Post-Colonialism and the Canon: Sour Sweet and The Remains of the Day

Jason E. Roach '91 (English 34, 1991)

In considering the relation of Sour Sweet and The Remains of the Day to the canon, it is important to remember that in an era where deconstruction and radical critique is commonplace, some works may stake a claim to canonization partially by means of an efficient and distinct use of those techniques to broaden understanding and push at literary barriers and prejudices. In other words, consideration of their inclusion in the expanding canon is partially predicated on their ability to question the sensibilities and beliefs that define it. Stevens, the butler from The Remains of the Day, functions as a not so subtle metaphor for the colonized. His ideals are, of course, subtly deconstructed and in the end torn down completely. Stevens has come to justify his opinionless position on world affairs with beliefs such as, "the great decisions of the world are not, in fact, arrived at... in the privacy and calm of the great houses of the country" (115). Stevens' opinion is tantamount to the attitude that colonies would do well to respect the authority of the empire, whose decisions will be passed down for their benefit. In like manner, it functions by extension as a critique on the canon, attacking the legitimacy of those who consider the canon immutable and still subject to purely Western ideals. Stevens' ultimate recognition that these deferential views are untenable parallels the actual pressure applied to the canon by these four novels and by The Remains of the Day in particular.

It is not just Ishiguro's pressure on the exclusivity of the canon that stakes his claim for addition, but the form of the novel itself. He not only deconstructs a traditional and exclusionary world-view, but does by means of the traditional forms. All four of these novels are very much in touch with their canonical influences, the significance of which will be addressed shortly, but The Remains of the Day is especially vital in this regard, for it subverts traditional form. Combining elements of classical travel writing, the personal narrative, and the archetypical butler novels of P.G. Wodehouse, Ishiguro turns them to his own end. Moreover, language is similarly subverted. Stevens' reserved, upper-class speech initially plays a part in duping the reader but eventually is shown for what it is, a mask to conceal the errors in Stevens lifestyle. In this case that vision is diametrically opposed to the classical notion of the canon, calling into question the sensibilities that dictated its formation. The novel's subject and very existence, its subverted form illustrating the declining hegemony of the empire, paves the way for its potential inclusion in the canon. Ishiguro educates the reader, helping one to understand a lengthy tradition of thought, and showing that tradition for what it is.

Narrative perspective is equally as important in Sour Sweet as in The Remains of the Day. In relating the experience of a Chinese family relocated to England, Mo's Sour Sweet executes a subversion of another perspective. For Lily, Englishmen are indistinguishable, a classic imperial attitude toward colonies. Much of Sour Sweet, in fact, is a reversal of the Western evaluation of colonials' relative merits, a juxtaposition of cultures and attitudes. This liberty Mo takes with Sour Sweet does much to illustrate the problems of cultural relativity, precisely the attitude for which radical critics attack the traditional canon. Chen notes the disgusting eating habits of the English with their soya sauce and their inability to see Lily on his terms, as a rather homely individual. In Mo's work, it is the English who are found lacking in culture: "Son's schooling, English-style, continued on its peculiar, bewildering way. Lily rested her faith in his once-weekly exposure to Chinese curriculum, as a measured dose of radiotherapy might burn out cancerous growth."(p. 247) Much of Sour Sweet concerns the transferral of culture and its survival. Throughout Chinese history, the country was subject to a series of invasions, but each time the conqueror's culture was lost as they absorbed the culture of the vanquished, essentially becoming Chinese. A similar notion of cultural perseverance is found in Sour Sweet. The Chens eat traditional Chinese food themselves but serve poorer quality derivatives to the British. The Chen family unit remains intact and is even extended by Mui's marriage, when Chen is killed it is by a transplanted Chinese society. The Hung society itself perseveres in a new country.

An appropriate metaphor for the cultural contact is available in the transformation of the traditional Chinese husband-wife relationship. Lily evolves after Man Kee's birth, modifying her subservient wifely role in ways Chen fails to notice. Lily "was now actually less dependent on Chen. Then he had been...the point around which she organised herself and through which her activities took on meaning. Now she was using Chen. Unknown to Chen whole new outlooks were developing behind his back, potentially disruptive of family harmony." (p. 40) Just as Lily develops new and unperceived views, the canon is challenged by novels such as these four, written about non-Western cultures, but adapting to Western culture in order to achieve voice and recognition. Discussion of these novel's viability for inclusion in the canon has necessarily assumed the existence of one, and it would be misguided to do otherwise. This assumption does not mean, however, that these books knock on the door of the canon on its own terms. If these books achieve canonization, it will be because they pushed the boundaries of the canon by means of education, criticism, and uniqueness. They pressed for a broader understanding and cultural acceptance. Suleri and Soyinka, for example, are able to show us alternate visions of life from countries which, although markedly altered by British imperialism, are struggling to shrug off these effects and themselves learn who they are. Mo and Ishiguro force us to confront commonly held and accepted beliefs about Western culture and its vitality. Sour Sweet forces one to reconsider cultural evaluations of merit, and The Remains of the Day serves as a metaphor writ large for the declining hegemony of the West in all respects, particularly the British.

It was noted above that these four works exhibit a significant knowledge of Western literary traditions, and the authors are in no way shy about evoking canonized works or utilizing them in any way necessary. The same attitude is exhibited in the utilization of English, Western institutions, Western metaphors, etc. This knowledge is essential as a work cannot purport to be groundbreaking unless the authors understands the conventions it is challenging or from which it is departing. History and politics may make these novels post-colonial in nature, but it is the knowledge of the Western literary tradition which enables these authors to write post-colonial literature. In claiming places in the canon as successors to the literary works which they evoke, these works inevitably also challenge the canon.

Mo's Sour Sweet United Kingdom Overview