The Cathedral as Image and Characterization in Lim's Rice Bowl

George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University; Distinguished Visiting Professor, National University of Singapore, 1998-1999

A standard, time-tested device of literary characterization involves having fictional personages tell us something about themselves by their comments, descriptions, and judgments of external objects. In Victorian English literature, for example, speakers often define themselves by the way they represent or mis-represent landscapes, thereby turning their descriptions of what they see into depictions of their own thoughts and feelings. The speakers in Browning's "Porphyria's Lover" and Tennyson's "Mariana" and In Memoriam tell us more about themselves that about their surroundings, thereby creating examples of paysage intérieure -- interior rather than exterior landscapes. Thus the insane speaker in Browning's dramatic monologue dramatizes his paranoia while those in Tennyson's effectively convery their depression and feelings of isolation. Ruskin termed such distortions the Pathetic (that is, emotional) Fallacy, and he argued that they characterized Romantic and postromatic literature. According to Ruskin, the very greatest work, that by, say, Homer and Dante, did not employ such devices, but he claimed that it was entirely acceptable when an author used it to communicate a character's sense of the world.

Such techniques also appear in fiction, as in Su-chen Christine Lim's depiction of her protagonist's thoughts upon looking at a Roman Catholic cathedral in Singapore:

The sky darkened ominously as the huge grey clouds, heavy with rain, rolled in from the sea. The spire of the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd [image] stood high and solitary above the old pre-war shophouses of Victoria Street and Bras Basah Road, defying the onslaught of the flying clouds of a sumatran storm. Marie looked at it for a moment. If only the Church would be like its spire, but she quickly pushed the thought aside as wishful thinking. The Church would never be like that. It would stress the vow of obedience and carefully act within the limits of its grey walls and law-abidingly leave the teeming millions of the city's blocks and shophouses to be organized and ordered by authorities other than herself. It was content simply to be a haven for the lonely individual squeezed dry by the city's machinery steam-rolling its way to progress. [198-99]

Church spires are often taken as synbols of spiritual aspiration, of human desire for heavenly things, and, at least in pre-twentieth-century cities, where the church or cathedral towered over other buildings, as a symbol of the Church's proper superiority to the things of man. Marie reads the steeple of the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd in a less typical way as the symbol of the Church's potential for heroic strength and endurance in a hostile surronding. The way readers evaluate Marie's analogizing the steeple goes a long way towards defining the novel's meaning for them: Is she accurate, that the Church refuses politial challenges, and, if so, is her condemnation of it correct? Conversely, how much, if any, of Marie's thoughts about the steeple are just forced analogies, and whether true or false, accurate or distorting, how do her thoughts about the Cathedral function to advance the anrrative, say, to forseshadow Marie's later actions?

Postcolonial Web Singapore OV Singaporean Literature Su-chen Christine Lim