Orientalism Questions and Answers
by Edward W. Said

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How does Edward Said's theory of Orientalism manifest itself in "The Sign of Four" by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and "A Passage to India" by E.M. Forster?

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Edward Said's theory of Orientalism argues that the West invented "the Orient," a mythic construct that deliberately lumps together myriad diverse cultures, ranging from the Egyptian to the Indian and the Chinese and everything geographically in between, as one large, undifferentiated mass. By doing this, the West could more easily control a vast territory and define it as a single "Other." "The Orient" was constructed in opposition to the West: feminine rather than masculine; intuitive, mysterious, unfathomable, and exotic rather than rational and logical; devious rather than straightforward; primitive rather than advanced. It was constructed as a space that needed the paternalistic control of the superior West, which helped justify imperialism. The "Orient" was not like the West, and "Orientals" were not like Europeans.

Said directly discusses A Passage to India in his book Orientalism, saying the novel orientalizes India by depicting it as mysterious and exotic. Below are examples of mystifying India from the novel, and I am sure you can find more. For example, Forster shows the sensuous, natural world of India itself, filled with "exotic" creatures such as monkeys, mystifying or making mysterious any real knowledge of itself. Forster, for example, depicts the myriad voices of India as not wanting to reveal themselves:

they didn’t want it, they said in their hundred voices, ‘No, not yet’, and the sky said, ‘No, not there' . . .

Adela wants to "see the real India," but in the end this eludes her too, and she falls into the "hysteria" that overtakes her in the caves. As she becomes overwhelmed by the sensual and the exotic, the "Orient" disorients her.

Fielding also finds that India puzzles him. He finds Aziz and the other Indian characters ultimately inscrutable—a common Orientalist label meant to avoid the need to understand another culture. Fielding decides India is a "muddle," a word close to "mystery."

A less Orientalist approach would view India not as exotic and inscrutable, veiled and mysterious, but as just like another country that can be known and comprehended in a rational way.

Doyle's The Sign of the Four takes a much cruder approach to the "Orient," again concentrating on India through the highly "othered" character of Tonga, a native of the Andaman Islands off India. Tonga is smaller than the Europeans and shoots poison darts from a blowgun, showing himself to be so primitive and frightening that Watson says he could keep a "man" up at night. He is mysterious, threatening and animal-like, with small glowing eyes, a misshapen head, and devious movements. He is not treated as fully human but as an Orientalist threat that causes Holmes and Watson to pull their guns: he is what the West must be protected from.

Doyle's India is also an exotic place, where European men can obtain wealth in jewels from a "rajah"—it is a place open to exploitation by the West.

Forster is more sophisticated than Doyle in his exploration of India, but both authors exoticize and mystify this country.

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