Women's fiction and l'écriture-femme

East into Upper East: Plain Tales from New Delhi

by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

"Expiation" & "Farid and Farida": Tales 1 & 2 from New Delhi: Reliable and Unreliable Narrators; Feminisms; The film Monster, Why the Titles; Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreters of Maladies and Caroline Bynam Walker's Holy Feast and Holy Festival; The Endless Cooking and Breast-feeding; Tyler's wandering women; Jhabvala and those outside the loop of safety & concern; Jhabvala's films; Wharton's "Expiation"?

Date: Sat, 22 Jan 2005
Subject: [Womenwriters] "Expiation" Tale 1 from New Delhi
Reply-To: WomenwritersThroughTheAges@yahoogroups.com

I read both short stories last night. I won't be reading ahead for this one but read each pair of stories for each week. I am reading alongside them Laurie Sucher's The Fiction of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (very good, I really recommend this one) and Ralph Crane's "consensus" sensible book for Twayne on Jhabvala. I've also gotten myself a slew of articles of which I've read mostly the ones on Heat and Dust and her screenplays for films, and one superb one on widow burning in India (I believe it appeared in an early number of Signs, not sure). And thus far I've read Heat and Dust, A Backward Place, most of Out of India and began (though didn't finish probably because I was too tired) her earliest novel, To whom She Will (in the US renamed Amrita). I'm thinking I'll order Yamine Gooneratne's book on her: Gooneratne has a superb one on Austen.

I feel a little bit unsure writing first as we have a whole new group of people. I'm really delighted to have all these new members and friends, but am not sure how my remarks will be taken. I can only plunge ahead and hope it will be taken in a disinterested (unbiased) spirit. I have already said a good deal about my outlook. I'll add now I love melancholy stories by women, sharp hard pessimism, satire, and a certain kind of women's book which stems from Austen and (to my mind) Jhabvala's fiction belongs to this type. I'll wait to talk about subgenres and types when we get much further into the tales. Some of what I write is a response to the criticism I've read; I only give "credit" where I remember it particularly or use a phrase (from Sucher).

I liked "Expiation" very much. I find it beautifully written, profound in its understanding of what it attempts to analyze, and to recur to my father's standards of the good, to have strongly humane. It could with some readers extend the sympathetic imagination to feel for people who are often in media or life felt to be unacceptable or (not to put too fine a point on this) utter horrors: Ram Lal is an introvert, shy, unsocial, unable to copy with socializing, a not uncommon type of person but not one that is much admired in US culture today. He also reminds me of the female sidekick to the chief character in the film, Monster: he's willing to live off others and take no responsibility for it; he's amoral out of desperation and desire and having been treated very kindly by his brother has turned out to treat others cruelly. For example, he was quite willing to murder his brother's sister in order to steal their apparent life savings to run away with his male lover, Sachu. Sachu might be regarded as the horror of the story: he does seem to be irretrievable; not susceptible of rehabilation at all. He can be a cold-blooded torturer, sadistic, utterly without effective remorse.

Yet I think that by the time we finish the story we are supposed to feel for both these characters though not on the unexamined grounds of emotionalism our narrator, the older brother, provides. It's easier to explain why we are led to feel for or understand Sachu: he belongs to that vast majority of Indians Jhabvala speaks of in her "Myself in India:" those scorned through the caste system, starving, without any prospects; he is an example of someone whose family was willing to maim to make him submit to them, beg with him. Why should he live shackled to a handcart? His violence is a mirror of how he's treated. I suggest in him we have a trajectory of the deveopment of aspects of the behaviors of gangs of desperate Muslim and other non-state-supported terrorists across this earth. The young boy he and Ram Lal treat so horribly was himself a product of a system which depended on the exploitation of Sachu's people; the older brother gives us details with show us that at first this foolish victim bought into the envy for him, liked showing off his skates. The victim's parents (I'll suggest) had not begun to teach this boy what he needed to know before he walked the streets of India.

Ram Lal is harder. Jhabvala has other male characters of this type: everyone in the house is expected to treat them like little gods. My sense is here we are to see how such a personality is both supported but also perverted by mindless devotion to them as males. He needed more than kindness.

Here we come to the "problem" of reading Jhabvala. We have an unreliable narrator. Our nameless older brother sees something, but does not see anywhere near enough. This reminds me of Austen's use of Emma in her book Emma. So Ram Lal's brother assumes his younger brother is thinking, is really capable, but cannot somehow make it in school. The complete lack of ill-will on the part of the brother is unreal; it's a device to help dispel or disturb comfortably held assumptions about innocence and kindness. We also see how intransigent a personality is; how we are hard-wired for things societies are not equipped to deal with at all, which people as a group try to ignore or punish. What good would punishing Ram Lal have done? The older brother could have tried to keep him away from Sachu, but even that's not easy in the modern world. Notions about justice are made irrelevant when we confront this expressionistic (the details about the self- containment are not the issue; they are just verisimilitude) portrayal of psychic reality.

I thought about Monster because I felt the sidekick should have gone to jail though she didn't do the murders. However, in the movie I really identified with the prostitute doing the murders, felt deeply for her; I couldn't dislike her sidekick for the introverted personality type is one I also understand and sympathize with. I also remembered a case I read about long ago where a woman murdered her husband and husband's mistress when she found them in bed together; she was sentenced to capital punishment but she said she didn't care (and she didn't): she didn't want to live any longer and had done what she wanted to do: murder them. I bring up Monster because I see that the particulars of this set of crimes is one which speaks to my experience and heart -- as Jhabvala's pair of boys do not at all. I bring up the woman who was given capital punishment as it seems to me a parallel case showing the futility of justice in doing good.

The "authenticity of feeling" (Sucher's phrase) -- if you think the story has authenticity of feeling (I do) -- is however provided by the narrator. The story opens in typical Jhabvala fashion: we are told the ending in the first sentences. We are not reading this one for story. At first I was not sure we didn't have story of torture by a government. The older brother is sober aspiring type who doesn't question the order he lives in, very literal minded. Like other Jhabvala stories the woman in the story is expected to bear physical harm and punishment: the older brother does not blame his younger one for maiming his wife; she's supposed to hide this happening. We are also told he feels guilty; all he does is futile. He moves to this upper class house and he lives still in the old crowded manner. He has nothing in him to change. He says at one point he wants to be "relieved" of his brother and brother's sidekick's crime, but puts it "away in a steel trunk" and will carry what has happened inside of himself to the end -- silently except of course for our story. Sucher says Jhabvala has given such replies to people who ask her what it was like to grow up in Nazi Germany, to see all her family but the close ones exterminated. I'll also mention something omitted lots of times from the potted biographies: Jhabvala's father committed suicide in London in the 1950s after his son and daughter had begun to "make good" in the English elite system.

Expiation may be the telling of the story.

There are lots of dream-images. The young boy was sodomized in a bleak tub. The image of a tub or swimming pool recurs in Jhabvala. So too of course homosexuality.

I find no irony in the tale. Irony is an overused word. It lacks the "cool reserve" (Sucher's phrase again) of Jhabvala's usual tales. It has a kind of "muted outrage" (Sucher again).

So I invite comments on the story. How did others understand it?


Date: Sat, 22 Jan 2005
Subject: [Womenwriters] "Expiation" Tale 1 from New Delhi
Reply-To: WomenwritersThroughTheAges@yahoogroups.com

Once again, a hearty thanks for Ellen's insightful readings. And I'm delighted that Ellen offers some textual readings of the short stories in context to other readings (something that I'm horribly lax in doing.)

As for "Expiation" -- I found it interesting that Ellen found the narrator to be "unreliable" and I'm paraphrasing here because in essence he could not see the "truth" about his brother. While that is an interesting take on the unreliable narrator, my take on unreliable is a narrator who lies to the readers or is mentally ill etc -- so that the reader who is forced to see the story through a bent lens (Humbert Humbert is a classic example of the unreliable narrator when I think about such narrators) must constantly call into question "truth".

In "Expiation", however, I found the narrator completely reliable -- the truth was evident to the narrator (even though it was "his" truth -- but that may be part of the point) and to the reader certainly. Our narrator, it seems to me, is just a pompous cad. Further his self-righteousness plays against the spirit of "expiation" -- even down to the moment when the narrator accepts the body of the "other" criminal.

The narrator's self-righteousness overshadows the safety and well being of his family -- his wife and children. Good heavens -- his wife gets attacked with a knife and the narrator, although he takes her to the hospital, still lets his brother enter their home.

The fact that the narrator is a cad under the guise of being a good, loving, man invites all types of questions, the least of which is the difficulty of women to control their destinies when they are locked into a culture that does not honor them. I really felt for the narrator's wife -- she tried to tell the narrator but like most women's voices, hers went unheard -- if he had listened to her, well ... And because he failed to listen to her, she ends up knifed -- and her economic security is for a moment disrupted. Sound familiar?

We are all aware of "stove fires" in India -- and in some way, stove fires resonate in this story -- even though it's a whisper. (I'm not implying that this narrator would harm his wife in such a drastic way -- but the fact of the matter is -- the story does invite us to consider harm is harm no matter the degree.) What could this wife do? It's highly unlikely that she could leave - that would have been societal death -- and her children? How must she have felt living with an insensitive clod who walked about caring for this brat of a brother he helped create?

In many ways, we could say that the story does not invite us to consider that we are our brother's keepers but rather that men create cultures that serve their own purpose. The last decision the narrator makes is laughable and not at all sympathetic, although I think we're being toyed with here -- what a good man, we're to think -- meanwhile, his wife, the person he is supposed to honor, cherish, and respect -- at least in theory, has a scar, albeit healed, on her arm (the scar does come back in the story -- and intentionally so).

Of all the stories in the first part -- this one, the first, and I don't think that it's placed first by accident, has a very silent female -- almost passive (although she's passive not because of her personal choice but because of social constrains) -- as the first section builds, so does the strength of the female characters. Okay, enough of my rant -- looking forward to reading other "reads" on these stories -- Valerie

Date: Sat, 22 Jan 2005
Subject: [Womenwriters] Jhabvala, week 1: "Expiation", and "Farid and Farida"
Reply-To: WomenwritersThroughTheAges@yahoogroups.com

I've read all the New Delhi stories so far, and none of the New York stories yet. What struck me most strongly across the first set of stories was a sense of lost possibility--both for India as a nation, post-independence, and for individuals in their marriages and other relationships. Whether that possibility was ever actually there, the ideal once seemed possible, and no longer does--and the characters are older, wiser, more wary now. Or not--some don't accept the realization.

Now to "Expiation"--I read this one in the airport in Seattle. One thing that immediately struck me is that Jhabvala has written the first two paragraphs without reference to the narrator's gender. Only when the crowd says "Look, it is the eldest brother," do we know for sure. I agree with Valerie that I wouldn't call him an unreliable narrator--unless all first-person narration is by definition unreliable, faulty and limited because all personal narrative about external events must be. He is not lying, or mad.

The physical description of Bablu, even in the words of his affectionate brother, is almost feline--he's small of build, with small pointed teeth. He loves beauty and comfort, seeks luxury, good food, good clothes. He lounges a lot: "He sat by the canal or lay under a tree--whole days sometimes." Mind always busy but undisciplined, expression always solemn, "always very shy and alone." "All small children have this very serious look...but with him it remained to the end." He's sneaky, too--and vicious when cornered.

His formal name, Ram, means "pleasing," but he is called "Bablu," which is a common pet name for boys, also found often attached to criminals and film stars--not a strong adult male name really, think "Billy" or "Skip." He is treated as less than responsible, because he is, and that becomes a widening spiral of trouble for all concerned. The socially-reinforced obligations of family are central here--a Western family might long ago have told this kid to get lost, but the Lals cannot respectably do this, even when he costs them pain and money and status, and tragedy ensues. The narrator blames "those stupid Bombay films"--clearly the explanation he didn't want to see was far more complex and deeprooted.

In "Farid and Farida," we have a golden couple, not the last in this collection: they had been "exquisite" in their youth, "small-boned, elegant, quick in mind and body," from neighboring old families with decaying mansions. Even their names are precious: Farid and Farida are Arabic/Persian names, meaning "unique, pearl of great value." (Thus the large, exceptional pearl of Farida's that plays a part in the plot. Farid was also the name of a 13c. Persian poet of note.)

The went to university and off to live in London--they believed their own image, and the image of their generation, that they were uniquely talented and positioned to be ideal new Indians, succeeding while celebrating their "intense Indianness." Well, it didn't work out that way, probably couldn't (their beauty and Indianness wasn't enough to bring money into their accounts). And Farida eventually understands that, and turns to the cynical business of being a guru, with gliding handmaidens and pristine white saris and the whole show. Farid, on the other hand, doesn't understand--he's still in love with Farida and their lost potential. To the end. No tragic consequences here, but he's left completely lost--and still unconvinced.

Penny R

Date: Sat, 22 Jan 2005
Subject: [Womenwriters] Jhabvala, week 1: "Expiation", and "Farid and Farida"
Reply-To: WomenwritersThroughTheAges@yahoogroups.com

The acceptable conventional definition of an unreliable narrator is simply someone whose judgements we are not necessarily to accept or mostly not to accept. The character need not be mad or lying. He or she is just not reliable. The classic reliable narrator is Henry Fielding in Tom Jones. Even if the narrator uses irony, his judgements are the ones we are to accept -- unless we read against the grain. In general until the 20th century many novelists used reliable narrators. The first famous practitioner of a successful unreliable narrator is Austen in Emma. Emma does not lie; she is not mad; she is not a bad person, but her judgements are often faulty and the irony of the book comes from her not seeing clearly or coming to wrong judgements.

The nameless older brother's judgements are not the judgements we are to accept -- or not accept wholly. We understand he makes the ones he does because he's not sufficiently distanced and doesn't think widely or deeply about his situation.

It used to be assumed -- before literary criticism began to be produced in such large amounts and before "reader response" criticism became prevalent that unreliable narrators who were really atrocious would be seen to be atrocious. But what happens is most readers tend to identify with the narrator. We can see from the many misreadings of Lolita (if you take Azar Nafisi and Wayne Booth whose Rhetoric of Fiction is the central book of the mid-century about narrators) that many readers are quite prepared to identify and accept the judgement of vicious horrible people -- to these readers the narrator is not vicious or horrible because he or she has made a case for him or herself and the reader likes the pleasures offered.

This is a simplistic account because from early subjective fiction on -- say Defoe's Moll Flanders -- the question is what is the relationship of the author to the narrator. Most Defoe scholars would have told you once upon a time that Defoe endorsed his heroine; now that's not so sure so she becomes an unreliable narrator. Booth argued -- and I agree -- that the use of the unreliable narrator in the 20th century allows fiction to present amorality with a kind of disguise or mask.

The question for me in all fiction is what the author's relationship to her characters whether they are narrators or not. So to take Jane Eyre (which we all seem to have read) Bronte passionately identifies with and sympathizes with Jane; Jane is thus basically reliable technically but more importantly is a "voice" for the author.

I'd argue that Jhabvala keeps her distance from the nameless older brother and the nameless older brother's point of view is inadequate to the case. He doesn't begin to understand all the things we need to understand to get the full meaning of the story -- not the larger picture of India which Jhabvala means us to see nor his own complicity with the self- indulgent and completely uncritical amoral life of the younger brother that has developed.

A definition taken at random from a common Handbook.

Jeremy Hawthorne, A Concise Glossary of Literary Terms, under "narrator:"

"Is the narrator reliable or unreliable? Do we believe everything that the narrator tells us, or suspect that either deceit or obtuseness on his or her part requires us to see more than he or she does"

There is also "focalization:" not only is there a question of if the narrator is wise, intelligent, perceptive, but how much information does the author allow him or her. In Emma, Austen deliberately withholds information until the end of the story. That makes for suspense for the reader too. In "Expiation" the brother has all the information the author can give; there is nothing left out. He just doesn't judge deeply or widely."

Finally there is how close or far the focalization goes. Jhabvala does not get up close to give us thoughts which come from the older brother's unconscious. He performs for us, giving us his conscious thoughts. So he is embarrassed and doesn't say things like what a public shame he is enduring over his younger brother. He is deeply shamed by what has happened but doesn't say so.

You can also discuss this area from point of view. It matters intensely what point of view a story is told from. Imagine how differently this one would read were it told by the older brother's wife? Or Ram Lol? Or the murdered rich young boy who was so naive and innocent as not to realize one must never go off with strangers. I suggest that part of the story is meant to send chills through the mind of anyone who has a child who walks the streets or goes to malls by themselves.


Date: Sat, 22 Jan 2005
Subject: [Womenwriters] Reliable and unreliable narrators
Reply-To: WomenwritersThroughTheAges@yahoogroups.com

On Saturday, January 22, 2005, at 12:42 PM, Ellen Moody wrote:

The nameless older brother's judgements are not the judgements we are to accept -- or not accept wholly.

Hm. I guess I *never* wholly accept any first-person narrator's judgments at face value, so that doesn't tip the scale towards "unreliable" to me. They are, I maintain, necessarily faulty and limited, because they belong to just one character in the story. How could they be otherwise? That doesn't make them less interesting to me. Instead, they become more interesting, the way a poem is far more interesting than a police report. What is omitted, what is emphasized, builds a texture, a complicated relationship with the underly story--I enjoy that.

Is there an example from the books or stories we've read where I can see a reliable first-person narrator--whose judgments I was supposed to accept wholly? I really can't think of one. Maybe Kathleen in My Dream of You -- but I didn't think her any more reliable in essence than the Jhabvala brother, just more in tune with my own sympathies. (I don't know if that makes any sense...I think I'm saying I can't call the narrator reliable or unreliable based on whether I'm likely to agree with them.)

I don't generally assume the author is speaking through the narrator (unless evidence builds to convince me), and I don't generally assume I'm supposed to identify with the narrator--sometimes that happens, but rarely in short stories--too short to draw me that far into the mindset, maybe?

Penny R

Date: Sat, 22 Jan 2005
Subject: [Womenwriters] Reliable and unreliable narrators
Reply-To: WomenwritersThroughTheAges@yahoogroups.com

I'm just offering the conventional definition. An unreliable narrator is someone whose judgements are faulty in some way. It comes down to the word unreliable: we are not meant to rely on them. And unreliable narrator can be a very sympathetic character. For example, the narrating voice and character in Wit: we are to love her though she's very screwed up when it comes to understanding her situation.

There is the question of who is narrating, what person it is. In the 19th century narration in both the first and third person was intended to be taken as reliable. We were to accept the judgements of the narrator. Thackeray's narrator for _Vanity Fair_ is the mouthpiece of the author. Many of his characters were they made the narrator would be unreliable, but they are not the narrator. In the case of first person narrators, we are into satire when the narrator is unreliable: Thackeray's Barry Lyndon will be my example. Trollope's narrators are reliable: we are to accept their judgements; in the rare cases where he uses a first person, he writes satire in the Swiftian mode.

Satire is not realism. Much is made up or highlighted and pointed to make for moral judgements. Devices like invective, irony, reversals of probability are all okay.

I agree that nowadays we do tend to not accept the third or first person narrator and in the 20th century this has become the standard. It's true to a comical point: I've seen students read 19th century tales with the expectation the narrator is a complete liar. At this point we are lost if we cannot believe anything. Wayne Booth's book was written in the early 1950s about this phenomena: Rhetoric of Fiction traces the use of point of view and unreliability in the narrator from the early 20th century on -- though he begins with Homer and has much to say about pre-20th century literature too.

All I'm contending for is the simple traditional definition.

Penny asks if we've had a book where we are to accept the narrator's judgements. Yes. The narrator of Marcella is to be accepted; she is not Marcella but a persona of Mary Ward. The narrator of Daniel Deronda is to be accepted. The narrator of Corinne is to be accepted. (Readers don't like that but it's true. That's why they get irritated with the book.) George Sand is shaky on this but the narrators of her books are to be accepted; we tend not to accept them but it's thought she meant us to. Now we are into the matter of control. Sand is not in control of her fiction in the way (for example) the impeccable Henry James is. We were to accept Artemisia's judgements in Banti's books: Artemisia was her mouthpiece. The book was complicated by having Banti in there as a modern presence.

James is a good case to talk about here: The Turn of the Screw is classic unreliable narrator. Now a reliable narrator may withhold truths from the reader. That's called suspense. So in the many fictions James wrote from the third person using a reliable narrator he withholds truths from us and many of his characters. Not all.

Ghost stories do use unreliable narrators, but then they emerge in the mid to later 19th century and are part of a sophisticated use of the form.

After all fiction is a game. We're playing a game and it has its conventions. One is the author is allowed not to tell us how the story is going to end. He or she pretends not to know. But he or she does know. Sometimes Trollope likes to tell the reader just about everything (but leaves an important part out) of how a book is going to end -- to make fun of the convention.

Earlier writers were not simplistic nor necesarily readers, but there were typical assumptions. A book which shows how aware writers could be the whole thing was a game is Sterne in Tristam Shandy.

I also didn't mean to use fancy terms. I used focalization because the reason one ends up using such terms is they can show how complicated the matter is. It's not just how wise or dumb or amoral or moral or what ever the narrator in today's fiction is; there's the problem of how much he is supposed to know. This came up on BookerPrize. BookerPrize books are supersophisticated, and Toibin's The Master is narrated int the third person but as focalization it's first person, interior. It's like Emma in this. Except Toibin's poor Mr James (our central reflector -- to use James's terms) is uncertain; he cannot know if the young man offering himself to him will blackmail him. How is this different from Emma? At the end of Emma everything we need to know we finally know so we reread with certainty and get much ironic distancing. At the end of The Master we cannot know everything we need to know. Not only does Mr James not know X, X is not knowable.

We did read one of these fiendishly complicated narratives when we read Alias Grace and maybe Penny will remember I contended for a limited amount of lying. I contended for more reliability in Grace by way of interpreting the other narrators we had, for if we didn't have a basis for it we would throw the book out as a complete bunch of lies. We cannot say that Jane Austen's books are ghost stories filled with ghosts because the narrators lie to us and don't tell us about this. This is not a joke: you do get misreadings of Austen which depend on the idea Austen's books are all about the French revolution because no one mentions it :).


On Saturday, January 22, 2005, at 01:26 PM, Ellen Moody wrote:

I'm just offering the conventional definition. An unreliable narrator is someone whose judgements are faulty in some way. It comes down to the word unreliable: we are not meant to rely on them.

Okay, I guess I see every narrator's judgment as faulty in some way, because the alternative is that they are omniscient and all-wise; and I can't think of a time I relied wholly on the first-person narrator. There are some who are more believable, some who are less so--but all require some critical reading, don't they?

There are classic "unreliable narrators"--Ellen named some, the letterwriter in Judith Merril's short story "That Only a Mother" (mentioned in yesterday's birthday note) is another--characters clearly mad, clearly lying, clearly obtuse (to use a word from one of the definitions Ellen helpfully shared). And there are characters who seem very clearly on the reliable end--someone perceptive, sane, bright, self-critical like O'Faolain's Kathleen has her biases and faults, but she's honest about them most of the time, and you can read through them.

But then there are the narrator-characters in a wide grey area for me--not so mad, not so deceptive, not so obtuse, just human and ordinary, uncritical and self-protective--I'd put the Expiation narrator in this zone, if I were making a chart (which I am not). He's not intentionally hiding anything, but his habit of mind (not so unusual) is to protect himself from blame, and from seeing his own role in his brother's doings. He has a rigid sense of family obligation, and his story is told through that.

Penny R Date: Sat, 22 Jan 2005
Subject: [Womenwriters] Reliable and unreliable narrators
Reply-To: WomenwritersThroughTheAges@yahoogroups.com

Penny wrote:

" ... and I can't think of a time I relied wholly on the first-person narrator. There are some who are more believable, some who are less so--but all require some critical reading, don't they?"

It is a continuum, but we are supposed to accept Jane Eyre's judgement. You may critically "read" her a bit, but she is reliable. When she says she ought to run away from Rochester, that's what she ought to do. She is in the right to be outraged at what happens at Lowood School. She is reliable in the classic sense.

Another example of first-person reliable narrator in the classic sense is the young women who narrates Uncle Silas. I remember that one as I read it recently. You as a particular reader may feel she did this or that in ways you wouldn't do, but LeFanu means us to see her judgements as basically right, true and good. A game is played there all right. It's a first person narration and the narrator doesn't know how it's going to end. But LeFanu can't scare us that much because it's obvious the narrator lived. We also know he knows how the story is going to end. It's a game and in the case of Uncle Silas one that has occasional muddles because we can't always tells when if our narrator is speaking from when she's young and now or from later on when the story is long over.

Ah, a classic reliable first person: the man who narrated The Beleaguered City. He had some blank spots and too much pride, but we are to believe his sum up at the end of the story as right and just and true. He has learnt a lesson and now sees where he was so inadequate at the opening of the story not to believe in the supernatural. There we are. There's another modernish one we had besides Kathleen in My Dream of You.

One thing that happens is readers don't like the authors' stance -- say O'Faolain's. So they will turn a basically reliable narrator into an unreliable one and then say O'Faolain really agreed with them. But she doesn't. She really takes Kathleen's judgements over sex as basically understandable and therefore to be sympathized with, in effect, right.

It feels over scrupulous to try to place a first person in the continuum of unreliability but it has a function. The reason I bought up the issue really is that we are not to reject the nameless brother so very strongly -- at least as I contend. So if I were trying to make a demonstration of this (which I'm not; this is not a classrom and we are not doing literary criticism) I would analyze the text to show how Jhabvala carefully plants ideas and points of view which show the brother to be wrong here but sympathetic and understandable there. Close reading would be done this way about point of view and the uses of "focalization" in this story.

Actually the term "unreliable narrator" and also 1st and 3rd person are nowadays felt to be inadequate. Maybe I should not have used the term. It's just that it is a still common one in common use. As a term though it doesn't convey the variety of stances that the author is taking to the fiction -- like distance too.

Yes I'd say the nameless narrator of "Expiation" has a "habit of mind (not so unusual) ... to protect himself from blame, and from seeing his own role in his brother's doings. He has a rigid sense of family obligation, and his story is told through that." I was referring to this when I said what he tells us is controlled by his sense of shame. He and his family have been shamed, but he cannot reject the young brother. That would be even more shameful probably and certainly would cause deep unstability. Sachu had no one.

What happens to Indian people when they come to the US is they discover you can drop a relative, ignore a promise and thus the customs and habits of the culture go to pot. Remember the woman I told about who was sent to the US to marry someone in an arranged marriage; he left her after 3 months, an unthinkable thing in India. She said he couldn't have got away with it from shame and pressure. But she can't return to India for she is now shamed, used property. She is lost.

Back to art:

As (in my judgement) the crux or key of "Expiation" insofar as responding to it lies in this narrator then the definition of what meant is important.

Characters are not people; fiction is not life. So it's a matter of understanding the grounds of interpretation which are the conventions of the fiction in order to make some statement about the text. There is a text in the house and it does really have a given intended meaning even if the inferences readers may take away are quite different depending on our different personalities, backgrounds, memories.

I should say I too felt the opening was de-gendered. I couldn't tell it was a man until I got into the story. This reminded me of Sand: her male narrator in Horace feels like a woman. Only when we get into the fiction do we know it's a man. Except that I suspect Jhabvala means us to see the flexibility of sexual identity and I'm not sure Sand does :). Indeed I think not.

This is a good and useful discussion. It helps us look back at earlier controversies and see them in the light of the art and form. I like Jhabvala as she is like James (and those BookerPrize authors) and Atwood in control and sophisticated.


Date: Sun, 23 Jan 2005
Subject: [Womenwriters] Jhabvala's "Expiation" and "Farid and Farida": voice, narrator
Reply-To: WomenwritersThroughTheAges@yahoogroups.com

Hi All, A few additional thoughts on Jhabvala's first two stories in the collection (remember I read from a writerly perspective): the cadence of the narrator in "Expiation" is lovely and mimics, syllabically and musically, the cadence of an Indian speaking English. Jhabvala manages to capture this tenor (when the third person is clearly attached to the narrator) -- it's wonderful as a writer to read this cadence: "Now it is as if it were locked away in a heavy steel trunk; this weight may be taken from me at my last hour..."("Expiation"; 12).

It seems that Jhabvala can capture this cadence (perhaps because her ear was trained -- the accent just became absorbed in her mind -- that's what happens when writers learn dialog -- we capture the tenor) -- but if you look at the grammar, syntax, and syllabics of the line (sentence) these all contribute as well. It's quite lovely -- I was able to suspend my belief -- and for awhile as I read, I was listening to someone clearly from India who spoke English with a delightful accent.

We've been talking about "unreliable" and "reliable" -- and after Ellen pointed out that the term really isn't used much, I began to think why this term is used quite a bit in creative writing classes, or at least the creative writing classes at the institution where I teach. Perhaps because those terms, however archaic and difficult to define, do help writers to understand their narrators and the work their narrators do in the story as the beginning writer learns to write. Unreliable and reliable to a writer has nothing to do with POV (the person who will tell the story) or voice or character -- all of these are distinct literary devices/tools to the writer.

I still must say that I'm having a difficult time wrapping my head around the fact that the narrator in "Expiation" is unreliable, although I appreciate and understand the arguments that have been made.

For me, as a writer, unreliable and reliable must be something entirely different. (And there is a difference between how writers and literature trained folks see the text -- at times -- not as the universal rule. I'll digress: I can remember seminars in grad school where the MFA's and the Ph.D's literally sat across the seminar table each with their position, each with our arms crossed -- all right, so we were intellectually immature at the time; all right so our egos were at stake - but we did see the text differently -- of course now, I appreciate whatever bit of knowledge I can gather from someone who has been literature trained -- I appreciate the generosity of spirit in the sharing of their scholarship and realize that this knowledge helps to continue and extend the discourse on the text, writing, and literature. And I realize my training is seriously limited -- if I want to grow and learn -- open up the mind, Valerie.)

At any rate, I did go through Burroway's The Elements of Craft -- the standard text our department invites us to use in intro creative writing courses -- and one that is considered by many writing instructors as useful. Burroway doesn't mention unreliable and reliable -- I almost thought she would -- she does distinguish between voice, character and POV. And the narrator, even a 3rd person omniscient one, is a character -- he/she has a role in the text.

But as a way to shed light on how I imagine unreliable/reliable, let me offer these examples - - from student writing -- because that's pretty much the texts I work with. Story #1: The narrator, first person, lives in a cold apartment, no food, he's young, he goes to a coffee shop because the girl he knows there will give him free refills, he eats cheap soup, he waits until 4 o'clock -- the time the bar will open, he drinks until he falls off the stool. We find out that character has a cold apartment because the heat has been turned off, etc, etc; said narrator is not going to class. He calls mom & dad (yes, teaching creative writing always brings these sad gems) and mom & dad refuse to help. But -- the narrator (who is not unreliable -- drunk maybe -- alcoholic maybe) -- understands that he's responsible for his own plight -- even if he continues to repeat it -- reliable narrator.

Story #2: Narrator is out Christmas shopping on Christmas Eve -- mall is nearly empty -- he should be home. He runs into an old buddy. The buddy has a severe drug problem -- or so we're told by the narrator -- serious drug problem narrator reminds us (they don't pay me enough to read these stories) -- narrator and buddy go to narrator's car and smoke some weed, down some beers -- gee, narrator can't get over what a drug problem buddy has. (There's no intended irony here.) They get arrested -- parents bail them out -- they go to Buddy's house and smoke more dope, down more booze, and do a few lines of coke -- whoa -- narrator tells us -- Buddy has a serious drug problem -- so severe that narrator who reminds us that he can control his drug usage -- that narrator feels sorry for Buddy -- whoa, nelly -- serious unreliable narrator here. (Of course our beginning writer can't see this because well, he's attached to this narrator -- no surprise there -- and hence, why I so strongly must separate the author from the speaker -- in fact, we always refer to the narrator of a piece of writing as the "speaker" -- students will want to attach the name of the author onto a nameless speaker -- and by keeping the "speaker" deliberately separate I'm accomplishing several things - teaching the writer how to become self-reflexive in order to create character; b) how to take risks in class without being judged or misread (there are many stories where the characters are gay and the student is not -- or at least says he/she is not -- but that's always a dangerous moment.) We always talk about the narrator as a character and his/her function in the text/story. I'm just coming from a different perspective.

I agree that the voice Jhavala uses is distant -- it is also flat, cold almost, extremely restrained -- the most emotion I found was in reading "Farid and Farida" -- and during the scenes when "Farida" almost loses it -- interesting -- but even then the emotion was level -- it's interesting -- keeps a distance and almost British, I might erroneously imagine.

But how the stories are constructed -- that interests me -- and something I will pay closer attention to -- Valerie

Date: Sun, 23 Jan 2005
Subject: [Womenwriters] Jhabvala and Feminism
Reply-To: WomenwritersThroughTheAges@yahoogroups.com

Dear All --

For some clarification here and at the risk of being a complete idiot -- how are we defining reading through a "feminist lens"?

Actually the questions Ellen mentions with respect to the questions Jhabvala's text raises: women don't support each other; and the struggle for a woman to exist in a traditional/male dominated world does seem to invite discussion relevant to feminist issues. In other words, could these stories be "feminist" in light of the questions they invite us to consider with respect to the reality of the female experience?

We all are aware that women have a difficult time supporting each other and still, in 2005, we are dominated by tradition and a male dominated society that has established these traditions. Perhaps Jhabvala's texts don't offer a remedy (is there one other than through discourse and knowledge?) but in some subtle way the undercurrent of these stories is extremely stinging -- it's almost a seething, quiet anger against the system as it were and the struggle to be heard. (That tension -- that quiet seething anger of the non-judgmental, distant narrator between the content of the story -- replicates the tension we literally experience as women living in society -- be it US or other wise where Insitutional Sexism abounds.)

But a working definition of "feminism" and "feminism writing" -- I'm not even sure if those are the correct labels would be useful. Thanks -- Valerie

"Penny L. Richards" wrote:

In that sense, I think I like Jhabvala's feminism--her central women are smart, practical, and they're of a generation/class that had a chance to be an active part of the heady aftermath of Indian independence, and lived longer, to see things become mired in reality. These women use tradition, not as a refuge nor as a comfort, but as a strategy toward more concrete goals, as a ticket into powerful circles, as a bargaining chip in domestic conflicts.

Penny R

I agree -- an excellent reading, at least in my opinion, Penny -- also in "Independence" Puspha's rise to power and what she is able to achieve is juxtaposed against a male character whose name escapes me at the moment who doesn't use his "power" for good -- Valerie

Date: Sun, 23 Jan 2005
Subject: [Womenwriters] Feminism and Jhabvala
Reply-To: WomenwritersThroughTheAges@yahoogroups.com

My academic home (as far as that goes) is in UCLA's Center for the Study of Women. As a researcher, I'm interested in women's history first--and that sometimes includes women who were feminists, and women who were in their time considered feminists but might not be today by some definitions, and women who would in no time have been read as feminists. I'm interested in all of them. The work of feminist historians lies (in part) in dis-covering the stories women lived--even the less embraceable ones. Maybe especially the less embraceable ones. So I'll gladly read the well-considered telling of any woman's story--I don't need her to be admirable--as long as the telling is insightful and does justice to the complexities of real life, rather than boiling everything down to categories and labels.

wonder about the author's or editors' choice of these first two stories to lead off this collection. To my eye, the next four stories are rather different from these, more focused on women characters directly--so we might be discussing these issues very differently next week and the week after.

Penny R

Date: Sun, 23 Jan 2005
Subject: [Womenwriters] Feminism as a term
Reply-To: WomenwritersThroughTheAges@yahoogroups.com


I agree that feminism is a perplexed and difficult term. That's because it has been made to bear a number of different kinds of goals and because it's been misused and abused. Over on WMST-l there have been for days and days postings about the term: 1) it seems young women don't want to be identified as "feminist" of whatever stripe and it seems books that spoke to women of the 1970s appall young women today, e.g., Marilyn French's; 2) there is great argument and division over what are first, second and third wave feminists; if even such groupings have any validity. Are we inventing monoliths and it's been suggested that the divisions come not from woman writers but from people hostile to women's causes.

Fundamentally my view would be we might be able to agree on what is hostile to women as a group as anti-feminist. Violence perpetrated on them; a whole host of laws that take away any effective individual power (so the Married Women's Property Act of 1870 was feminist; the return of Sharia in Iran is anti-feminist or anti-women). Ridicule, denigration, dismissal, erasure.

Where people will disagree is on what is pro-feminist. What does give women effective power, happiness, pleasure, secures them as a group and as individuals. In all social arrangements there are going to be winners and losers, and there may seem sometimes a necessity to hurt someone else to help yourself. Women have a problem because class, race, and national culture intersect and what hurts women in one subgroup privileges women in another. One has to gauge the resultant amorality against some more essential ethics about individual worth and what you think makes life worth living. Generally speaking I'm using the word to mean satisfaction as an individual. I leave to others to decide what they think is satisfying: this will include all sorts of values about respect (probably the word dignity comes in here too). Probably many of us will differ on what we think makes life worth living and what we may want out of it.

In my reading of Jhabvala I do not see her centrally valuing women who become powerful over others or who want power over others. She has some; but she equally has women who give up all power and live in filth and dirt and are content to be despised as promiscuous. These are not presented ironically but as (I think at times) legitimate choices. I don't call it anti-feminist because I don't necessarily myself value the kind of power that gives someone power over others. What puzzles me is why the this sort of travelling heroine is presented just about as exemplary and pleasurable. I take it that the thrust is deeply anti-materialist and saw this working itself out in "Farid and "Farida:" Sucher says what I saw in it more concisely than I: she shows us the "problem of worldly success, and fame, achievements highly suspect, and proof, in the story, only of the ability to swindle." A ticket to worldly success in and of itself is not to me admirable, though some may see it as feminist.

I invite others to define feminism for themselves. For me it goes arm-and-arm with progressivism (and socialism). I know (or am told) that "third-wave" feminists are strong capitalists; if so, they might not like Jhabvala's texts' implications -- at least as I see them.

I opened with sighing as we've had this sort of thread before. It's a problem but I ask we can carry on using the word as we each see it. On WMST-l the women who are teaching Women Studies courses are actually driven to avoid the word (it's become a bugbear like communist once was). I wrote a posting arguing for the use of the word as I felt to avoid it is to admit fear of "the thing" (never mind what it is). (If anyone is curious I could post it here. Just ask.) I also want this list to be progressive in outlook. It's supposed to be an alternative to other kinds of lists which are conservative in political stance or have no political threads. To me to read aloud and present a reading is to engage in politics. It makes the list infinitely more relevant and interesting and alive to really talk about the values of the texts.

I guess I'll say that I opened the list with this agenda in mind and am going to keep to it difficult as it sometimes may seem. Rule No 1 in my many rules on our site says that the listowner invents the terrain. Partly it's simple: women writers. We read books by women and talk about women's art. There are the list of rules and goals on my website and I invite anyone who is puzzled by my message here to go and read them.

You scroll all the way down and find a list of rules. They are mostly a product of having spent some 11 years on lists and in reaction to some things I've seen on non-moderated lists. This is a moderated list though very lightly so.


Date: Sun, 23 Jan 2005
Subject: [Womenwriters] Feminism and Jhabvala
Reply-To: WomenwritersThroughTheAges@yahoogroups.com

Penny wrote:

"So I'll gladly read the well-considered telling of any woman's story--I don't need her to be admirable ..."

I agree with this. In fact I like characters who are not admirable. I enjoy satire very much and, while it might be compared to enjoying watching butterflies nailed on the wall (piteous, fragile, in pain), I liked the story of the miseries of Farid and Farida. As a rewrite of Paul et Virginie I enjoyed it even more. While I can wallow in Longus and St Bernardine's sexual eroticism, Sand's idealism and fulfillment of her previously trapped and miserly married heroine (I refer to Valentine which we read on this list), I know it's improbable.

And I think labels -- signposts -- are important and invite people to use them as they think fit.


Date: Sun, 23 Jan 2005
Subject: [Womenwriters] Jhabvala: Expiation
Reply-To: WomenwritersThroughTheAges@yahoogroups.com

I've now read the two first stories and caught up on the postings here - so much food for thought! Many thanks to those who have posted so far. I'm not sure how much I can add, but will try...

In these stories, I was quite surprised by how stripped-down the style feels compared to the only novel by Jhabvala I've read so far, 'A Backward Place'. In that novel I agree with Ellen that I also worried about and felt for the characters, and wanted to know what would happen to the heroine, Judy, after the ending. All the characters seem vividly realised as individuals.

By contrast, in 'Expiation', the characters are all somehow distant, held at arm's length from us - there isn't much conversation and, as others have pointed the elder brother and his wife aren't even given names. I notice Jhabvala's subtitle is 'Plain Tales from New York and New Delhi', and I wonder if the lack of conversation and humour is part of this plainness - also of course partly this is the more concentrated writing which you get in short stories.

I must agree with Ellen that I found the narrator of 'Expiation' unreliable. I thought he has no real grasp of the implications of his story and also that he fails to recognise that there is quite a lot he could be blamed for himself - that he is the one who prizes his younger brother above the rest of his family and ignores his wife's warnings about his behaviour, then covers up for him when he commits a violent crime.

Far from telling the police of the murderous attack on his own wife, he makes up a succession of lies (possibly an indication that there could be more lies in the account he is presenting to us?) and even offers a reward in a bid to get this violent brother back under his roof. It's made quite clear near the beginning where the brother's loyalty lies, when Bablu is crying because he has been hit by his wife, and the brother's response is to rebuke her. I don't approve of corporal punishment, but surely this is an indication that she can't cope - yet the brother just looks at one side of the question. Then, later, even after the attack by Bablu, his older brother is happy to allow him to take over the living room which the wife has so carefully furnished - to let her be elbowed out.

The older brother doesn't seem to have much feeling for the victims, his wife and the boy with the roller skates. He does deeply pity the two pathetic criminals, and makes their poignancy come across - but the reader is left to fill in the sorrow for the murdered boy. I thought the cramped living conditions and difficult lives do come across in this story, and it is easy to see why the two young men trapped in this existence might feel hatred for that boy on his skates, which somehow become an emblem for his carefree lifestyle. I thought perhaps the most chilling moment comes when the two killers laugh as they try to work out how to use the roller skates, while the boy who was so proud of them is lying dead.

Does anyone have thoughts on the reasons for the title Expiation?

All the best,

Date: Sun, 23 Jan 2005
Subject: [Womenwriters] Jhabvala: Expiation -- why the title
Reply-To: WomenwritersThroughTheAges@yahoogroups.com

Judy Geater wrote:

Any one have any idea why the title Expiation?

Hi Judy --

I enjoyed your posting, thank you. I thought about the title as well -- Expiation -- to make amends --

As I thought about the title, I thought about the work that titles do -- create tension, create metaphor, give the reader direction in how to read the story, etc --

No doubt there's irony in the title -- the narrator thinks he's making amends to his brother by burying his brother's friend (there's also some allusion to the fact that the friend and the brother might have a love relationship? Don't they hold hands and dance and don't the narrator and his family give the brother and criminal friend "privacy" in the front room?) It's as if we're being invited to consider that the narrator feels that he's let his brother down -- of course he might feel that way, he has "raised" him in a way -- but he's really making amends to himself -- he's really being self-indulgent here -- after all, if his brother had turned out well - then he would have reaped the benefit -- personally and socially. So, in burying the friend, good ole narrator looks good.

I love that the wife cooked and cooked for both men while in jail -- a saint of a woman -- so maybe there's more than irony here -- (because, after all, the narrator should be making amends to wife and kids) -- but because the two end up dead -- the wife gets the only control she'll have - - life has made its amends to the wife -- or justice has somehow been met -- it's sort of a horrifying thought -- this type of justice -- but one might imagine the wife smug at home, she's quietly done her wifely duties of making the meals and putting up with all of this -- and now she can have her just reward knowing that brother-in-law and his friend are killed.

Strangely enough, that's how victims feel when the person who's committed a crime is put to death here in the states -- and the irony is one death does not, of course, permit another death -- it's an interesting social comment here. Just some random, rattling thoughts -- Valerie

Date: Sun, 23 Jan 2005
Subject: [Womenwriters] Jhabvala's "Expiation" and "Farid and Farida"
Reply-To: WomenwritersThroughTheAges@yahoogroups.com

'Expiation' shows an Indian society which privileges male bonding above other relationships. The self-deluding and doting narrator persists in favouring and coddling the brother he shared a bed with as a child over the wife he now shares his bed with and whose own very real concerns he blindly persists in dismissing as the result of mere jealousy and dislike - with ultimately fatal consequences.

I nearly wrote 'almost fatal' but then, although the wife survived Bablu's vicious knife attack, three people did die as the brother went his way unchecked and bonded with another like and similarly amoral spirit.

This makes me wonder whose 'Expiation' is actually meant here - just Bablu's and Sachu's paying with their lives for murder or the narrator's, too, for his own sins of commission and omission.

If Sachu's character is shown as being in some part formed and deformed by the shocking circumstances of his life on the bottom of the social scale, the relatively privileged upbringing and the ultimately misguided love of his older brother seems to have helped spoil Bablu's.

That old question of nature or nurture seems to be broached here, the description of Sachu's soulless eyes and Bablu's feral, pointed, red teeth suggesting on the other hand that their actions lay in their nature.

The story also seemed to raise another old question: the true nature of love? Neither the narrator's love for his brother nor the feelings Bablu and Sachu have for each other have positive effects. In fact, they often seem to help bring out the worst - as proves the case with Farid and Farida as well. Love often seems to be related to the fulfilment of egotistical desires and material gains.

I was particularly struck by a line in 'Expiation' where Sachu asserts his right to take what he wants no matter the cost to others: 'He said that human beings were not born to be poor, otherwise why should the earth be so full of riches, with mines full of gold and precious gems, and with pearls scattered in the ocean'.

This seems a conscious inversion on Jhabvala's part of the Punjabi poet Farid's favoured couplet:

'Not every heart is capable of finding the secret of God’s love. There are not pearls in every sea; there is not gold in every mine.'

Both elegantly and discreetly linking this story with the themes and imagery of the next.



January 24, 2005

Re: Jhabvala's "Expiation" and "Farid and Farida"

From what I've read thus far there seems to be decrease in detail and density. Amitra reads like a 19th century novel with loving circumstantial detail piled on; A Backward Place is more implicit and concise; Heat and Dust seems hollowed out but the language carries much concreteness (general nouns and careful verbs). I began Jhabvala's most recent more autobiographical fiction stories: they begin to play with omissions and replays of events that are left suggestive. Like Fran I'd use the word "elegant." A slow development of elegance?

I did think the nameless older brother was expiating his own crimes by telling the story. The absolute preference of males over the female (no matter how close the female) is seen repeatedly in Jhabvala's story and usually the result is the male is a spoilt drone. Young wives are particularly abused -- by the husband, other males and older women who belong to the family by genes not law.

I hadn't seen the wife as exulting in winning through living on. She just seems absent from the narrative. She has to live in the crowded conditions which make for such repression -- particularly with personalities who yield or are submissive. (It is dismaying to remember how overtly in the US media people are encouraged to see trials as simply surrogate vengeance.)

It is interesting how both older brother and the wife are nameless. It prevents a certain making fun. You can't say Poor so-and-so. You can't sum them up; they leak out as roles in a group rather than solid identities that are apart from the group.

The pointed teeth and red betel teeth of Bablu were creepy. So too the expressionless eyes of his soulless accomplice. They were like wolves, crocodiles. I did assume we were to take them as homosexual; we can't know if the poor young boy whom they lured to his death was attracted by their homosexuality; if so, he paid a high price.

Sachu's line you can take what you want, and what is all this here for if not to take ruthlessly seems an inversion of the old benevolent theology of deism (18th century). Jhabvala's dissertation was on 18th century short fiction and one of her best critics writes also on Austen, Pope and other 18th century figures. It can also be taken as him mirroring how others have treated him.

As a pair of stories to start with they set a tone or mood. The callous are rewarded? Though they're all crowded together, they are all isolated and in a way passive. They don't struggle openly against one another; rather it's insidious and the overt values left unchallenged.

The texture of the stories and complicated devices make for richness.


Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreters of Maladies and Caroline Bynam Walker's Holy Feast and Holy Festival

Rereading some of the postings last night, I thought I'd also respond to Valerie's comment on the nameless wife's endless cooking for people. We saw this in Jhumpa Lahiri's first story in her collection, Interpreters of Maladies. In Lahiri story we were supposed to admire the central character and sympathize with this: cooking was a way she had of showing power and controlling others. You get to feed them; you get to create guilt patterns. We all know the familiar battlefields/bullying of mothers and children over food. It becomes a battlefield in the west because the mother's seen to be seeking power this way and children instinctively see they've got a handle. Lahiri's heroine and her mother bonded over all this food they were endlessly preparing. We all know women do bond in the kitchen; it's a comical joke people will make but has a reality of physical life and satisfaction. In Lahiri's story the heroine was endlessly cooking for a husband who wouldn't go to work and wouldn't study. He was one of these overindulged males. It was like offerings up, but then she sickened of it and left him -- as she could since the story occurs in the US.

In her important studies of medieval and modern women's patterns of eating, food, and anorexia, their dressing as women and cross-dressing as men across time in Europe and again in non-European countries (for which she has some prestigious appointment in Columbia), Caroline Walker Bynum outlines why food becomes such a charged area for women. Her Holy Feat and Holy Fasting: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women has become well-known (it's an anthropological study; I should say she's a sociologist) because of its long analysis of anorexia as it emerged in the religious culture of the middle ages and again is seen in the 20th century, but that's only one part of the book. More she shows how women exist in a world of food. The way they got to show off; the way they could be seen as controlling a situation; what they did that was considered important was cooking.

But there's a deep downside in a subsidence economy where the men make the money to provide the food. Women though worked in the fields; could have animals (the old woman and her cow and chickens), and endless cycle of food making from scratch up and cooking it dominated their lives

It can be too frustrating as often the people who come to a house don't want to eat -- particularly in the 20th century where being heavy is such a stigma. So the woman ends in the paradoxical position of being seen as making others fat. In the west the woman may and does feel trapped by these endless demands she feed others. Atwood has a novel about this: The Edible Woman. Eat me. I'm food. Isn't this part of the image of the pelican giving her lifeblood to others.

Breast-feeding comes into this -- chained down to a endless cycle of giving "on demand." In earlier phases of western culture lower class women were "wet nurses" and not respected. Nowadays working class women find themselves pressured to go to work and breast-feed. I bottlefed; in the 1970s and 1980s there was not this incessant pressure and I wasn't made to feel ashamed that I didn't want to at all. But you can now be admired and show off breast-feeding. Anne Tyler plays on this in The Amateur Marriage where the central heroine's daughter-in-law is continually self-complacently showing off in public by breast-feeding. To the heroine it is also something that should be hidden (she was brought up in the early 1940s). Her daughter-in-law gets to control others by behaving this way in public.

Food also comes into making salons and being salonieres. The saloniere makes a theatre for herself by inviting people to dinner. She makes the social occasion by making the dinner at her house. If rich, she commands servants. If she had a "day" in the 18th and 19th century, when you showed up she offered some kind of repast. There the woman's wealth and status can combine to make her food-cooking seen as wholly power. Especially if she is part of a network and can offer the guest ways to reach "contacts" and get jobs and further him or herself.

The context and feel of this is different in countries like Indian and Pakistani, subsidence economies where the heavy-set person is still a symbol of wealth and high position, of luxury, of not-working. In Seierstad's The Bookseller of Kabul, the woman who is so cruel to her daughters and exults in her power over them (all the while subject to the Top Male, bookseller) is herself enormously fat. The scene in the book has attracted much adverse comment because Seierstad really describes the fatness and self-indulgence of eating of this woman -- and her cruelties to others. But to the people this woman lives with her fatness is not shameful in the same way. That she does nothing is a sign of her husband's or son's wealth.

So when the young woman in the first story is endlessly cooking, to her it may be a sign of power, a complex one which nails her down to others who are not in reality grateful.

Bynum's second study, Gender and Religion: On the Complexity of Symbols is equally good on these issues of food, eating, overweightness, battlefields, and anorexia; also dressing.

Like Natalie, I have a blog and today wrote some more about "feminism" in the US today. I'm not sure which of the following addresses allows the person to read the blog. Jim has set it up so people can make comments to it:



PS: I don't cook hardly at all. My husand does the cooking when there is cooking done (supper); I wash up (I have a dishwashing machine).

There were a couple of indignant and protesting emails about how wonderful breast-feeding is.

Date: Mon, 24 Jan 2005
Subject: [Womenwriters] Jhabvala: The Endless Cooking
Reply-To: WomenwritersThroughTheAges@yahoogroups.com

Yes, but the argument of my little piece was that food is central to women's lives. I also brought up many of what are called positive aspects of food being central to women's lives. I was showing that Jhabvala could mean the nameless woman to be taking pride in her endless cooking and feeding of others.

I did separate myself from two of them partly for the sake of those who feel like me -- not just breast-feeding: I don't cook. Also because the pressure is always on (as Bynum shows) for women to cook, and nowadays for middle-class women to breast-feed. I feel for people who succumb to such pressure. And I much enjoyed Tyler's satiric scenes :). Like Jhabvala, she owes much to Austen.

On one of the lists I'm on someone pointed out that a judge in one of the Western states of the US (Washington) decreed an employer has the right to demand a woman wear make-up to the office. Not all women can turn around and say, shove your job.


Date: Mon, 24 Jan 2005 09:16:43 -0600 Subject: [Womenwriters] Caroline Bynum Walker's work: ("Informative posting on food and power ...") Reply-To: WomenwritersThroughTheAges@yahoogroups.com

Dear all,

In response to Valerie's today -- just her opening. I'll save the rest for tonight :) asI have to go offline now -- have to start preparing to teach. Have to make some money nowadays.

But I would like to reiterate the two titles. Those who do not know Caroline Walker Bynum's work are missing two essential sources. She is really is a brilliant learned woman who has written significant and revealing historical anthropological books -- centering on women and food and women and dressing. Holy Feasts and Festivals; Essays on Gender and Religion.

She goes beyond this to deconstruct myths of identity and nationalism. She disagrees with another scholar- anthropologist whose name I forget just now about how these work, and the consensus of opinion is she's right. She also deconstructs religion fascinatingly -- as such, religious beliefs and rituals. Why is it that women are so involved in religion; why can it be used to control them in the ways it does? One pratical answer is it doesn't require them to have property and money; like the old public marketplace in the west (where Eastern women were pushed out through burkas and the like). So they are welcome and undergird non-military males. Her first book focuses at length on the medieval period.

One small section I'll add for thinking about Jhabvala and other women's books -- I did say though I don't have time as it's so complicated I see Jhabvala (and numbers of writers we've read on this list) as writing "ecriture feminine."

One argument that has to be made to undergird such an assertion is made by Bynum thourgh an accumulation of symbols and rituals women go through. It's this:

Men and women use symbols differently: for men the pattern of crisis and conversion is more central; imaged by symbol reversal; men undergo more striking life changes, have access to power and family wealth; are older when urge to abandon the world comes over them; gradations in status are gradations of male status; women identify in accordance with marital/familial status: daughter, sister, wife, mother; women not on a ladder of roles so role change or reversal cannot mean the same thing; women like symbols of continuity; cross dressing for women a practical device which they did do, not symbolic in the way of men (this harks over to essay on Behn); women face great difficulty in rejecting cultural demands of other people directly upon them; as a woman you want to continue childhood rather than take on a new master.

This business of real difficulty in rejecting cultural demands is important for Jhabvala's content. But the larger issue is the patterns. This is gone concretely into in the literary manner by Nancy Miller in her Subject to Change, which are essays on women's autobiography (from which I quoted her commentary on Colette).

Cheers to all,
Until this evening

Date: Mon, 24 Jan 2005
Subject: [Womenwriters] Jhabvala: The Endless Cooking/Breastfeeding
Reply-To: WomenwritersThroughTheAges@yahoogroups.com

Breastfeeding seems a thing very much subject to changing fads and fashions. I remember when my older sister had her children it was thought more hygienic to sterilize endless bottles and rubber teats, whereas when I had mine breastfeeding was very 'in' because of the presumed closer bonding and the greater immune resistance. I think it's as with anything else, you do what seems to work best for you and your child in your given family or work situation.

I did decide to breastfeed and I think my sons and I all found it a very practical, peaceful and relaxing experience, though I don't think it would stay that way if you put it on public display or turned it into some kind of misguided policy statement.

I shouldn't think many do, though I do remember the early days of the Greens here in Germany, where it was the done thing for both men and women to knit the almost statutary hand-made pullovers and some of the women to breastfeed their babies rather ostentatiously in view of the cameras during their usually very colourful televised debates. (Their leaders have become a pretty boring, Armani-wearing lot since their days in government, though, and didn't quite seem to know what to do with the knitting needles presented to them in token of their recent 20th anniversary as a party).

Obviously, though, there are situations like long-distance plane trips where things have to be more public, but even there it's possible to do it without making a song and dance about it. It is after all a very natural process.

Actually, it would be interesting to know whether women who opt for breadfeeding tend to be the ones who go in for home-cooking as well or if people did more when they were breastfeeding so as to have somewhat more control over what they were actually passing on to the child.

Though I wouldn't say fastfood never darkened my door, I enjoy cooking by and large and do so every day, though it doesn't have to be a huge production or even very much work.

It's that time again now,


Date: Mon, 24 Jan 2005
Subject: [Womenwriters] Jhabvala: The Endless Cooking/Breastfeeding
Reply-To: WomenwritersThroughTheAges@yahoogroups.com

IN response to Fran,

Over the past couple of decades I've seen a great deal of pressure put on women who also have to work full-time to breast feed. Fallacious as well as pseudoscience and all the kinds of values you outline are pressed on them. It's fine if you are staying home or perhaps work part-time. But only if you want to. The kinds of stories that get into the papers highlight what I'm talking about: one much publicized case was about a young nanny (European, hired, came inexpensively) in whose care the baby died. The TV went gaga and I remember the middle-class mother telling half-hysterically of a semi-hysterical pattern where she'd rush home to express her milk or breastfeed. This was clearly to compensate for not being there.

This kind of thing. The mother in The Amateur Marriage came from a generation where it was considered gauche or even disgusting to breast-feed. The daughter-in-law comes from a generation beyong mine. I seemed to be in age group between people.

I see other changes which go along with this. For example, when I was pregnant for the first time (ended in a miscarriage) and the second (ended in miscarriage which became an abortion) I was pressured into not eating. I was to watch my weight. Fine. Then some 6 years later with Laura I was pressured strongly -- and I mean strongly -- into overeating. I was not to eat this or that as it would be bad for the baby. I was not a person to be consulted for myself. Guilt trips galore over eating and drinking and smoking and whatever. With Isabel (6 years on) this was drumbeat. I've seen fashions in thermometers and bathing children swing as widely. I've seen too many cases recently where the woman gained too much weight; the baby was very large or she could't lose it afterwards. And then she is of course fat.

In hospitals ditto. The first couple of times I remember nothing but with Isabel I was pushed into a huge assembly (auditorium) where it was assumed I was going to breast-feed. Films I'd call 4/5s snakeoil shown. I did get up out of my seat and walked out. It took some courage. Later I asked around: quite a number of the younger women had no intention of breast-feeding. They were making excuses for themselves. They did not need to do that at all.

Intense pressure on overpressured people. This is a pressure point and I like to say what women like me are being silenced into not saying.

And I think one important area here is the invasion and use of women's bodies. Women are not allowed to think they own their bodies; their bodies are their private space. It seems from the dawn of history -- whether it be getting pregnant out of wedlock or being raped -- the community thinks it can invade a woman's body and inspect it. Take it over. Demand she use it in a way the community finds useful and keeps her subject to it.

And women kowtow; they give in. They don't think they have any choice. And today the scientists are behind this. So now they must (as people are like this) say they want this, even when they don't, when it's highly inconvenient, a trouble, a nuisance -- as when the woman goes to work.

And one paradoxical result is showing off. See how virtuous I am. The scene in Amateur Marriage is just perfect: I've seen just that. After all the young woman wants attention. She loves showing herself. Look at me.

I had no trouble with bottles: I bought ready-to-pour and used plastic I threw away. No mess. Little trouble. I had to sterilize rubber nipples. That's it. An added bonus was Jim bottle feed every few times so I didn't have to do it all the time. I also did not feed on demand but on schedule. So I controlled my time. I could count on 8 hours of rest from the beginning and later had a schedule I could control. Of course it wasn't cheap doing it this way. But I don't hire nannies or women to clean or spend money for any help.

It seems to me the women who listen to the business about eating a lot are the same ones who breastfeed. What happens in the US is upper middle class career types are driven wild in all directions. I don't know about cooking. I live in a neighborhood where the houses sell for half a million each bottom price. (Mine would go for this -- and then be torn down and renovated.) In this neighborhood more women are staying home but a lot go out to jobs and you see nannies and dogwalkers and housekeepers too. It's simply true women of this level exploit illegal immigrants. It's endlessly exploited for political advantage to show the low salaries of the nannies and cleaning women and housekeepers.

I had a student this term who gained to the tune of 190 pounds. During childbirth she was discouraged from asking for pain medication. She was screamed at towards the end. Doesn't she count anyway? Who's body is this? And then the personnel shave your hair on your vagina. They do it as a ritual. To humble the woman.

As to fuss, I had no trouble with bottles: I bought ready-to-pour and used plastic container things which I threw away. No mess. Little trouble. I had to sterilize rubber nipples. That's it. An added bonus was Jim bottle feed every few times so I didn't have to do it all the time. I also did not feed on demand but on schedule. So I controlled my time. I could count on 8 hours of rest from the beginning and later had a schedule I could control.

I have no interest in cooking. I never made a dinner for anyone -- so make no power or networking that way. I don't like pressure of this type and refuse to allow myself to be pressured. As I wrote once, I had no wedding. And with one of the cartoons I told how after brief time fighting over food with my first child, I said the hell with it. If you don't eat this one, well you'll eat the next. And if you don't eat that ... You won't starve. I was never able to bully either child into eating all kinds of foods so it was a trouble in restaurants and I remember being despised for not controlling the child in a restaurant or getting it to eat. But I find a lot of women like myself and increasingly people go out for dinner on Thanksgiving.

So in the present atmosphere I speak up for all women like myself -- of which there are many -- and all those who do succumb to pressure. For whatever reason I don't. No TV. No make-up after I was 19. Not because I'm feminist or making a point ("Ellen, aren't you overdoing it?" irritates because it assumes I am.) Because I can't be bothered and want my liberty and control of myself. I own no one and no one owns me.

Bynum puts this all in a larger perspective.


Date: Mon, 24 Jan 2005
Subject: [Womenwriters] Jhabvala: The Endless Cooking
Reply-To: WomenwritersThroughTheAges@yahoogroups.com

I should say since Valerie came on we've become a livelier group than we've been in a long time and thank her.

I thought I would add about cooking in my house: my husband Jim enjoys cooking. That's one of the reasons he took it over. We have an array of Elizabeth David books, and he plays operas very loud while he cooks supper. It used to be recreational while he was working for the Defense Department. And now for something completely different ....

We do have little fastfood and little faddish stuff. He enjoys shopping too. He will spend what seems to me inordinate amounts of time over which tomato to take and so on -- all the while I move the cart about filling up with the packaged and canned items.

I also think and see there is a controlling element going on. He chooses what we eat. He sets the time we eat. Sometimes he kids: "stay out of my kitchen" because someone has come in and interrupted or taken something he was working on or preparing. It's a power he takes. But as in a favorite song of mine by Mary Chapin Carpenter, my refrain is "I don't want it. You can have it ..."

I do sometimes have to eat strange things. And recreational cooking uses up pots so I'm glad for the dishwasher.

This relates to feminism: he defies taboos and stereotypes when he cooks and listens to the opera. He plays the piano at night for recreation too. He reads music.

One of the earlier rallying cries of 1970s feminism was to free men too. Why should he feed his child I remember him saying. And we took pictures. So he was saying Look at me I suppose but only before him and me.

A number of Trollope's book are actually about the misery inflicted on men forced to adhere to macho male stereotypes and how they are despised for not being macho male. That's the key to the one that was made film adaptation of: He Knew He Was Right. Intense sexual anxiety and a woman who despised the man who is sensitive, inarticulate but also given a doctrine which rationalizes his desire to control and gain absolute obedience. Poisonous and in the book everyone is poisoned; he goes mad.

And I've seen my mother get all excited if I mention either that he's two years younger than me ("did you have to answer that?") or he cooks. My father liked to cook but not elaborately and in the sophisticated (it's peasant stuff but to return to this from a US perspective is sophisticated) way my husband does. I remember Elvira used to say her husband did the cooking because he liked it.

You want to buy him a present? Get him a wok or cooking pot of some type. He doesn't watch TV or get online for this. It's from his books. And he invents recipes and writes them a la Elizabeth David.


Date: Mon, 24 Jan 2005
Subject: [Womenwriters] Images of "pioneering women": house-building/crafts
Reply-To: WomenwritersThroughTheAges@yahoogroups.com

I guess I'm trying to avoid work; also I can't really get to my own projects today.

I can't say if the dollhouse Laura and I and then the dollhouse Laura, I and Isabel built together were their favorte toys, but they did play with them for a long time.

We had great fun building them. They came in a large kit: great wooden slabs with slits and smaller slabs and a kind of map you follow the fit the whole thing together. One became a smallish Edwardian house; the other a rather large Edwardian mansion. You can actually see houses of this type in older areas where there was once money in Virginia. The second comes up to my waist; the first is rather smaller. They have pitched roofs, chimneys, fireplaces, terraced porches all around, and several rooms inside. The first one I held the hot-melt glue gun; the second one Laura helped me. We both painted them both, one yellow and the other blue. The yellow was played with until it fell apart. The blue still sits in Isabel's room. They decorated them with furniture I bought from dollhouse stores as well as furniture they made. Little rugs, little paintings on the wall, kitchen and bathroom looking objects in fake porcelain. They went through a couple of families of little dolls too.

There is a sense of accomplishment in making such an object and then seeing it used. Probably you could get kits like this for pioneering style houses. I remember Laura chose the first and we just bought a larger one for a second.


Date: Mon, 24 Jan 2005
Subject: [Womenwriters] From a Contrarian
Reply-To: WomenwritersThroughTheAges@yahoogroups.com

Dear Diana and all,

Doubtless I have a contrarian spirit. I don't like to be pressured and won't submit because it's easiest. And probably Diana and I -- vintage NYC circle late 1940s, growing up in the hard city 1950s -- share responses. The heroine of The Amateur Marriage is circa 1930s -- and reminded me of my aunts.

But my feeling is I am not unusual. I was speaking for all those who are silenced and ashamed. We can't know who thinks what on most lists in general 10% and of those 10% many will fall in. It did take courage to get up and walk out of an auditorium pretty filled with pregnant women or new mothers. I was particuarly indignant that I was not told where I was going and was hustled in. I was attached to one of those IVs and had to move along the row. I was not going to sit through this kind of manipulation.

When I got back and after the show was over and I aske around I discovered on the whole 50% of the women had no intention of following orders. They were however made to feel they were doing wrong or had to find an excuse or reason they weren't going to breastfeed. As if they didn't have hard enough lives and hadn't endured enough from however many months of pregnancy and now childbirth (many of whom were C-sections this being a middle class hospital in Northern Virginia) already.


Date: Mon, 24 Jan 2005
Subject: [Womenwriters] Jhabvala and Tyler: Wandering Women
Reply-To: WomenwritersThroughTheAges@yahoogroups.com

It has just dawned on me that there is a wandering woman in The Amateur Marriage: Lindy.

As I wrote I am puzzled about what I had been calling the travelling heroine in Jhabvala: she is promiscuous; she lives in filth and dirt. She is basically despised. It's not just that Jhabvala appears to ask us to sympathize with her, but that she seems to think the reader will understand without being told what is the gain. I have great trouble seeing any gain but as a rejection of materalism, ambition, careerism, and it seems too strong a price to pay. I mean why make a symbolic statement with your life. Just ignore it.

This is where recognizing a subgenre helps. I argued the paradigm for "Farid and Farida" is Daphnis and Chloe and (in the archetypal 18th century rendition) Paul et Virginie. I had been mistaking the archetype: the women in Jhabvala are not travelling heroines. They have no goal, no aim (as Radcliffe's do even if it's just to flee). They gain no respect. O'Faolain's Kathleen is a travelling heroine. This is heroinism that is admirable.

Jhabvala's women are wanderers, pariahs -- as is Lindy in The Amateur Marriage. Now Tyler condemns Lindy. What happens is Lindy is a rebel, totally and superlatively an angry young woman and she can't accept how her parents fight and even hate one another; she can't accept the hypocrisies of their lives. One day she disappears. We are not told why at all . I've made the connection between her and her raging parents. For decades she has and does nothing. She abandons a child. At the end of the book she is shown to be Very Wrong. The child does not love her and in the end she buys into the bourgeois materalism of a second husband anyway. She gained nothing; she made those who lost her (we are to feel) desperate and puzzled and frightened and lost. We are asked to see her as a hypocrite at the end.

But it is never explained why she wandered. Surely it's not sexual pleasure. You could have that anyway without wandering. Nor is there any religion in the case.

I'm going to try to think about wandering heroines in fictions. So what do Lindy and the nameless heroine in _Heat and Dust_ have in common? Yes they escape the miseries and ennui and exploitation of the woman in _A Backward Place_. They make no money and don't have life savings for someone to take from them. But what do they get?

Myself I am no wanderer :).

Cheers to all,
Ellen -- to respond to Diana's a blue person in a deep blue city in a red state


IN response to Natalie,

Your blog on the history of anaesthesia is good. Informative and making important points.

I don't know much about the history of the use of anaesthesia in childbirth. I do know anaesthesia itself first emerges in the later 19th century (used earliest in dentistry is what I've read). The few articles I've read emphasize _overuse_ in the US in the 1950s. I guess they are anti-woman or anti-feminist as the woman is presented as a dupe dying for "twilight sleep" which drugs her, makes the birth harder and even more painful (particularly afterwards). In my experience in US hospitals in the 1970s and 1980s there was a tendency to withhold pain medication. This is part of a macho trend across medicine, but is changing of late. I had to demand demoral. I was told it might inhibit the contractions; it slowed them down a bit, but then it cut the pain.

I was three times in an English hospital. The second time for my second miscarriage which ended in a therapeutic abortion to save my life. I bled enormously. One thing about the English system I saw each time which affected getting pain medication: the class hierarchy. You are not supposed to demand things. You are to sit there submissive like. I remember how in the public hospital at Leeds and again Kendal there were no doors on the bathrooms. I could have no privacy. When I complained and wanted to close a door somewhere else, the "sister" got very excited at me. The other women (English) appeared divided: the working class ones were on my side, and said things (in English lingo) like "you're right" and "let her have it." The more middling ones thought me an obnoxious American probably. Pushy. Who does she think she is? We don't have a door. I think I won that one (got to use some booth where there was a swinging door), but forget now.

I think had I demanded demoral I might not have gotten it because the customs and feel of interactions between people would have prevented this. I would have had to make a hell of a fuss and after all one is sick and weak -- otherwise you would not be in a hospital. But I remember getting enough medication once it was decided I would have an abortion. And I participated in the decision. So my "rights" were not violated. I was though not regarded as partner in my health care; I was to be child-like and I think it was the result of the class system.


Date: Tue, 25 Jan 2005
Subject: [Womenwriters] Jhabvala: "Expiation" and "Farid and Farida"
Reply-To: WomenwritersThroughTheAges@yahoogroups.com

I read the stories last night and most of the posts about them this morning, so I thought I should do my bit and share my thoughts.

I was more moved and interested by the first story, but I find "Farid and Farida" growing in my mind as I think about it. One thing I like very much about it is Jhabvala's refusal to tell us what to think or give us a comforting ending. The trajectory of the story seems to suggest that Farid's final insistence that he will "go up" while Farida and Sunil will "go down" represents some sort of spiritual transformation, movement upwards to a higher place, morally and spiritually, but everything else in the story undercuts that, makes it impossible for us to believe that that's indeed what has happened. The marketing of spirituality, the falseness and performativeness of it as we've seen it in the story so far, make it impossible for us to take any comfort in Farid's taking Farida's place under the tree on her discarded (smelly but genuine) deerskin. This seems as unlikely to transform Farid's life as any of the schemes that failed for so many years in London.

As for "Expiation," I like it very much. I didn't at all see the elder brother narrator as the selfish, materialist cad (I don't remember Valerie's exact words--I hope I'm not misrepresenting them) that Valerie characterised him as in an earlier posting. He's narrow and conventional, yes, and his narrowness and conventionality have contributed mightily to the tragedy in ways that he can't quite identify but nevertheless feels, but he's not a villain. He's eaten up with shame and sadness. In the third paragraph he speaks of people pointing and whispering and identifying him as the older brother, and he seems to accept this as part of his punishment, his expiation of guilt. He knows too that the parents of the dead boy carry their own suffering, and he speaks of it in the same breath as he speaks of his own, as something that will be "locked away in a heavy steel trunk" inside of him: "After a while there is nothing more you can do or suffer. I have also prayed on behalf of the father of the victim--that the man's suffering may be made bearable for him, if such a thing were possible. Day after day I was with this man in the courtroom, but I can say nothing of his appearance, because not once in all that time did I dare to raise my eyes and look at him."

I found the sexual references in the story striking, and since no one's really commented on them much (unless I've missed some messages), I thought I would. As a teenageer, Bablu had seemed almost sexless, effeminate but not running after women, so the family hadn't had to "find him a bride and marry him off before he became too troublesome. Bablu was no trouble at all in that way--or in any other way." That Bablu's and Sachu's relationship is sexual is obvious, but the narrator cannot bear to acknowledge this: "For the first time, he had a friend whom he loved. They were together all the time. They sat side by side on the low wall around our house, swinging their feet and holding hands, the way friends do. They both liked playing the radio and watching television. Once I saw them dancing together, holding each other the way English people dance. I had to smile then, because it was a strange sight and also nice for me to see Bablu enjoying himself. I began to think that my fears were foolish and that it was good for him to have Sachu as a friend." They corrupt the hardworking servant boy in the household, and we can only presume that the corruption involved sex, coerced or otherwise (remember, this boy was only twelve or thirteen at the time). He's ruined, and vanishes into the millions of lost people who have no place in the world: "There are millions like him, and no one can tell one from the other. ... No one cares where they are or what happens to them. There are too many of them." And their sordid abuse of the boy they kidnapped is clear, although the elder brother can hardly bear to acknowledge it; his only explicit reference to it is slipped into parentheses near the end: "The lawyer said that the boy was not only educated and cultured but also very handsome--soft-skinned and what-complexioned. (The medical report had established the fact that sodomy had taken place.) Bablu was ready to confirm what the lawyer said and to admit that he had killed the boy because he could not bear to watch what Sachu did with him. He confessed this in a very quiet voice and without raising his eyes--not out of shame, it seemed, but because he felt shy about talking of this matter." They kept that boy in a pit in the ground, among "heaps of rubble and dust, where jackals live and can be heard howling at night" for four days, they raped and murdered him and then they went off and had fun learning how to use the rollerskates they took from him, so much fun that the noise they made as they laughed and fell about the room disturbed the neighbours. It is hardly surprising that the elder brother can hardly bring himself to see, to really see, the reality of what someone he loved, however misguidedly or blindly, has done.


Leslie Robertson
Department of English
University of Alberta
Edmonton, AB, Canada

In response to Leslie,

I understood both stories in much the way Leslie did. I know we didn't emphasize the homosexuality anywhere near as much as we should have. We are seeing Bablu's sexuality from the narrator's standpoint -- which is that of the ashamed conventional man so we can't begin to enter into the homosexuality even in the first place sympathetically. The result are hideous, but we could take it that this is what happens when some central form of experience is marginalized, forbidden, despised. It then has none of the controls placed on the probable cruelties and exploitations that occur in all human relationships (domination and submission being apparently central features of relationships) so that it "runs wild" outside the constraints of "respectable" society. It descends to become what the society has defined it (sinful, ugly, vicious) in the first place.

Repeatedly in Jhabvala's stories the central males are homosexual. Some critics suggest the males in the story present experiences analogous to what we find the heterosexual female knowing. Let us imagine some outsider retelling this story bringing out that the person in charge -- the one with some power -- is the older nameless brother. Our narrator presents himself as all sympathy, right-feeling, right-doing, but he is group's unacknowledged boss. As set up Bablu will never identify with the wife as the wife identifies with her master, the husband, but their struggle with one another suddenly puts me in mind of Fanny Price and Mrs Norris (from Mansfield Park): Mrs Norris, the woman preying on other women and people beneath her, hates Fanny because she sees she is a dependent too: Fanny can walk because Mrs Norris walks.

I liked the closing lines of "Farid" and "Farida" because they were plangent in their bleakness.

Ellen Thanks Ellen for offering those readings; they were not only quite intriguing but also a wonderful

way for me to enter the text-- Valerie

Date: Wed, 26 Jan 2005
Subject: [Womenwriters] Jhabvala and those outside the loop of safety & concern
Reply-To: WomenwritersThroughTheAges@yahoogroups.com

Thank you Valerie for your positive response to my comments on Bablu as outside the loop of safety because he's homosexual, and how this loop of safety comes from what is defined as respectable. What happens outside the loop then degenerates: this is part of A. S. Byatt's insight to Utopian communities as necessarily becoming Sadean.

There was a very good essay by Alan Bennett, candidly autobiographical, in a recent issue of the LRB. I mentioned this with respect to Colm Toibin's The Master, a compassionately gay novel as historical- memoirs, but no one seemed to take up my comment. One person quoted what I said but some instinct led her to leave off what I had said that was (in effect) generally applicable to our society today as well as to homosexuality. So what I said was reshaped into the harmless and unimportant. Oh England is better now. That sort of thing doesn't happen here any more. Etc.

And I can't find the damn email I wrote. I don't have time to recreate it now.

Here is a quick repeat, rapid fire: Alan Bennet's essay in the LRB is about what happens to individuals who have been deemed not worthy of protection, and he brings home to us how important is that label of "respectability" in all societies still. What happened is he and he companion went to Italy and they found themselves set upon by thugs who realized they were gay. They could get no serious help from the police. They were not properly treated in the Italian hospital. Things were made worse for the condition they had.

His essay belongs to the same conversation _The Master_ does. But it also sheds light on "Expiation." I argued the narrator of "Expiation" is unreliable because that's fundamental. He doesn't begin to see or understand -- in the way of Austen's Emma. Now in Bennet's case Bennet is seeking protection. In England Bennet has made money (great and terrible is the power of money) and has respectability. And he's very genteel upper class. So he's in the loop in other ways. As was Gielgud.

But Bennet's never told about his boyhood.

In the case of Bablu we see the Byatt effect. Degeneration. No one is watching, no one cares. So the most vicious rise to the top. This is deep pessmism and Sadean -- but Sade has a good deal to tell us

Bennet's piece was called "A Common Assault" and has been given a subtitle "signpost" of Alan > Bennet in Italy. It appeared in the 4 November 2004 issue; unfortunately it's not online. Candid and strikingly bold as Bennet can be in his autobiographical writings, this is an unusual one for bringing in how his sexual orientation affects his everyday life.

Bennet would himself take one look at Sachu and steer clear. As a boy would he have been vulnerable as the boy with skates? Probably not because he was so poor and also very homely and physically cowardly (he has written this). Stories appear occasionally in the British press about children murdering one another, and some sex going on. It's usually presented in terms of the conventional heterosexual adults' fear of other adults as predators or "wicked evil children." No one brings up the sexuality between the children who are often at puberty level.

The LRB is at:



Date: Fri, 18 Feb 2005
Subject: [Womenwriters] Expiation
Reply-To: WomenwritersThroughTheAges@yahoogroups.com

Hello to everyone, I haven't posted for a long time, and have been frustrated in my attempts to read the Jhabwala due to having ordered entirely the wrong book...

It finally arrived this week, and I just read the first story. I found it really moving, and I thought that was really testament to her skill that she creates a quite unemotional male narrator, yet manages to convey so much through him, about the pain caused in his life, and in his wife's, by his brother.

I was struck by the attention to ethnicities of all kinds in the story - the exact colours of skin and eyes of Bablu and the boy who is kidnapped - all are carefully described - and the details of the people at the army barracks, who speak Hindi with English accents and eat roast dinners, interested me.

I am really looking forward to catching up with the reading and seeing how all the stories relate to each other.


Dear Emma,

Welcome back to active participation. You've been missed.

You make a perceptive observation about something in the stories we haven't said before:

I was struck by the attention to ethnicities of all kinds in the story - the exact colours of skin and eyes of Bablu and the boy who is kidnapped - all are carefully described - and the details of the people at the army barracks, who speak Hindi with English accents and eat roast dinners, interested me."

So I have a question: do you think this is Jhabvala's way of recording how people respond to each other based on a response to small physical details, trivial in themselves from the point of view of any active morality, but the sort of thing that leads to racist frameworks and responses? Is she in short showing the intrinsic tribalism of people's responses to one another? We are ever aware of a scale we see visibly? This leads to class judgements, sex judgements, &c -- and for the guarded carefully nondescript or non-alerting clothes, posing, working at "presentability" (that is making sure you rate high on the visible scale of small things).

Or is she exposing herself as someone who does this herself?

Since Emma has read Olson's Mapping Human History, if she remembers it she will recall how he points out how trivial are the nucleotides responsible for our outward appearances that people make so much of (color of skin, of eye, length of nose, other body parts and sizes). He doesn't go into the sounds with which we pronounce words -- but it's the same.


January 18, 2005


Re: "Farid and Farida:" Tale 2 from New Delhi

Here we have a tale of a young woman who becomes a guru. I should have said my feeling is we understand things by comparison/contrast: we gauge them by analogous experiences. My analogy for this tale is the now classic archetype of Paul et Virginia (Paul et Virginie a later 18th century French romantic tale), itself a variant on the old tale by Longus of Daphnis and Chloe. Sand's first novel, Valentine (those who were here will recall) used this archetype. Two young lovers who have loved one another forever, since childhood, and thus the love is rooted not just in sex but in all that socialized them, cling to one another and forge forth in the world, only to end in tragic waste (or in Sand's case deliberately unbelievable paradise away from society).

If you've read Paul and Virginia (or Daphnis and Chloe or some idyllic variant thereof), you immediately see the distance here. Bernard St Pierre, Sand, and a host of Paul and Virginie type stories condemn society on various grounds, but they all make the protagonists deeply idealistic, filled with real authentic emotion for one another and those they meet (and among those they meet there are people who act on sincere feeling apart from self-interest). The deaths at the end are therapeutic for the reader who is, Rousseau-like, supposed to blame or critique the perversions and violations of the human spirit by society.

Farid and Farida are human but they are not filled with the emotionalism of women's emotion pictures (films take this over wholehog -- remember the recent Little Women or Thompson's S&S film). Everyone is just so filled with emotion; things count just ever so much to everyone. In Jhabvala's story what we have is two people desperate to network, to get ahead, make contacts. People are connections, are to be used, and coolly. This is a coolly appalling story. Thus travelling heroinism (to use Moers's phrase) is not exactly admirable. Nor gurus. Gurus are just another ploy for giving the people what they are willing to pay for. It's a last resort of Farida who leaves Farid because he doesn't have what it takes to get ahead. The great hero of this society is Sunil: and is he not what is admired? And after all he's an easy touch. Farida and Farid tire of one another and who wouldn't in this wretched way of interacting with one another. Sucher's summing up is "the 1984 tale, 'Farid and Farida' concerns the problem of worldly success and fame, achievements highly suspect, and proof, in the story, of only the ability to swindle."

I suggested that "Expiation" shows us the futility of justice and disquiets us about what we think is innocence. "Farid and Farida" is about the irrationality of doing or being good. You get nothing for it but a kick in the face. The guru makes the people feel good as a symbol or sign of "oceanic happiness and security" (from above, the Gods or God) but you could if you were clever just as easily sell movies which provide the same bath. Farida, we are told, would have made "a first rate actress."

The long central section about their "failure" once they get to London is effective. How is it they keep failing? What do they have to do in this or that particular case to curry favor rightly? Each time the cost of things, the ingredients and time it takes eats up profits. And we are told that Farid knows it's his "responsibility to raise some money to keep them going, and the only way he kewn was to borrow from Sunil." In Hoffman's book on Lost in Translation she says the hardest thing about modern western society and the one never admitted is how hard it is to get a good job. Farida does endure Farid and their life together for years.

Lines from the story are money is all, buying and selling are all, how can "brothers and sisters" act this way -- but as in most Jhabvala stories (and many western ones too) they feel they have to. Who do you prey on but the person closest to you?

Farida makes a good guru though. She has the center of truth: "No one can live without buying and selling." Is it not all we do a buying and selling, a bargain?

The story is hard for there is no "misplaced pity for men" eiter (Sucher again) in this tale. Yet as with Heat and Dust we end on someone in retreat at last. At the close of Heat and Dust our nameless narrator picks up her few belongings and resolves (pregnant) to go to the mountains and stay there or live the way the homeless and material-less do. Farid decides he will do this -- partly out of pride and vanity. Farida is returning with her caravan with Sunil to London where the act will draw money. He thinks to himself eventually Farida will join him.

This is my favorite moment of the tale. Yes. Eventually she will join him. The image I think of is T. S. Eliot's "Wasteland" She will tire.

This is not a particularly feminist tale I think. The escape is from a repressive system but there is nothing to escape to and if the woman is strong there is nothing much worth achieving. It also makes me think of Eliot's poem, "The Hollow Men."

The difference is in Paul et Virginie the society is not seen as the product of human nature and retreat is a viable beautiful option.

Comments anyone?


Date: Sat, 22 Jan 2005
Subject: [Womenwriters] "Farid and Farida:" Tale 2 from New Delhi
Reply-To: WomenwritersThroughTheAges@yahoogroups.com

Thank you, Ellen, for your wonderful insightful and provocative comments on "Farad and Farad" -- what a wonderful way to enter this text and I appreciate the direction in which you are inviting me to read it.

1. First, let me say that as a writer, I was interested in the "arc" of this collection; that is, the overriding thrust and direction. Now, to find an "arc" or to even suppose that there might be one in a collection of short stories written over a course of 20(?) years is preposterous at best -- this collection is not a novel where the writer has a project in mind. And yet, the arc, whether I am imposing it on the text or not, is there. It seems that in the first section -- the New Delhi collection, there is a definite undercurrent: a conflict, whether internal through the characters or external through the society, between defining one's self between the effects of colonialis and maintaining Indian "tradition" when this tradition is difficult to define or find in light of British rule. (I'll be interested in seeing the conversation part II has with part I - I have some thoughts what that conversation might be but haven't read those short stories yet.)

2. So, with respect to "Farad and Farad" -- that conflict also brews and brews in intriguing ways. When Farad accepts the guru or goddess role, it not only questions (mocks?) certain Eastern religious traditions but further it positions capitalism (Farida's picture in the market, Sunil's desire to market this) against supposed purity.

3. What is also intriguing about this piece is Farad and Farida's relationship -- beyond the cultural aspects this story invites us to consider is the gender dance. Farad is independent, as independent as the culture/society around her permits (oh, that glass ceiling) -- outside of India she does attempt to start her own business -- she wants her husband's support -- and although her business sense may be a bit lacking, Farid's support is to stop her from hurting him (as symbolized with the dumping of the hot grease into toiletliet -- her business now is officially down the toilet literally and figuratively). Farida's frustration is palpable - she not only wants a place in the world, a sense of self, but a life partner who is indeed a partner. Farad seems impotent at best. When Farida assumes the role of guru/goddess she not only creates her own business but in so doing she may be assuming the only role that a woman can assume in order to get what they wants. To be an object of desire is what women have had to struggle with for years -- even though in Farida's case she seems to be in control of what it is that she will allow to be marketed.

4. I think it interesting that the title of this piece as well as the character's names are mirror images of each other -- gender opposites but the same -- Farad is Farida's compliment and vice versa -- and hence this is the irony of the piece. In some respects, Farad, in order to get what she wants, economic security, respect,identity, and her husband's support (perhaps in that order) plays this manipulate game with Farad -- she is coy and seductive -- the you can't catch me/ catch me role that females are taught early to play -- as she sits lotus style insincerely meditating -- this is the only way perhaps Farida can do to gain power/independence.

The gender dance could well be parallel to the tension between self-efficacy (what India was striving toward during this turbulent time) and re-defining and re-claiming tradition. Conversely, the gender dance could be literally what it just is.

5. The thing that is interesting in these pieces is that the women, no matter how trapped they are inside their culture, struggle and achieve even it if is a modicum of independence, self-hood.


Penny --

Enjoyed reading your insights -- they reminded me of something I wrote in my notes: romance is dangerous -- both literal and figurative romance -- Valerie

Re: Jhabvala and Feminism

This is a last response for today -- I wrote too much on unreliable narrators :). I'll offer the idea up for now and maybe we can qualify it as we go along: although one can easily read Jhabvala's stories from a feminist standpoint, they are not strongly feminist. So I wouldn't emphasize Farida in the way Valerie does in the second story. Some writers have criticized Jhabvala for antifeminism in her screenplay adapted from James's Bostonians; she rarely shows women supporting one another or in companionship: mostly they prey on one another. She does explore experience from a woman's point of view, but is faithful to what she sees and is sometimes traditionalist and ethical. You could say she shows how women can get, maintain, hold onto, and why and how they lose power inside a society that works to keep them powerless -- or under the heels of men. But she will criticize women as sharply for amoral behavior as she does men.

Perhaps in some stories we'll find her more feminist than others. She's not particularly woman centered in our first story -- though I too felt for the narrator's wife; she's even-handed in the second, no?


Date: Sat, 22 Jan 2005
Subject: [Womenwriters] Jhabvala and Feminism
Reply-To: WomenwritersThroughTheAges@yahoogroups.com

On Saturday, January 22, 2005, at 10:17 PM, Ellen Moody wrote:

She's not particularly woman centered in our first story -- though I too felt for the narrator's wife; she's even-handed in the second, no?

The character Farida, like characters in upcoming stories (Sumitra in "Independence," Pushpa in "Development and Progress," Indu in "A New Delhi Romance," and Vijay in "Husband and Son") is an older woman who tends to necessity and understands the compromises that must be made in Indian society (or any society) to keep body and soul together (a cliche, but apt in the context). In most of these cases, they are talented, ambitious, and frustrated to be matched (even of their own choosing) to a man without such talents or ambitions--often a man with high ideals, who disapproves of her methods and misjudges her goals.

In that sense, I think I like Jhabvala's feminism--her central women are smart, practical, and they're of a generation/class that had a chance to be an active part of the heady aftermath of Indian independence, and lived longer, to see things become mired in reality. These women use tradition, not as a refuge nor as a comfort, but as a strategy toward more concrete goals, as a ticket into powerful circles, as a bargaining chip in domestic conflicts.

Penny R

Date: Sun, 23 Jan 2005
Subject: [Womenwriters] Jhabvala and Feminism Reply-To: WomenwritersThroughTheAges@yahoogroups.com

I haven't read the other stories yet. My sense which maybe others (beyond us three I hope) will speak about is that the author is more than distant from both Farid and Farida.

She is not sympathetic and doesn't admire them -- which is why I pointed to the classic archetypes of Paul and Virginia where the pair are very much liked. She feels for them but that's it.


Date: Sun, 23 Jan 2005
Subject: [Womenwriters] Jhabvala and feminism
Reply-To: WomenwritersThroughTheAges@yahoogroups.com

A little more before I toddle off to bed. I've been sitting up tonight watching the plows remove snow.

I didn't answer Penny directly and probably should have. In general I like the heroines of Jhabvala's stories. Indeed I became so involved with Judy (from A Backward Place) I began to get very anxious & distressed over her situation and was emotionally upset when she gives her husband her life savings. I also felt for a number of the exploited desperate women: one Etta who is aging and lives off men and is now to be discarded because he got a younger woman. She is amoral and desperate, his mistress. There's another woman who comes to live with her because she needs a place to stay. India is a place which lacks housing, much less housing that is affordable. I felt for her very much because Etta will ride herd over her though she'll be spiteful back.

I liked Olivia and very much liked and could identify at moments with the nameless narrator of Heat and Dust. But I didn't like Farida. Nor Farid particularly and certainly not Sunil. Nor I suppose what they to me stood for which I tried to outline in my first posting. I think I'm not supposed to like them very much. I wasn't told enough about the nameless older brother's wife to feel anything but pity. I don't reject pity as a legitimate emotion. The world could use more pity. Pity is central to love.

I do know that the characters of The Bostonians are deeply antifeminist in thrust and can well believe that any screenplay which is at all faithful to the original is antifeminist. You'd have to do what Jane Campion did to The Portrait of a Lady: Campion really altered the whole thrust of James's story so as to make us see the traditional flattering plot of princess chased by superrich heroes to women harassed by men wanting her body and -- later -- money. But I did not find Jhabvala's Remains of the Day antifeminist -- or even feminist. It was simply (as I suggested) centrally ethical and more traditionalist. I did like the character Emma Thompson played and ended up loving the character Anthony Hopkins personated. I suspect Jhabvala's characters in the movie are different from Ishiguro's in the book.


Yet more: I left out the many heroines who are sexually promiscuous. I don't dislike nor identify. I understand but find them strange. They chose to live in dirt and filth and poverty and danger. They chase after gurus or unworthy men. It was suggested earlier this week we are to see them erotically and religiously. Well when we get to one in this collection I'll look for this. I haven't been able to see anything but rejection of materialism and seeking adventure and physical pleasure at the price of respect and physical comfort and security. They are travelling heroines :), non-western 20th century style :)

The older women who punish the young women, oh they are very terrible but then they have learned to be this way and are grabbing what they can after a lifetime of exploitation and being preyed upon.


Date: Sun, 23 Jan 2005
Subject: [Womenwriters] Jhabvala and Wharton
Reply-To: WomenwritersThroughTheAges@yahoogroups.com

I've not read the "Expiation" by Edith Wharton but would be interested to know if the theme yields some revealing contrasts and comparisons. Without arguing for it, just asserting, I suggest Wharton and Jhabvala both write écriture féminine.


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