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In Ruth Prawer Jhabvala s In a Great Man s House the story happens in India where the social, religious and cultural situation is very different from what we have in our western society. The oppression of the Indian women, poverty and social casts are issues that are still very present in India. But, although the story take place in a setting very different from ours, it portrays basic features of the human personality which most people consider universal. The author describes in a brilliant and insightful manner the complex net of human relationships. She show to us the balance between power and powerlessness through Hamida s marriage with Khan Sahib. She also tell to us about the perception of ones self and the experience of motherhood.
Hamida is in a situation of constant shifts between power and powerlessness. This frail balance depends on the reference fame she is in; she is powerful among her family but powerless at home. This power she has among her family comes to her because she is Khan Shib s wife. In addition to being the wealthiest member of her family she is the one with the highest social status. On the other hand, when she is at home she is powerless because Khan Sahib is in control.
But what are the reasons that justify this power difference between Hamida and her husband? First of all it is Khan Sahib who controls the wallet, he is the one making the money and even though he is generous and allows his wife some freedom in the use of his riches, Hamida still has to ask his permission which makes her dependent of him and gives him a firm clasp of the power in the relation. Another factor that influences the power struggle in the marriage is prestige. Khan Sahib is a talented and well known signer, he is respected and admired by all especially the men in Hamida s family who are also artists but not as accomplished as him. By contrast Hamida is a mere housewife an occupation deemed low in status and prestige by society. Finally there is the difference in social cast between Hamida and her husband. Hamida comes from a poor family while Khan Sahib is among the elite of the community. This difference is even more important in India where the cast system is a determinant factors in society. I think that Khan Sahib purposely chose a wife that is of lower status than him. In being of higher status than her this gives him control over her. In addition Khan Sahib likes to feel important, his wife s family dependence and admiration for him, makes him feel superior, He was fond of his brother-in-law who return adored, worshipped him. When Khan Sahib sang, and tears of joy coursed down his face that God should allow beings to reach so high. [718, 14]
Because in a traditional society the woman s sense of identity derives from an identification with the husband. Hamida is powerful among her family. Her stubborn insistence on going to her niece s marriage even thought she knows that this is not an appropriate time for such an event reflects her craving for power that she has been deprived of from her husband. She want s to be among people over which she has power, most important person at these family occasions. They all ran around in a dither or sat and wrung their hands till she arrived and began to give orders. She was not the eldest in the family, but she was the one who had the most authority only one among them to hold an eminent position. [715, 4]. Her desire that all requests to Khan Sahib by members of her family be made by her is another manifestation of her appetite for power. Even though Hamida s marriage with this man of high status leaves her powerless at home she is willing to make this sacrifice in order to be powerful among her family.
A Woman s self-esteem rests on her feeling of being able to contribute, if this self-esteem depends entirely upon a role whose functions diminish or which almost anyone may be able to perform, such as housework, she is going to feel frustrated and worthless. Confronted to such attack s, a women reverts to face saving mechanisms in order to preserve self esteem. In Hamida s case this is demonstrated by her constant criticizing of the servants work and of the boarding school her son attends. By declaring the incompetence and laziness of the servants, Just try and get your paid servants to do one half of the work that I do. All they are good for is to eat up your rice and lick up your butter, oh at that they are first class maestros if I were not there to see and know everything. [715, 17] she is trying to give value to her role as a housekeeper by convincing herself that without her, nothing would be done. Of course the marriage announced is a great opportunity for her not only, as I mentioned earlier, to exert power but to feel that she is needed, They really want me. [715, 13]. These psychological self-esteem saving devices are important for a person in order to maintain mental integrity and prevent depression.
The gratification for maternal deeds are necessary for feelings of well-being. And I think that for most women in our society a lack of gratification for those deeds, are dominant reasons for lack of self-esteem. In Hamida s case she is not only deprived of these maternal gratification but she is completely deprive of her role as a mother, You want only one thing: to take everything you can away from me. To leave me with nothing. That is your only happiness and joy in life. [713, 27]. The primary role she associates herself to, she can no longer accomplish. This generate in her feelings of frustration, anger and betrayal. These feelings are directed toward her husband which she believes is the cause of her suffering. He is the one who sent Sajid to the boarding school therefore she sees him as the person that took from her the pleasure and joy of motherhood the single most important thing in her life. Hamida s need to experience these feelings of having someone to love and who will love her, someone to nurture, and someone to protect.
For women, children are expected to provide a major incentive or concept of the meaning of life and it is in caring for their children that they are expected to experience a sense of meaning, value, and significance. A child is a person to which a mothers is emotionally involved and deeply committed. The child s dependence on its mother is a reason that explains the feelings of a mother for her child. The sense of being essential to a child is one of the greatest attraction of motherhood. A child s need for his mother is felt as especially compelling because it is seen as a need for the mother as a unique individual. The obvious physical dependence of a child gives most often a purpose which a mother can readily identify strive for and see themselves as fulfilling, How he loved my fritters. [716,6]
In addition to their physical dependence children have an emotional dependence to the mother. A mother is a source of support comfort and encouragement. This emotional connection is bi-directional, both the child and the mother see in one another someone to share their thoughts and feelings with, and provide them with emotional support. Women particularly feel close to their daughters because it is with them that they can mostly share their lives. The emotional security that hey feel from their daughters is enhanced by the belief that there is a special link between the daughter and the mother. Mothers expect to always remain an advisor and a friend to their daughter as they follow in their footsteps and become wives and mothers themselves. Hamida s craving for such connection is obvious by her relationship with her niece. The niece s desire to learn how to embroider is rewarding for Hamida in a way that a son could not be, Please teach me, auntie, the girl begged, looking up at Hamida with her sad childish eyes. Hamida was quite pleased, but she spoke sternly. [714,11]. Hamida sees herself in her niece, Their two faces were reflected in the heart-shaped glass surrounded by a frame carved with leaves and flowers they looked like a faded portrait of long ago. It was true that there was a resemblance. If Hamida had had a daughter, she might have looked like this girl. [720,2] and this is why she opens up to her. She feels that this girl can understand her suffering, and just by empathizing she alleviates her aunts pain. When the aunt opens her jewel box and shows it to her niece, this symbolizes that she is opening her heart to her. For an instant Hamida is in a world where she feels liberated and understood, her niece has become her daughter. But, she is suddenly brought back to reality by the return of her sister, she immediately shut the jewel boxes and put them back into the safe, When she saw her daughter dressed up in her sister s clothes and jewels, he clapped her hands and exclaimed in joyful surprise. Hamida s good mood was gone in a flash, and the first thing she did was shut her jewel boxes and lock them back into her safe.[720,35]
Even thought Hamida experiences powerlessness it does not make her more aware of such mistreatment, instead she applies her power on those who are weaker than her ( her family) in order to acquire self-esteem. Hamida also wants to have a sense of meaning and purpose to her life. The only way she has of finding it is through motherhood, something which has been taken away from her. Hamida also needs to establish herself in a loving and intimate relationship in which her need to love and be loved is satisfied. She does not get this relationship from her husband and son. She therefore turns toward her niece which represents for her the daughter she never had.
Ruth, Prawler Jhabvala. In a Great Man s House .
In The Heath Introduction To Fiction. Ed. John J. Clayton. Toronto:
D.C. Heath and Company, 1996.
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