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Representation of Abjection of Women in Literature: A Cross Cultural Comparative Study of Surfacing and The Skeleton


Representation of Abjection of Women in Literature: A Cross Cultural Comparative Study of Surfacing and The Skeleton


Dr. Jasleen Kaur Nanda

Assistant Professor

Department of English

GSSDGS Khalsa College Patiala

Punjab, India


Amandeep Kaur  

M. Phil

Punjabi University Patiala

Punjab, India




Surfacing (1972), a novel written by Margaret Atwood, deals with the search of female identity by the unnamed narrator and it also exposes the marginalization of women at different covert levels in society. Pinjar (1950), a Punjabi novel written by Amrita Pritam and translated as The Skeleton by Khushwant Singh from Punjabi into English is a novel with Indian cultural and historical background and it reflects the status of woman in Indian patriarchal society, where she is treated like an abject during the partition of India in 1947. Both the novels Surfacing and The Skeleton have been written with different cultural backgrounds but they share the common theme of the ways women are marginalized in their lives at one or other time. The unnamed narrator of Surfacing and Pooro of The Skeleton are two totally different personalities but they both represent the common sorrows and strengths of women. Both novels depict male dominated societies that oppress women. The present research also tends to make a comparative study of the cultures prevalent in India and Canada at the time when the two novels were written. A cross cultural study in this research intends to compare the two opposite parts of the world – Western and Eastern, taking into consideration various social, economic, cultural, and political factors that affect the status of women.


Keywords: Abject, Woman, Gender, Culture, India, Canada, Society, Patriarchal,

In the male dominated societies, women have always been treated as ‘Other’ and they have been subjected to unequal treatment as compared to men. In patriarchal social system, the androcentric rules are followed, whereupon men place themselves superior to women. An oppressive framework structure is created by men that subjugates and subordinates women. This deep rooted oppressive framework and patriarchal structure has plagued societies from immemorial times. During different phases of feminist revolt movement, also called waves of feminism, women revolted against the unequal treatment of men towards them and raised voice for their equal rights. Many writers gave this issue prime importance and made it the theme of their literary works.

As a revolt against sexism, feminism emerged as a rebellious movement. Feminism is a political standpoint which not only understands women’s status in the world but also attempts to amend the patriarchal structure for the benefit of women. It exposes women’s inferior status in society and makes efforts to empower them. Many women activists and scholars addressed the issues of female rights and offered new perspectives on marriage, childbirth, and women’s role in society. Many writers and thinkers wrote about the marginalization of women and attempted to awaken women’s suppressed souls so that they could raise their voice against the male domination and oppression. Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97) contributed towards the development of feminist thought and fought against gender inequality through her works. Her first published work was Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787) which focused upon the importance of education in a woman’s life. Her another work A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) established her name among feminist writers. John Stuart Mill (1806-73) also wrote in favour of equality of women in society. His work The Subjection of Women (1869) strongly opposed the inequality of women and their exclusion from political life.

Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) earned a special place among feminist thinkers exposing the power politics behind suppression of women. A Room of One’s Own (1929) and Three Guineas (1938) are major feminist works written by Woolf. She finds patriarchy as the root cause of the inequality between sexes. Simone de Beauvoir (1908-86) is another prominent figure of feminist movement who questions the marginality of women through her famous work The Second Sex (1949). She points out that the inequality between men and women is the result of various social forces which design the gender roles of both sexes. She probes the very basic questions regarding the superiority of men and the marginality of women. Beauvoir, in her work The Second Sex (1949), writes:

She is an idol, a servant, the source of life, a power of darkness, she is elemental silence of truth, she is the artifice, gossip and falsehood, she is the healing pressure and sorceress, she is the man’s prey, his downfall, she is everything that he is not and that he longs for, his negation and his raison detere. (175)

Kate Millet, an American feminist, contributed to feminist thought through her influential work Sexual Politics (1970). Millet exposed that how cultural discourse imposed a systematized subordination and exploitation of women. French feminist theorists also brought in new ideas to the ideology related to feminism. French thinkers like Julia Kristeva, Helene Cixous and Luce Irigaray analysed the causes behind abjection of women and they questioned the ground realities of gender identity and sexuality. Woman is pushed to the periphery where she is an ‘abject’. Julia Kristeva, in her work Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (1980), highlighted the concept of Abjection, making an attempt to explore the functioning of oppression. According to Kristeva, an abject is the one who disturbs identity, system, and order. An abject is the in-between and ambiguous. A woman living in a patriarchal setup has to face abjection:

Abject. It is something rejected from which one does not part, from which one does not protect oneself as from an object. Imaginary uncanniness and real threat, it beckons to us and ends up engulfing us. It is thus not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules, the in-between, the ambiguous, the composite. (Kristeva 4)

According to Kristeva, abjection is an operation of the mind through which all those identities are excluded from group identity which are a threat to the existence of group identity. In this process of mind, women are made an abject by men by excluding them from their group identity. In the patriarchal societies, women are degraded on account of their bodies as symbolic of filth and reproductive function.

Margaret Atwood (1939- ) is a Canadian poet, novelist, literary critic, and environmental activist. Her female characters present a new image of women, who challenge their traditional role in society. Atwood’s fictional works are often based on the themes of cultural and individual issues of survival. She portrays women entrapped in patriarchal limitations, and buried under suffocating social order. Nathalie Cooke, in her work Margaret Atwood: A Critical Companion (2004), comments about Atwood’s thematic concerns, “Certainly, the three themes traced here are responses to what worries Atwood: threats to the environment; to women’s rights, and to human rights, more generally; as well as to Canadian cultural autonomy” (Cooke 9).

Majority of Atwood’s fictional works focus on the difficulties faced by women when they take steps to attain individuality and freedom. She writes on the theme of contemporary gender politics and portrays a picture of a woman’s struggle in male dominated society. In her novels, Atwood envisions a new world in which men and women are equal at all levels of existence. Her protagonists struggle for change in their life through rebellion and protest.

Surfacing (1972), a novel written by Margaret Atwood, deals with the search of female identity by the unnamed narrator and it also exposes the marginalization of women at different covert levels in society. In the novel, the protagonist becomes aware about the dominant rules of society and at the end, she becomes a warrior, who struggles against these rules and finally becomes a self-reliant person. She starts a search for the values inherent in unspoiled nature of a female and that of environment. In Surfacing, Atwood creates a set of contradictions between opposite sexes, representing a clash of values. A powerful force drives the protagonist to bring major changes in her life and she refuses to remain a victim in male dominated society.

Surfacing is weaved against the patriarchal power structures prevalent in modern time. Atwood unmasks the dualities and inconsistencies in both the protagonist’s personal life and the patriarchal society. The novel reflects a world that oppresses and dominates women as well as nature. It is a journey of the unnamed narrator in search of her independent identity denying the male dominated rules at every step of the struggle. The protagonist experiences a kind of metamorphosis during her journey.

Another famous writer Amrita Pritam (1919-2005) is a rebellious writer who portrays women’s sorrows and problems in her writings. Being a part of Indian patriarchal society, women are denied independent life. Pritam wrote in Punjabi and Hindi languages. She strove to expose the deep rooted female exploitation prevalent in India. She wrote over hundred books of poetry, fiction, essays, biographies and an autobiography. Her works have been translated into many Indian and foreign languages. She expresses her despair over massacres during partition of India in her famous poem Ajjaakhaan Waris Shah nu. In 1956, she became the first woman to win Sahitya Academy Award. She also received Bharatiya Jnanpith Award in 1969, Padma Shri Award in 1969 and Padma Vibhushan in 2004.

Amrita Pritam, in her autobiography, Rasidi Ticket and other novels and poems shares her experiences of suppression of desires, middle class morality, rigid religious practices and strict parental authority in case of girls in India. Marginalization of women remains her major theme and she voices her worries in her writings with the use of wit, irony, and satire. The central focus and theme of her prose and poetry works is women's oppression that lies at various levels. Pinjar (1950) is a Punjabi novel written by Amrita Pritam and it was translated as The Skeleton by Khushwant Singh from Punjabi into English. It is a novel with Indian cultural and historical background and it reflects the status of woman in Indian patriarchal society, where she is treated like an abject. Pritam presents the emotional trauma of men and women during the partition of India in 1947. She highlights the dominance of men and role of patriarchy behind the dehumanization of women, even during that turbulent period. The partition riots led to large numbers of people becoming homeless and getting uprooted from their native places. During this time of partition between India and Pakistan, little girls, sisters and wives were abducted and were forcibly kept in the homes of the kidnappers. The novel exposes the outcome of communal violence, in the form of butchered men and raped women.

Both the novels Surfacing and The Skeleton have been written with different cultural backgrounds but they share the common theme of the ways women are marginalized in their lives at one or other time. The unnamed narrator of Surfacing and Pooro of The Skeleton are two totally different personalities but they both represent the common sorrows and strengths of women. Both novels depict male dominated societies that oppress women.

The patriarchal structures in the developing countries like India are more rigid. Women portrayed in the novel The Skeleton are not as much aware about their rights as the women in Surfacing. The political situation in both novels is also different. The Skeleton speaks about the traumatic experiences during the partition of India whereas Surfacing depicts the modern Canadian society in countryside and town. Taaro, Kammo, the mad women, Lajo and Pooro are the characters in The Skeleton that represent the pain of every suppressed woman in India. They cannot think of enjoying their independent existence and they are bound to follow the rules set up by men. The Eastern culture and framed moral values make women hesitant to revolt against men and to lead an independent life. Moreover, due to lack of education and lack of awareness about their rights, they become passive and submissive. The Western protagonist of Surfacing is strong enough to take her independent decisions at the end of the novel. She undergoes a journey of self-knowledge and emerges as a free woman whereas Pooro in The Skeleton faces abjection throughout the novel.

Stanley H. Udy writes in his essay “Cross-Cultural Analysis: Methods and Scope” that “Any comparative study of social phenomena across two or more different societies is, in the broadest sense of the term, “cross-cultural” (Udy 253). The present research also tends to make a comparative study of the cultures prevalent in India and Canada at the time when the two novels were written. A cross cultural study in this research intends to compare the two opposite parts of the world – Western and Eastern, taking into consideration various social, economic, cultural, and political factors that affect the status of women.

In the broader sense, Eastern and Western cultures have significant differences. The economic and social status of women is comparatively liberal in Western countries as they assert equal rights and status for themselves. The Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East leads to extreme domination of women. Women are made to wear veils and they are not supposed to be opinionated. The divorce laws in such countries are in favour of men. Girls are trained for their roles as housewives and so, they don’t have any access to political life or professional life. In the West, on the other hand, a woman can choose her status as an independent individual.

Judith Butler, in her book Gender Trouble (1990), gives the concept of gendered identity. She does not accept gender as a stable and permanent identity. According to Butler, gender is the outcome of repetitive “bodily gestures, movements and all kinds of rules that make up the illusion of a permanently gendered self” (Pola 2013). Gender is therefore, repetition of acts over a passage of time. These acts are responsible for creating the idea of gender. Butler gives the term “gender performativity” in this context. A particular gender is shaped by listing a set of rules and behavior appropriate for them. In other words, gender is ‘performative’ in the sense that nobody really has a particular gender at birth and it is shaped by society as the child grows.

A conservative society wants a girl to be introvert and humble whereas it accepts a boy’s dominant and aggressive behaviour. In countries like Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden, women’s rights are respected and they enjoy equal status as given to men. But in Asian countries like India and Pakistan women do not enjoy such independence. Treatment of women in these countries as compared to European and Western countries is more like subjugation than equality. Their fate is always in the hands of father, brother, husband or son. They are not treated as independent individuals. Marriage is seen as the only way for a girl’s bright future. Women are required to make adjustments at the cost of their health. It is considered an ideal woman’s duty to make sacrifices for the happiness of others.

The novel The Skeleton tells the tale of women’s suffering during the partition of India in 1947. Amrita Pritam has portrayed the minute details of the plight of women during that time of emotional trauma when abduction, rape and oppression were very common. The psychological state and the inner conflict of a woman have been depicted within the familial and social structures as she had to accept all types of injustice and violence as her destiny. Women belonging to an opposite religion were treated in an inhuman manner due to religious intolerance. Their dreams and desires were crushed due to the political and socio-religious differences. Amrita Pritam herself witnessed the whole period of crisis and created Pooro and other women characters, who are just like skeletons, having no individual existence.

The novel presents a close picture of Indian society in 1940s. It is a story of a young girl Pooro, “who represents the lost woman, the suffocated daughter, the sacrificing beloved and wife, the suffering mother” (Verma 140). Through this story, Amrita describes how family honour becomes more important than humanity in an Indian society. Pooro, a girl from the village Chattoani of Punjab, belonged to a Hindu Shahukar family. Her marriage was fixed to a handsome, well-educated boy Ram Chand belonging to a reputed family in a neighbouring village, Rattowal. Pooro’s misfortune starts with her abduction by a Muslim boy Rashida of her own village, a few days before her marriage. Rashida abducted Pooro in order to avenge the old family feud between Sheikhs and Shahukars. Earlier, Pooro’s uncle had abducted Rashida’s father’s sister and kept her in his house for three nights. Amrita Pritam portrays the painful existence of women in a male dominated society where she is only a device of sexual pleasure. Under the pressure of societal morals and customs, Pooro in the novel, was not allowed to come back in the family. Her state of ‘abjection’ due to her family is evident as she was excluded and forced to leave the house.

Pooro begged Rashida to take her back to her family. Instead, Rashida brought for Pooro a wedding dress and ordered her to wear it for their wedding. Pooro was not ready for marriage with Rashida but he said to her:

Good woman, you have no place in that family anymore! If they let you in even once, not one of their Hindu friends or relatives will drink a drop of water in their house. And you have been with me full fifteen days. (Pritam13)

When Pooro somehow manages to flee from Rashida’s house and reaches her parent’s house, she is advised to accept her fate by her mother saying, “...daughter, this fate was ordained for you, we are helpless… who will marry you now? You have lost your religion and your birthright. If we dare to help you, we will be wiped out without a trace of blood left behind to tell of our fate” (Pritam 18).

In Indian society, a defiled girl has no place even in her own family. If a girl needs respect and love of her family, she has to be pure. Although Rashida had done nothing wrong with Pooro and she was as pure as before abduction yet she was boycotted by her family just to save their family honour, so that Pooro’s sisters could get married easily. Now she was left with no hope, “Even death had slammed the door in her face” (Pritam 19). So she had to submit herself to God’s will as no other option was left for her. Circumstances and state of abjection force her to marry Rashida against her will. She becomes a skeleton in her mind, left with no feelings or desire. Shubha Mukherjee writes in her essay The New Woman in Anita Desai’s Novels” that in a male dominated society, “The bitter experiences, the miserable humiliations, the helpless cries of women go unnoticed” (Mukherjee 245).

Women have been exposed to shame and suffering for so many years that many of them have started considering suffering as an inseparable part of their lives. In ancient India, the Hindu philosophy had a belief that the female power can turn destructive if it is not controlled. It was believed that a woman’s anger had to be controlled by her husband.

Margaret Atwood, in her novel Surfacing, portrays the suppression of women in a subtle manner in the Canadian society. She projects the subordination of the narrator by her ex-boyfriend and her hallucinated state of mind. Moreover, Atwood shows concern towards the plundering of nature by men, narrating their superiority over nature also. In the novel, the protagonist comes back to her native village Quebec with three companions, a couple David and Anna and her own boy friend Joe in order to search for her father. Her mind hovers between present and past, thinking of herself as a victim of the male dominated world. Her ex-lover who was a middle aged man refused to marry her because he was already married. She had to abort her unborn child because the society did not accept a child without the name of the father. The misery of abortion and the guilt of killing an innocent soul haunted her. She felt that the unborn child was imposed on her and she thinks:

It was my husband’s, he imposed it on me, all the time it was growing in me I felt like an incubator. He measured everything he would let me eat, he was feeding it on me, he wanted a replica of himself… (Atwood 38- 39)

The protagonist of Surfacing remembers the abuse of her body as she had to undergo forced abortion. Becoming pregnant and not being able to give birth to a baby was a constant torture for the protagonist of the novel. A child without the name of a father was not acceptable in the society. Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex writes in this context:

Maternity in particular is respectable only for a married woman, the unwed mother remains an offence to public opinion, and her child is severe handicap for her in life. (Beauvoir 451)

In a conservative society, women’s life is worthless without marriage. Society doesn’t accept a divorcee, widow, spinster or an unmarried mother. The protagonist thinks, “A divorce is like an amputation, you survive but there is less of you” (Atwood 51). That is the reason why majority of the women’s prime motive in life is to marry in order to secure a respectable position in life. They have to make sacrifices to maintain their married relationship which results in their suppression and subordination. Atwood has criticized the domination involved in the institution of marriage throughout the novel.

Marriage changes the type of love relationship which a couple might have enjoyed before marriage. The feeling of ownership in a man gives him power to exploit his wife. In extreme cases, a woman is pushed to the margins and is treated as ‘Other’ after marriage. She becomes a mere source of fulfilling her man’s needs. In The Skeleton, Rashida shows dominance over Pooro after marriage. He changes her name from Pooro to Hamida. Despite the truth that Pooro has no love in her heart for Rashida, she gives birth to Rashida’s son, Javed. When Rashida sees his son lying beside her, a feeling of victory arises inside him:

Rashida was overcome with emotion. He had won over the Hindu girl. The gamble had paid off; Pooro was no longer the girl he had abducted and made his mistress - not a woman he had brought in as a housekeeper. She was Hamida, the mother of his son. (Pritam 25).

 Due to child birth and child raising activities, women are confined to the walls of the house. They are supposed to nurture, care, and remain gentle. V. Geetha in her work Gender (2017) says, “Women learn to put them by and attend to tasks that await them as wives, sisters, daughters and mothers” (Geetha 48).The relationship of motherhood can be explored in Surfacing also. In the novel, the protagonist’s mother was suffering from a major illness but she concealed her pain for many weeks. Her attitude towards her illness depicts a woman’s nature as uncaring for herself as she is more absorbed in the family affairs. The protagonist thinks, “…we ceased to take her illness seriously…” (Atwood 40). The narrator sees her diary “all she put in it was a record of the weather and work done on that day: no reflections, no emotions” (Atwood 23).

The concept of ‘Ideal woman’ has worsened the situation of women in family relationships. An ideal Indian woman learns to adjust in order to balance the moods of other family members. She puts down her own dreams and ambitions to maintain peace in family. It often results in frustration and anxiety, when she is not able to fulfill this standardized performance of an ideal woman. Too much suppression and restrictions imposed on women result in mental disorder of women as portrayed in both novels.

In the novel The Skeleton, Taro is a girl who got married at a young age. She was sad and ill since she got married. No one knew the cause of her sadness and she became pale with the passing time. “Some people said that she is possessed by a spirit; others, that she had contracted some unknown disease” (Pritam 31). Whenever Taro had to return to her husband’s house from her parents’ house she used to get fainting fits. She was losing weight day by day and her bones were visible protruding from her flesh. No one asked her anything to know about the cause of her problem or to treat her. Parents considered no right on her because she was now a married woman:

When parents give away a daughter in marriage, they put a noose round her neck and hand the other end of the rope to the man of their choice. (Pritam 32)

 In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir comments:

Thus for the both parties marriage is at the same time a burden and a benefit; but there is no symmetry in the situations of the two sexes; for girls marriage is the only means of integration in the community and if they remain unwanted, they are, socially viewed, so much wastage. (Beauvoir 447)

Child marriage worsens the situation of women in India. They are not given the right of selecting their husband or making any decision about marriage. It is believed by some people in India that menstruating girls bring misfortune to father’s house. So, they are married at a pre-puberty age. It is believed that the power of women can be controlled if they become domesticated wives. In The Skeleton girls get married at an early age so that they can be controlled and their intrinsic power can be curbed.

In many Indian families, a girl child is not welcomed in the family. People celebrate the birth of a male child whereas they mourn the birth of a girl child. The main reason is dowry which is a large amount of money and gifts that parents have to give at the time of their daughter’s marriage to the boy’s family. Families with poor economic status arrange it with great difficulty. The Indian culture, whether the folk songs, stories or literature teach a woman to live according to the wishes of her father, brother, or husband. In a Western country like Canada, people are not superstitious and do not crave for a boy child.

India and Canada differ from each other in various aspects of culture. India is a country of very old civilization where customs, traditions, values, and religion determine the way of people’s lives. The society depicted in the novel The Skeleton is the traditional Indian society where people were divided into various groups based on their religion, culture and regions. They give more importance to society and traditions rather than individual choices. Women’s freedom is restricted by various rules imposed upon them and they are not free to make any significant decision about their life. Women’s condition in the present India is not very much different in the backward regions of the country. On the other side, the Western culture of Canada is advanced and modern as compared to India. Western people give more importance to their personal desires, needs and happiness rather than the illogical social customs and traditions. This difference between traditional and modern culture can be seen while comparing both novels. Women in The Skeleton are confined to the household chores and are completely dependent on men. They are mere puppets who live only for the obedience of rules made by men in patriarchal society. Women in Western society have more freedom to choose their path as compared to women in India.


Works Cited

Atwood, Margaret. Surfacing. Virago Press, London, 1972.

Pritam, Amrita. The Skeleton. Dynamic Publications, Delhi, 2015.

Beauvoir, Simone de. The Second Sex. Vintage Books, London.1997.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Routledge, NewYork, 1999.

Geetha, V. Gender. Stree Publications, Calcutta. 2017.

Mukherjee, Shubha. “The New Woman in Anita Desai’s novels”. Indian Literature in English: Critical View, vol. 1. Ed. Satish Barbuddhe, Sarup and Sons Publishers. New Delhi, 2007. Pp. 245-268

Pola, Ann Lozanode La. “Gender and Genre in Comparative Literature and (Comparative) Cultural Studies”. Companion to Comparative Literature, World Literatures and Comparative Cultural Studies. Ed. Seven. Totosy de Zepetnek and Louise O. Vasuvars. Cambridge, New Delhi, 2013, pp. 137-147.

Udy, Stanley H. “Cross-Cultural Analysis: Methods and Scope”. Deepdyve. July 17, 2018

Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Translated by Leon S. Roudiez, Columbia University Press, 1982.