We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.


"Development and "Progress," Tale 4: Flotsam and Jetsam · 29 January 05

The fourth tale in Jhabvala’s East into Upper East
is also told through a first person narrator.
Thinking about Penny’s response to the conventional definitions
of narration, I’d say Kitty veers towards reliability. Unlike the
19th century reliable narrator, she does not produce judgements,
but the stance is one where accurate pictures are produced
for us to look at, and they have a lot of detail withheld from
Tale 1 ("Expiation") or continually distorted in Tale 3. Thus I suggest that
though the point of view is apparently that of a first person,
the effect of the story is more 3rd person, and that does
resemble our second tale. Kitty gives us a panorama,
and she is silently gifted (as I wrote last week these devices
are a sort of game the reader agrees to accept) with insight
into what others say and feel as if she were a third-person
narrator.

It’s not pedantic to go on about this as Jhabvala’s art is
central to the conveyance of her vision. The terms (however
we may use or argue over them) help us talk about the
conventions of the fiction and help us pay attention to
the art, not just the content. All too often on Yahoo lists
people ignore the art which is inseparable from content.
In looking at the facts about or the form a work takes
you look at the work. Thus when the narrator is not
nameless but her name is not told immediately and
then not brought back until towards the end of the
tale when ironies play over the usual romance name
of heroines (Katherine), this connects her to the nameless
narrators of other romance fiction—and say the
nameless narrator of Heat and Dust who appears
equally jetsam and flotsam on the sea of life.

The same techniques of chronology in the tale are
done. Right up front we are brought into the present;
nothing is withheld so quickly we foresee the failures
at the end of the tale. It’s important that the suicide
of one of the central women occurs at its center:
after that, all the talk about her apparently happy
or successful existence is shaped by our knowledge
she killed herself. Jhabvala does this a lot in her
tales. Tells us the endings quickly in throw-away
lines.

A neutral first person which feels like a third person
is needed too: this tale is larger than "Farid and
Farida:" it just bursts with characters and incidents.
It’s full enough to make 3 very fat volumes were it
to have been written up in Victorian style. She
just pours out happenings, events in single lines
that seem to project out a world of thought and
feeling we could go into had we the time. The
thrown-away nature of the text is part of its meaning.
These people throw themselves away. But the
effortlessness of it is the mark of the full mature´┐Ż
artist. The suggestiveness of the detail reminds
me of Austen, only here it’s in control and self-
consciousness (as it’s not in Austen—at least
not all the time).

As I said, my take on the story is Jhabvala’s
shows us the unreality of even asserting development
and progress. This story has helped me to understand
why we are asked to feel positive towards the
wandering promiscuous heroines who drop everyone:
it’s a rhetorical stance in part. I still don’t quite
understand it but can see why such a heroine
would not want what we have in front of us here.
These are not the disaffected young, oh no:
they involved in transcendant internationalism
and are not tricksters and scoundrels themselves—or if they are (in effect) living such lives, they
don’t mean to. That’s not what they meant at all.
Like last week I find myself remembering lines
from T. S. Eliot’s Wasteland.

I’m more interested in the subgenre here: I suggest
that we have another tale with an array of heroines
who have made different life choices, solutions to the
problem of surviving and existing in the modern world.
More traditional versions of this (the earliest in fact)
are De Stael’s Delphine; O’Faolain’s _My Dream
Of You_ is a recent example we’ve read on this list;
Byatt does this kind of thing (though the women
do not support one another); Wharton in her New
York stories; Nafisi did it in little in her introduction
and use of the young women students she had
in her book. We don’t see this that clearly since
the narrative technique is so serpentine and circular.

The big "winner" is Pushpa—as I wrote she’s
resembles imperceptive and unsympathetic takes
on Wollstonecraft: the ambitious successful
woman. She was "different from other girls,"
they’re "bright and intelligent," she’s "brilliant."
She’s one of these women who is a first: first
to pass this exam; she’s at this place and that;
all this had given her "a very authoritative manner
and a loud voice that drowned out every argument."
She’s "respected," but not liked. One of your
"forceful personalities." Given the irony with which
Jhabvala treats her I wonder what Jhabvala would
think of our commemorations of women of
achievement. I admit I’m getting a little sick
of my calendar of Women Who Dared: it’s
often absurd. Pushpa is comically what we are
told we should be: she advocates the middle
course when it comes to love and marriage
and tradition:

" .. but for goodness sake, nothing
rash, no elopement! Let the parents
have the say to which they are entitled.
Since her arguments are delivered
with more cogency …."

Doubtless had she married she would’ve had
a small wedding and invited all the people who
expected to come to such an event. Offending
no one, leaving no one out ….

Sanjay does not want to marry Pushpa. I likened
him to the Kerry doll in US politics. "He sincerely
felt that the good of his country depended on
people like himself and Pushpa, in charge of its
development and progress." Vast delusions
here about the nature of how the world works.
But then he needs them or how would he spend
his life the way he does.

Perhaps people will have a favorite heroine or
want to talk about the different fates. They are
not very well differentiated. But then Jhabvala’s
purpose is not to make individuals.

I don’t like Kitty best, but we do get to know her
best and she hits what I’ll call the choral tonic note.
She’s chorus. There’s lots of jokes everywhere; so
that she ends up working for the BBC World Service
is a joke too: a joke about the BBC which is not that
funny when you think about its original ideals.
But she survives, gets a little house. She presents
the talk of others. Sanjay often visits her and his
talk is to be taken more or less straight or at
surface value at many moments of their conversations.
"Poor Ratna, what a tragedy she died so young"
he says. He bursts out in misery and disappointment
when he has to say that the people who replaced
the upper class British types with their classical
ideals but fatuous and ultimately selfish behavior
are no better: they reflect their constituencies:
they can hardly read or write (or think); they
love to go on luxury trips, harass the staff with
their egos and do no good either (p. 83). Of course
others carry on imitating the British. This
is an important speech dropped casually
towards the end of the tale in the way of the
suicide.

I’ve been on lists where people write in about the
characters arguing this or that about their fates.
We could do this for each of the women but
I myself feel I’d be hearing Jhabvala saying to
us, the indifference of their fates is the point
when we put each against the scrim of the
women in the final paragraph. Not that it doesn’t
matter to each of the characters what happened
to them. We are supposed to care. This is
another tragic story in the vein of "Farid and
Farida" (Tale 2 of East into Upper East)
only this time it is woman-centered.

A subgenre—the array of women in a women-
centered narrative—has been made to carry
large political meanings. I suggest this
was done through the distancing serpentine
narrative.

And when I got to the end I found myself remembering
the closing line of "The Great Gatsby:" "So we beat
on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly
into the past."

Chava

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Posted by: Ellen

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