Opposing Roles: Place, Invasion, and Responsibility

Jennifer Ellingson, English 27, 1997

If postcolonial and postimperial literature can be conceived of as a broad category with a number of similar underlying themes, the theme of responsibility is certainly among them. Closely linked to responsibility is the question of the nature of roles, obligations to fulfill them, and their potential for change or manipulation. Postcolonial and postimperial literature deal with changing orders: shifting structures of belief, of social values, and power. Yet what drives these changes, and to what end? Who can explain the "Whowhatwhy," (to borrow the term from Graham Swift's Waterland) of these stories that make up an often tragic history? Are these actors in control of, or on the contrary, "In [the] Custody" of their roles, or even the roles of others? What is their relationship to the destinies of their people or their nation? And to what extent are they obligated by their own self-awareness, or exonerated by their (literal and figurative) idiocy -- do they have a choice? Or are they victims of invisible forces utterly beyond their control -- History as an entity in itself? These questions are as relevant to the isolated British Fensmen of Swift's Waterland, who are essentially oblivious to the relative decline of their nation's Empire, as to the underclass indigenous Maoris of New Zealand in Alan Duff's Once Were Warriors. For the degeneration of the Maori people, or for the family tragedies of the Fens where lies the Explanation? What drives history? Who or what is Responsible?

The roles of teacher and student, master and servant, man and woman, are far from distinct in the novels we have read. Who learns from whom? Who has power? Who is responsible for tragedy? The novels we have read all address these symbiotic (and often predatory) relationships, either in explaining a system of order, as in Waterland and Shame, or in seeking a possible escape from it, as in The Remains of the Day, In Custody, and Once Were Warriors.

All of the novels we have read this semester relate to roles. The issue of roles invokes questions of responsibility, in both moral terms and in impersonal, natural terms of cause and effect. Characters such as the Maoris of Pine Block, and Omar Khayyam flee from responsibility, while others such as Mr. Stevens and Beth Heke ultimately embrace it (after flights of their own) along with their past mistakes. Whether history is fatalistic, circular, and formed of unintended consequences, or whether peoples are responsible for and capable of shaping it for themselves, the novels all share the common theme that in one form or another -- individual or shared, moral or logical -- responsibility is inescapable.

Swift continually places the parochial activities and tragedies of Waterland's isolated British Fens in the political context of the ensuing World War II, as well as in the context of time and ideas÷ somewhere between those of the French Revolution and the Cold War. In The Remains of the Day, the old English estate of Darlington Hall like the rest of the world, does not escape postwar occupation by the American gentleman Farraday, and his cultural values of commodification. Even Nishapur, the labyrinthical fortress in which Omar Khayyam's three virginal mothers in Shame seclude themselves is finally penetrated by usurped political tyrants turned refugees. And finally, in Once Were Warriors, when Grace Heke, a Maori child from the Pine Block ghetto hangs herself in the backyard of the rich, white Family Trambert, it becomes painfully obvious that responsibilities -- be they painful, ambiguous, or futile÷ -- can not be avoided indefinitely.

United Kingdom