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.

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.