Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Castes that Sustain Empires

In a course about British Literature, it seems only natural that a major recurring theme throughout the texts we have read is that of Empire. Virtually all of the authors we have studied have satirized, questioned, criticized and metaphorically addressed what it means to be a British citizen within this Empire. But I felt I needed to dig deeper than a general discussion of the nature of Empire, so I turned to our old friend the OED for a little inspiration. The definition I found most provocative was that an Empire is, by definition since 1325, something that has “paramount influence, absolute sway and supreme command or control” (Empire, OED). I began to wonder what the source of this “paramount influence” was and how it can be sustained by an Empire, such as the British (the British Empire, according to the OED is intrinsic to the very definition of the word). In examining the texts we have covered, I realized that a key ingredient to a powerful Empire is hierarchy and a deep-seeded complex caste system. For the British idea of order to maintain its “supreme command or control”, there must be strata of existence at the top of which is the British ideal or controlling power. Texts spanning the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries reflect that the British established hierarchy penetrated all facets of life from race to gender to even language itself. How else would British men have been dominant over women, white Englishmen over slaves or the upper classes distinguished from the lower? Castes have proven to be essential to the British Empire and its assertion of power. But while all of these structural stratum were meant to assert the righteousness and superiority of the British Empire, virtually all of authors we have studied have been critical of the various forms of hierarchy.

In terms of gender, the British hierarchy could not be more clear. Literature from all of the periods we discussed indicate a deeply patriarchal society in which proper women’s roles were confined to true love, marriage and aesthetic beauty (see the image below to see how ridiculous the beauty impositions could be!).
Honestly, if the ideal height of womanhood involved get-ups like those, it would be difficult indeed to serve a role other than a domestic or decorative one. Notice the cinched waist, ridiculous hairstyle and large skirts this aristocratic woman is wearing. Obviously this is not practical, but rather demonstrative of a patriarchal society’s power to trap women. Whether it was in squeezing women into corsets, forcing them into marriage, or stereotyping their gender, the British Empire had Within the context of the British Empire, Walpole’s Castle of Otranto illustrates how hierarchy of noble families was a common enough theme in British society to be reflected in literature, and Manfred’s desire to marry Isabella reflects that very trend. Women represented one half of what was often a political union which would maintain or hopefully advance a family’s social stature. This in turn would either maintain or change to social status quo of hierarchy that would eventually lead to the monarchy, center of the Empire. The prophecy in Castle of Otranto states, “That the castle and lordship of Otranto should pass from the present family, whenever the real owner has grown too large to inhabit it,” (17). This places pressure on the woman to continue the family line, and thereby pass the title. In this gothic story, women assume a similar role under extraordinary circumstances. Some scholars would also suggest that the agency-less, feinting, “damozel in distress” character we see in Isabella was meant to stimulate the imagination of a new group of readers: middle class women. This is why the domestic ideal is woven into a bizarre gothic story. “Displacing [middle class women’s] stories into an imaginary past, [the gothic] appealed to readers not by providing “escape” but by encoding, in the language of aristocratic villains, haunted castles and beleaguered heroines, a struggle to purge the home of license and lust and establish it as a kind of heaven on earth,” (Ellis, 9). The castle of Otranto could not be an unhappier home, and it is only righted when the right man comes into power with the right woman by his side. Isabella is always calm, slightly helpless and gentle, such phrases as “Good my lord”, “my tenderness” and “wherever fate will dispose of me” characterize her speech, (24). This young woman is clearly ready for marriage and ready to submit to patriarchy, and the story isn’t right until she is able to do so. This speaks both to the issues of nobility that concern the British Empire and the domination of men in this society.
One of Daniela’s posts strikes an interesting comparison between how women appear in Walpole’s story as opposed to Southey’s. She contrasted the domesticated Hippolyta with the courageous Mary who appears in Southey’s Mary, Maid of the Inn. Indeed, it would seem that Southey takes a different point of view on women in his poem, but I think Mary’s fate should be considered before jumping to feminist conclusions. While Isabella marries, Mary dies and is remembered as “Poor Mary”. It would seem, then that her adventurousness became a curse in the end, and ultimately led to her death. Irene Adler, another memorably strong female character, comes to mind when thinking about gender roles in the British Empire. Centuries after Southey and Walpole, Doyle’s character still finds herself an outcast because of her departure from female stereotype. She matches, even outsmarts Holmes’ brilliance, but this intelligence does not gain her respect in society, rather the opposite. Notably, she even interfered with affairs of state where women are supposed to be pawns. She is remembered by Holmes as “the woman”, but more as a novelty than anything else. Like the other oddities that appeal to Holmes’ mind, a brilliant woman represents a departure from the normal and expected. In the British Empire, there was a definite set of expectations for women that were a key part of social hierarchy.

Another key line of caste division I noticed this semester is that of language. Communication is obviously the essential way to be understood, but texts like Sherlock Holmes, Gulliver’s Travels, Alice in Wonderland and some of Kipling’s poetry illustrate that language itself can be more than just an obstacle to overcome when trying to express oneself; it can be demonstrative of a class barrier as well. How you express yourself can be indicative of your level of understanding, education and place in society-- all of which contribute to a hierarchy. As we saw in Kipling’s Tommy , the very sound of one’s speech can indicate a low class stature. Kipling’s character’s vowels run together, his H’s are nonexistent (he sounds rather like Eliza Doolittle) and he uses poor grammar and incorrect spelling. Tommy says “ouse” instead of “house”, “sez” instead of “says” and “aren’t no” instead of just “aren’t”, all demonstrative of his lack of education. Doyle uses a similar technique in the speech of the bumbling police officers who are no match for Holmes’ brain, or social status for that matter. Kipling points out here that the wars fought in the name of the British Empire are fought by the lower tiers of British society. In the poem, he makes clear that “Tommy” would be dismissed and shooed away at any other time but that of war, but when the Empire needs him “Tommy” becomes Mr. Atkins. As Nate noted in his post, Kipling speaks for soldiers like “Tommy” who are certainly used by the Empire and never given the respect they deserve. With wars and colonies all over the world, men are needed to actually spill their blood for mother England, and they were often of the lower classes, an unfortunate hierarchical reality.

Since Britain was the imperialistic power, it was usually the British way of life that was being imposed upon other cultures. Central to those cultural oppositions must have been language. No doubt language was a significant part of British identity, so it would make sense for their language to be a piece of their “superior” way of life. It was particularly interesting to me, then, that both Gulliver’s Travels and Alice saw the roles of language superiority reversed. Alice and Gulliver were strangers in a strange land for once, and at the mercy of a culture whose language they did not speak. This linguistic disadvantage speaks to the imposition of the British Empire and the constant advantage they have over those they conquer. When Gulliver arrives in the land of the Yahoos and the Houhynhmns, he is a stranger to their culture and language is the first obstacle he faces. He must learn the language before he can understand the culture, which eventually he develops a distaste for in favor of his British roots. As I said on the blog, Alice is similarly handicapped when she tries to understand Wonderland Speak. Carroll was extremely playful with language in his novel, constantly making puns and turns of phrase that Alice could simply not keep up with. Sarah made a great point on the blog saying that these phrases cannot be taken for their literal meaning because their actual meaning has social and roots. A person who is perhaps uneducated in the English language or British culture might find themselves in Alice’s shoes. Both authors seem to criticize the constant, very basic advantage the British enjoy with their language, an indication of their culture. This is yet another method of establishing hierarchy.

Perhaps the most obvious manifestation of Empire hierarchy is the enslaving of one race to another. Coleridge and Southey were early advocates of the abolition of slavery as an institution of the Empire, using their works to illustrate the religious, moral and human implications of such atrocities against fellow man. Nate discussed on the blog how Southey took up issue with the process of whipping another human being in his poem The Sailor Who Survived The Slave Trade. The subject of his poem, an ancient sailor, was in a constant state of mourning for the violence he had participated in and the harm he had caused, “Oh I have done a wicked thing!/ It haunts me night and day,/ And I have sought this lonely place/ Here undisturbed to pray,”. Every strata above that of the slaves may have benefited economically from the trade, but Southey makes clear the religious and moral price the Empire pays for that gain. He describes the physical pain of the female slave being beaten in hopes that this will humanize the reader. Coleridge took a similar approach by
describing the experience of slavery in his Ancyent Marinere. The heat, hunger, exhaustion, violence and harshness of the sea stand in for clues as to what it would mean to be a slave to the Empire. Celina brought up the justification of racial superiority in reference to Gulliver, but I think her point is relevant here too. Kipling once wrote that it is the “White Man’s Burden” to control other races, but the human implications state otherwise.

Peter and Daniela made excellent use of Turner’s painting
The Slave Ship in their presentation,

as it represents one of the most deeply horrifying realities of slavery for the British Empire. We learned in class that day that during a storm, the captain of the ship threw hundreds of slaves to their deaths in order to collect insurance money. Observe the harshness of the water in Turner’s painting, the hellish colors and the seemingly supernatural character of the sea. There is even a sea monster in the corner to add an element of the supernatural -- the captain cared little what he was doing to fellow human beings. But one art historian made an interesting point as to what will happen to the wicked captain, “The very closeness of the dying slaves to the spectator creates an additional effect to sympathy, which is the recognition that nature will justly punish the ship in the same nature that it is punishing its innocent victims,“ (Landow, 2).

So where does Empire go from here? What kind of legacy does this complex system of superiorities and hierarchies leave? I am reminded of Yeat’s Second Coming, which paints a bleak portrait of the future of a decaying empire, “And what rough beast, its hour come at last,/Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”. The tensions created through such a rigid structure of hierarchy will no doubt be eased with time, but the “paramount influence” ( or damage, depending on how you view it) of the hierarchy of the British Empire on today’s world is undeniable.

** Tagged blog posts for this entry are labeled “Imperial Castes”

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