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).

Criminal Tentacles

Colonial power is stereotypically portrayed in the example of the East India Company (EIC) in Philippa Levine’s The British Empire. This seems to me as much fabrication as it is at the same time revelation. Perhaps “fabrication” has harsh connotations, but attention needs to be called to the one-sided and convenient depiction of colonial power as “greedy, unscrupulous and self-seeking” (66). In describing its monstrous methods towards power and profit, the text associates the EIC with intrigue, corruption, insensibly expensive conquests, the reinforcement of Hindu oppression, and with phrases such as “the relentless expansion of territory” and “the tentacles of westernization” (76). Two aspects are left out: other motivations, factors, contexts regarding its actions, as well as how few the number of persons who direct the will of the EIC and imperial Britain, or how large the number of those who though complicit could not be fairly charged “greedy, unscrupulous and self-seeking”.

In the opium saga, colonialism is plainly criminal in producing and exporting the “dulling and addictive” substance. “In effect, the company endorsed a huge and sophisticated smuggling ring.” (73) This would be an exaggerated and inappropriate statement if applied to the modern cigarette industry. Strangely, the opium trade is closely contrasted with morals (75–76).

However, the British have their virtuous moments. These are few, and amount to little more than good will, as when the 1829 ban on suttee “did little to extirpate the practice” (72).

The Truth for Modernists

In reading Erich Auerbach’s analysis of a passage from Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, the Modernist attitude towards truth arises. This for me can be more simply described through a series of binaries.

Auerbach quickly notes that “inner processes” (529) dominate Woolf’s prose. This perhaps suggests that truth is not apparent, found in superficial observations, but resides in unseen, interior cogitations.

Woolf presents a mishmash of perspectives, seemingly from Mrs Ramsay, Mr Bankes, even Woolf herself. This recalls the painting which was shown in class, Woman with a Guitar by Georges Braque. As represented by Cubism, Woolf seems also to subscribe to the idea that truth is never a single perspective.

Statements made are indefinite, suggesting that truth is not clear-cut, nor fixed. Rather than finding answers, Woolf poses questions; questions themselves may be considered truth, without the need or the finality of answers. Also, feelings are prized over facts. Woolf suggests the reliability of feelings and personal thought, and throws suspicion upon hard, objective facts.