How important are constructions of femininity in British representations of India and / or "the Orient"? Consider Rudyard Kipling's Kim OR The Man Who Would Be King in comparison to E. M. Forster's A Passage to India.
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Late in EM Forster’s novel A Passage to India, Aziz and Cyril Fielding, the rare example of an enlightened Englishman, are riding horses and discussing Aziz’s ordeal while speculating – fantasizing, in a sense – about a post-colonial India. Aziz becomes increasingly excited about the prospect of an Indian nation free of European and Japanese imperialism. In the midst of his excitement, he utters a thought that encapsulates the European perception of those less-developed nations they occupy with the intent of civilizing: “Old story of ‘We will rob every man and rape every woman from Peshawar to Calcutta’.” Aziz, who has been publicly humiliated and forced to defend himself in an English court against the charge of raping a white woman, remains bitter, forever changed from the previously admiring subject of the British Crown eager to impress these European interlopers. Just as in the many real-life cases of African American men being wrongfully accused of raping white women during the pre-civil rights era, native Indians are viewed almost universally by European settlers as racially and culturally inferior and worthy of subjugation. Stereotypes, of course, tend to run both ways, and the Indians portrayed in Forster’s novel are not immune to human fallacies, as when Aziz assumes all Englishwomen to be “haughty and venal.”
Culture clashes abound in A Passage to India, with the Indian characters offended by Western insensitivities to and ignorance of their religious and ethnic customs and traditions. Forster presents his Englishwomen as spoiled, arrogant creatures, noting that even when British men were prone to acting politely towards the indigenous population, the women acted as impediments to greater cultural understanding. He writes at one point that “the Englishmen had tended to play up better, but had been prevented from doing so by their women folk, whom they had to attend, provide with tea, advise about dogs, etc.” Women in Forster’s novel play a decidedly corrosive role, and represent the worst impulses of British imperialism.
To suggest that Rudyard Kipling adopted a somewhat hostile view of women would be an understatement. This was, after all, the man who penned a poem titled The Female of the Species, that opened with the following stanza:
When the Himalayan peasant meets the he-bear in his pride,
He shouts to scare the monster, who will often turn aside.
But the she-bear thus accosted rends the peasant tooth and nail.
For the female of the species is more deadly than the male.
This attitude, needless to say, was not limited to this poem. Whereas Forster tended to emphasize the submissive and proper role of women in English and Indian society, Kipling viewed them in a rather unflattering light. Most of the women in Kim are prostitutes known to the story’s protagonist. An important exception is the “Woman of Shamlegh,” a woman of considerable force who, in contrast to the rest of the country, dominates her environment, the small community of that name. Kim will be safe with her because, despite his true heritage, he has lived his life as a native of the Punjab and the Woman of Shalegh “has no love for Sahibs,” as it is pointed out to Kipling’s protagonist. She helps him evade the Russian intelligence operatives who are after Kim and hopes to attract this young man to her bed.
Kipling’s portrayal of women stands in stark contrast to that of Forster, who’s prim yet condescending females are considerably more vicious. While Kipling’s female characters are whores and schemers, they are not inherently evil. There is, though, no hint of respect for that particular gender.
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