Ruth Prawer Jhabvala World Literature Analysis - Essay

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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


(The entire section is 2442 words.)