Emily -- Victim or Oppressor?

Part 2.2 of Drama in English from Singapore and Malaysia

Chitra Sankaran, PhD, Department of English Language and Literature, National University of Singapore

Adapted from Post-Colonial Literatures in English, ed. Rajeev S. Patke, 1998, by George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University; Distinguished Visiting Professor, NUS, 1998-99.

In order to address this question, I would like to direct your attention to an interesting remark made by Margaret Chan, one of the most popular actresses to play Emily. She remarks,

When I first played her [Emily], I was... so very happy and Emily reflected my love of life...But for Mr. Wee [former president of Singapore], my Emily was eight years older... [displaying] Emily's hand of steel beneath the velvet glove... The general audience did not cry for my two-faced Emily, when they had bawled their hearts out eight years before... (Emily, p.97).

This comment identifies a delicate ambivalence as integral to the character. Despite her dominance, her appropriation of power, her clever manipulation of domestic politics, Emily remains a very vulnerable person. Even as a child when she used to 'sing for her supper', she was deeply aware of the fact that a woman, in order to survive, needed to make herself indispensable.

Do you understand what made me what I am? ... Your life is meaningless, you have no value, except, as you are a wife and mother, then be the very devil of a wife and mother. Look after your husband and family... so that you can control them and keep them in the palm of your hand' (p. 49).

Thus, her most intimate relationships seem a strange mixture of love and power. At the centre of this ambivalence, as its pivotal point, stands her relationship with Richard, her first-born, whose name is the first and the last of all the children's names on Emily's lips.

However, Emily is not alone in playing such power games. Rich, the American feminist, who was mentioned in the third part of the General Introduction, and in Case Study 2 on Australian Drama, analyses the deep power that she identifies as lying at the centre of a Mother-child relationship. 'Motherhood', she insists in her book Of Woman Born, 'has a history and an ideology, it is more fundamental than tribalism or nationalism' (Rich, 1976, Offprints Collectionc). This creates an opportunity for a Research Project (suggestion 2); you could study Heretic and Emily and trace the similarities and differences between them in terms of some of the ongoing debates in contemporary feminism.

That mothering is crucial to Emily is made transparent right at the start of the play. She beckons her son to her within the first few minutes of the action, 'Richard! Richard, come let mother talk to you' (Emily, p. 13). There is an almost symbiotic link between the two that both acknowledge-the bond of a 'strong son, beautiful mother' (p. 13). To Emily, Richard is her beloved son but also a tool in her power politics within the extended family. 'What was Freddy's position?' She inquires conspiratorially of him when he comes home with his report card, more worried about his standing in relation to his cousin than about his performance per se. 'Eleventh. All right lah! You did quite well. Good boy, Mamma give you five dollars to spend' (p.41). It is indeed ironic that it is this power politics that directly leads to the cause of his suicide-for it is Emily who introduces him to horses in order to impress her father-in-law (p.42).

The relations between Emily and her children seems a reflection of power-relations at the centre of patriarchal society, 'You will do this because I know what is good for you' becomes difficult to distinguish from 'You will do this because I can make you' (Rich, Offprints Collection). Emily's power is closely aligned to her general state of powerlessness. She uses mothering as a channel - narrow but deep - for her human will to power. This of course, is recognised and resented by all her children, while she remains unaware of it. In one of the rare instances where Emily gives in to despair, she cries out 'Richard, I was a good mother to you! Kheong, I was a good wife! Why did you both hate me then? I didn't do anything wrong!' (p.49). The extent of her unawareness, her incapacity to place her situation within any larger perspective, her total self-absorption, can leave us aghast. In the end, we are left wondering, 'Is Emily then an oppressor or a victim?' She seems to be both - a subject possessed of power and an object of oppression, at the same time. This is perhaps one reason why Jacqueline Lo (see Offprints Collection) situates Emily in a space between the two at the point of conflict and collusion between the coloniser and the colonised, between patriarchy and the individual woman. The 'psychological keenness' that Rich detects at the centre of powerlessness ('a shrewdness, an alert and practised observation of the oppressor - 'psyching out' developed into a survival tool' Offprints Collection), can be seen at work in Emily, colluding with, while also being oppressed by, the powerful.

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