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Interpreting New Literary Texts: Things Fall Apart, A House for Mr. Biswas and Midnight’s Children

 



Interpreting New Literary Texts: Things Fall Apart, A House for Mr. Biswas and Midnight’s Children

Dr. Prakash Chandra Pradhan

Professor

Department of English
Banaras Hindu University

Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India.

Abstract:

After the end of the Empire during the 1940s/1950s, the mainstream English literature lost its glory and therefore needed revitalization. The demise of the Empire helped in quickening expansion and revitalization of mainstream English literature because of emergence of a number of new literatures across the globe. Postcolonialism is instrumental in the emergence of new literatures. We will therefore discuss its conceptualization. Both thematic and aesthetic features in new literatures in reference to Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, V. S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas, and Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children will also be examined. The paper will conclude with the argument that “New Literatures in English” have enriched the mainstream English literature in revitalizing and expanding it.

Keywords: Postcolonialism; Empire; Decolonisation; Neo-colonialism; English; Myth; Colonialism; Plurality; Multiculturalism

The mainstream English literature lost its glory in the1940s/1950s for which it needed its revitalization and freshness. The progressive decline of imperial influence of Great Britain on her former colonies after their independence resulted in emergence of a number of new literatures in English language in these independent nations. The revolutionary movement of postcolonialism is the root cause of such a phenomenon in the world history and literature. Postcolonialism constitutes a system of knowledge that resists irrelevance of supremacy and dominance of western epistemology. It emphasizes an alternative systems of knowledge for understanding native cultures and systems. The writers of New Literatures expose western hypocrisy and exploitation during colonialism. This paper in reference to Things Fall Apart, A House for Mr. Biswas and Midnight’s Children discusses certain relevant issues during colonialism/postcolonialism related to Nigeria, West Indies and Indian subcontinent.

I

Several countries from Africa, Asia and Latin America had been the colonies of the British imperial power before the 2nd half of the 20th century. Also in Australia and Canada, the English speaking people were either settlers or invaders. These colonies had therefore been associated with the English language. After liberation of these countries, many writers produced literature in English. English language has therefore a colonial context in these countries. It has historical, political and imperial nuances. However the expression “New Literatures in English” does not refer to these imperial nuances though the terminologies like Commonwealth Literature and Postcolonial Literature definitely evoke the historical and political associations to colonialism. “New Literatures” refer to any literature written in the English language from any corner of the world without evoking the colonial context. However the New literatures in English deal with inhuman perspectives of imperialism. It is therefore a literature having distinctive qualities, distinguished from the traditional mainstream English Literature. There had been significant decline in mainstream English literature after the high peak of modernist literature in the first half of the 20th century.

            Decolonisation across the world affected the disappearance of the feudal world of leisurely reading for which literature needed revitalisation and regeneration. Changes in the conditions of life demanded from literature to have new sources for its sustenance and survival. New challenges for the new nations in the sphere of politics, culture and economy are enormous for which literature required expansion with new horizons by amalgamating various burning issues with new themes and techniques. The traditional English literature had no potentiality to deal with these new forces of change amidst a new cultural climate. The great modernist writers in English literature such as Conrad, Lawrence, Yeats, Eliot, Joyce, Woolf and many others were either no more or had less ability in dealing with the emergent issues after liberation of the former colonies of Imperial England, such as Canada (1946), India (1947),Nigeria (1960), Uganda (1962), Trinidad and Tobago (1962), Kenya (1967) and so on. However the English language, which had been transplanted in the former colonies during colonialism, started to reinvigorate English literature through its creative use by the writers of the liberated countries. They regenerated England and English literature with new vigour and energy. Powerful winds of change and Transnational flow of literary currents reshaped the decaying literature. By adopting new means of translation and experimentation by Samuel Beckett (England), Saul Bellow (America), Patrick White (Australia) and Gunter Grass (Germany), English literature was revitalised through interconnections and interrelations.

            There had been continuous disregard for recognition of a monolithic corpus of English literature after decolonisation. The new works from the new nations have diverse ethos of anxieties and aspirations, fears and joys making English literature vibrant and dynamic. Some of the new literature writers including Salman Rushdie felt that new literatures in English are decentred. Globalism and internationalism had influenced the writers, such as Albert Camus, Samuel Beckett, Gunter Grass, and Doris Lessing considerably. Both England and English literature needed to shake off the smugness for their revitalization. New theories in literature, new media of film and internet as well as acute consciousness of history in the 1980s/1990s brought revolutionary changes in the trends of literature in England and the newly liberated nations. Literature and history enriched each other because literature has the ability to absorb history and transform it into a new creative form. It is really a significant development because fresh currents joined the mainstream English literature and transformed it into a new model. English literature was transformed into a new entity, both international and transnational. Assimilating currents, crosscurrents, new forces and energies from all over the world, it enjoyed a dignified status in the name of New Literatures in English.

            Bill Ashcroft et al in their book The Empire Writes Back discuss both the mainstream English literature and other varieties of literatures in English emerging from the colonies/former colonies. They distinguish between “English literature” and “english literatures”, the small “e” for new literatures in English and reserving capital “E” for traditional mainstream English literature. Literature written in English by the writers living in the countries belonging to Commonwealth is also known as Commonwealth literature. This term has however associations of imperialism as the terminology traces back  to the origin of “The Commonwealth of Nations”  in 1926 consisting of the British and independent countries, formerly part of the British Empire. English language was implanted in Asia as a historical necessity. It could however be used to exchange ideas between east and west, overcoming the geographical barriers and as a base for sharing world consciousness.. The term “postcolonial” refers to post-independence literature of a country though it can also include all literatures written consequent upon the encounter between the colonizer and the colonized. Bill Ashcroft et al therefore in The Empire Writes Back write:

We use the term ‘post-colonial’, however, to cover all the cultures affected by the imperial process from the moment of colonization to the present day. This is because there is a continuity of pre-occupations throughout the historical process initiated by European imperial aggression. (2)

The three terminologies such as postcolonial literature, commonwealth literature and New literatures in English cannot be completely delinked. The New literatures across the globe have certain common features: colonial past and the struggle for freedom, celebration of freedom, a new sense of identity and consciousness of nationality and patriotic spirit, story of industrial development, and broken syntax of English language. These literatures have also distinctive qualities because they are the products of different geographical, ethnic, cultural and religious differences. Initially these literatures are more or less imitative. The developed countries were almost in their last phase for which imitation in the initial stage results in creative renaissance pointing to new directions, developments and experiments. These new turns and developments went a long way to enrich the mainstream English literature. Imitation has certain positive quality as it resulted in a new awareness of their own culture and tradition thereby enriching the mainstream literature and widening the frontiers of English literature. Geographical and national boundaries might be restrictive. However, literature delineates the story of human joy and suffering despite the fact that various writers of different geographical locations and cultures write in their own ways and means with their distinctive backgrounds.

            Postcolonialism is central to understand new literary texts. It suggests an alternative culture, an alternative epistemology or system of knowledge. Challenging the “institutionalized Knowledge Corporation” (Young 2006: 18) of the west, it begins from its own knowledge system with the premise that the westerners must take such other knowledge systems and other perspectives as seriously as those of the west. Such knowledge can only be acquired when one is to look at the world not from above, but from below. Claiming the rights of all people on the earth to the same material as well as cultural wellbeing through their emancipation and empowerment, postcolonialism shifts its emphasis on the marginal sections in the society.   Subverting the existing order, it establishes equitable relations among peoples across the world. It therefore destabilizes the centre-margin equilibrium. The centre-margin paradox is central to most of the new literary texts. Drawing on the insights and precision from various postcolonial theorists and activists, such as Fanon, Said, Spivak, Bhabha, Hall, Foucault, Althusser, Ahmed, Jameson, Bill et al, Gramsci and many others, new literary texts can be interpreted usefully in the context of marginality, cultural identity and deconstruction of history.

            Unlike ancient Empires, the European colonialism that started in the 16th century in Asia, Africa and America was more ruthless and organised in exploiting both human and material resources thereby ruining the economies of the colonized countries (Loomba 8). Sartre therefore condemns the European colonists as monsters and blood-suckers. They were racial, filthy and hypocritical. The capitalist agenda was meant for prosperity of Europe and North America, and destruction of economies of the colonies. The cheap but immense human labour of the colonies was utilised for industrial growth of the Empires. Decolonisation ended political Imperialism by the grant of political independence. Economic Imperialism however continued in an independent country through market control and intervention in her economic issues. Colonialism/neo-colonialism is thus guilty of cultural arrogance and psychological torture (‘Preface’ by Sartre in The Wretched of the Earth by Fanon: lviii- lx). New literary texts bring out these colonial/postcolonial/neo-colonial issues by destabilizing the western ideas and their hegemonic interventions on native people and their cultures thereby ruining their economies considerably. Let us now take three seminal new literary texts, namely Things Fall Apart, A House for Mr. Biswas and Midnight’s Children by Achebe, Naipaul and Rushdie respectively to understand the colonial/postcolonial situations in Nigeria, West Indies and the Indian subcontinent.

II

Chinua Achebe has written novels and critical essays in English on Igbo culture, deeply rooted in oral tradition. He emphasizes an African identity in his writings. He achieves his social responsibility by using myths, rituals, proverbs and Igbo words loaded with cultural nuances. He has synthesized the narrative technique of an oral tradition with sophisticated technique of English novel. Things Fall Apart [1958], written in rich African tradition, represents the Igbo culture that fell apart because of colonial intervention and internal contradictions in the culture. This novel has been set in traditional Nigerian villages of Umuofia, Mbaino, and Mbanta. Society is more important than individuals in Igbo culture. Okonkwo’s temperamental weakness, his short temper and failure are rooted in himself. The social and political institutions of the traditional society emphasize the primacy of the community over the individual. Achebe has tried to raise African consciousness by portraying authentic characters in a typical African setting. Through them, he has projected an African point of view critiquing a Eurocentric perception of Africa.

In Things Fall Apart, Okonkwo illustrates hopes and aspirations, fears and frustrations of Africa. His reactions are suggestive and symbolic. His tragic doom has a significant impact on the entire mankind. The dominant mood in African literature is the consciousness of being black. This consciousness brings the black people to come together, and keeps all of them in a typical relationship with the White world. This is a source of inspiration for African writers to write about their roots. They protest against brutality of colonialism and dogmatism of its cultural arrogance. They also affirm natural and original values of Africans. They assert that black men are in no way inferior to them. The objective of the African writers is to work towards a better Africa and establish their identity as a distinctive culture.

Things Fall Apart illustrates how Igbo society has been disintegrated; the cementing force of the social fabric has been dismantled. The outside colonial forces are not merely responsible in this venture. The internal contradictions within it are equally responsible for the society to fall apart. To understand this situation, it is imperative to read the novel very closely - its setting, characters, myths, rituals and festivals, colonial encounter, narrative strategies, use of culturally loaded Igbo words and social structure. Part I deals with Igbo society with all its myths, legends, beliefs, customs, superstitions and taboos which are deeply rooted in the consciousness of the people. They reflect the cultural and social patterns of Igbo people and their primordial qualities. Achebe is primarily concerned with retrieving the history of his race from the imperial deniers of the past. He is interested in bringing out the social, political and religious concerns of the Igbo world. He has a strong reaction against the inaccurate depictions of Africa and Africans by the Western writers. Things Fall Apart depicts the resistance of the natives against the cultural imperialism of the White men. It portrays the falling apart of a community primarily due to the conflict between the Christian Missionaries and Igbo socio-cultural-religious systems in Nigeria, depicted in Part II and Part III.

Igbo world is bound by centuries-old laws of right and wrong, good and evil. Their close harmony with nature and respect for seasonal changes with religious fervour enable them to face both the best and the worst. Seasonal changes, myths and belief systems compel them to perform certain rites and rituals which shape their consciousness. Their social systems and cultural practices are governed by their beliefs and superstitions. They have also a judicial system carried out through a village council to settle disputes and punish the offenders. The daily lives of these people are regulated by the belief in gods and goddesses whose supremacy and might they dare not challenge, lest they will invite their wrath. Igbos also emphasize the ancestral worship and respect for the old people. Achebe gives primary importance to the communal life. In the case of a clash between the individual interest and the interest of the community, the individual has to forfeit his claim. That is why Okonkwo, despite being a very powerful person, is subordinate to the community during his crises. No doubt, the European Missionaries and bureaucrats are immensely responsible for the Igbo community to fall apart. The society is also ruined because of the tragic obstinacy of Okonkwo and ruthlessness of the tribal society. Ruthless laws, ill treatment to women and children, the custom of discarding new-born twins and irrational belief systems made the society weaker and weaker. It lost its credibility as it could not adjust to the circumstantial changes. Okonkwo is a kind of African everyman. He is a staunch champion of Igbo tradition. In his tragic fall, we witness the disintegration and fall of an ancient society. He is exceptionally a brave man in every sense. During his youth he won so many battles and titles. He has had five heads severed. A man of titles, he has large acres of land for which he can afford many wives and children. He has so many barns. All these indicate his status in the society.

Okonkwo loses his essence after participating in the murder of Ikemefuna, who is calling him father. The oldest man of the village, Ezeudu, persuades him not to participate in the boy’s murder. He doesn’t listen. Even his friend, Obeirika, admonishes him after it. His chi goes against him however when he inadvertently kills the 16 year old son of Ezeudu in the procession of his death ritual. For this female crime he is banished for seven years from his village. During the banishment, he lives in his mother’s land in his maternal uncle’s house, and during this period, the Missionaries have encroached upon the native systems toppling them. Even after his return, he feels helpless before the sophisticated bureaucrats of colonial masters. Through Okonkwo’s life from his birth to tragic suicide, Achebe portrays the intricacies of the Igbo culture. The author has however, not romanticised his achievements. Achebe shows how mere bravery and strength of Okonkwo can’t save him as he has undermined flexibility and open-mindedness. His obsessive hatred towards White men who, he fears, will tear his culture apart, brings his downfall. Achebe understood well that imperial culture, language and literature marginalized native people’s literature, culture and language. He therefore evolved a counter discourse through innovation and experimentation by innovative fictional techniques to portray his culture in the best possible manner. Achebe has a political motive by writing in English. He has loaded his writing with Igbo words and proverbs to emphasize the Igbo cultural aspects. The political orientations have been deliberately designed to counteract western/hegemonic domination. Achebe is challenging the European master narrative and offering an alternative, both in terms of the metaphysical system of his culture and also the narrative strategies he has employed to represent his culture and tradition.

Things Fall Apart draws on a rich source of Igbo customs, beliefs, myths, legends, rites and proverbs. All these are woven into the form and structure of the novel both implicitly and explicitly to shape life and consciousness of the people. Achebe uses native proverbs to lend authenticity to the language he employs. He uses short crisp sentences to narrate stories within stories, typical of his people’s cultural consciousness. All of them lend authenticity to his use of language, and lends the novel a regional flavour. That is how he has decolonized his use of English language and transformed it into english. The novel is a site for binary oppositions, such as civilization and savagery, white and black, rationality and sensuality, modern and traditional, individual and community. Achebe however remarkably accommodates these binary oppositions, and holds them in artistic balance.

The syntax and the rhythm of orality have been combined with the linear narrative structure of the European fiction thereby lending the novel with an interesting and effective style. From the anthropological perspective, the novel represents a clash of religions - the Christian and the Pagan. It is observed that an African world-view that has served the communities for centuries seems to have a defeat. From geo-historical viewpoint, it is seen that the increasing British hegemony and acculturation of the African tribes by the British reflect the arrogant advance of European culture over the African culture that had been pristine and innocent. The novel also establishes the clash of ideologies. The conflict is between two value systems - one traditional and socio-religious, and the other modern, racial-evangelical. The hidden agenda is the systematic demolition of the African psyche and African ethos. The novel tells us the story of an Igbo community, already rotten with internal tensions which centre round the psychological and social struggle of the protagonist to compensate for the perceived failure of his father, Unoka, the unsuccessful musician from economic standpoint.

The tragic fall of Okonkwo has been due to a number of factors including his own character, his clash with the values of his society which he pursues with excessive vigour and zeal, and the significant changes in the society brought about by the colonisers. Umuofia society is a complex and evolving entity with its own agendas and internal contradictions. Interaction with the mysterious new forces of the White man produced a volatile and irresistible set of changes. These changes are not entirely negative. Okonkwo’s maternal uncle Uchendu suggests that the aggressiveness of the clan contradicts the earlier peaceful co-existence. The society has already been divided for which it can’t respond collectively against the external forces. Changes had already taken place in the society prior to the arrival of White man. However, the protagonist is too rigid to change himself as he is not in a position to understand this change in his native land because of his overindulgence and rigidity. He therefore emerges as a representative of his culture, possessing the best of the qualities glorified by that culture - valour, fearlessness and physical power. The tragic flaw in his character is the fear of being considered as weak and feminine. His consciousness of being a mighty man, and his fear and accidental killing of a clansman conspire against him and therefore his chi banishes him for seven years from his village. After his return, he finds that his native clansmen have turned into feminine, and are no more able to fight for their race. His native trait of impulsiveness and his awareness of physical prowess prompt him to kill the court messenger, and thereafter he commits suicide because he now feels that the community no more believes in action. His death by suicide raises his grandeur because he has great faith in his own dignity and the values of his community.

Naipaul destabilizes the centre-margin dichotomy of colonial/postcolonial situations. A House for Mr. Biswas delineates the suppressed histories of post-war human predicament. The protagonist Mohun Biswas, an existentialist, challenges the false, degraded, irrational value systems of Tulsidom in Hanuman House. Tulsidom is a kind of imperialistic outfit, a microcosm of colonialism, where the marginalised are exploited for their sustenance. The Empire exploits both the human as well as the natural resources of a colony. So also in Tulsi imperialism, the sons-in-law were exploited for the expansion of Tulsi Estate. They were to put up hard labour to meet their bread and butter. They had neither freedom nor any identity. More particularly, the marginalization of Mr. Biswas has been portrayed vividly. Married to Shama, the youngest daughter of Tulsi clan, Mr. Biswas rebels, and challenges the imperialistic and irrelevant Tulsi ideologies.

A House for Mr. Biswas foregrounds the previously devalued colonial or colonized culture and its complexities. Set in Trinidad in 1940s, it portrays the colonial situation of Trinidad. Mohun Biswas challenges the imperial paradigm of Tulsis, their conservative Hindu ideas and ideology. He alone fights against the oppressions of the Tulsis on the marginalised. He wants to get himself liberated from the narrow circle of ideologies of Hindu cultural system and wishes to assert his identity. A staunch rebel, Mr. Biswas, revolts against the stereotype, irrelevant ideologies of Hanuman House, a colonial outfit, even though he is completely dependent on this tyrannical organisation for his family’s survival.

In the first part of the novel, there is focus on the futility of his rebellion. However, such a rebellion is meaningless for those who are almost slaves, and without any means of self-support. Under such circumstances Mr. Biswas can only show his resentment for them upon whom he is dependent. On the other hand, Shama is closely attached to the Tulsi family. She has moulded herself in conformity with the Tulsi empirical system. Hanuman House represents a feudal colonial set-up where loyal people who conform to its regulations, are enjoying certain privileges; for example, Hari, one of the sons-in-law, becomes a family priest. In the imperialistic outfit, Mrs. Tulsi, Mr. Seth and the two sons are the colonisers, and all other extended family members are treated as colonised since all of them are surviving on food, clothing and shelter provided by Tulsis. Mr. Biswas is detached from the decadent ethos of the Hindus in Trinidad. In his childhood he has become fatherless. All his actions are motivated by the confrontation between his sense of freedom and sense of insecurity. Society plays the role of a constant hostile fate against his life. Facing the complex situations of life from an early stage, he has been evolving as an individual of a sharpening character. Bruce King’s comments are noteworthy in this context:

Biswas’s story, both representative of the Trinidadian Asian Indian, could be put together from aspects of his life and the lives of those to whom he was related by birth and marriage. Yet no one single character in the novel can be said to be typical of the Trinidadian Indian. (1993:41)

            Midnight’s Children, a postcolonial and post-modern text, has new characteristics both in theme and technique: self-conscious narration, use of technical language, description of a long list of words to create either a busy/barren world, and use of broken/informal English. In the very first paragraph, the author’s intrusion is evident. By creating a magic realistic atmosphere combining fantasy and realism, Rushdie is able to blur the distinction between fantasy and reality. He uses fantasy as a subversive narrative strategy to create an alternative reality. His self-conscious intrusion into the story through informal language erases the distinctions usually found between the real and the fictional world. The marginalised characters take a central position as their tragic situations are given prominence in the description thereby affecting a surreal world of instability that seems to eliminate the distinction between reality and fictionality. Rushdie has blended various styles and different varieties of language to place his narrative in the oral tradition. To decolonise the narrative, he mixes different kinds of style and language in the very first paragraph. Constantly arguing with himself in relation to his method of story-telling in the very first paragraph he has recourse to oral tradition in his narrative. The typical use of colloquial expressions, such as “No, that won’t do…” and “Once upon a time….” (Midnight’s Children 9) conform to oral tradition of folktales. Depending on his needs, Rushdie shifts his narrative style suddenly to a formal one as we observe the standard formal style towards the end of the paragraph. It is interesting to mark that his prose style encompasses the vast material with extended sentences, use of colon for emphasis and syntactical variation.

            Rushdie has depicted the postcolonial disorder in the Indian subcontinent focusing on the inefficacy, corruption, intellectual bankruptcy, poor governance and divisive politics. The main objective of the bureaucrats and politicians is to look into their self-interest rather than taking the subcontinent in the path of economic progress. Though the situations in the three locations such as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are different, the specific postcolonial disorder has been due to disharmony among the people of various religions, communities, language differences and cultural variations. Pakistan is a pure country as the administrators run the modern nation following the medieval religious ideals of Islam. Indian rulers are not capable of managing the vast nation with its multiple social, political, linguistic, religious and cultural issues with insightful administrative ingenuity.  India is to be understood as a nation of plurality rather than a nation of a single ideology or culture or religion. Illegitimacy, impurity, hybridity and plurality have to be understood in the proper perspective. To create an alternative reality, Rushdie follows a subversive technique of playfulness, comicality, trivialization and magic realism. Midnight’s Children delves deep into Indian psyche, and explores rich reservoir of ancient indigenous resources like epic, folklore, myths and rituals. Saleem Sinai’s illegitimacy is an indicator towards Indian plurality, and his large nose as well as Shiva’s big knees symbolically represent India’ multiculturalism. Knowledge of the archetypal figure of Ganesh, his elephantine nose and ears exemplify the typical Indian mind-sets, a desire for the whole: “I have been a swallower of lives; and to know me, just the one of me, you’ll have to swallow the lot as well. Consumed multitudes are jostling and shoving inside me; and guided only by the memory of a large bed sheet with roughly circular hole…” (8-9). New Literature writers in English in India show their concern for community, nation and society. Nation is fictionalized, combining the ideas of nation and history. Saleem, the narrator and Padma, the narratee, can be likened to Rishis narrating stories to kings.           

III

The texts refer to multiple issues relevant to various socio-cultural, political and economic concerns. Achebe’s emphasis to raise an African consciousness in Things Fall Apart evidences his involvement for a deep-rooted culture and native cultural identity. Naipaul focuses on disintegration of a rotten Hindu cultural system because of its dissociation from the modern ethos of Hinduism and its connection with irrelevant ethos of other communities and religions through a seepage in Hanuman House. Rushdie emphasises the disintegration of the Indian subcontinent and postcolonial disorder as the leaders fail intellectually, and are unable to realize the true pluralistic set-up.

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---.V. S. Naipaul. Palgrave Macmillan, 1993.             

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