Women's fiction and l'écriture-femme

East into Upper East: Plain Tales from New York

by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

Remedios Varo, Alchemy or the Useless Science, 1958

"Great Expectations" and "Parasites": Tales 9 & 10 from New York: The gravid female versus the emaciated one: Symbolic

Date: Sat, 19 Feb 2005
Subject: [Womenwriters] Jhabvala: "Great Expectations" and "Parasites": The gravid female versus the emaciated one
Reply-To: WomenwritersThroughTheAges@Yahoogroups.com


February 21, 2005

Re: Jhabvala's "Great Expectations" and Parasites": Symbolic (1)

An email offlist which someone wrote me crystallized something I have been feeling which was confirmed by this week's stories. Jhabvala's career crosses a trajectory which moves from the kind of literal realism characteristic of a 19th century novel (with probabilities attended to, verisimilitude, so-called 'in-depth' character presentation) to symbolic romance hollowed out to the point that a given story is expressionistic in thrust.

As a sign of the hollowness of this week's stories, the titles are utterly inchangeable: Theor has great expectations in money and he and Sylvie had great expectations when they married in India and expected to experience a spiritual-ecstatic life; they and Amy are utter parasites on Pauline. Anyone who is Stella's heir has great expectations; everyone living with her is a parasite. The stories reveal that it's not hard to give this theme and the complex truths of what binds people together (makes them stick) to many women's novels as switch the terms, and you could cite literally hundreds of stories of people preying on one another, but particularly on a woman who has integrity, humanity, decency, who longs for true love (what a joke in context), the traditional non-ambitious heroine, as well has hundreds that are about how money and property in expectation shapes, ravages the lives of the people who are expectant (the great and terrible power of money, property, connections).

Jhabvala does this by only giving the minimalist of details and then shaping her narrative the way James defined romance-novels: they begin in what seems truth, but at some point the balloon is cut from reality and we are in utter improbabilities. James say (this is in one of his prefaces) the kinds of improbabilities offered depends on the story: in these two I'd say it's character. In reality it's improbable Pauline and Stella would be such passive dupes, such utter masochists. There are other improbabilities, but these hit at the center of a truth about women found in many romances, and (since we read it on this lis) I'll cite another romance that has the same paradigm: Andrea Barrett's "Soroche" where the surface is modern, and her "Rare Birds" which she has given an overlay of 19th century history and scientific details. In both the women lose all as the world understand this: in the first to regain their soul as "scientists" (this is happy romance); in the second the heroine, Zaga, is a close simulacrum of Pauline and Stella. Zaga is utterly abased to the point of ending up in a room with nothing tolerated by everyone else as long as she yields to them in all important (and most small things too).

Do we see these types in realistic romance? Yes, everywhere. Austen's Anne Elliot is a recoiling withdrawn variant (her pose is of studied self-control to the world); her heroines, even Emma, have to flee upstairs every once in a while to "take" it, and they own nothing, but only through the kindness of others. Eliot's Miriam in Daniel Deronda (who would've drowned herself but for Deronda and the providential design of her author); even that stalwart flattering portrait of the self-contained seemingly powerful heroine, Marcella, falls deep into the abyss when she becomes a nurse and is shamed until picken up by the hero. Alas in Ward's romance, this pattern is not critiqued and shown up for the cruelty it is; Eliot seems unaware of just how far she has bought into "silly women's novels; Jhabvala does know and she hits hard.

Jhabvala's first novel is the one most often cited as Jane Austenish: To Whom She Will (Amitra). It is densely realistic, and like many another Indian work, for example, Pankah Misra's and V. S. Naipaul's, has at its center a protagonist who longs 'to escape "the cruel garish world of middle-class India." This is a quotation from something written by Pico Iyer on Indian fiction. Iyer shows how the solitary wanderer in these Indian fictions stands for a perception of both Eastern and Western society through the eyes of someone born to the first, educated and in effect therefore centrally living in the second (the west); they show us the world as 'it looks from the other side of the fence' in most romances of integrity, say Siddharta.

I'm interested in the particular permutations that arise when the romance is written by a woman. I think (and experience repeatedly shows me) that the characteristics and content of women's romance differs signficantly from that of men's so that what the story tells us is about women's lives, longings, vulnerabilities. I'd argue that "The Temptress" is symbolic in technique; after all it's improbable in many ways. "A Summer by the Sea" returns us to more probabilities, but through its archetypes can easily be linked in dialogue from novels like Possession (Leonora/ Maud and MotherBea/Susie) to Drabble's Through a Needle's Eye where the central character, a Fanny Price type meets up with the Edith Wharton horror at the center of her The Custom of the Country. After you read Jhabvala, you begin to see the archetypes in dialogue as well as the underlying pity and disdain at the center of so many of these stories. Not irony and acceptance. Each author can take her stance.

In response to Valerie, it seems to me easy to see the characters as metaphors for the author as long as you do not become literal but move from what you can infer about the relationship of the author's life to her works elsewhere and then move on to the new work at hand. As a translator I know that I am using Colonna, Gambara and their literary surfaces to express truths from my perception of life through their art. The metaphor is not only a protection but a control which buys into other works of art through its characteristics. Ma is the alienated isolated Jhabvala preaching what nobody wants to acknowledge -- at least publicly. This is obviously not the only way to read a text, but it is a satisfying one because it helps make the text (as Professor Taylor said of The Gates) an experience which transforms our experience. Gossip which remains on the level of trivia, long general words which intone about how the work relates to some paradigm imagined about the "country," talk of the art sheerly remains on the outside of what counts. Life is short said Taylor.

IOne place that Jhabvala hits hard brings her story back to the beginning of the tradition of women's romance in The Princess of Cleves: she really loathes the mother figure who uses the power she has to wreak havoc on other lives in order to control and to exploit them. The strong authority older woman figure who is often presented as an aunt: Lady Catherine de Burgh is the archetypal monster; this older women type recurs repeatedly in women's romances, probably because the person who inflicts damage on girls growing up comes from people she is surrounded by and this will typically be a woman. Women inflict vagina mutilation on their women children. In the previous story we had Mother Bea; here we have Theo's mother and Annette. I thought "A Summer by the Sea" a superior story because there Jhabvala showed pity and understanding for Mother Bea; gave her attitude towards life understandability and showed that she was winning as she understood it.

IIf she hits hard, she also reconfigures the traditional heroine. She justifies the sensitive, submissive figure of integrity who has a hard time interacting with the other characters, mostly because they are stupider and crueller than she, and she is trying hard to protect herself with very few weapons (silence being one); at the same time she does not enter into her case truly from within because she, Jhabvala, has been able to act from a position of strength all her life. (This is where finding where the author is in her fiction matters). She can see why Susie acts the way she does, but she looks down on her and, say, Dipti. In this week's particularly cool appalling tales, Pauline and Dora remain slightly ludicrous jokes. It reminds me of how Shakespeare treats Othello. Pauline is an "other" to Jhabvala -- though she recognizes the Pauline pattern everywhere in life and hopes we too do after reading her story. Also in ourselves. How we cling and pay and pay and pay and get very little. It should be obvious I have no trouble entering into the cases of Fanny Price, Miriam, Kitty, Susie, and Andrea Barrett's Sarah Anne (from "Rare Birds"), but I draw back at Pauline (and also Zaga) and Dipti. It so very desperate and hopeless a performance, so unsafe.

IIn her paradigmatic psychoanalytic analysis of female relationships in fiction, Marianne Hirsh says there is a daughter identification in some romances and a mother one in others. The mother one is the prudential which can be read as "warning lessons" and I see Jhabvala as a fully insightful woman who nonetheless takes the motherly point of view. I say that while saying she hits hard at bullies and women with nasty mouths.

I'll stop here and answer Valerie's on the gravid versus the emaciated female.


Date: Sat, 19 Feb 2005
Subject: [Womenwriters] Jhabvala: "Great Expectations" and "Parasites": The gravid female versus the emaciated one

Good morning all; hope that this day finds everyone in good health & spirits --

I found these two short stories the most emotionally intense than any of the ones we have read to date, perhaps because after reading several of her short stories I am more in tune with Jhabvala's voice or perhaps because these stories allow the reader to enter the emotional landscape rather than keeping her at bay.

Further, these two stories had an interesting conversation when read together, and seemed, almost, to be extensions of each other. Naturally, two different stories, but one can argue that in many ways these stories are identical in some ways --different circumstances and places but similar undercurrents. (Pauline as the put-upon care-giver; Stella as the put-upon philanthropist of sorts.) Both stories explored characters who found themselves in situations that they believed they were in rather serendipitously with no real way out -- and further these characters took a stance of seemingly helplessness -- the protagonist believed their choices were limited. "Pauline had no alternative but to take them home to her own apartment. She did not want to at all. Pauline liked -- she loved -- her privacy, a preference..." (181). Of course, there's some irony here, because as we come to know, Pauline is extremely lonely and Sylvie and Amy offer a type of dramatic adventure as it were (it's a bit of a stretch to say they offer company or companionship), and further, in the end, when Pauline offers to take Sylvie and Amy to India, she makes a significant choice outside of her character.

In "Parasites", Dora feels that she is trapped with Annette: "When Annette called her a lovely grown-up girl and looked at her with those amused eyes, Dora knew that she was really thinking something quite different. .... But Stella was so obviously pleased at this meeting, at having her favorite niece and her favorite friend (not to mention dear Paul) under her roof at the same time, that they all knew they would have to make the best of it" (209).

This notion of passive resistance and passive acceptance is intriguing within both stories -- and indeed, one might argue, sets up another underlying theme (I'm going way off the course of where many of you will go -- I'll leave the experts to other more logical readings) -- that of the greedy female consuming another female -- a black widow sans the male.

We see this with Sylvie -- although passive and meek and almost a marginal character she is such a whisper -- and yet as the story progresses, Pauline becomes increasingly more fragile - - her business crumbles; she gives Sylvie money (even when she knows it's going to Theo) at her own expense; Pauline herself becomes more fragile. As Sylvie grows more unabashedly greedy, grabs Pauline's wealth, Pauline grows weak -- yes to her own desire and love/lust for Sylvie but nevertheless Sylvie grows strong -- gravid with greed almost.

Before I continue with this idea, let me pause and explore how this idea of the gravid female image juxtaposed against the fragile one has resonated within contemporary literature and how we've been invited to understand this image. I'm thinking now of Toni Morrison's _Beloved_. In Beloved, the ghost, or Beloved, or Baby, whatever you want to call her -- her name of course is slippery because she was never named, comes back to haunt Sethe -- she is there to remind Sethe of slavery, of the past and of course of the fact that Sethe killed her when the posse came to take them back to the plantation. When Sethe slit Baby's throat, the posse thought Sethe was some crazy woman and ran -- consequently, Sethe saved herself, her mother-in-law, and her other child -- but not the baby -- and the central question the book raises is the morality of Sethe's decision -- which is not necessary for the discussion here.

What is relevant is this. The baby returns as a full-fledged, in the flesh, or so Sethe and Paul D. (?) and the other characters believe, person. And this person seeks revenge -- she forces Sethe and the others to confront and see what they don't want to remember.. At one point, Paul D. has sex with the baby (in the form of a grown woman) and consequently she becomes pregnant and eats everything in sight -- a problem because Sethe is poor and there's only enough food to go around -- as the baby consumes everything in sight with her greedy hands, Sethe becomes increasingly emaciated. This was the point of intersection that I saw -- a parallel a contemporary story had with these two stories. And it struck me.

We have in both "Great Expectations" and "Parasites" two women (Sylvie and Annette) who grow huge with their slovenly greediness (Annette perhaps more evil than Sylvie who is portrayed as a bit naive but nevertheless a taker and not a giver -- a hustler in every sense of the word as Annette is). Annette's evil nature is horrifying -- especially in the moment when she stands naked at Paul's threshold -- staring at Dora and reminding both Paul and Dora where Stella's pills are -- this moment seemed to culminate all her previous self-centered moments of wondering what was going to happen to her once her meal ticket was gone -- she was truly an unlikeable character -- and as she grew pregnant with greed, Stella grew smaller -- so small, we're told, Stella's bed enveloped her.

Annette's greed metaphorically represented by her gravid abdomen is never so horrific than in the scene on page 214: "He could tell this from the expression on Annette's face, which was frightening. Even as she was shouting at Stella, she continued to attach the huge piece of Black Forest cake she had selected from the trolley; her mouth dripped with it, so that she looked like a beast of prey -- cruel and greedy" (214). -- I'm not sure that we need to hit readers over the head with cruel and greedy -- we get the point -- but it is interesting to note the parallel here between Beloved, "Great Expectations" and "Parasites" with respect to greed and starvation.

In Beloved, Sethe's increasingly emaciation metaphorically represents her denial of the past -- what she refuses to confront represented by the swollen abdomen of Baby -- and it is the greed of the denial that will in fact kill her. Of course, in the end, and with the help of Sethe's other daughter and the town's women, Sethe does confront her demons.

I contend within "Great Expectations" and "Parasites" readers are invited to consider the notion of the increasingly emaciating female in much the same way -- Pauline cannot confront a) that she's being duped; b) that Sylvie will never love her in the way that she loves her; c) that she is a lonely woman and her material, worldly success does not mean much without love; Dora cannot confront a) certain realities about her social class and its inherent privileges and obligations; b) the fact that she too is lonely and a romance with Paul is out of the question, regardless if he is bisexual or otherwise; c) she is the keeper of the family peace; d) she is the one, like her aunt, who is "different" -- of course, in the end -- Dora, unlike, Pauline, no longer plays the denial game when she calls her mother to come. And further, Dora, unlike Pauline, is not the one who is the increasingly emaciating female --- in this story it is Stella -- the one who is like Dora -- Stella is the one who will shrink and who will not ever gain full knowledge -- Annette, however, we might infer has lost her game because of Dora -- and her stint of Black Forest cakes is over.

There are, of course, many other themes that run through these stories, I was just struck by this observation -- and I look forward to reading those who no doubt will offer more conventional and most certainly more appropriate readings -- Valerie

Re: Jhabvala: "Great Expectations" and "Parasites:" Gravid v Emaciated Females

Actually here Valerie and I read the story in the same light. I'd put it that we see the emotionally vulnerable protagonist exploited and used by the dense bullies of the world (who usually succeeds) to the point that she becomes eaten up, devoured, while the people who eat her become fat and strong. Henry James has written somewhere that this theme is central to his fiction: he talks of how when two people live together, it is common for one to prey on the other, and one to emerge strong while the other gradually weakens. We can see in marriages how dominant types turn hitherto healthy and apparently equally dominate types into someone submissive. I have a paper in my house somewhere about how a woman can be turned into someone helpless by a husband in this way, and how it even frequently happens since the society's patterns encourage her to break off her daily ties except to her nuclear family and push him to keep his spirit able to contend with abrasions because he must go out to work. Valerie gives us the metaphor of pregnancy versus emptiness (not eating, emaciation). I did think of a giant black bug at one point when I thought of Annette. Not so much in "Great Expectations" because the devouring one is offstage, Theo's mother, and Theo acts through Sylvia on Pauline. Syvlie is weak and will succumb to whoever she begins to be tied to.

I'd say we are not reading this story from a traditionally feminist standpoint as the story urges us to blame the character types and not the system which they act through. We are doing a woman-centered reading though -- the stories call for this, as all the stories after the first two do.

I'm glad Valerie has cited Beloved because now I can say I haven't read a book she has. I have a hunch she's much better read in recent contemporary fiction than I am. I've never read anything by Morrison. Nin has not been a candidate here; you can put a book by her down in our wish list. (Be sure to put it in non-fiction as she writes autobiography.) Valerie's metaphor of gravid v emaciated probably comes from the analogy she develops through Beloved. An interesting difference -- but one typical of a lot of women's fiction -- is that Jhabvala does not show us women pregnant nor in close contact with babies. In reality it does so limit their lives and choices and will shape a story in directions they may not want to go; there was also a long taboo on dramatizing pregnancy and childbirth; I notice stories of miscarriage today are often used to bolster the anti-abortion agenda. This material is replete with sore-, and hotspots -- as in the tiny scene I mentioned in a throw-away line about how Anne Tyler sends up the posturing breast-feeding woman (in _The Amateur Marriage) elicited many emails here.

My reading has been in earlier fiction, mostly 18th century but also 19th and earlier 20th. Not that I've not read novels of the later 20th century but that I often have not read the feminist classic fictions (I've not read Marilyn French). I probably shied away from these; I also really tend to go for non-fiction. I long to read Janet Frame's autobiography far more than any novel by her.

I agree with all Valerie's conclusions in her last paragraph -- or at least see the fictions as capable of being read this way and therefore genuinely meaningful as an experience for the reader. I'll just pick out a few moments more to fill out her approach which I thought provocative to think about.

For example, Annette's way of experiencing sexuality made me shudder because Jhabvala described it in ways that made it awful: a power game and coolly manipulative: "she pressed her mouth against his. She kept it there a long while and did all sorts of expert things, and when she had finished she laughed and gave his cheek a little slap ...." In J. L. Carr's A Month in the Country shows sexuality to be a disturbing and aggressive force, one which ruins lives. But he does not visualize the minutiae of what happens so surgically. This is Beckett stuff. Paul is a quick learned or he reciprocates: He was getting quite good with her -- so good, in fact, that he had learned to put his hand over her mouth so that her cry cold not penetrate the rest of the house." The greed of Annette when she eats recalls Sumitra's greed. All this comes from seeing people as things we can manipulate. It reminds us (me) of what we want to shut out when we have sex lest we see ourselves as supplicant or used coolly or users.

"Great Expectations" did seem to me a strange story. I know that Pauline is lonely and is glad to shuffle off the contentions of her existence. Sylvie and Amy seemed to me understandable -- with Amy as the far more immoral personality. Theo was something of a device as we are given little about him; ditto the horrible mother. Nonetheless, as in the stories by Jhabvala about the wandering solitary abused heroines, the drifters, I can't quite latch on to what Pauline is gaining. Susie has a real gain: she has a place in the society she lives in. There should be a meaning to the symbol. In Barrett's story, Zaga is set upon by others aggressively and that's why she goes down. In her "Rare Birds" we are given a 19th century setting so the heroines are "naturally" -- through the social order -- victims. Dipti is bullied by her parents and exploited by the male through his rationale and the new "liberation" of her society. Pauline has after all decided to avoid the pain of human encounters; she knows they are painful as the story begins. We are given no reason why she should want to let these three parasites feed off her. To switch metaphors, anorexia (=emaciation) has the effect of keeping people off, away from you. There is no love whatsoever shown by Amy, Sylvie or Theo to Pauline. I can only offer the idea that in this paradigm we have an expressionistic paradigm which is the equivalent of all the lost waifs of 19th century literature who seem to want to offer their necks up to the sword.

The story is in other words a metaphor for suicide. That's its psychological nexus. Jhabvala has come to New York, the west, and produces a highly modern fiction on the surface. The problem is -- like Ann Radcliffe in this -- she does not accompany her story by unsparing introspection. So the story on its own terms can be seen as flawedo or not going far enough in the self-analytical way. In this it reminds me of the flaw in Nafisi's Reading Lolita: she too is not anywhere self-analytical enough.

Again let me really thank Valerie for reading with me. I know I should read Morrison. I did once try Beloved before the mid1990s when I began to read and think in the feminist way (my "awakening") and didn't like it -- I saw it an intensely Faulkner-like, very like other southern fictions and mostly I find I don't like these because of the overt cruelty and large admixture of religious feeling twisting and turning in perverted ways through the fiction. Much recent southern American fiction sickens me (e.g, Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find" is an attack on the reader), but now I know I didn't understand why she was writing the way she did. I hasten to say not all by all means: to me one of the greatest writers of fiction in the 20th century is William Styron and I'm can be personally taken by Bobbie Ann Mason (who is however, not classically southern). I've also read little African-American fiction. I shy away from high intimate violence especially when I feel it's being accepted or even condoned.


Leonora Carrington,Self-Portrait, 1938

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