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.

One thought on “Woolf’s “Growing”

  1. i LOVE the connection with sartre and bad faith. this is something i have often thought about in relation to the roles which colonialism forces its actors to play. a very good entry into a final paper, i think…