Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2442
There can be little doubt that the major and minor concerns that are interwoven in Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s novels and short stories arise from her personal or observed experience, and it is always tempting to speculate on the extent to which her fiction actually reflects her own life. As an expatriate European writer stationed for most of her adult life in India, she has admitted that she sometimes includes aspects of herself in her Western characters, which has led critics to assume that the hostile attitudes toward India displayed by some of her fictional characters—such as Esmond (Esmond in India)—mirror her point of view. By the same token, characters like Judy (A Backward Place) and Olivia Rivers (Heat and Dust) display bonds of personal affection for India that may also reflect Jhabvala’s own commitment to the country that she adopted by marriage. It would probably be more useful, therefore, to trace how her personal experiences of the East-West encounter have enriched and molded the techniques and content of her work.
Nearly everything she has written springs from the fact that she married an Indian at the age of twenty-four and accompanied him to his country to live there for the next quarter century. Living in Delhi, the capital, she used the city extensively in her work. Its streets, squares, quarters, and suburbs are all named and located so accurately in her early fiction in particular that they can be plotted on a map. This gives her writing a special sense of validity that is remarkable, especially since it comes from the pen of an outsider.
Jhabvala’s novels can be conveniently divided into three phases, the first phase marked by romantic idealism, the second by the shedding of illusions, and the third by a renewed search for wholeness. If there is any disillusionment in her first two novels, To Whom She Will and The Nature of Passion, it is in its gentlest form: the comic mismatching of lovers who discover their differences and change partners, end the liaison, or modify their expectations so that harmony can be restored. The fictional world is comfortable and appealing; it appears that these novels are meant to convey to the Western reader an India that the author loves. Jhabvala in this first phase is interested in a number of social issues: the clash between generations in a changing society, the influence of the West on middle-class India, and the lingering effects of British colonialism on Indian life. The people she portrays in her early novels usually belong to the wealthy and privileged classes, while in her later work she begins to display a sense of anger and outrage at the social inequality she sees in India.
Esmond in India introduces a set of darker themes that will be worked out in later novels. It presents a series of complicated relationships, at the center of which is Esmond, a villainous and bitter Englishman. The Householder, which can be considered the last work of this first phase, marks a return to the harmonious vision of the first two novels, but the tone is more melancholic. A tender comedy, it is a moving portrait of a struggling schoolteacher, Prem, and his delightful bride Indu. Western characters are seen through Prem’s eyes.
The next phase of Jhabvala’s fiction is marked by a growing uneasiness about the traditional values upheld in the earlier romantic comedies. Get Ready for Battle and A Backward Place signal a greater interest in the clash of Western and Indian values as they are embodied in the European and Indian characters and their interrelationships. Sarla Devi, the heroine of Get Ready for Battle, represents conscience and struggle in a world of greed and dishonesty, and her efforts are inevitably met with defeat. A Backward Place considers the problem of being a Western woman in India: It is significant that all three women of the novel, Judy, Clarissa, and Etta, present unsatisfactory solutions.
The third phase of her novels includes A New Dominion, Heat and Dust, In Search of Love and Beauty, and Three Continents. The last two inaugurate a new “American” phase as well. In these novels, comedy gives way to seriousness as Jhabvala explores new dimensions of emotional relationships that center on love, particularly in the characters of women and homosexual men. She shows interest in cults with male leaders. The first novel of this group works on this theme of a sinister but magnetic guru; the second (Heat and Dust) focuses on an Englishwoman’s infatuation with a different kind of guru figure, an Indian prince who is also sinister but magnetic.
In Search of Love and Beauty continues the investigation of the charismatic male who attracts blind followers in the character of Leo Kellermann, a German refugee psychiatrist who runs an Academy of Potential Development for his disciples. Three Continents, as its title suggests, covers a lot of geographical ground; it appears to be Jhabvala’s most pessimistic novel, as well as the one that has been called disappointing by critics. The weakness of the novel probably lies in the character of Harriet Wishwell, who is unreliable as the heroine-narrator of a complex tale that revolves around a woman’s passionate love for a homosexual man.
Though Jhabvala’s novels may have progressed towards pessimism, it cannot be said that her work represents a totally dark vision: She deals in human relationships across continents and cultures, and she points out to her readers the disillusionments that are inevitable to such complex interactions. That the shedding of illusions is a necessary factor in human relationships is the most valuable lesson offered by Jhabvala in her work, and since truth brings light, her novels cannot be called completely dark.
Esmond in India
First published: 1958
Type of work: Novel
Esmond Stillwood, an Englishman, becomes increasingly bitter and isolated as he spends several years in India and fails to establish a single successful relationship with either Indian or Westerner.
Esmond in India, one of Jhabvala’s earliest novels, introduces a darker set of themes that the writer continued to explore in her later work. The principal theme is the dilemma of the foreigner in India, whose initial delight in the country turns to isolation and bitterness. Clearly, this is a subject of personal concern for Jhabvala. The novel begins and ends by focusing on the character of young Shakuntala and spans a period of five months, which is the time that elapses between Shakuntala’s graduation from college and her prearranged marriage with the son of her father’s friend and associate. It is the life of Esmond, however, the one stranger in the midst of four interlinked Indian families, that is of primary interest. The plot of Esmond in India brings the four Indian households into alternate periods of intimacy and conflict, as they are all connected by blood, shared memories, or old associations, while Jhabvala appears to isolate Esmond in order to examine him most closely. He is the only Westerner among them, linked to them by a marriage of which they all disapprove. He is, for a while, married to Gulab (belonging to one of the four families) and has a son, Ravi, though his wife and son return to her mother’s house by the end of the novel.
Although Esmond associates with other Westerners in India, he is isolated among them because he has no plans to leave India. He is also one of the few characters in the novel to possess a genuine knowledge and appreciation of India’s culture and history, so much so that he believes that in giving lessons and lectures on Indian classical culture, he has found his true vocation. Despite his growing distress of mind, Esmond is far more intelligent and sensitive than the people around him, including his wife Gulab. Gulab, in her initial attraction to Esmond and her later opposition to him, becomes a symbol of India in his mind. By tracing his journey from comparative calm to mounting hysteria during the five months of the novel, Jhabvala appears to be presenting the stages by which the experience of India affects the Westerner.
Esmond’s personality begins to disintegrate along with his marriage, and his contempt for his wife merges with his growing distaste for India. His attempt to console himself with Shakuntala backfires, as the love and devotion she offers him finally drive him to flee to England for safety. Shakuntala’s own romantic dream of a daring liaison with Esmond is undercut by the reality of her parents’ plans for her and Esmond’s plans for himself. Apparently East and West cannot meet, even, or perhaps especially, in romance, Jhabvala seems to imply through Esmond’s experiments in India.
Heat and Dust
First published: 1975
Type of work: Novel
In parallel stories set fifty years apart, two Englishwomen in India have uncannily similar experiences in their relationships with Indian men but make different decisions about their lives.
Heat and Dust is the story of two Englishwomen who travel to India, about fifty years apart in time, and record their experiences there in letters and journals. The stylistic arrangement of two parallel stories is creatively handled by means of excerpts from the narrator’s journal interspersed with the details she provides from her predecessor Olivia’s letters that she has in her possession. The reader needs to be alert to the constant shifts between the two tales as they trace similar developments in the lives of the two women. The major historical difference that they encounter is that while Olivia came to India during a time when it was still a part of the British empire, the narrator finds herself in a free country. The passage of time also means that there has been some progress in the way women are able to conduct their lives. Through these differences, Jhabvala is able to convey the changes that have come about in women’s lives in half a century.
In the earlier story, Olivia Rivers is bored and unhappy as the wife of a British colonial administrator in India, and though she loves her handsome husband Douglas, she welcomes the company of the Nawab, a minor Indian prince of a neighboring state, and his English houseguest Harry. Though the British community disapproves of her friendship with the untrustworthy Nawab, she is unable to curb her growing fascination about him until their closeness is sexually consummated. When she finds herself pregnant, she arranges for an abortion and in the scandal that follows chooses to go to the Nawab. She quietly lives the rest of her life in India, in her own house in the hills, leaving behind a legacy of her letters to her sister Marcia.
These letters come into the hands of the narrator, who decides to trace Olivia’s story in India. Like Olivia, she ends up with two men in her life, the British Chid and her Indian landlord Inder Lal. Unlike Olivia she is married to neither, and in her progressive times, she is able to carry on her liaisons without scandal. When the narrator becomes pregnant, she decides to keep the child without informing the father, Inder Lal, and moves into the hills where Olivia went, to await her new life on her own.
Jhabvala’s central intention in Heat and Dust is to provide a voice for women, especially in the story of Olivia. Though Olivia’s story is regarded as a scandal by her own generation and hushed up, the reappearance of her detailed letters makes it possible for the narrator to offer the reader Olivia’s side of the tale. By cleverly juxtapositioning Olivia’s experiences in India and her own, the narrator is also able to provide a sense of how women’s lives have changed in the course of the twentieth century.
First published: 1971 (collected in An Experience of India, 1971)
Type of work: Short story
A woman tries to balance a comfortable but dull life as a housewife with her secret passionate devotion to music, and in indulging the latter she transfers her attentions from her husband to her mysterious music teacher.
“The Housewife,” one of Jhabvala’s best-known short stories, was first published in An Experience of India. It is a moving exploration of the theme of artistic commitment, discreetly embedded in a domestic drama of marital infidelity. Shakuntala, after being a loving and faithful wife for twenty-five years, begins to take singing lessons and quickly discovers that her music becomes the most important thing in her world. While she has, till now, divided her tranquil affections among her husband, daughter, and grandchild, suddenly her life seems to revolve wholly around her lessons, her practice hour each morning, the appearances or absences of her teacher, and his varied responses to her progress.
Shakuntala’s volatile moods are determined by her passion for her music, and her passion is embodied in the guru figure of her music teacher. Jhabvala subtly maps the ups and downs, the triumphs and disappointments of the creative experience. By placing the dilemma in the midst of the ordinary middle-class life of a contented housewife, she particularly raises the question of how a woman is supposed to balance her social commitments in running a household with an overwhelming creative urge. For the woman artist, the practice of her art is to be fitted with difficulty into her everyday life, and its demands test her loyalties by competing with her concern for her family.
In Shakuntala’s case, the difficulty is compounded by the fact that her music is identified with her music teacher. The fascination of her art is complicated by the fascinations of love. The music teacher, talented, moody, and arrogant, embodies a threat to domestic order and a glimpse into the mysterious world of a life wholly devoted to art and pleasure. She revels in his appreciation of her singing and her money and his intermittent spells of indifference drive her to rashness. When he consistently fails to show up for her lessons, she seeks him out and follows him to his house, where he wastes no time in consummating their tension-filled relationship. Sexual intimacy appears to rouse Shakuntala to a state of telepathic awareness of her teacher and her art. Jhabvala ends her story with an ambiguous question that focuses on the dynamics between ordinary commitments to daily activities and the extraordinary passion for a higher art: “There was no going back from here, she knew. But who would want to go back, who would exchange this blessed state for any other?”
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