Leonard Woolf’s autobiographical account of his experience in Jaffna is both similar and different from the readings we have had thus far. We get the sense of the reluctant colonial administrator – after having been ‘transformed’ from an “unconscious imperialist” to becoming “fully aware of its (British imperialism’s) nature and problems” – reminding us of George Orwell, for instance. Yet, the crucial difference lies in the very genre of Woolf’s writing per se, for, by tradition, we are trained to perceive autobiographies as ‘truthful’ (but no less controversial) accounts.


I wish to suggest a rather sympathetic reading of Woolf’s account. While a critic can easily turn the modernist ethos of “unreality and theatricality” as the very antithesis of what Woolf is in my opinion trying to portray, I am inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. One reason, I suppose, is because the amount of emotionally-charged, judgmental remarks on the Ceylon people is within my tolerable limit, although there is no doubt that he does perceive his surroundings through an exoticized spectacle (“I came to like them and their country, though never as much as I like the lazy, smiling, well-mannered, lovely Kandyans in their lovely mountain villages or the infinite variety of types among the Low Country Sinhalese in their large, flourishing villages or the poverty and starvation stricken villages in the jungle”; all emphases mine).


Over all, Woolf’s arguably “quiet complexity”, to use Claire Messud’s words, might have given me the impression of being an earnest, perhaps, travel writer.

Note-taking for Burmese Days (Week 10) 2nd Half of Class


To recap, in the first half of class, Prof Koh showed us Michael Kimmel’s video which was centered around the premises that privilege is invisible to those who have it. Prof Koh opens the second half of class by showing us W.H Auden’s “Spain 1937” about the Spanish Civil War that the modernists were involved in and proving that only someone who did not own a gun could write something like that, supporting Kimmel’s statement that privilege is invisible to those who have it. In the second half of class, we discuss this invisibility of privilege, Stoler, power and feminism with regards to Burmese Days and Jessica’s blog entry.

1. Bringing masculine power to the female.

Stoler constructs binaries of how women are supposed to be revealed. No matter how women are portrayed, they are always subject to the male subjugation of power. Jessica sees the actions of Elizabeth and Ma Hla May as bringing masculine power back to the female, therefore empowering them. One notable instance in the novel where we see Elizabeth getting close to power is the hunting scene. Elizabeth welds power when she holds the gun, a symbol of masculine power, and ‘masters’  it when she almost scores a kill with her first shot, thereby utilizing the masculine power for her own purposes.

2. Women have so internalized their repressive roles that they do not realize it. Therefore, they can never escape the patriarchal hegemony and attain true power.

Peiyi agrees to a certain extent, she thinks that Elizabeth got exactly what she wanted as she ended up in a more advantageous and powerful position- but she is still subjugated by the masculine ideologies. Her role as a memsahib is only valid within the masculine colonial discourse. However, Yuying points out that Elizabeth does not care, which reinforces Stoler’s discourse that women have so internalized their repressive roles that they do not realize it.

3. Women can only construct their femininity within the patriarchal circle.

This also reinforces Stoler’s reading, where she states that women can only construct their femininity within the patriarchal circle through the institution of marriage. Hence, the colonial directory regulates women’s roles and functions. Elizabeth does not possess the reflexivity or empowerment to rise above the situation- she just reinforces what has been programmed in her. In a own way, she is  also a victim. She has already transgressed the space between the country of her birth in order to create another space for her to construct a new whole identity (through marriage), but this identity only reinforces the colonial ideals of power.

4. Are the strongest opponents to feminism women themselves?

Michael Kimmel’s “privilege is invisible to those who have it” is brought into play here. The female (Elizabeth) is able to make the patriarchal system work for her through the institution of marriage, therefore giving the female some sort of power. However, this female empowerment is not universal. In comparison, Ma Hla May has more constraints due to her status as a native concubine. However, Elizabeth does not care about the plight of Ma Hla May. Indeed, Ma Hla May is her competitor. There is no universal bond of sisterhood that ties them together. As such, once Elizabeth attains the masculine power that she wants, she further subjugates and oppresses Ma Hla May and the natives. Hence, feminism is privileged, and women are the strongest opponents to feminism themselves.

5. The connotations of feminism

Prof Koh asks the class how many of us actually consider ourselves feminists, and only three people raise their hands. Kelvin says that the term feminist has a negative connotation. The notion of feminism brings to mind the radical bra-burning and man-hating feminists of the past, which are undesirable in today’s context, where womens’ rights are already pretty much established. Mr Cheng points out that it is because of this radical actions that women suffrage is pioneered today. Perhaps because we are speaking from a privileged position in the twenty-first century, we are unable to comprehend or relate to the pioneer suffragettes. In that sense, as Prof Koh says, we are complacent because we feel the battle has already been won.

6. The role of marriage in society: the social contract vs the sexual contract

The function of marriage has popped up several times in the discussion. Stoler specifically talks about marriage and how this was important in the construction of a colonial society. Elizabeth sees marriage as protection and a means to attain power. Ma Hla May does not have access to marriage with Flory due to her status as a native. However, she does have value in her use of sex and her pseudo-spousal role as a colonial concubine. Here, Prof Koh introduces the ideology of Carol Pateman to us, who argues that the social contract is first bounded upon the sexual contract. The social contract is opposed to patriarchy and patriarchal right, but before one can be a father he needs to have sex first. Therefore the social contract is not founded upon patriarchy, but marriage- hence the sexual contract.


Perhaps the idea that struck me the most this week was Stoler’s argument that the construction of femininity is only valid within the patriarchal circle which is upheld by the sexual contract. This relates to Jing Xuan and Frederick’s presentation the previous week regarding power and Foucault, where power exists only when it is put into action. Feminine power can only exist within the context of masculine power, and can be only exercised when masculine power is exerted. Therefore it is not that the female is unable to break free from the male hegemony, but that feminism requires the presence of male oppression in order to exist. Without gender inequality, there would be no feminism or patriarchy to talk about in the first place. The sexual contract also reveals that one avenue of power available to women is sex, with or without the sanctity of marriage. However, sex and rape share a fine line, as Frederick mentioned in his presentation.

To conclude, Prof Koh brings up the example of the Law of Coverture in Singapore. If a man rapes his legal wife in Singapore, he is able to get away with it as under Singapore law, every woman is essentially male property and her legal rights are covered by the men. It is disturbing to note that the battle for equal female rights is still ongoing today. However, as Ambreen suggests, rather that just talking about gender inequality, we should take off the masks of privilege and concern ourselves with inequality in general.

Note-taking for Burmese Days (Week 10): Overall Summary

Topic of class + examples

The main focus of the class was on the crisis of gender in modernism; how gender issues created disorder in colonial times, especially with the importation of Englishwomen into the colonial outpost.

–         “Privilege is invisible to those who have it”

The short clip of Michael Kimmel’s lecture on gender studies screen at the beginning of the class was interesting the conceptualization of gender as an analytical framework to be understood in relation to other aspects – race, class, etc. Therefore, gender as a social construct has to be self-conceptualized by the individual. Because of the relativism in the definition of these terms, gender is subjected to the constant state of flux. Nevertheless, society still holds on to notions on how gender is performed; not only women but men too are suppressed by gender expectations.

–         Identity politics: a reflection of men’s desire for order

Performativity may be unnatural, but is not escapable and both men and women inscribe certain gender expectations and qualities in the process of normalization. Patriarchy constitutes not solely male-domination, but broadly societal domination, and in it was raised in the discussion that it is only when things are deemed ‘normal’ that the domineering hegemony can continue to assert its power. In Burmese Days, Orwell employs stock characters in the framework of satire to aid in our reading of gender. An issue raised was the portrayal of Flory as a problematic hero who struggles with his masculine identity, amongst other things. His feminine bond with nature is juxtaposed with his role as a timbre merchant which is suggestive of destruction, and perhaps masculinity. Presented as a double of Flory, virile Verrall is effeminate, but immune to punishment and like Flory he possess emotional stereotypes of women that hinders both their ability to form meaningful heterosexual relationships. Their maintenance of bachelorhood could therefore be as defense against heterosexuality: the ironic performance of masculinity to defend against it.

The replication of gender orders in raising barriers of inclusivity and exclusivity

In this week’s article, “Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power”, Ann Stoler illustrates this point in outlining the role of women in reinforcing masculinity. More specifically, she posits that white women are complicit with colonialism and the gender of imperialism in the context of colonial expansionism. In the modernist texts of colonial expansion, gender is employed as an analytical framework in conjunction with other axis of representations, and we see in the texts how women are manipulated in many ways in portrayal of how certain figures are more representative of colonial power. In Passage to India and Burmese Days, for example, the English country club is portrayed as a miniature of British society, a site in which the ruling order sets up the politics of exclusion and inclusion. In this sphere, race is of the first level of exclusivity, followed by gender, making the white women second class members with no activities that are exclusive to them. The club functions as a means of keeping women nearby and out of clutches of native men, but still separate from the white men. Their role is therefore a reinforcement of colonial order and Elizabeth’s entry into Flory’s world forces him to rethink his position and reinforce his masculinity. In this social hierarchy, the power is the white women as agents of the empire is curtailed by their gendered ‘otherness’ and here it was raised the question: why do people say that the biggest opponents to feminism are women themselves?

–         White women as legalized entity vs. the native women as sexualized commodity

In the first half of the class the presenters brought up this interesting binary classification in aid of our understanding of the positions of the white and native women in the social hierarchy of colonial rule. A comparison of the two central female characters of Burmese Days reveal that Ma Hla May has more constrains set upon her than Elizabeth. Not all women are unilaterally opposed to feminism as privileged women are able to negotiate within the existing system, and one of the channels that enable them to do so is through the economy of white heterosexual marriage.

Connections with Other Topics from Other Weeks

Evident in Burmese Days and Passage to India, romance escapes white heterosexual unions between men and women or is overshadowed by the economy of marriage. Marriage is important for women in the society for without which, they are non-entities in society without marriage. Marriage is for Elizabeth the only means of escaping poverty, spinsterhood and the unwelcome advances of her perpetually inebriated uncle. While marriage to Flory is not an option for Ma Hla May, who can only exist as a sexualized commodity, the only reason she wants Flory to take her back is because she wants to live the life of a white man’s mistress again.

A self-proclaimed fanatic of Candace Bushnell’s ‘Sex and the City’, I found interesting the notion raised that women are more entrapped ideologically than before with the illusion of freedom. Agreeably, the ‘single and fabulous’ women of the sitcom might even come across as feministic in their seemingly independent lifestyles in the absence of men, but each failed relationship seems to undermine their assertion of freedom and confirm that their status as women continues to not be legitimized until they enter matrimonial union with an idealized Mr. Right. Similarly, despite all the freedom Elizabeth and even Adele wish to assume in having a choice in their potential husbands breaking off engagements, they never do escape their existence as legalized entities whose legitimate status can only be affirmed, and even then to a varying degree, in colonial order through the economy of marriage.

Note-taking (Oct 22, Part 1)

This week in class, we began by looking at a short clip of Michael Kimmel giving a lecture on gender studies and it was interesting that we should start with it because he brought up the notion of how gender had always been presumed as a “woman’s problem” and how men do not think that it is about them and this one-sidedness is very political.  Another issue that he brought up was how race complicates the notion of gender and like gender, race is visible only to those are afflicted by it and thus he suggests that by extension privilege is invisible by those who have it. This is interesting because by conflating race with gender politics, he is drawing our attentions to the fact that these social constructs are merely instruments of upholding patriarchal power. Kimmel also discussed that he being a white middle class male, what right does he have to talk about gender and this brings forth the notion of responsibility and right. I think this can be related to Achebe’s article where he discusses his position in trying to redeem the image of Africa, and to a large extent Africans, that was portrayed in Heart of Darkness.

We then moved on to a more general discussion of gender. These were some of the points brought up:

–          Gender as a social construct vs. biological construct of sex and because of the fact that gender is a social construct, there are certain norms ascribed to it that emphasizes the performative aspect of gender.

–          Gender is tied to culture – different views of gender roles in different cultures.

–          Gender as part of a larger issue of identity politics.

–          Even though gender politics tend to highlight the plight of the oppressed women and men perceive that it does not involve them as Kimmel mentioned, both men and women are tied down by these constructions. E.g. boys are told to behave in a boyish manner: to play with toy cars instead of dolls, girls to sit properly etc.

–          This was discussed as a reflection of a kind of social order as a means of disciplining the masses and thereby highlighting the larger issue of the power structure of patriarchy.

–          However, there is also a tendency to bring gender politics into a text that is not necessarily gender biased or even aware of its gender biasness and it may seem forced at times.

–          In a way, this can be seen as an overcompensation for women: because of the long history of oppression done to women, there is a tendency to overcompensate for this long history by labeling every text that even has a tiniest hint of bias against women as misogynistic and oppressive. Here, it was highlighted that this is one of the pitfalls of abstract theorization.

–          However, even though at times it may be seen as an overcompensation, it is important that we do look at texts and apply these gendered readings to them as it is more dangerous to not allow the opportunity of theorizing.

–          Similarly, as Achebe pointed out in his article ‘An Image of Africa’, it would be more dangerous to simply see Heart of Darkness as a text about the degeneration of a European mind than to accuse Conrad of being a racist.

–          Gender, like all social constructs, is seen as a kind of marker, a means of establishing a form of typicality

–          The issue of stereotypes was raised by our guest speaker, and he established the fact that there is nothing wrong with stereotypes as it is a way of gaining access to something one does not know, however, it starts becoming dangerous when one solely relies one’s view of a gender/race/etc. on it and that enforcement of these stereotypes without clarification is dangerous.

–          Gender is a fluid/changing construct and at times most take it for granted that the social norms of gender are universal, when in fact they are not. An example given: the hijras in India who are considered the third sex and even though as a group, they do not have a place in the so-called universal social construction of gender, they are revered in India.

–          Our guest speaker also clarified the origins of the term ‘patriarchy’ in that it was not originally associated with men, but with power but because of the evolution of the power structure such that men were the dominant group in power for much of history, the term patriarchy eventually became associated with the rule of men.

–          It would be useful to look at Foucault’s theory of productive power as a means of analyzing gender politics.

This week’s presentation concentrated on gender oppression and modernism in Burmese Days. The crisis of gender in modernism was highlighted. The notion that modernism, classified as high art, was considered a male domain was discussed as  problematic and at times, this misogynistic view is seen in texts. It is interesting that in this module itself we are studying modernist works of male authors. Are we too partaking in the idea that modernism as high art is a male domain?

The presentation discussed gender oppression, but it concentrated largely on the oppression of women in the text and it seems that we, as readers, tend to fall into the trap of what Kimmel talked about, thinking that gender oppression is a women’s problem. Peiyi clarified the fact that men too are oppressed in Burmese Days by gender rules/stereotypes, especially Flory, who in the end dies because of the very fact that he was not able to subscribe to the prescribed notions of his gender and of his race. Moreover, even in Shooting an Elephant, we see that men are oppressed by the masculine imperialist ideology to behave in a certain way. The narrator in Shooting an Elephant has to actively participate in the upholding of said ideology by behaving in a manner fit for a colonialist, his actions are dictated by this ideology. It is because of this that he shoots the elephant even though he does not feel the need to but by doing it, he reinforces his role as a male imperialist in the colonial world. Similarly, in Burmese Days, Flory has to follow the rules of the pukka sahib.

The notion of women being active agents of empire was brought up, a point that Stoler’s article mentions. The way by which the European women treat the natives is seen as their own version of upholding the ideology of empire and by extension gender rules. There is distrust on the part of European women towards the natives and some of it stemming out from a belief that natives are highly sexualized figures and thereby posing a real threat to these women. Thus, by treating the natives in the way that they do, they are upholding the ideology of empire. However, Stoler’s article discusses how this perceived threat was a seed planted by imperialism as a means of using women as the basis of upholding the imperialist ideology.

Women are also seen as craving an access to the imperial project by reinforcing the notions of Englishness and otherness, however, this notion is contested on the grounds whether it is a conscious effort or not. This is seen in Burmese Days with Elizabeth constantly commenting on how ugly the Burmese are and by extension implying that they are ugly because of their very difference to the English. This can be related to the notion of the rule of colonial difference discussed by Chatterjee. Even when Adela in A Passage to India is relatively civil to the natives and shows an interest (albeit superficial) in seeing the “real India”, she is interested in the exoticness of India which seems to suggest that she is interested in the very different way that India contrasts to England and thereby simply reinforcing the notion of colonial difference. Moreover, with Elizabeth’s entrance in Burmese Days, she tries to impose Englishness by bringing up notions of morality and manliness, which eventually lead to the Flory’s demise.

In Heart of Darkness, we also see the role of women in the reinforcement of imperialist ideology and upholding the rule of colonial difference. This is seen in one of the few times in the text where the European woman is being mentioned and it is significant when a woman is mentioned in the text, she only serves to enforce the Englishness/European-ness vs otherness. In the text, the European is described as being the refined opposite of the Amazon with descriptions like “she had a mature capacity for fidelity, for belief, for suffering.” Thus, this relates to the point that Peiyi brought up in her presentation that women in the colonial context are seen as either a legalized entity or a disposable commodity. In this case, the European woman is both, because while she is a legalized entity, she is seen as a disposable commodity in the way she is being used to highlight otherness, she can be seen as a mere prop. Similarly, Adela can also be seen in the same light. After the fiasco of the trial, she appears to be discarded like a commodity because her use as an imperial ideological tool had ceased.

Orwell a true anti-imperialist?

Most critics see “Burmese Days” as Orwell’s reaction against the atrocities he witnessed in Burma and thus are quick to categorize “Burmese Days” as an anti-imperialist text. While the anti-imperialist elements in the text are obvious – Flory’s discourses on the ills of imperialism etc, Orwell seemed to have failed in dissociating himself completely from imperialist discourse. This is especially so in his portrayal of natives. The novel does not have a single fully respectable native character. U Po Kyin is a scheming native, Dr V. is a imperialist parrot, mindlessly extolling the values of imperialism. Even Ma Kin, U Po Kyin’s wife who initially seemed like a potential check against the greediness of her husband was eventually enticed by the idea of gaining club membership. As for the Nationalist movement in Burma, Orwell seemed to be belittling its work altogether. In “Burmese Days”, the final rebellion is less of a nationalist movement, and more of a revenge against Ellis. Thus, it seemed odd that in an anti-imperialist text, native characters are portrayed as poorly as they are in earlier pro-imeperialist text.

I think the discrepancy really points to how Orwell is unable to disentangle himself from earlier discourses. While he removes himself from the ideals of imperialism, he has yet to find a new discourse that can effectively represent his new ideas. Specifically, Orwell has not found a new discourse the natives. Indeed, this is the most positive way to see Orwell, the anti-imperialist. If it is not a problem of representation, then Orwell falls back into the category of writers/thinkers who are anti-imperialist but racist. My own position probably falls in the middle of these two extremes. I think that Orwell has not sufficiently considered the position of the natives and is primarily concerned with the white man’s position in the colonized land. Therefore, he is unable to find a new discourse to talk about the natives. Yet, his lack of consideration for the native position is essentially a self-centred (white, male self) and therefore a racist attitude.

Binaries, Power and Imperialism

In Stoler’s discussion of the ways in which power is manifested and created in Empire, she identifies how the assertion of dominance is linked to ideas of gender binaries and sex. She identifies for us the different “roles” and images of figures in the colonial discourse; namely, the white colonial ruler bursting with “good health, virility and the ability to rule” (65), the white European woman who is either a symbol of purity with “delicate sensibilities” (55) or the European woman who is considered “immoral” for “provoking [native] desires” (60). In existence is also the figure of the impotent or reluctant colonizer, the male colonized who is rendered impotent by colonization, and the native woman who fulfills the roles of housekeeper, (expendable) companion and sexualized subject.

These binaries are posited by Stoler as a (sexualized) way in which inequality is created, made “sense” of, and perpetuated in Empire. Women exist as “ideals”, or a means to “keep men physically and psychologically fit for work” (50), yet what stands out most clearly is that the role of women (both native and white) is defined for them long before they participate in imperial interaction. In Orwell’s text, the character of Ma Hla May is portrayed as one prone to female jealousy (“Who is this woman?” 87), entirely dependent on his affection/support/money for existence, a pawn in “male” games, and in the eyes of Elizabeth, a kind of “barbaric” (128) mutation of sexuality.

However, I especially like the way that Orwell has constructed the character of Elizabeth to counter that of Stoler’s identification of binaries. She is not motherly or nuturing (despite her claim to “adore gardening”), hardly the figure of purity and solace that Flory sees, and her disgust of the “savages” (129) of Burma certainly places her well away from the figure of the European woman who is “too familiar with [her] servants” (Stoler 60). In fact, she is predatory in the way that she has come to Burma to land herself a husband, and even though she is toyed with by Verrall, she is very much the power opposite of Ma Hla May, which makes her almost masculine in this discourse. One could even say that Elizabeth is more of a white colonizer than Flory, who is not merely reluctant, but UNABLE to fulfill his role as powerful white colonizer (it is interesting to wonder if he would have shot the elephant).

Therefore, one could argue that Orwell’s construction of a character like Elizabeth is a version of “taking back” the power of the female, yet putting her in the discourse and fitting her into the role of the white male colonizer is problematic. We cannot ignore the fact that she is arguably the most vile character in the text (more so than U Po Kyin who is portrayed as the typical moustache-stroking, cat-holding villain in the text), and this exposes Stoler’s argument of the sexual subjection of women as a little bit inadequate, because a character like Elizabeth is able to harness the colonial discourse of power-making to her advantage. Of course, we can say that she has to enter into the realm of colonial “male-ness” to gain this power (thereby highlighting the helpless position of being a “female” woman), but constrasted against a character like Flory (in the most obvious way, he actually kills himself), she is successful in bringing power back.

The Fantasy of the Oriental Woman Dispelled

Ann Stoler writes in “Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power” that “Colonial observers and participants in the imperial enterprise appear to have had unlimited interest in the sexual interface of the colonial encounter”, and that “The tropics provided a site for European pornographic fantasies” (43). The Orient has always been sexed and sexualized as a woman, perhaps most memorably in the harems of One Thousand and One Nights. Stoler points out that the “sexual submission and possession of Oriental women by European men” easily become “graphic representations of colonial dominance” (44). She cites Edward Said, who described Orientalism as both a “male perception of the world” and a “male power fantasy” (44). This corresponds directly and obviously with the male sexual gaze of Oriental women. What Stoler insists, however, is that this sexual domination is of more symbolic than pragmatic significance.

In Chapter Four of Burmese Days, George Orwell introduces Ma Hla May, the native mistress of the European protagonist James Flory. The entire scene of sexual intercourse together with the attendant shame which Flory experiences strongly suggests the link between sexual and imperial domination. First of all, I disagree with Stoler, and find that the sexual domination of Oriental women is far from merely symbolic. It is a harsh reality with tangible consequences, and is often a facet or an extension of the injustices of imperialism. What I would like to draw attention to, however, is Orwell’s portrayal of the Oriental woman in Ma Hla May. On the surface it is a stereotypical depiction, yet it also bears interesting departures from the usual object of male European fantasy.

There is a heavy sense of disillusionment which overhangs Burmese Days. Part of this disillusionment is with the Oriental woman, the fantasy of which is dispelled. Ma Hla May is physically described as “an outlandish doll, and yet a grotesquely beautiful one” (52). While she is attributed with physical beauty, it is more of a vague and theoretical kind of beauty. There is greater emphasis on the grotesquery of her appearance, as well as the lack of femininity in her “contourless” (52) frame, at least from the European point-of-view. As with the natural landscape of Burma, Orwell sets up a contrast between the expectation of fantasy against experience of reality. Ma Hla May hardly seems attractive to Flory. She seems to bring remorse and vexation more than she does pleasure or satisfaction. Her strongest distinguishing characteristic is her covetousness, her voice is “high-pitched” (52), and the “scent of sandalwood and coco-nut oil” (52) which follows her is not a pleasant fragrance, but a lingering pungence which Flory is unable to rid himself of. In the scene of shame, after having had sex with Ma Hla May, Flory “buried his face disgustedly in the pillow, which was damp and smelt of coco-nut oil” (54).

The politics of prostitution

Orwell does not seem to like women very much. In Burmese Days he inadvertantly makes the claim that all women, both colonial and colonizer class, are the same, and that women have to prostitute themselves in order to attain some worth in the eyes of the male colonizer, where prostitution involves the act of selling oneself to the male colonizer, physically or otherwise.

The white woman constantly needs to assert herself in looking for a white colonizer class husband, especially while overseas. Elizabeth embodies this in her quest to marry a man who can to make her a burra memasahib. While she seems flighty and rather shallow for jumping from white man to white man, she is merely doing what women of her race are expected to do in order to keep their self worth.

For the native woman, she is told from birth that to be a concubine of a white man is far better off than anything else she could become. The male colonizers are even encouraged to keep  or even marry native women, as they are less expensive to maintain than a female member of the colonizing country. Ma Hla May can hardly be blamed for trying to win back Flory from Elizabeth, as it has been impressed upon her all her life that to service a white colonizer accords her a status that makes her life worth living.

This implies that the one of the only forms of power that women have over men has to do with sexuality and sex. It also means that a woman’s worth is measured by whether or not she has managed to attract a male from the colonizer class. As a result, women have to prostitute themselves if they wish to attain some sort of power in a world ruled by white males.

Female sexuality in the colonies

What stood out most for me in the Stoler reading was the blatant double standards that colonialist men imposed upon the women, and in a very uni-directional way. What Stoler really highlighted in this chapter was the way women became, like the colonised, another passive ‘site’ upon which white men could designate meanings and place anxieties. Stoler talks about how women were thought to be too fragile, needing special places to live in, or jealous of the “dusky sirens” etc., and how white men saw the white women (whom they did not desire sexually) to be sexually attractive to the native men. For me, Stoler seemed to be drawing a parallel between the natives (men and women), and white women—ultimately, both groups were there to be viewed and interpreted (or misinterpreted) by the white men. The ‘truth’ of matters hardly played into colonialist decision-making or beliefs, but perceptions did.

It’s interesting to think about issues of white female sexuality in colonialism, mainly because we always think of the act of colonialism as being a very male-oriented sexual action. The ideas of penetration, staking a claim on virgin land and so on, seem to preoccupy a lot of thinking about colonialism even today, and although women are coming to be more present in colonial/postcolonial scholarship, we think less about female sexuality, especially white female sexuality.

Colonialism in different forms

I remember having read before, that Colonialism started from the periphery, that is the center of the European community within the colonialised country. As taught during A level’s history, the core of colonialism was the European men. Yet, after reading Ann Stoler’s article this week, I cannot help but wonder if this periphery refers to the European women instead. As mentioned in my post from last week, I felt that women perpetuated colonialism through their expectations of servitude from the natives and the way they maintained their beliefs about the superiority of the white men.

Stoler mentioned in the article that  the European women in colonies had “ambiguous positions, as both subordinates in colonial hierachies and as agents of empire in their right.” Indeed, in Burmese days, the European women seemed to be dependent on men for survival and this is amplified in the fact that marriage served as a ticket to social power as seen in Elizabeth’s desperate atempts to marry as she sees it as a solution to her poverty. One cannot neglect the fact that she is also the character who persistently reminds Flory abeit subtly of his position and responsibility as a white man.

In class last week, it was mentioned that the influx of European women into colonies was to prevent any further increase in the number of mixed- race children, a result of European men having relationships with native women. The fact that the European women were brought into the colonies is symbolic of their positions as the “police” of white men and therefore, as agents of empire. To me then, this is suggestive of the idea that colonialism can exist in different forms.

White women as conveniently flattened

The Ann Stoler reading this week asks us to consider why the deep-seated racial anxiety on the white man’s part always has to be expressed through sexuality. While the reading suggests many different possible explanations for this like the “sexual structures [..] as antithesis of the idealized self” and “sex as the ritualistic re-enactment of the daily pattern of social dominance” (46), I felt that the reason very simply is that via a sexual discourse, the game of power becomes a very easy one to play. By conquering something – landscape, a native land, woman, treasure coves or otherwise, the white man necessarily has control over what he perceives as the weaker ‘Other’. Sexuality here therefore becomes a very useful metaphor for such a power discourse because sexual triumph is about conquest and demarcation of territory as well.

However, the complication arises as Stoler points out exactly how the white women are “rarely the object of European male desire” (44). This is because if the sexual conquest of the woman is so important in buttressing the masculinity of the white men, then why are the white women excluded from this similar violent conquest of womenfolk? It struck me that the reason is really rather simple. In a foreign land, where Europeans are few and far between, it is more important to put race before sex – in that, it is more important to subjugate the racial ‘other’ before the sexual ‘other’, simply because maintaining white supremacy is of utmost importance. By sexualizing the native women and neutering the white women, I want to suggest that white men can therefore maintain a layer of homogeneity in the way white society is portrayed. Simply put, white women are not seen as a sexual ‘other’ because women must not be perceived as sexual preys to the white men, in the natives’ eyes so as to maintain the purity of the ‘white’ class.

Yet, incidentally, I want to suggest that the subjugation of white women here is thus even more insidious. Applying the logic we have acquired from Achebe’s ‘An Image of Africa’ a couple of weeks ago, we can see here that white women are the most utterly discriminated in the way they are neutered, desexualized, flattened and forced into the backdrop of “white” superiority, so as to prop up white masculine supremacy. Hence, while the native women are the victims of the white men’s sexual conquests, the white women are the victims of the white men’s negligence.