Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Download Heat and Dust Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Heat and Dust is especially effective as a novel of social criticism. Jhabvala brilliantly captures the nuances, tensions, and frustrations of Westerners living under stress in an alien setting, artificially maintaining a facsimile of an English country village with its manners and traditions. It is appropriate that the British residential area should be called “the Civil Lines.” The British are superficially “civil” toward the local population but remain socially aloof and, among themselves, disdainful.

The British ruling class is marked by its smugness and condescension: “like good parents they all loved India whatever mischief she might be up to.” When Olivia speaks in defense of the Indians’ right to practice their traditions, her countrymen “sportingly discussed her point of view as if it were one that could be taken seriously.” Dr. Saunders, who is openly hostile to Olivia and considers any sensitivity towards Indian culture as a sign of weakness, condemns the Indians for their “savagery and barbarism.” Most of the English characters are more tolerant than Saunders and his wife, who are extreme cases, more openly frustrated and less practiced at veiling their hostility and contempt for India. The usual tolerance is a part of the colonial image and a consequence of conditioned civility. The “proper” Englishmen, such as Douglas, Crawford and Minnies, will be protected by their smugness and strength of character. It is no wonder the Nawab delights in spiting them.

This theme is best expressed through the character of Major Minnies, who realizes that there are many reasons for loving India: “the scenery, the history, the poetry, the music, and indeed the physical beauty of the men and women.” Major Minnies adds, however, that it is “dangerous for the European who allows himself to love [India] too much” and warns that the “proper” Englishman “has to be very determined to withstand—to stand up to—India.”

The successful European will know, like Beth Crawford, “where lines had to be drawn, not only in speech and behavior but also in one’s thought.” Olivia does not know where to draw the line, however, and that is her “weakness.” Major Minnies explains that this “weak spot is to be found in the most sensitive, often the finest people.” Hence, only the insensitive can succeed in India by English standards.

Finally, the major theme of Heat and Dust is cultural transformation, a process for which only the most determined of the sensitive are qualified. India is not a healthy place for Olivia’s friend Harry, who languishes in the Nawab’s entourage and who is unable to extricate himself from the Nawab’s influence. Only after the prince’s fall from power is Harry free to return to his mother’s flat in Kensington.

The Nawab and his immediate relatives are ultimately seduced and destroyed, ironically, by Western values and creature comforts. As a prince, he lives beyond his means. For profit, he allows bands of thieves to terrorize his province, the price of his being able to stay at Claridges while in London. While Olivia stays in India, the Nawab spends much of his time in London, glutting himself on pastries, and, later, in New York, where he dies in the Begum’s Park Avenue apartment in 1953. As Harry remarks after seeing the prince in London, “The Nawab was quite changed.”

The Nawab’s relatives are further contaminated by the Western world. Before going to India, the narrator visits the Nawab’s nephew and heir, Karim, and his wife, Kitty (who, despite the cute Western name, is...

(The entire section is 883 words.)