Esmond in India Themes
by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

This novel is, above all, one of close social observation. What the characters eat is important, embodying as it does cultural and political choice; so is what they wear. It is a part of Har Dayal’s hypocrisy that, having gone to Cambridge and worn Western suits and shirts as long as the British were in power, he is now reverting to the Indian dress he once despised, pretending silently to have worn it all along. The characters’ language is also carefully delineated. They all speak English, seemingly even in the home, as a mark of status. Gulab, however, lazy and stupid, speaks it worse than the others. Esmond’s fury, accordingly, is easily triggered by hearing his son slip into Hindi-influenced idioms. Other characters vary their use of English or Hindi tactically, like their clothes.

Yet, for all the penetration of Jhabvala’s gaze, her novel does not quite become social satire. It approaches that possibility, both in its presentation of upper-class Indian culture and in its picture of Esmond, the one Englishman in the story and its title character. There is something almost symbolic in the way that he manages merely by his existence to warp the lives of both Indian families, alternately marrying and seducing their daughters, rejecting and being rejected by them, as if he were an image of the powerful but essentially one-sided and uninvolved British imperial presence.

Nevertheless, the main impression the novel makes is not comic but regretful, not social but individual. When, at Shakuntala’s second venture into adult society, the reader is told that she has “greatly enjoyed” a party she has attended and that she believes that she is becoming “quite an adept,” humor is clear, because of the reader’s knowledge that she really has little idea of what is going on, understanding neither Western sarcasm nor Western...

(The entire section is 473 words.)