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.

One thought on “Binaries, Power and Imperialism

  1. Very interesting reading Jessica. But when you say, “she is successful in bringing power back”, what do you mean by “power”?