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.

Race and the Law in “Shooting an Elephant”

In his article, Partha Chatterjee looked at a certain opinion in Britain that felt that the colonized people, the Indians specifically, were immoral, irrational, ignorant and unfit for taking leadership in a government that is based on rationality. This idea was then used to justify not putting the natives in positions of power. 

 

In “Shooting an Elephant”, I think George Orwell upsets this justification. At the end of the story, the narrator points out that colonial power is enforced through bureaucratic and legal systems. The narrator was “legally” right to have shot the elephant because the law said it was the right thing to do. The owner could do nothing (presumably, he could not take legal action against the narrator) because the law does not value his rights as he “was only an Indian”. In other words, the story seems to highlight that the reason the colonial powers put the natives at a position of inferior power is so they can do as they like in the colonized land without fear of protest from the indigenous people. The narrator’s reason for shooting the elephant, “to avoid looking a fool”, highlights the insecurities and selfishness behind the acts of the colonial powers, where the narrator commits an act of violence simply to maintain his position as a “white man” who “mustn’t be frightened in front of “natives””.

 

Furthermore, I think that the story contradicts the essentialization of race by showing how people grow to fit racial stereotypes. For example, the narrator muses on how the moment a white man becomes a tyrant, he has to spend the rest of his life living up to that expectation of him, and thus grows to fit that stereotype of him. The natives too, seem to degenerate to crude behaviour towards the Europeans, such as in the Buddhist priests who seemed to have nothing “to do except stand on street corners and jeer at Europeans” because they have been ill-treated by the colonial powers. The narrator shows this when he gives a very explicit illustration of the brutal ill-treatment the natives get, such as the “wretched prisoners huddling in the stinking cages of the lock-ups” or the “scarred buttocks of the men who had been Bogged with bamboos”. As the natives are treated like animals, so they act like animals towards the Europeans. Hence, I feel that “Shooting an Elephant” destabilizes the essentializing of race and the justification of the exclusion of natives from spaces of power as raised in Chatterjee’s article.

Thoughts on Race and Superiority

While reading Passage to India, one aspect that caught my eye was Forster’s treatment of race and the practice of racialization. It becomes obvious that the idea of race comes to taint the view and attitude of what each group of people have towards others. Racialization is, in the text, characterized to be a misconception and as a result, a cause of much tension between the different ‘races’. But I think race becomes a conviction of which these people hedge to in order to find some certainty to cope with the flux and changes around them. For instance, even when Aziz was dressed in European costumes and speaks English, Ronny, who was probably intimidated by him previously, refuses to see him as an equal. Immediately jumping on Aziz’s skin colour which categorizes him to be an Indian – categorized to be fundamentally slack (75), and this is when Ronny does not even know Aziz or work with him.

Naturally, this act of categorizing people along racial lines is not limited to the English as it is clear that everyone is complicit. The elusiveness of race is extensively discussed in the text. This is especially highlighted in Forster’s mockery of a ‘White’ man through Fieldings, who called his own race, “pinko-gray” (57). The colour of skin is in reality just a colour, but has become connotated with superiority, however, as we would have come to realize after many events in the text – it is something that is baseless and illusionary.