The empty shell

Leonard Woolf’s chapter on Jaffna seems to highlight the oppressiveness of colonialism which represses individuality, forces the creation of a façade, and therefore creates a kind of spiritual void in the colonizers themselves.

Woolf “feels as if one were acting in a play or living in a dream” and felt as if the civil servants in Ceylon, himself included, “were all always, subconsciously or consciously, playing a part, acting upon a stage”. He then speaks of how he “developed, in part instinctively and in part consciously, a façade or carapace behind which [he] could conceal [his] most unpopular characteristics”, in order to keep up the image of him as one of the good fellows. The idea of  a façade and theatricality serve to highlight the daily performance required of the colonizer (think of the narrator in Shooting An Elephant), while I found the choice of the word “carapace” extremely apt in suggesting that the colonizer is but an empty shell, forced to be devoid of individuality and spirituality. In contrast, Woolf reflects how the natives “do not conceal their individuality”.

As such, Woolf shows how as “displaced persons”, they become “unreal, artificial, temporary and alien”.  Human beings become no different from “manikins”. This induces in Woolf “a feeling of impotence, the dwarfing and dooming of everything human in the enormous unpitying universe”.  I think this very pertinently describes the effect of colonialism on its colonizers; that it robs even the colonizers of their individuality, resulting in a loss of vigour, and thus an emotional and spiritual sterility.

“We may live our whole lives behind our lace curtains in the image, not of God or man, but of the rubber stamp and the machine”  – This sentence neatly illustrates the oppressiveness of  the system of colonialism on the colonizer, pointing to the futility of existence in having to repress his individuality and become a soulless, mechanical replica of the model colonizer. Not just for Woolf but for the other civil servants, they are shown to be no more than cogs in the machine.

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