While men's power exists in hierarchical systems in The Remains of the Day and In Custody, there is evidence of a less direct, more subversive kind of men's power in Oscar and Lucinda, Shame, and Once Were Warriors. Certainly this undefined power may be closely related to, or even dependent on clear social expectations of gender roles. Yet this force is addressed in Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda as something more mysterious, and more difficult to overcome, even for those who are willing. This dynamic seems to complicate even more the gender relationships which Desai emphasizes the importance of questioning in In Custody, and evokes issues of deferred responsibility of individual and group action.
In Oscar and Lucinda, the otherwise confident, independent, and certainly capable young heiress Lucinda Leplastrier expresses her misgivings about doing business with men, describing why she "cannot" walk in through the front door of a factory like any other (male) prospective buyer would.
They will not treat me with anything but the greatest condescension. I would be made into the creature they imagined I was. By the way they looked at me, by their perception of me, they would make me into the creature they perceived. I would feel myself becoming a lesser thing. It is the power of men. Of men, men in a group, men in their certainty, men on a street corner or in a hall. It is like a voodoo. Do you know a voodoo?(120)
Clearly, Lucinda's discomfort does not stem from her own gender prejudices, or from any concern for others' opinion of her. It is corset-less Lucinda who "refused the convention of whalebone and elastic," though "still she was squeezed in and blistered, pinched and hobbled."(209) Lucinda, who bobbed her hair against the fashion, resents and scorns the men who are intimidated by her strong opinions and manners of expression, having been well educated by her likewise independent mother. So what is this power of men and how does it so effectively limit even the most progressive of women who do not buy into their society's gender structures? What is the significance of the collective power of men where the power of one is insufficient to intimidate her?
From a class or race perspective as opposed to a gender one, this idea of reduction of self is illustrated in the New Zealand courtroom of Alan Duff's Once Were Warriors, where all the teenage defendants belong to the indigenous race "Maori, every one ofem but two,"(24) whereas the court officials are all white. The young girl Grace Heke who accompanies her brother Boogie to court for truancy, among other offenses, finds herself defensive on account of her race, even though "she was only here to give her brother moral support because she knew her parents wouldn't be here to do same, and she'd even got permission from the headmaster at school..."(18) She finds herself needing to reaffirm that "she was a good girl. I mean I have good thoughts. So she supposed that made her good."(18) But in that courtroom, where she is only visiting, she doesn't seem so sure. She wasn't so sure after she was raped either, too scared to call for help even with her mother in the next room. "I feel so dirty or something...As if I did something to deserve it,"(154) she writes in her suicide note.
A variation on this kind of voodoo power, which distorts self-image, is Jake Heke's power over his wife, Beth Heke. Jake brutally beats Beth when he is drunk, particularly for expressing her caustically insightful opinions. Like Lucinda, Beth is not a meek woman, and if anything she inwardly feels superior toward her husband÷ "...this bullying, man-hitting-woman shet, you call that manhood?"(24) Wisely or not, she has no inhibitions about harshly criticizing her husbands' friends when they disrespect her, and then refuses to apologize even though she is fully aware of the violent consequences to follow. Duff makes clear that this kind of violence frequent in the marriage, "And yet I love him. Just can't help myself, I love the black, fist-happy bastard," Beth affirms from page one. The reader is left to wonder, why? She does not respect his unmotivated, brawling lifestyle, and legally, he is granted no power over her. Realistically, as we discover when she finally does evict him, she fares economically better without the unemployed alcoholic. What kind of voodoo power has been at work here?
In a markedly different scenario, with similar nuances of power, the fat and ugly Omar Khayyam Shakil of Salman Rushdie's Shame uses hypnosis to take sexual advantage of the beautiful, young, and self-confident Farah Zoroaster. When she is subsequently ruined by pregnancy÷
Omar Khayyam tried÷futilely÷to find consolation in the fact that, as every hypnotist knows, one of the first assurances of the hypnotic process, a formula which is repeated many times runs as follows: ÎYou will do anything that I ask you to do, but I will ask you to do nothing that you will be unwilling to do.'(48)
Farah Zoroaster, shortly before their hypnotic encounter, had made it bluntly clear to Omar that she was, indeed, unwilling. Her pride and independence stung Omar, who somehow had the power to undermine her conscious desires and high intelligence to elicit a carnal and devastating response from Farah.
Interestingly, this predatory encounter somewhat obfuscates the responsibility for the consequences of Omar's violation. Although even Omar does not completely accept his rationale that Farah must have been willing, that "first assurance of the hypnotic process" casts an element of ambiguity upon the situation. Similarly in Once Were Warriors, these unspoken yet dehumanizing power arrangements of both gender and race result in the deferral of individual responsibility; The Maori people of the Pine Block slum wallow in the collective indolence of government unemployment benefits. As Duff clearly illustrates, this relationship is cyclical. The degradation of individual self-worth, and the degeneration of individual responsibility feed each other.
In Oscar and Lucinda, the dynamics of roles and responsibility function somewhat differently. True, Lucinda in spite of her independence seeks an older man to be her proxy in purchasing a factory to avoid the voodoo-like degradation. Yet she, (like her counterpart Oscar Hopkins) seeks exoneration from responsibility through gambling, hardly an ladylike activity approved by the collective men. For Lucinda, this gambling is in part in defiance of her unspoken role as a lady, and in part an escape from the responsibility of her role as a wealthy woman.
...So much to be said in favour of a game of cards... One could experience that lovely light-headed feeling of loss, the knowledge that one had abandoned one more brick from the foundation of one's fortune, that one's purse was quite, quite empty...and no matter what panic and remorse all this would produce on the morrow, one had in those moments of loss such an immense feeling of relief÷there was no responsibility, no choice. One could imagine oneself to be nothing but a cork drifting down a river in a romantic tale.(189)
For Lucinda, gambling is both her power and her helplessness; She is master and servant. There is some real voodoo.
On the other hand, in her Meatless Days, Sara Suleri presents us with her toddler niece, Heba, who apparently has not yet succumbed to the complexes of the tormented characters of the other novels, in spite of her older brother's denigration:
"Why don't you like me, Omi," she would ask relentlessly. "I'm nice too." It drove her elder brother into furies of rage. "I don't like you! I don't!" Omi shouted while Heba looked at him with curiosity... I realized I need not worry about her, that child who was busy adding herself to the world and would not rest until it had made her properly welcome.(42)
Furthermore, Suleri apparently had no qualms about calling her father a "preposterous person"(60) after fearlessly rebuking his plans for her arranged marriage. Perhaps Suleri was truly empowered by the strong feminine influences in her life (her mother, sisters, and women's college). Perhaps, however, it is more difficult (or less desirable) to express autobiographically the undefined nuances — to use Suleri's term — of power which shape one's life.
What are these seemingly other-worldly powers (described as voodoo and hypnosis) which drive these relationships of role and responsibility? Certainly there is nothing really supernatural about them: The powers described are found in everyday awkward situations and mundane domestic violence as well as in bizarre hypnotic rituals ˆ la Rushdie. Carey, Duff, and Rushdie have attributed to men power over even the most assertive of women. Is there a vein of misogyny in this subversion of women's free will? Yet men in these novels are far from omnipotent. Poor Jake Heke is homeless and nearly friendless before we see the last of him, while his wife is successfully improving her self and her community. Of more consequence than misogyny or even than racism in these novels is the exhibited ability to effectively render someone as the sum of one's perceptions of them. This kind of power need not be legitimated by a concretely defined authority or hierarchy in order to reduce an individual's concept of their self to a shadow of the role or category in which others may classify them.
Other parts of this project
- Opposing Roles — Place, Invasion, and Responsibility: Introduction
- Teachers and Students in Waterland
- Social Structures and Role Questioning Roles in The Remains of the Day and In Custody
Last modified 1998