Thursday, 2 April 2015

A Marxist Reading of Brontë’s Jane Eyre

A Marxist Reading of Brontë’s Jane Eyre
Published in 1847, Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre paints a picture of the Victorian society and the trends of that time. Brontë criticizes the various practices of her society through the characters in this novel.
Tyson (2006) writes: “For  some  Marxists,  realism  is  the  best  form  for  Marxist  purposes  because  it clearly and accurately represents the real world, with all its socioeconomic inequities and ideological contradictions, and encourages readers to see the unhappy truths about material/historical reality” (p. 66). Thus, Jane Eyre, which portrays the Victorian upper class, attempts to dismantle the capitalist, religious and sexist or patriarchal ideologies prevalent in that time period.
Analysis of Jane Eyre
The novel revolves around a female protagonist named Jane Eyre who is an orphan living in mother’s brother, Mr. Reed’s home. The deceased Mr. Reed made his wife promise to take care of Jane. From the very start, there is a clear hierarchy of the upper and lower class. Where Mrs. Reed and her three children, John Reed, Georgiana and Eliza belong to the rich, upper class, Jane Eyre, being an orphan and dependant, belongs to the lower class. Mrs. Reed’s cold behavior towards Jane leads her to believe that “[…] she really must exclude me from privileges intended only for contented, happy, little children.” (Brontë, 1847, p. 7). It is this hierarchy of socioeconomic standards that determines how the Reed family behaves towards Jane and this idea seeps through the generations, thus establishing itself as a cultural norm of the society. John Reed orders Jane to address him as ‘Master Reed’, and in accordance with the classist ideology that his family and society has imparted in him, tells her
You  have  no  business  to  take  our  books;  you  are  a  dependent, mama says; you have no money; your father left you none; you ought to beg, and not to live here with gentlemen’s children like us, and eat the same meals we do, and wear clothes at our mama’s expense. Now, I’ll teach you to rummage my bookshelves: for they ARE mine; all the house belongs to me, or will do in a few years. Go and stand by the door, out of the way of the mirror and the windows (Brontë , 1847, p. 11-12).
Being a rebellious protagonist, Jane calls him a tyrant and a slave-driver like the Roman emperors of the past. It is clear that Mrs. Reed’s children are aware of the class difference and even the servants of the household attempt to teach Jane this hierarchy of haves and have-nots.
And you ought not to think yourself on an equality with the Misses Reed and Master Reed, because Missis kindly allows you to be brought up with them. They will have a great deal of money, and you will have none: it is your place to be humble, and to try to make yourself agreeable to them (p. 15-16).
The housemaids tell Jane that if she does not act humble with the Reeds, God will punish her. Clearly, everyone in the Reed household except for Jane has fully indulged in the ideology that those who are rich may do as they please, while the poor need to be taught severely of their limitations and boundaries. Thus, Jane wonders “Why was I always suffering, always browbeaten, always accused, for ever condemned?” (p. 18). Her lack of money and status earns her everyone’s cruelty. Although Jane rebels against this kind of treatment on basis of her poverty, since she is a child, the effects of the capitalist ideology rub off on her as well. “I could not see how poor people had the means of being kind” (p. 33).
Jane is made to believe that since she is an orphan, she is a useless thing who is incapable of benefiting anyone. The nurse, Bessie’s song further highlights the idea that the poor and destitute have no one to turn to but God and Heaven. “Men are hard-hearted, and kind angels only/ Watch o’er the steps of a poor orphan child” (p. 29). This is a religious interpellation through which the proletariat class is injected with the ideology that they must rely on the help of the divine and it keeps them from rising against the cruelties of the bourgeois class.
The discrimination between the treatment of upper and lower class by the characters of the novel is displayed when Jane arrives at Thornfield to work as a governess for Mr. Rochester. Unaware of the fact that Mrs. Fairfax is not her employer, Jane imagines the old lady to be “a model of elderly English respectability” (p. 134-135), however, her arrival at the Rochester mansion reveals that Mrs. Fairfax is in fact, the housekeeper and manager. This shows that even in Jane’s mind, being a member of the Victorian upper class is synonymous to elegance and respect. Even Mrs. Fairfax fully buys into the class division, and believes herself to be a station above the other servants of the Rochester household. Mrs. Fairfax prides herself on being distantly related to the Rochesters.
Leah is a nice girl to be sure, and John and his wife are very decent people;  but  then  you  see  they are only servants, and one can’t converse with them on  terms  of equality: one must keep them at due distance, for fear of losing one’s authority (p. 147-148).
The way she sees Edward Rochester, the master of the house, is also determined by his status: “Mr. Rochester was Mr. Rochester in her eyes; a gentleman, a landed proprietor—nothing more” (p. 160).
The capitalist division of class is more clearly defined when Brontë attacks the upper class lords and ladies for having inadequate moral standards. Brontë criticizes the ideology that being rich is synonymous to being a better human being and deserving of respect. She shows the ugliness of the upper class, their brutish behavior and establishes that good manners have nothing to do with being rich. Brontë evaluates her characters based on their actions and personality, not on their class or social status. In this way, the novel can be called a ‘resistant literature’ which challenges the repressive ideologies present in the society and refuses to adhere to them. When some of the upper class, aristocracy arrives at Thornfield, Brontë shows their hollow personalities through the eyes of Jane. Ms. Blanche Ingram, the epitome of an aristocratic lady, is shown to be a selfish, rude and proud girl. Jane notices that “there was an expression of almost insupportable haughtiness in her bearing and countenance” (p. 261). She had the same pride in her as her mother and she was remarkably self-conscious.
She  was  very  showy,  but  she  was not  genuine:  she  had  a  fine  person,  many  brilliant  attainments; but her mind was poor, her heart barren by nature: nothing bloomed spontaneously on that soil; no unforced natural fruit delighted by its freshness. She was not good; she  was  not  original:  she  used  to  repeat  sounding  phrases  from  books:  she  never  offered,  nor  had,  an  opinion  of her own… (Brontë , 1847, p. 282).
Thus, Jane looks at the personality and behavior of a person to judge their character.
The ideology that those who are rich are morally correct while the poor are illiterate and untrustworthy is upheld by all the lords and ladies that stay as guests at Thornfield. Mr. Ingram, while talking about Jane Eyre, remarks: “I noticed her; I am a judge of physiognomy, and in hers I see all the faults of her class.” (p. 268). Her daughter Blanche shows an aversion towards Jane and remarks that she looks stupid to be allowed to play games with them. The idea of physical ugliness is associated with the poor while beauty is linked with the bourgeoisie. The discrimination on basis of outer appearance stems from the historical/material conditions of the society. Blanche further says that there are a thousand reasons why governesses and tutors of a well-regulated house should not be allowed to have a relationship. She says that their “mutual alliance” (p. 270), reliance and confidence will result in insolence which will be followed by mutiny and a general blow-up. Thus, the upper class fears rebellion of the proletariat class and tries to inject them with ideologies which will prevent such a rebellion.
Brontë’s biggest criticism is made on the capitalist ideology that rich men should only marry rich women, and marriages should be arranged for the sake of preserving or increasing one’s estate (capital). Most conflicts in Jane Eyre arise due to a steadfast belief and nurturing of this ideology. Mr. Edward Rochester is a rich bachelor, who, although not handsome, is deemed a worthy match for Blanche Ingram due to his status. As Jane observes: “I suppose his acquirements and abilities, perhaps his wealth and good blood, make amends for any little fault of look” (p. 240).
Once Jane realizes that she has fallen in love with her employer and master, Mr. Rochester, she attempts to admonish herself and keep in mind that she is not of his station to think of falling in love with him. While addressing herself, she calls herself a dependent and a novice, and says that “It does good to no woman to be flattered by her superior, who cannot possibly intend to marry her” (p. 244). In order to keep in mind the class difference between herself and Blanche, she draws a portrait of herself, labeling it as “Portrait of a Governess, disconnected, poor, and plain” and gives the title “Blanche, an accomplished lady of rank” (p. 245) to the portrait of Blanche.
The belief that rank and wealth sever her and Mr. Rochester widely is what prevents her from believing that she is worthy of marrying him. “Mr. Rochester might probably win that noble lady’s love, if he chose to strive for it; is it likely he would waste a serious thought on this indigent and insignificant plebeian?” (p. 245).
Keeping to her own caste and order is something that Jane has observed in her society and therefore, she forces herself to adhere to this ideology. She realizes that due to the concerns of family, rank, connections and political reasons, Mr. Rochester may want to marry Blanche, however, she is not qualified to win his love because she has a rotten personality.
I had thought him a man unlikely to be influenced by motives so commonplace in his choice of a wife; but the longer I considered the position, education, &c., of the parties, the less I felt justified in judging and blaming either him or Miss Ingram for acting in conformity to ideas and principles instilled into them, doubtless, from their childhood. All their class held these principles: I supposed, then, they had reasons for holding them such as I could not fathom. (p. 285).
The idea of marrying within your own class is what causes Jane’s mother to develop a discord among her family. Jane learns that her mother was of a respectable family and when she chose to marry a poor clergyman, her friends disapproved of the match. “[…] my grandfather Reed was so irritated at her disobedience, he cut her off without a shilling; that after my mother and father had been married a year” (p. 35).
However, both Jane and Mr. Rochester refuse to bow down to this ideology. Edward Rochester is fully aware of the fact that Blanche may not be impressed by his personality, but his purse, and that she considers his estate eligible for marriage.  “I caused a rumour to reach her that my fortune was not a third of what was supposed, and after that I presented myself to see the result; it was coldness both from her and her mother” (p. 388). More than a decade ago, Edward had been deceived into marrying a raving mad woman due to the greed of his father. His father did not want to divide his property among his two sons and diminish it, therefore, he planned to marry Edward into riches, and this brought nothing but disaster and pain to Edward. He then attempts to find his ideal woman who has an agreeable personality; however, the aristocratic class fails him terribly.
 Provided with plenty of money and the passport of an old name, I could choose my own society: no circles were closed against me. I sought my ideal of a woman amongst English ladies, French countesses, Italian signoras, and German grafinnen. I could not find her (p. 474).
In this way, Brontë exposes the ugly underbelly of an aristocratic society, maintaining that wealth and status do not guarantee moral qualities such as honesty and sincerity in a relationship.
In the end Mr. Rochester chooses to marry Jane because he has fallen in love with her, and refuses to conform to the society’s ideology about marrying in a rich family. Jane too, denounces her interest in Mr. Rochester’s property, thereby breaking away from the long-held traditions of her times molded by capitalism. “What do I want with half your estate? Do you think I am a Jew-usurer, seeking good investment in land? I would much rather have all your confidence. You will not exclude me from your confidence if you admit me to your heart?” (p. 398-399).
Brontë also attacks the religious ideologies that prevail in the Victorian society. The ideology that you must be good and kind to even those who wish to do you harm is what Brontë criticizes. The kind of religious ideologies promoted to keep the poor from rebelling against the rich, to keep maintaining the current class structure are displayed in Jane Eyre. The masses are being conditioned by the customs of the society, those of the upper class. The character of Mr. Brocklehurst, a clergyman who owns the Lowood School of charity for orphan girls is used by Brontë to mock the idea that religious institutions are fair and just.
Mr. Brocklehurst upholds the concept that the orphan girls of the Lowood Institute should be taught self-denial and simplicity, and punished severely when they do not follow instructions. His ideals are exaggerated to a ridiculous degree, demonstrated when he demands a Lowood student’s hair be cut off because it curls naturally and looks rather lavish. Brontë contrasts this by presenting Brocklehurt’s own family which does not follow his own grossly exaggerated religious doctrines.
Mr. Brocklehurst was here interrupted: three other visitors, ladies, now entered the room. They ought to have come a little sooner to have heard his lecture on dress, for they were splendidly attired in velvet, silk, and furs. The two younger of the trio (fine girls of sixteen and seventeen) had grey beaver hats, then in fashion, shaded with ostrich plumes, and from under the brim of this graceful headdress fell a profusion of light tresses, elaborately curled; the elder lady was enveloped in a costly velvet shawl, trimmed with ermine, and she wore a false front of French curls (p. 97).
In the name of religion, Mr. Brocklehurst attempted to keep the poor and orphan content in their deplorable condition, and as a result he managed to save money and exercise his authority on the basis of his superior station. He served them rotten, rancid food and justified his actions through religion: “Oh, madam, when you put bread and cheese, instead of burnt porridge, into these children’s mouths, you may indeed feed their vile bodies, but you little think how you starve their immortal souls!” (p. 94-95).  
Jane voices her rebellion against the kind of morals and religious doctrines which are being taught at Lowood.
If people were always kind and obedient to those who are cruel and unjust, the wicked people would have it all their own way: they would never feel afraid, and so they would never alter, but would grow worse and worse. When we are struck at without a reason, we should strike back again very hard; I am sure we should—so hard as to teach the person who struck us never to do it again (p. 85-86).
She believes that she must resist those who punish her unjustly. However, her friend Helen Burns at Lowood replies to Jane’s protest by saying that only Heathens believe in such things, Christians denounce violence. Through Jane, the readers are shown how Christian values and ideologies being fed to the lower class society are not in their favor, rather they are harmful and attempt to shackle the masses, not free them.
When Jane runs away from Thornfield and arrives at a rural setting, she meets her cousin St. John Rivers, who is steadfast in his goal of becoming a missionary and serving to convert people in India to Christianity. He believes that his greatest work will be to toil in the Indian soil for sake of Christ and be rewarded with a mansion in heaven. The ideology that St. John is adopting will lead him into a miserable life away from his homeland, where he will struggle to survive in poverty, believing that he will be admitted to heaven when he dies. However, Jane, by refusing to join him in such a life, presents a different perspective to the ideology and reveals its faults.
It is—that he asks me to be his wife, and has no more of a husband’s heart for me than that frowning giant of a rock, down which the stream is foaming in yonder gorge. He prizes me as a soldier would a good weapon; and that is all. [...] Can I receive from him the bridal ring, endure all the forms of love (which I doubt not he would scrupulously observe) and know that the spirit was quite absent? Can  I  bear  the  consciousness  that  every  endearment  he bestows  is  a  sacrifice  made  on  principle?  No:  such a martyrdom would be monstrous. I will never undergo it. (p. 617).
Jane tells him that she shall not be able to survive in the harsh climate of India and that God did not give her a life to throw it away and follow St. John’s orders as he pleases, she calls such an act a suicide and rejects it. Thus, Brontë not only criticizes the religious ideologies that were dominant in the Victorian times but also points out how they are at fault and do not promise a good life which is the right of every human being. While the poor clergymen and missionaries of rural areas wander all over the world in destitution spreading religion, the rich steal and deceive to become richer, and the class system of the society is maintained.
Brontë also criticizes the sexism in the patriarchal society. Through Jane’s words, Brontë attempts to reject the sexist ideology that women have certain assigned roles in the society that make them more feminine and they should stick to those roles. In the conversation between Bessie and Jane, Bessie calls Jane a fine lady because she has now learnt how to play the piano, speak French and work embroidery on the muslin and canvas (Brontë, 1847). Similarly, Blanche is believed to be an accomplished lady because she is beautiful, she sings and plays the piano. Blanche is an adherent of the patriarchal ideology and says that loveliness and beauty are solely traits of a woman, and the gentlemen should only possess strength and valour. They should shoot, hunt and fight, and forget about everything else. Through the character of Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë voices her opinion against this patriarchal ideology.
Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts, as much as their brothers do; […] and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex. (p. 167).
In conclusion, Jane Eyre does not promote the capitalist, religious or patriarchal ideologies prevalent in that time but presents them in a different light, through the eyes of a female protagonist, and shows how these ideologies are unhealthy and attempt to mask the reality from the masses. In the name of customs and tradition, the masses follow certain ideologies which they believe to be correct in every aspect; however, in reality they have flaws that are hidden from the eyes of the people. Jane Eyre draws out those flaws and proves to be a critique of the capitalist Victorian society.
Brontë, C. (1847). Jane Eyre. Retrieved November 15, 2014. From
Tyson, L. (2006). Critical Theory Today. (2nd Ed). USA: Routledge.  

TO CITE THIS POST: (APA 5th Ed) Rafiq, M. (2015, April 2). A Marxist Reading of Bronte's Jane Eyre. Message posted to 

A Feminist Analysis of Tahira Naqvi's Love in an Election Year

A Feminist Analysis of Tahira Naqvi’s Love in an Election Year
The aim of this document is to analyze the short story “Love in an Election Year” written by Tahira Naqvi, a Pakistani writer of English fiction, with the feminist framework of literature. Feminist literary criticism attempts to analyze literary texts with special focus on what kind of sexist or patriarchal ideology is being portrayed or criticized. In the selected short story, there is the central female character named Shabo, who is a fifteen year old and the narrator of the story with the first person perspective. She tells the tale of her twenty-one year old cousin named Baji Sughra in the backdrop of the political situation of the country. The setting that the characters are situated in is a traditional Pakistani familial setting of the 1960’s.
Baji Sughra is a typical young female in a Pakistani family setup. She looks like “a sultry actress in an Indian film, like a model in a magazine ad for Pond’s Cold Cream” (Naqvi, 1997, p. 327). She has rosy cheeks, soft lips that are always pulled up in a smile and is she considered very beautiful by Shabo. All the patriarchal feminine qualities associated with a woman manifest in the character of Baji Sughra. From her outer appearance, to her manner and personality, she is what a Pakistani woman should be like according to the patriarchal society. She is talkative and expresses herself more in the presence of her female cousins, as Shabo recounts: “Within an hour of her arrival from Multan we were chattering without pause like two myna birds” (p. 326). Being compared to twittering birds is another way of suggesting that the two young girls are delicate, beautiful to look at and very feminine. The main subject of the story is the fact that Baji Sughra has fallen in love with a cousin named Javed. Thus, the outline of the perfect feminine heroine is complete. She is young, beautiful and in love. It is not mentioned what kind of education Baji Sughra has had or what activities she indulges in, other than daydreaming about Javed, writing love letters to him and making plans to have secret dates with him. She is constantly smiling and happy ever since the love affair began, and this gives her the air of a delicate, chirping songbird like the myna she is likened to. Her ultimate dream is to be married to Javed and live happily ever after like a fairytale princess; she tells Shabo “We’ll be married when Javed gets his degree. […] In two years” (p. 328). Therefore, she is seen in the patriarchal gender role that the society has outlined for her and fits the profile of a feminine girl completely.
Javed, the young man Baji Sughra hopes to marry, is defined first and foremost with the kind of education is having and how old he is. “If I had done my calculations correctly, he was three years older than she was, twenty-three. In his second year at the Engineering University in Lahore, he was one of our cleverest cousins, the one who showed the most promise, the elders had been heard to proclaim” (p. 328). The narrator Shabo adds to this profile a description of Javed’s looks. He is good-looking, fair-skinned, tall, and has a “thick, black moustache” which is the very defining feature of his masculinity. Shabo compares the couple to the couples seen in films during that time i.e. Nargis and Raj Kapoor, Madhubala and Dilip Kumar. Therefore, Javed is the handsome prince who has been casted in the role of the hero likened to one in any Pakistani romantic film, meant to sweep the girl off her feet and live happily ever after. He is in his typical masculine gender role, which is laid out for him by the patriarchal Pakistani society. Shabo immediately imagines Baji Sughra in the traditional Pakistani role of a “bashful bride […] weighted down with heavy gold jewelry, swathed and veiled in lustrous red brocade and garlands of roses and chumbeli” (p. 329). Baji Sughra is of marriageable age, and in accordance with the traditions of the Pakistani patriarchal society, her only role is to be married so that she may start her life as a wife and later as a mother. In those days it was unimaginable for a woman to aspire for a career or higher education, and so the story fails to mention academic achievements of any of the female characters; in a patriarchal society such things are not important for a woman. Baji Sughra is often shown tearful especially in matters regarding her love, and she is even compared to a wounded animal when requesting Shabo to keep her secret. This makes her seem defenseless, dependent and shy, the qualities normally associated with a woman. Adjectives like coy, blushing and bashful are used to describe Baji Sughra throughout the story.
The one thing that deviates from the usual profile of a traditional Pakistani girl is the fact that Baji Sughra is in love and having a clandestine affair with her beloved. This would be considered a rebellious behavior, and as the story progresses, we see that Baji Sughra makes vocal attempts to rebel against the decisions of her parents regarding marriage, but fails to make a change. Shabo believes Baji Sughra is bold and is awed by her courage; she is also impressed by Baji Sughra’s intelligence and believes that she is a smart girl. Sughra has her own opinions regarding the political situation in the country, and she displays knowledge whenever she speaks on the matter. However this characteristic of hers is not brought to the front and her character is overtaken by the events of her love life. Perhaps this is because patriarchy does not allow her to be very vocal about matters such as politics and current affairs, which should be left to the elders and male members of the house.
Shabo’s parents are seen in the traditional patriarchal roles as well. Shabo’s father, whom she calls ‘Abba’, comes back from work and engages in the physical activity of ‘getting his hands dirty’ while stringing up the national flags and streamers with the children. On the other hand, Shabo’s mother does not help out but remains concerned about the mess being made, and the possibility that the children might come to supper without washing their hands properly. Being a woman and a mother, she is worrying about little things, and concerned about the health and cleanliness of the children. This is in accordance with the patriarchal notion that women are nurturing, caring and the duties of childcare solely rest on them. The activity of cooking is also associated with females, and so it is ‘Aunty A’ who makes the thick, granular carrot halwa. The male characters are seen smoking cigarettes, such as Javed and Cousin Hashim or using hukkah like Dadajan (grandfather). These are masculine activities which are solely reserved for men, and banned for women. The Philips radio used to listen to the election results is ‘Dadajan’s radio’, thus hinting towards the fact that all property is owned by men. When the politician that Shabo’s whole family supports i.e. Fatima Jinnah loses against Ayub Khan, the men show aggressiveness while the females remain rather passive and only express themselves through words, if at all. It is Dadajan who grunts and rummages through things, curses and calls names while Dadima simply ‘mutters’ her displeasure. Although Cousin Hashim is a no-good failure who gets scolded for having achieved nothing in his academic life, he still retains his masculinity by showing rage and desire for physical aggression. “Cousin Hashim was restrained with great difficulty by Allah Rakha as he threatened to go out and cuff the man who was attempting to break into two a large, cardboard lantern that had adorned the entrance of the little tea shop right next to our front door” (p. 336). Dadajan, the grandfather, is established as the authority of the house when Shabo confesses that no one can go against the wishes of Dadajan. He is the male owner of the house, and his command is considered the last word. Even Javed shows anger and aggression when Baji Sughra is married off to another man. This display of anger by all the male characters in the story is proof that they too are caught in the web of patriarchal roles that signify masculinity. Men are encouraged to be violent and display an aggressive behavior which is labeled as a true sign of manhood. It is clear what the power relationship between the males and females is. The males are dominant and the ones who hold the power in the household, while the females are compliant and submissive. All the characters in the story conform to the gender categories defined by the patriarchal ideology and seem to be satisfied in them.
The rebellion that Baji Sughra shows when her parents arrange her marriage to someone other than Javed, is overshadowed by her grief and dejection. Shabo notes: “She wore a sad look, and seeing her face so pale and her eyes wet with unshed tears, I thought how beautiful she was when saddened” (p. 336). The story never shows directly how Baji Sughra argued with her parents to let her marry Javed, and so, the readers have no clue how vocal or aggressive Baji Sughra had been in front of her parents and elders. When she tells her sad tale to Shabo, she assumes the role of a traditional feminine heroine in the face of an adversary. She throws herself on the bed and starts sobbing, later flinging her head down on her knees and weeping violently. Her emotions become melodramatic when she claims that she will kill herself if she is made to marry someone other than Javed. She wails “Oh Shabo, my life is over, I’ll kill myself, I’ll be a corpse instead of a bride, they’ll see” (p. 338). The image of Baji Sughra as a patriarchal feminine girl is reinforced here. Her overly emotional actions make her seem foolish and ridiculous, and she reveals to Shabo that even her own parents thought she was being foolish. Shabo notes that Baji Sughra’s rebellion would only remain meekly verbal and go no further; “If we were in the movies Baji Sughra would have indeed killed herself by taking poison which someone like me would have supplied to her, or she would have run away at the last minute, just as the maulvi sahib was getting ready in the other room to conduct the nikah. But this wasn’t the movies, alas” (p. 338). The idea of a woman rebelling against her parents and the patriarchal norms is only the stuff of movies and myths, not the reality. Patriarchal ideology imposes submissiveness and passivity on women, and so Baji Sughra gives up on her fight for her love and surrenders to her traditional gender role. She becomes the “good girl” that everyone expects her to be, and agrees to the marriage.
When it comes to Baji Sughra’s marriage to the man her parents chose for her, Shabo points out some of the Pakistani traits of a bride and gives a raw definition of a good girl and bad girl as seen in the light of the male dominant societal norms: “A sad bride is traditional, so that if anyone saw her in tears the only conclusion drawn was that the poor girl was weeping at the thought of leaving her parents’ home. In fact, if you showed too much excitement at your wedding, you’d be accused of immodesty” (Naqvi, 1997, p. 339). Thus, a Pakistani bride is restricted from showing too much joy or excitement and deemed ‘immodest’ or in other words, a bad girl. On the other hand, the bride who keeps her head bowed, remains mute and tearful is the good girl, because she is conforming to her gender. Regarding the bride’s assent at the time of nikah, Shabo says: “You’re not supposed to exceed the bounds of modesty and respond enthusiastically with a ‘yes’ right away. All brides must wait until the query is repeated for the third and last time and then, after a reasonable pause, come out with a demure ‘Hmm’ ” (p. 341). It is clear that submissiveness is a valuable quality in a woman as seen through the patriarchal lens that all characters in the story wear. While Shabo expected Baji Sughra to refuse to the marriage in front of the maulvi, or take some other bold action like tell her new husband the truth or refuse to show affection towards him, in reality, Sughra assumes the role of a submissive bride completely and gives her passive assent. She later tells Shabo that her husband is a wonderful man, and she is happy with him. Purged of her rebellious side, she has become exactly what the male dominant society wants her to be. The story seems to be reinforcing the patriarchal ideals of how a woman or a man should behave by showing that Sughra is now happy with her husband, because she chose to be the ‘good girl’ that everyone expected.
The story gives the impression that if a woman listens to her elders and mutes her own voice, she will get a happy ending. The patriarchal ideology believes that women are born to be passive, frail, modest, emotional and nurturing. Clearly Baji Sughra is a classic example of a patriarchal woman. She has been oppressed and restrained by her society, and she herself has given a willing consent to it. This patriarchal programming is apparent in all the characters of the story, including the narrator Shabo. Although Shabo questions the consent of Baji Sughra to the marriage and expresses displeasure at the lack of her rebellion, she is called a baby. Being a teenager, Shabo’s programming is not yet complete, but in time, she too will become attuned to the patriarchal norms and that is when she will be considered ‘mature’. The sisterhood between Shabo and Baji Sughra here is worth noting. Bescause Shabo is designated as Baji Sughra’s friend and confidant; she feels it is her duty to encourage Baji Sughra in her desire to marry Javed. She helps the latter arrange a secret tryst with Javed in the story, and tries to help the lovers in any way she can. Despite being the younger of the two, Shabo does not give up easily on the idea that Baji Sughra should give up her resistance and her right to marry the person she likes. Although Shabo does not give voice to her opinion, secretly she believes Baji Sughra should have fought harder and taken a stand in any way she could have. This shows that women desire a change in their hearts but do not have the courage or power yet to take a concrete action against the oppressive patriarchal norms. Since Baji Sughra is now happily married and is satisfied with her new husband, the readers will not question the patriarchal oppression on her but consent to it.
It is also important to note the political background that the story is set in. The story shifts between the 1988 elections of Benzair Bhutto, and the 1964 elections of Fatima Jinnah versus Ayub Khan. For a woman to run for the presidential seat is something unusual because in the patriarchal society women are not encouraged to aim for professions largely occupied by males. Baji Sughra’s awe and admiration at Fatima Jinnah’s participation in the elections is noteworthy: “A woman president for Pakistan. Can you believe it Shabo? And she’s running against a general too. But she’s so like her brother Jinnah, how can anyone not vote for her! She’ll win.” (p. 328). Shabo’s entire family supports Fatima Jinnah, which has more to do with the fact that she is Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s sister, than with her being a powerful, eligible politician. This highlights the fact that Fatima Jinnah is not acknowledged for her own capabilities and intelligence, but her importance is tied to her brother’s reputation. Once again the patriarchal ideology seems to be at work; a woman has a meaning only in relation to a man. When Fatima Jinnah loses the election, Shabo recounts that voting was rigged in a clever way so that it could not be proved. Shabo comments on Fatima Jinnah’s looks after the defeat that “she looked sadder than any tragic heroine in any movie I had ever seen” (p. 335). It is clear that the male dominant society during the 1960’s was not prepared to have a woman as their leader.
On that note, more than two decades later, in 1988, the Pakistani society still seems skeptical of allowing a woman to take on such a powerful seat which has always been reserved for the males. “Benazir Bhutto has a notion she will win. The mullahs, their hands raised ominously, their eyes glittering passionately, are up in arms because, as they see it, a woman cannot, and if they can help it, will not, hold executive office” (p. 326), as Shabo notes in the start of the story. Religious influences in promoting patriarchal ideals are obvious, because according to the religious scholars a woman’s place is to stay inside her home. The story clearly reflects Pakistani society’s gender issues in accepting a woman in a strong masculine role such as a president or prime minister. Shabo described Benazir Bhutto as having piercing eyes and determined looks. It would not be wrong to call Shabo a feminist, because she believes a woman should be able to aspire for something more in her life, and supports Benazir Bhutto. She defends Bhutto when Baji Sughra, who is now successfully conditioned by the patriarchal ideology, claims that Bhutto will never win because she’s too much in love with her husband, she likes to take risks and is always pregnant; “What can she do if she’s pregnant?” Baji Sughra retorts. At the end of the story, Baji Sughra’s last dialogue sums up the issue at the very heart of patriarchal ideology: “Well Shabo, she wants too much. Just think, you can either be a good wife and mother or a good leader. And she wants to be all three. Now, tell me Shabo, is that possible? How is that possible?” (p. 346). A woman will still be bound in her patriarchal gender role of child-rearing and household duties even if she establishes her career. Benazir Bhutto is looked down upon by Baji Sughra because she knows juggling motherhood and a career is impossible in this society, and so Bhutto is bound to fail. While Shabo is trying to break free from the patriarchal ideology prevalent in the Pakistani society by raising questions in her mind and even giving voice to them at the end of the story, Baji Sughra is strikingly opposite. Sughra has become a patriarchal woman, who has internalized the norms and values of the patriarchy prevalent in Pakistan.
In conclusion, “Love in an Election Year” carries the traditional definitions of masculinity and femininity. The characters in the story behave according to their own gender, save, perhaps Shabo whose opinions and perspectives mature as she grows older and by the end of the story she is the only one who seems to have the courage to articulate her opinion. In the form of Shabo, the selected short story seems to be questioning the traditional view of gender but its reinforcement and acceptance of these gender roles through the other characters overpowers the former. Thus, it cannot be said that the story invites the readers to criticize or reject the patriarchal ideology ruling Pakistani society even today. Baji Sughra’s tale is a sad one, but her own acceptance of her fate and the resultant satisfaction from it prevents the readers from opening their eyes to the oppression of women.

Naqvi, T. (1997). Love in an Election Year. M, Shamsie (Ed.), A Dragonfly in the Sun: An Anthology of Pakistani Writing in English (pp. 326-346). Karachi: Oxford University Press.
Tyson, L. (2006). Critical Theory Today. (2nd Ed). USA: Routledge.  

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Postmodern Poetry: The Sea in the poems of Adrienne Rich and Derek Walcott

Comparison of the treatment of the sea in Diving into the Wreck by Rich and The Sea is History by Walcott.

Derek Walcott is a Saint Lucian poet and playwright. Besides having won the Nobel Prize in Literature, he has won numerous literary awards over the course of his career. Methodism and spirituality have played a significant role from the beginning in Walcott's work. He commented, "I have never separated the writing of poetry from prayer. I have grown up believing it is a vocation, a religious vocation”.
Adrienne Rich was an American poet, essayist and feminist. She was credited with brining the oppression of women into the poetic discourse. Rich’s work has explored issues of identity, sexuality and politics; her formally ambitious poetics have reflected her continued search for social justice, her role in the anti-war movement, and her radical feminism. Utilizing speech cadences, enjambment and irregular line and stanza lengths, Rich’s open forms have sought to include ostensibly “non-poetic” language into poetry.


Water is a universal symbol of change and is often present at turning points in a story. Since water is often a sign of life, many times water represents life. Water can also be up into two categories: fresh water and bad/polluted water. Fresh water can represent good health, and bad water symbolizes bad health. Water can also mean purity and cleansing. It also represents thirst, which can be interpreted as a thirst for something specific, such as knowledge or enlightenment.

The ocean is a sign of power and strength, dominating all other symbols of water--due to its immensity. All life was ocean-born and life still exists in the ocean; therefore the ocean represents life. Also, the ocean represents mystery. The ocean is known for being unpredictable and uncontrollable, hard to navigate in time of storm and sometimes known for being beautifully calm. Sometimes, the ocean is referred to as being a tear of God or the sorrow; a place where you leave your bad memories and sadness. The ocean is also known to symbolize hope, truth, and in some cases, mystery and magic. The ocean's salt can also symbolize being well grounded, or stabilized.

The sea is a wonderful and powerful image that often appears in dreams. Water is linked with the feminine and in a dream may represent the feminine aspect of one's personality. The sea figures predominantly in many creation stories as the bearer of all life. It is stormy, chaotic, and life-giving. Water often symbolizes the unconscious or the soul. Look to see if it is calm or what might be lurking under the surface.

The ocean may contain what one perceives as danger, such as lurking monsters, sharks or whales, storms, or tidal waves. These "dangers" may represent powerful and unpredictable feelings, a repressed aspect of one's personality, or an issue dwelling under the surface. The seas figure predominantly in creation myths as the bearer of all life.
The poet Walt Whitman, uses the sea as a metaphor for immortality in a cluster of nine poems which are part of his 1881 Leaves of Grass. In context he uses a ship as a metaphor for man’s passage through life beginning with birth and ending with death. Henry Thoreau used the sea as a metaphor for the enrichment of man’s mind and the limitlessness of his abilities. Another significance in the use of the sea as a metaphor for the voyage through personal growth, like we saw with Whitman, is the insight that it provides the reader about the writer.


The poem entitled “The Sea is History” connects Walcott’s present environment to its initial condition by situating the Caribbean’s genesis in the middle passage, describing the creation of the New World as imagined by European colonists, and chronicling the islands’ fight for independence. The interrogative beginning, “Where are your monuments, your battles, your martyrs? / Where is your tribal memory?” immediately draws our attention to the lack of these things – items that typically compose a cultural history. The answer, “Sirs, / in that grey vault. The sea. The sea / has locked them up. The sea is History” introduces an element of forlornness, especially with the word “sea” repeated four times.

Several historians have felt the need to defend the sea from the accusation that it is “history-less,” claiming that the best defense comes from poet Derek Walcott, in his poem “The Sea is History”: Maeve Tynan examines this view of the history-filled sea as “medium for the passage operates as an interstitial site that both conjoins and separates colonizer and colonized.” She sees the trope of the voyage encapsulating “the uprooting effect of Imperialism” particularly in the poetry of Derek Walcott. As she puts it, “Walcott’s Odyssean travellers opt to voyage through history, a dynamic quest into the future that repudiates the past and grounds his poetics in the here and now.” Tom Leskiw’s paper also addresses the topic of untold history, by examining the mutualism between humans and sea creatures, and the ways in which natural and human histories have intertwined. Noting that seas have been a “barrier to travel since time immemorial and crossing them has often entailed the crossing of a frontier,” his essay examines how Polynesian mariners’ “intimacy with the sea” gave them the ability to use “subtle clues for navigation,” clues provided by not only the colour, taste and patterns of the sea but by fish, plants and seabirds as well.

It is important to note Walcott's acknowledgement of the sea as an entity, an element in history. Walcott asks of the peoples' "monuments, battles, and martyrs, tribal memories", to which the response lies "in the sea". But there is a profound biblical allusion to the historical significance entailed. From chaos emerged light, like "the lantern of a caravel, and that was Genesis". With these words, the poet is referring to the many children that were birthed overseas, amidst the struggle of sailing between the islands in flight from oppression. Then as soon as they are born, the children face "Exodus", "the packed cries, the shit, the moaning", an exile from a peaceful life, from their own homeland. Walcott is giving a perspective and an ethnic identity to the Caribbean collective through the description of the sea as personified by Biblical allusion.

As he compares slavery to “Babylonian bondage” and describes the deaths of men and women aboard slave ships, he explains that these tragedies only caused the ocean to “turn blank pages / looking for History”. These horrific events that are locked in the sea” are the antithesis of the great monuments and triumphant battles described in the introduction to the poem. The irony present in the references to biblical stories of creation and redemption reminds us that the Caribbean’s history will never be one of triumph or deliverance but instead one of anguish and struggle.

Within the declaration, “the sea is History,” also exists a dramatic pun on the word, “history.” One could interpret this phrase as the sea holding the answers to history, or “the sea is History” could be interpreted colloquially as, the sea is gone.” The former meaning provides some hope in recovering history, but the latter is completely despondent. It is clear that Walcott intended this double meaning, for the search for history spans the entirety of the poem and at one point a real feeling of hopelessness occurs as he writes, “and that was Lamentations/ that was just Lamentations,/ it was not history”.

The final stanza of “The Sea Is History” Here, the mention of the “salt chuckle of rocks” returns a sense of ease to the poem as a whole, and the final line, “of History, really beginning,” also possesses a hopeful tone. History begins at the end of the poem, yet the images here of the sea are reminiscent of the lines, “The sea / has locked them up. The sea is History.”

For Walcott, the sea is a reference to the change that comes with the passage of time. The sea is a symbol of those portions of the African history that are unknown and hidden from the human eyes. The sea envelops in itself the events and happenings of the African history that have become taboo and are no longer discussed by people, but are rather repressed in the 'depths of the sea' of consciousness; “The sea/has locked them up.”

The “Genesis” or the beginning of the crucial part of African history was when the colonizers traveled by way of sea towards Africa and brought with them a tide of change. The sea acted as a bridge to connect the colonizers with the African indigenous people. The “Exodus” came when the colonization resulted in “soldered” bones of the natives and their “packed cries”. The sea, then, is as vast and deep as history and contains in it the cruelties and horrors of the past. The sea is the witness to the arriving colonizers and the shipping of the natives to America and Europe for slavery. Walcott describes the colonizers in the poem as “the men with eyes as heavy as anchors” and describes that they were like the rabid jaws “of the tidal wave swallowing Port Royal”. Throughout the poem Walcott uses nautical terms to describe the incidents that have occurred throughout the African history.

But where is your Renaissance?

Sir, it is locked in them sea sands
out there past the reef's moiling shelf
where the men-o'-war floated down; (33-36)

The sea has locked many things in its enormous belly. It not only contains the secrets, the horrors and the tales of the natives, but also guards the wealth of rare jewels and marine life. Walcott highlights the enormity and majesty of the sea. The ocean is presented as magnanimous and of immeasurable depth. The sea is the place where the history of the Caribbean people is often located. The slaves and servants were brought to other lands by the sea route, they died on the sea and the sea-bed became their grave, the colonials traveled by sea as well. All these are an important part of the history, and the sea by default becomes the main chapter of the history and cannot be separated from it. The sea has witnessed many things and is therefore a great vault of all that has happened across it.

History and the sea have a very intimate relationship as they both are always moving and changing and are virtually uncontrollable. Walcott uses an interesting combination of strong visual imagery and historical references. He has used the flow of the water to describe the flow of time. His personification of the sea effectively demonstrates it's and history’s, power and control. The sea can “lock them up,” it can cause drowning, sinking, struggles; But it can dry up too – even the sea, despite its undeniable power, has its weaknesses.

Diving into the Wreck” is Adrienne Rich's most celebrated poem that is often called as the epic of modern times. The poet in this poem gives a description of the sea and her dive into the sea, the various things observed and particular experiences underwent are all beautifully narrated. The poem is adventurous and descriptive of the experience of diving into the sea in order to search for a wreck. As the seawater is deep and mysterious, so are the meanings of the poem. The poem is representative of Rich's feminist ideals and the changing conditions of America. Rich is the diver that wishes to observe the damage done to the female race, and the wreck of their treasures.

Although it is not named, the Atlantic Ocean is probably the sea that houses the wreck that the speaker of the poem explores. The sea represents uncovered female history. The image of the sea is a metaphor of life as sea is full of wreckages; the world too is full of ruins. One glance around will bring back countless pictures of destruction. Diving into the Wreck provides the angle of perception about the wreck from both the male and the female side. Deborah Pope in finding the meaning of the wreck states that the wreck represents the battered hulk of sexual definitions of the past, which Rich, as an underwater explorer, must search for evidence of what can be salvaged.

The diver's act of diving into the sea is like undertaking a voyage into a new territory. Rich's poetry continually testifies to her need to work out possible modes of human existence verbally, to achieve imaginatively what cannot yet be achieved in actual relationships. The poem chronicles one woman’s quest for discovery as she journeys alone to seek the truth of “omitted” and “misrepresented” ideas. Adrienne Rich enables the reader to understand the journey that the speaker undertakes as one of not only self-discovery, but also as a mission to understand the universality of humanity.

The body of water isn't always mentioned directly in the poem, but it's definitely ever-present. The ocean is huge, deeply powerful, magical and somewhat frightening. It swallowed the ship and it surrounds the diver. It's about as wild and as natural as possible. Line 32 is where the ocean is mentioned directly. The ocean hits the diver as a surprise, as the diver cannot see as she moves down the ladder to descend into the water. This surprise makes the ocean seem frightening, as it harbours unknown, unseen entities.

And there is no one
to tell me when the ocean
will begin. (31-33)

As the poem progresses, the diver is learning to move underwater, to get used to the feeling of actually being "inside" the ocean. The ocean is completely in control though, and the diver cannot fight it or use his or her power. Rich calls the ocean as a 'deep element' in which the diver has to learn to adapt: “you breathe differently down here.” The speaker describes a log as being "water-eaten." It seems like an ordinary thing to say, but it gives an image of the ocean as a kind of animal. It gnaws and chews and slowly devours all the human things that fall into it. It has a slow, inescapable power that makes it a scary force in this poem.

The poem narrates the speaker’s quest as she explores a sunken ship to discover the cause of the disaster and to salvage whatever treasures remain. The sea is a traditional literary symbol of the unconscious. To dive is to probe beneath the surface for hidden meanings, to learn about one’s submerged desires and emotions. In this poem, the diver is exploring a wreck—a ship that has failed to survive.
The poem is an extended metaphor in which the dive comes to signify the diver’s quest for knowledge and power. Her descent into the primal depths of the sea of life, of consciousness, transforms her: She becomes a creature of a different world. The "awkward mask" and crippling flippers are inappropriate for the land-based world but essential for the underwater journey. She apparently has become the drowned vessel as well, the boat and its figurehead:

whose drowned face sleeps with open eyes
whose breasts still bear the stress
whose silver, copper, vermeil cargo lies
obscurely inside barrels. (80-83)

By delving into the mystery, looking beneath the surface, the diver learns the secret of her own submerged power. The diver is not only the boat and its cargo, a figurehead, an observer, an explorer. She/he is also a participant in the disaster: "we are the half-destroyed instruments/ that once held to a course."
The theme of descent and return is a traditional one in Western literature and this is employed by Adrienne Rich in a modern setting. Perhaps the diver represents all humans, submerging into the depths of personal histories to find out who they really are. In 1971, Rich wrote an essay entitled "When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision." In the article, she wrote about an awakening of women’s consciousness, their "drive to self-knowledge." She wrote, "language has trapped as well as liberated us." She urged women to reexamine their history, to learn "to see—and therefore live—afresh."
If the history books do not tell women’s stories, they must search the past (dive into the ocean) and find the evidence so that they can retell the old stories. The journey to discover one’s identity is like a dive to discover a shipwreck, dangerous, mysterious but fascinating. So many threats await down the deep level of the sea, yet the charming adventure raises the irresistible invitation into the unknown world where the woman may find her hidden self. She is afraid, she is uncertain about what lays ahead, therefore she prepares and arm herself, with knowledge, with weapons, with the brave expectation of new, great change she may go through. The wreck she is diving into is the patriarchal society where she is living in, her community, her family, her belief.
As noted, Rich stated that this poem “is” an experience rather than about an experience, is the idea of searching our memories, our past. And that is a journey that can only be done alone, subjectively. So using the symbolism of the dive, and the shipwreck, it appears that she wants to go back and figure out what happened in her life (her journey, or course) that left her damaged. To do this, she has to dive deep in the water, which is not pretty but black and dark, symbolizing that the journey is fearful. Rather than jump right into the water as some divers do, she has to use the ladder to slowly descend into the water, indicating hesitancy. The repetition of the phrase "I go down" in the third stanza show that this is a slow and gradual process. So as she retreats into her memories, she’s not exactly sure at what point she’ll find clues or meaning. Also, because the water creates buoyancy, she really has to hold onto it to “go down”, so it’s not an easy task to go into the unknown (the sea of memories).

Diving into the Wreck” contains Rich's fullest, most dramatic reference to the sea. In this poem, the speaker gives up her old notions of power because they don't seem to apply where the sea is the controlling element. Attempts to gain power over the sea appear useless to Rich's diver, who has to move differently in the sea and adjust. The sea provides a valuable context for a developing consciousness. In one of her poems, Rich uses the sea chiefly as a metaphor of change. The ocean represents all that is vast and unknowable. In another poem, she finds the sea lacking as an instructor about how to live one's life. Ultimately, for Rich, the sea is its own entity, often violent and mainly separate from human concerns. The setting of the ocean can be seen as a symbolic metaphor for the real world and society as a whole.


In conclusion, the sea represents the unknown, the hidden and the secret for both Walcott and Rich. The sea is powerful and cannot be controlled by mere humans. It is deep and full of remnants of history such as the traces of the colonizers crossing it to get to Africa, or the painful past of the women of the world. Going into the sea results in some sort of discovery, or unlocking of mysteries; ultimately, the sea is a symbol of the past lives of humans.

  • Tung C. , J (2006). “The Sea Is History”: Reading Derek Walcott Through a Melancholic Lens. Massachusetts.
  • Gidmark, B. J. (2001). Encyclopedia of American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes. Greenwood Press, Westport. p.375.
-Credit Moneeza Rafiq