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.

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 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.

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.

Women and Empire

Stoler seems to highlight exactly how tenuous and precarious are the women’s relationships with the patriarchal colonial empire, ‘because of their ambiguous positions, as both subordinates in colonial hierarchies and as agents of empire in their own right’ (41). As much as the men and perhaps even more so, white women in the outskirts of empire have to articulate their femininities via the constructed roles created for them by colonialism, most often through the choice (or lack thereof) of men they pick in marriage, in order to command the status, riches and respect as the “burra memsahib”.

 Stoler’s reading becomes interesting in her suggestion that European women are crucial to the reinforcement of colonial boundaries and imperial hierarchies through ‘bolstering a failing empire and to maintaining the daily rituals of racialized rule’ (56). In Burmese Days this becomes particularly relevant because the caricature of the burra memsahib in Elizabeth typifies such a woman. Strict racial lines are drawn as she rejects Flory’s attempts to show her native life in Burma, by turning her nose in disgust at the festive show, the Chinese merchant shop and even refusing to step into the headman’s house. It seems peculiar that Orwell inverses the sexual power relationship between Flory and Elizabeth whose relationship was doomed from the start because Flory was never the sahib that he ought to behave as, while Elizabeth represented too much of the idealized English woman he could never possess. Elizabeth’s final rejection of Flory because of her hatred for his ‘dishonorable’ and ‘unforgivable’ birthmark also takes on racial and symbolic overtones as Flory is deemed to transgress racial frontiers when his liaison with Ma Hla May was brought to light.

Note-taking for second half of Week 9

Today’s class discussion focused mainly on ideas about the enforcement of colonialism, in various ways and means:

1. We discussed the threat posed by children of mixed parentage to the ‘rule of colonial difference’,

2. the ways the colonial state manipulated laws to justify its actions, and

3. the position and portrayal of the reluctant coloniser.

The first part of the discussion looked at Stoler’s article, where we considered the treatment of metis children as illustrated by the Sieur Icard case. Here, we discussed the ways in which ‘whiteness’ becomes problematised by the existence of the metisse, which blurs the lines between ‘white’ and ‘native’. At the same time, we also considered how colonial law and lawmakers were still able to exert their power by enforcing arbitrary definitions of ‘whiteness’ (in both a demonstration and assertion of their superiority). For example, not only did the colonial court have the ‘last say’ in the legal treatment of the metisse, it also tried to control the situation by enforcing laws that ‘decided’ on the status of metis children as white or native.

We then moved on to think about the links between the Stoler article and Burmese Days. Here, we discussed how Flory could be seen as a metis figure himself, because of his birthmark, which makes him half ‘dark’. We then considered various ways of reading Orwell’s portrayal of the two Eurasian characters in the novel, and how this reflected his attitudes towards them. Firstly, his portrayal of them as lowly clerks, and his likening of them to dogs possibly reflected his low regard of them. (“The two Eurasians had sidled up to Flory and cornered him like a pair of dogs asking for a game.” Chapter 10)) At the same time, some of us felt that his portrayal of them was rather sympathetic, and read this in two ways. (“Elizabeth had, in fact, decided to snub the Eurasians. She did not know why Flory was allowing them to hold him in conversation. As she turned away to stroll back to the tennis court, she made a practice stroke in the air with her racquet, to remind Flory that the game was overdue. He saw it and followed her, rather reluctantly, for he did not like snubbing the wretched Francis, bore though he was.” (Chapter 10)). Firstly, this could be Orwell’s deliberate denunciation of the imperialist actions that resulted in the existence of these metis children, and another angle from which to criticise colonialism. Secondly, that Orwell himself did not know how to portray these figures, as they were too ‘sensitive’ an issue. Considering this led to a discussion on where we hear Orwell’s voice in the text, and whether or not Flory can be seen as Orwell’s mouthpiece. While we considered that Flory, as the reluctant colonialist, could be Orwell (as the narrator in Shooting an Elephant could have been), this brought up the question of why, if Flory represents Orwell, he dies in the novel. This led to a consideration of Orwell’s guilt in having taken part in the colonial enterprise, and Burmese Days as his way of coping with that guilt. Looking at Flory as a reluctant colonialist, we compared him with Fielding, and also discussed why Orwell creates all these unsympathetic characters in the text, which led to questions about whether Elizabeth could be the real protagonist in the text, and how all this affected conveying Orwell’s message to the reader.We then considered that perhaps Flory is not Orwell’s mouthpiece, and that Orwell’s voice is not heard in the text, but rather, Orwell chose to show a ‘reality’ of the colonial situation, leaving it up to the reader to read what meaning we chose into the text.

Connections with Other Topics from Other Weeks

As mentioned above, this week’s discussion continued the consideration of the figure of the reluctant coloniser that was also present in Passage to India and Shooting and Elephant. Furthermore, we also used the idea of rule of colonial difference brought up in the Chatterjee article to consider the place and portrayal of the metisse in Stoler’s article. We also considered how Orwell is quite different in style from previous writers in the module, as rather than giving a clear message the way Forster did in Passage to India, he leaves it rather open to the reader to make meaning of the text. Furthermore, unlike Conrad, women are not silenced in this text, (consider the fact that some of us consider Elizabeth the ‘real’ protagonist). Orwell presents a fairly different picture of colonialism compared to Forster and Conrad, for the focus of the novel is clearly the reluctant coloniser and the problems that come with that position.

Women as perpetrators of colonialism

Colonialism has been a much debated topic and for many, the focus has always been centered on how it functioned as a tool of not only European superiority but also, a tool for substaining the European patriarchal society. There were instances in the novel which seemed to uphold patriarchal beliefs such as when it was mentioned in the novel that “the women members of the club had no votes.” This corresponded to  our common belief of male domination and the helplessness of the women who were completely dependent on men for their survivor. Yet, after reading the novel, I felt that it made us looked at the position of  the European women in a different light.

The women in the novel seemed to enforce a system of colonialism of their own. This “system of colonialism” was evident in the way the European women entertained certain beliefs and how they sought to impress them onto the behaviour of the white men around them or in the way they judged the natives. Elizabeth exemplified this in the way she chose to uphold her beliefs about the “white man.”  This can be seen in “she was perfectly certain that that was not how white men ought to behave” and “she was grasping, dimly, that his views were not the views an Englishman should hold.” She also perpetuated this system of colonialism in the way she viewed marriage for it was said in the ending of the book that “her servants live in terror of her, although she speaks no Burmese” and “she fills with complete success the position for which Nature had designed her from the first, that of a burra memsahib.” To me, Elizabeth’s “colonialising” of her servants served as an re-enactment of the colonialism enforced by the European men. Here, it is suggested that the “white woman” functioned as a mirror for the “white man.”    

Contrary to the image of a “strong” woman created for the readers through her hunting trip with Flory, in her desperate attempts to find a husband in Flory and Verell respectively, Elizabeth perpetuated the stereotypical image of women who were completely dependent upon marriage  for their livelihood. This hence contributes to the idea that as much as men relied on colonialism to maintain a sort of pride, women also embraced colonialism to maintain order in their lives. As much as the fact that there were changes being affected, the colonial women were unwilling to adapt to the outcomes which these changes might bring and therefore, perhaps strove to uphold colonialism more than the men did. The novel hence, I felt, brought out another truth which we might have neglected with the knowledge which we were being equipped with to look at colonialism. It made us look at the cupability of women which not many of us would have regarded given the fact that the European women were always portrayed as victims in one way or another.

Of course, the flux in the impressions which readers get of Elizabeth in the novel also points out the flux of language.  The complexity of women as both victims and perpetrators shows that perhaps, there are more “truths” to be discovered and this is only possible through the use of language by other writers such as the Anglo- Indian other than the European himself.

Relationships in Burmese Days

What I found quite interesting about Burmese Days is that the novel seems rather fixated on relationships and marriages—it’s almost an Austen-esque storyline, except that it’s set in colonial Burma. Of course, in Burmese Days, women and relationships have much larger significances and symbolisms, instead of being more the ‘subject’ of the text. For me, the most ‘significant’ relationship is the one between Flory, Elizabeth and Ma Hla May. Reading the text, I felt this ‘triangle’ was one that was quite packed with underlying/deeper significances. Firstly, it’s sort of a metaphor for Flory being caught between Burma and England, with neither being a ‘good fit’, ending in his eventual suicide. Flory is sick of his life in Burma, but still, the experience has changed him so much that he wouldn’t be able to slip back into life back in England. Ultimately, this is the dilemma that defines him in the novel, and it is also what leads to his death.

Yet, his relationship with the two women is not as simple as just a love triangle—he doesn’t love Ma Hla May, and she doesn’t love him either, she just wants the status a relationship with him gives her. Somewhat similarly, Orwell portrays colonialism as  not always altruistic, but also highlights the native collaboration as something that enabled colonialism. Admittedly, this relationship is not exactly a perfect metaphor for the British colonial experience in Burma, but it does serve as a sort of distilled image of the more complicated colonialism that Orwell depicts in his novels.

The state of Women and religion

From where I have stopped in the novel, I managed to make an observation. I am referring to the similarity in the position of native women like Ma Kin, the wife of U Po Kyin, with the state of the native’s religion – Buddhism.

For Ma Kin, her position in the household reflects the belief of Buddhism that women are lower than man – “the same level as a rat or a frog – or at worst as some dignified beast such as an elephant” (8).  However, my issue is with the portrayal of Ma Kin as the more morally upright and charitable figure. This seems to shed light on the shortcoming of Buddhism in its unflattering claims of women as part of the lower form of life. The irony is, the most dedicated person to Buddhism, is one of the most subdued figure in the novel.  Furthermore, Ma Kin’s portrayal is contrastive with her husband’s selfish and self-serving use of the religion to better his afterlife – “My pagodas will atone for everything” (15).  In this case, religion as a moral guide in dictating one’s way of life seems to be in question. Does this suggest that Buddhism as a religion is no longer applicable/relevant after the changes in relationship brought about by the entrance of western colonialism? After all, we can identify the impoverished state of the native’s religion just by looking at the starving monks whose devotion to the religion is ‘rewarded’ with hunger.

Women and Colonialism

In this post, I would like to discuss the portrayal of women in Burmese Days. Admittedly, I am only about half way through the novel, so my discussion will be limited to what I know of the novel up to that point. Up till now, there have been four prominent women in the novel: Mrs Lackersteen, Ma Hla May, Ma Kin and Elizabeth. Significantly, according to their racial category, the women fall into two broad categories: white women who wish to elevate themselves to a superior position, and natives who want to elevate themselves by riding on the white man’s prestige.


For example, Mrs Lackersteen laments the lack of “authority over the natives nowadays… In some ways they are getting almost as bad as the lower classes at home” (29) while Elizabeth imagines “barefooted white-turbaned boys reverently salaaming” (96) her in India. Both European women seem to strive to reaffirm the artificial neat boundaries between races that Ann Stoler points out is part of the colonial ideology.


The text seems to disapprove of Elizabeth’s strict fixing of the racial lines by pointing out how much of her desire to distinguish the Europeans from the natives stems from an innate desire to live like a rich person, to be superior to somebody. However, even as the text comments on the neat and unfair categories, it also reaffirms them with the portrayal of the hypersexual women like Ma Hla May who only wishes to use her sexuality to gain wealth from her white lover.  


For example, Ma Hla May complains that Flory never gives her any “presents of gold bangles, ad silk longyis” (53) anymore and discusses how a lack of this display of the wealth he gives her would make her “ashamed before the other women” (53). Ma Kin, while seemingly moralistic and reprimands her husband for his evil deeds, stops viewing her husband’s plans with disapproval as when he tells her how his evil plans could get them into the European Club, he had “planted a grain of ambition in ma Kin’s gentle heart” (144). Thus, even the gentle and moral Ma Kin is susceptible to greed, thus reaffirming the colonial stereotype of native women.    


That the women from both races affirm and stick to their culture’s ideologies and ideas, I think, further reinforces the idea of women as the bearers of a culture’s ideology, just as Marlow’s aunt in Heart of Darkness was.

The Unnatural nature of Naturalised arguments in Wallace

Maybe I owe it to my class in Psychoanalysis but when I was reading the Alfred Russel Wallace reading, I could not help but be quite disturbed about how Wallace, with much ease, naturalised his arguments for the “primitivity” of the Dyaks. Naturalisation here means that he is attributing many reasons for the condition of the people to their biology and seeing how you cannot debunk biological evidence, the arguments he has set up for himself are therefore infallible.

To me, this naturalisation of argument goes beyond the simple positing of the White man as the “higher” race (70) and the Dyaks as the other-ed, categorisable object of anthromorphological observation. More insidiously, it’s the way Wallace suggests, that the reason why the Dyaks are not procreating fast enough is because the women are subjected to “hard labour” and “heavy weights [that] they constantly carry”, that such work “limits her progeny” (70). He attributes the reason of the Dyaks’ lack of “prosperity” (because of the lack of offspring) to the fact that dyak women are not confined to the domestic space. This is not only ethnocentric in my point of view – considering that Wallace is definitely comparing the Dyak culture to the late Victorian English code of femininity here, but also highly problematic because more than anything else, I think this observed evidence of the Dyak women will help the English justify the way they have restricted the female to the domestic space at home.

Also, if we take note of the fact that he is asserting, without justification, that “an increase in population” is indicative of “increased happiness” (75), we can then observe the problems with this assumption: because it not only destabilises all of Wallace’s arguments about why the womenfolk should stay at home, but  what is more disturbing to me is the fact that Wallace manages to get away with simply reducing the reasons for needing to put a woman “in the household”, where she would have “duties to attend to, and will then cease to labour in the field”, to the naturalised and unverified conclusion that her hard work is inhibiting her fertility.

Hence, on these two levels – i.e. the unverified conclusions that increased population = increased happiness (I’m thinking about the post-war baby boom here); and that working in the field = inhibited fertility, I found the Wallace reading highly disturbing and unconvincing. Granted, I probably should consider the fact that this was written in 1890, but still.

Women (what women?) in _Lord Jim_.

One of the things that struck me in reading Lord Jim was the absence of women in the text. With the exception of Jewel, there are no significant women mentioned at all. Following the adventure narrative, which has traditionally privileged the male explorer anyway, this is not surprising I suppose. That being said, I’m interested in looking at Jewel. I think she is symbolic of Jim’s potential for acceptance in spite of what he has done, and yet the flipside of that symbolism is that in her importance to him and his to her, his abandonment of her represents his greatest failure. It’s almost as if his earlier abandonments following the jump off the Patna, are forgivable, or if not, at least understandable, but this abandonment is as damnable as his jump.

When he keeps quitting his jobs the moment the Patna incident is mentioned, we understand he is afraid and in some way even though it’s irresponsible, we can find some reason to excuse his fears or weakness. But when he abandons Jewel, it’s as if events have come a full circle and he is repeating events from the ship. The parallels are interesting – the passengers onboard are dependent on him for their lives, for safe passage. Likewise, Jewel now defines herself, and is protected, by Jim. When he abandons her by going before Doramin, he is doing almost the same thing, except possibly even worse given that he, in his “responsibility” for Dain Waris’s death, does this intentionally, knowing the consequences of his action, knowing he is devastating her.

The woman in the text, as represented by Jewel, is most pathetic because she is at his mercy, she could beg him to stay but he won’t. The man is empowered, even if his use of that power is arguably self-centred. It would be interesting to develop the gender argument further, although given the limits now I can’t.