Crossing a Sea of Hope:
Women, Migration, and Epic in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh
“And anyway/I’d never write good poetry because what did/I know about war, death, the gods/and the founding of countries?/But you see, Dad, what I really want to read/and hear is stuff about us, about now,/about Nubians in Londinium, about men/who dress up as women, about extramarital/peccadilloes, about girls getting married to older men and on that note,/in the words of the great god Pliny,/the one too early and the other too late (ahem!)./And I don’t care about the past/and I ain’t writing for posterity—/he also says that I should write for readers/five centuries hence./Well, I’m a thoroughly modern miss/and who knows what life will be like then.”
-Bernardine Evaristo, The Emperor’s Babe
Elizabeth Barrett Browning is lauded to this day for her epic poetry, the most famous of which is Aurora Leigh. With its modern female protagonist, cross-continental migration, and vivid imagery, the poem proves more than a simple exercise in copying Homeric tradition. The poem provides commentary relevant to this day about women’s voices and roles in literature, especially in regards to their journeys and searches for home. In her feminist critique of the epic tradition, Barrett Browning centers women in their migration as their own kinds of heroes, immortalizing their identities and their struggles and their searches for home as intrinsic to modern literature. Aurora Leigh’s charting of migration thus serves not only as a way of solidifying Barrett Browning’s position in the western canon, but as a call to action for other women poets to write of their own experiences in distinctly feminine forms, knowing they carry the same significance as the battles and journeys away from home in Homeric epic.
Aurora Leigh’s protagonist, Aurora Leigh, narrates the poem as a migrant herself, and Barrett Browning uses imagery of water and of the sea in conjunction with Aurora’s migration to connect it with the epic tradition. In Book I of the poem, Aurora recounts how she was born in Florence to a Tuscan mother and an English father. After the deaths of both her parents, Aurora must go to England to live with an aunt, leaving her beloved Italian nurse, Assunta, behind. She remembers the way “the bitter sea/Inexorably pushed between us both” (Barrett Browning, 1.235-236), separating Aurora from Assunta, but also from what she calls “my Italy,” from “the white walls, the blue hills” of her home (1.232). They are so different from her first sighting of England, where “the frosty cliffs/Looked cold upon [her]” (1.251). She has been forced from her home to go to a land where she is something of an alien. Even after living with her aunt for several years, others around her continue referring to her as “the Italian child” (1.495). Thus, Aurora lives permanently marked as an outsider, as an immigrant in England. Later, she yearns for Italy, articulating a possessiveness again for her homeland: “Are you ’ware of me, my hills,/How I burn toward you?” (5.1267-1268) She personifies Italy, wondering whether it can feel her yearning “As sleeping mothers feel the sucking babe/And smile” (5.1270-1271). The equating of Italy with a mother figure might remind the reader of the line earlier in the poem, when Aurora speaks, as a result of the loss of her mother, how she “felt a mother-want about the world” (1.40). Just as she has been orphaned, Aurora’s migration leaves her with a void and a longing for a homeland to which she cannot really return.
The poem’s epic form already recalls the epic tradition, but Barrett Browning also provides opportunities to make direct comparison between Aurora Leigh and epic heroes in more overt allusions in her verse. When Aurora travels to Italy with Marian and her son, they stop one night in Marseilles, Barrett Browning once again using sea imagery as Aurora describes the city:
“With all her ships behind her, and beyond,
The scimitar of ever-shining sea
For right-hand use, bared blue against the sky!” (7.450-452)
She compels one to pause over the lines with the alliteration of both “b” and “s” sounds. A “scimitar,” a sword with a curved blade used historically in Central Asian and Middle Eastern empires, immediately evokes stories of war. And when placed in the same line as the adjective “ever-shining” to describe the sea, the verse here reminds the reader of its historical presence as well as seafaring for the purpose of war. These are precisely the material of epic poems. If that were not enough, Aurora also recounts how that evening, she sits “between the purple heaven/And purple water” (7.453-454), thinking of Italy, noticing the nature around her acting as “ambassador for God” (7.466). Barrett Browning alludes to The Odyssey when Aurora mentions the mountains moving “the way of grand dull Odyssean ghosts” (7.470). The comparison at this moment feels apt. Just like Odysseus, Aurora has been journeying home. Her connection to God through nature, too, can be compared to Poseidon’s anger with Odysseus and his hubris that leads him to prolong Odysseus’s journey back to Ithaca. The comparison allows Barrett Browning to position Aurora as a kind of, or a character existing in response to the, epic hero through her migration. But, Barrett Browning also proves, as a woman in the modern age, Aurora makes for a very different kind of heroine.
In a 2020 article for the Sewanee Review, A.E. Stallings recalls a poetry workshop she has led for refugee women in Greece since 2015. The women originally come from places like Syria and Iraq, but almost all of them have traveled in boats from Turkey to the island of Lesbos in Greece. The significance of the geography of their journeys is not lost on Stallings; these women have crossed the same eastern Aegean featured in Homer’s epics. However, their stories, obviously, are enormously different from Ancient Greek warriors. These women have not traveled to fight a war. They have fled to escape it. Like in Aurora Leigh, the women’s poetry about their migrations heavily features imagery of the sea. The sea is a source of nightmares of the women, toward which so many refugees are driven, but from which so many of them do not return (Stallings 352). Yet they have crossed it, because despite the danger posed by traveling in the “overloaded and unseaworthy boats” (352), the journey is one “that can carry you to your future” (354). The women migrate for hope. Such hope is not unlike Aurora Leigh’s motivations for migration. She goes back to Italy out of hope of inspiration, and perhaps hope of resolving the “mother-want” that plagues her as an orphan and as an immigrant. Together, these women’s poems and Barrett Browning’s epic argue that even when crossing the same geographies as those historically traveled by men, their journeys have very different motivations.
Barrett Browning reinforces the difference between her epic and someone like Homer’s through her form. While poems like The Iliad traditionally contained twelve books, Aurora Leigh only has nine. Olivia Gatti Taylor astutely points out the recurrence of the number nine throughout Barrett Browning’s poem and its connection to the ninth months of gestation women experience when pregnant (Gatti Taylor 153), suggesting a clear connection between women’s experiences and the form in which Barrett Browning writes. In the poem itself, Aurora asks herself, “What form is best for poems?” (Barrett Browning 5.223) “Trust the spirit,” she advises her reader, to influence the form poetry takes. She urges one to look inward: “Inward evermore/To outward—so in life, and so in art/Which still is life” (5.227-229). One’s art or poetry ought to be a reflection of their own life, both in its content and in its outward appearance, or form. Such a mindset allows Aurora Leigh, a poem full of mothers and “mother-want,” to take the form of the distinctly womanly lived experience of motherhood. Thus, in Aurora Leigh, Barrett Browning either responds to the epic tradition or updates it to account for women’s lives.
Barrett Browning further breaks from the Homeric epic in her depiction of sexual violence. In The Iliad, as Stallings explains, several female characters appear as the companions of the epic’s male heroes. As it turns out, these “spear-brides” could more accurately be referred to as “sex slaves,” as they are the victims of the massacres of their cities, where heroes like Achilles murder all of the men before snatching up the women and distributing them to be raped (360). Of course, however, the narrative focuses on the men of these stories, rather than fully acknowledging the violence, both sexual and not, to which these women have been subject. Marian in Aurora Leigh acts almost as a direct response to this lack of regard for female victims of sexual violence. When Aurora sees her child and accuses Marian of having been seduced into a child of wedlock, Marian immediately, vehemently corrects her:
“What, ‘seduced’’s your word?
Do wolves seduce a wandering fawn in France?
Do eagles, who have pinched a lamb with claws,
Seduce it into carrion? So with me” (6.766-769).
Marian not only compares herself to young, innocent animals, but compares the man who raped and impregnated her to predators. She repeats the word “seduce” several times, almost as if she is throwing it in Aurora’s face with its stupidity, like when one says a word so many times that it begins to lose its meaning. She emphasizes the violence that has been done to her here, the kind of violence and ruthlessness witnessed when a wild animal kills its prey. And if that were not overt enough, she states it plainly: “man’s violence,/Not man’s seduction, made me what I am” (6.1226-1227). Marian revolutionarily asserts herself as a victim of sexual violence. The verse here is reminiscent of Stallings’s reflections on the writing of Nadia Murad, a Yazidi woman from Northern Iraq who was captured by the Islamic State and forced into sexual slavery (365). Both of these women were removed from their homes and sexually assaulted—Marian to France, and Nadia to the Islamic State—and then migrate to escape such threats of violence. Modern poetry and women’s writing feature an almost reversal of the epic tradition. Whereas The Iliad and The Odyssey focuse on the stories of men and the atrocities—the raping and burning and pillaging—they are allowed in war, Aurora Leigh, and modern refugee women’s writing, give voices to the women against whom those atrocities have been committed.
Stallings, at one point in her article, when comparing the refugee women in her workshop to the women in Homer’s epics, describes what she calls “the epic present,” or the geography of epic still in use today as routes for migration (378). It is similar to the call-to-action Barrett Browning articulates in Aurora Leigh. “The critics say that epics have died out” (5.139), but Aurora disagrees. The trouble comes from not understanding the interaction between age and epic: “Every age/Appears to souls who live in’t (ask Carlyle)/Most unheroic” (5.155-157). Epic seems worthy of epic only because it is so far in the past. When it comes to writing a modern epic, all one need write is about regular people. After all, even Homer’s heroes, “They were but men—his Helen’s hair turned gray/Like any plain Miss Smith’s who wears a front” (5.247-148). Even the most beautiful woman of Troy was a regular woman who aged and died. Thus, in writing a modern epic, one must write of the modern age, no matter how ordinary it may seem. And as Aurora has said, if art is meant to reflect one’s own life, and when lives have changed so much, form, too, is subject to change. And part of that change should be the proliferation and popularization of the woman poet. Stallings gives an example of how Briseïs’s mourning Patroculus in The Iliad gives permission for the women around her to mourn, too, but “for their own cares” (373). In the same vein, Aurora Leigh, in making an epic of one woman’s journey, gives rise to other women poets, and pushes epic, and literature at large, to evolve. One day, Barrett Browning is sure, the western canon will be full of other thoroughly modern misses.
This paper represents my own work in accordance with University regulations.
Barrett Browning, Elizabeth. Aurora Leigh. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993. Originally published in London and New York in 1856.
Evaristo, Bernardine. The Emperor’s Babe. London: Penguin Books, 2001.
Gatti Taylor, Olivia. “Written in Blood: The Art of Mothering Epic in the Poetry of Elizabeth Barrett Browning.” Victorian Poetry 44 (2006): 153-164.
Stallings, A.E. “The Lyre of Eëtion: Lyric, Epic, War and Migration in the Eastern Aegean.” Sewanee Review 128 (Spring 2020): 349-379.
At its heart, Zadie Smith’s 2012 novel NW is an exploration of boundaries. Smith’s writing pays particular attention to the power of location – whether that be in a physical sense through her highly accurate walks through north-west London or chapters made entirely of Google Maps directions, or the metaphorical place one inherits in terms of class boundaries, race, or social standing. Each of Smith’s characters are pinpointed in relation to these boundaries, with the traversing of their borders the key theme of the text. Focusing on the journeys of Leah and Natalie, the two female protagonists of the text, I argue that in Smith’s creation of a work so focused on place, NW calls for an intersectional view of movement through class, race, and geographic lines, demonstrating that the path of the immigrant is much more complex than a simple question of their background.
From its name to its title chapters, geography plays a crucial role in constructing NW. The name itself – a reference to the NW postcode area of north-west London, or as Slavin suggests, additionally a reference to the area being a “NoWhere” (98) – sets the boundaries of the text from the outset, pushing readers to understand the text as an exploration of how its four central characters interact with the geography of the British capital. Crucially, however, as Slavin argues, the characters of the text inherit the periphery of the city, rather than its imagined centre. Slavin suggests that this contributes to Smith’s construction of Willesden and Kilburn as “‘somehow outside Britain,’ ‘elsewhere,’ and not part of the national or city narrative,” (100) allowing for a narrative that pushes against what might be seen as a traditional or normative conception of the city, where “Smith wedges into a tradition of postcolonial writers remapping the city of London in their own image.” (101). Indeed, Smith’s own experience of this part of London undoubtedly contributed to the novel’s visceral locative abilities; Smith herself grew up in Willesden and attended local schools, later returning to live in nearby Queen’s Park during her adult life.
Though both Leah and Natalie spend most of the novel living within the boundaries of NW, the differences between the two women’s exploration of life outside the borough of Brent also contribute to a reading of their character. Leah, from the very start of the novel, is introduced as “in a hammock, in the garden of a basement flat. Fenced in, on all sides.” (Smith 3) Aside from a brief exploration of her life at university, Leah generally remains within the bounds of NW in the novel – a geographic manifestation of her static social life, love life, employment prospects, and friendships. On the occasions that Leah is depicted as travelling, such as with her mother in chapter 12 of the first “Visitation” section, Leah’s intended destination is unexplored. Instead, Smith focuses on the sites of entry and exit to the geographical boundary of the Willesden/Kilburn area, and the journey away from it. In doing so, Leah appears ignorant or uninterested in the actions of life outside of her spatial boundary – one that she is “as faithful in her allegiance to […] as other people are to their families, or their countries.” (Smith 6). Natalie, instead, spends much of her novel outside of the bounds that Leah largely restricts herself to, with attention paid to her experiences at her chambers in central London, her journeys abroad with her husband, and other endeavours far outside the bounds of the borough she was raised in. Much like Leah, Natalie’s conception of travel can be viewed in a metaphorical sense in terms of her own ‘journey’ in the novel; as opposed to Leah’s sense of stagnation and lack of adventure, Natalie glides over both physical and societal boundaries throughout the novel, demonstrating her own desires to expand beyond the places she was born into.
Just as important as an exploration of these locative boundaries is to the narrative of NW, Smith’s interest in exploring constructed social boundaries of a number of kinds is also present throughout the text. First and foremost are the pervasive boundaries of class, the traversals of which form one of the central themes of the text. Whereas their immigrant mothers approach class with a sense of ambivalence, where “neither woman was in any sense a member of the bourgeoise but neither did they consider themselves solidly of the working class either,” (Smith 206), and Leah’s immigrant husband Michel rallies repeatedly against the class boundaries of the British society, as first-generation immigrants Leah and Natalie are tacitly aware of their positions in the British class structure and their own actions in attempting to rise the ladder of class. Both received a university education, ostensibly in the hopes that doing so would allow them to progress above their working-class roots. For Leah, however – a “state-school wild card” (Smith 35) and underachiever both in secondary school and at university – going to university did little to assist her. Instead, the process left her “out of pocket, out of her depth” (Smith 35), and seemingly underemployed as the only university graduate at her workplace.
Natalie’s path, meanwhile, is altogether different, with her desire to pursue education and improve her social standing. For her, class appears pervasive throughout the novel – a consideration even in social situations, where when getting drinks with a friend “as working-class female pupils they were often anxious to get it right.” (Smith 274). While the “it” in the sentence on first glance refers to the drink orders for her round, it could also more abstractly be read as her desire to fit into the social milieu of the barristers and lawyers that make up her group of colleagues and friends. Yet her ascent to the middle classes is not left unchallenged by the other characters in the book. Throughout the book, Leah attacks her best friend for her class ascendancy, criticising her for her “cava socialist” tendencies (Smith 292) and consistently comparing her own situation to that of her friend’s. In some references, Smith brings together the concept of both locative and class boundaries when referring to Natalie’s house – a place that is, according to Leah, “just far enough to avoid” seeing the working-class estates where she grew up (Smith 70), in an example of physical and imagined boundaries fusing together.
Race similarly appears as an example of the testing of both physical and imagined boundaries throughout the work, with both Leah and Natalie living on the edge of these racial boundaries. Though Cuevas has suggested that Smith is writing ‘from a “post-ethnic” perspective’ (394, quoted in Shaw 18), I agree with Shaw’s assertion that the exploration of ethnicity remains a key part of NW and the two women’s experience of their London lives (Shaw 18). Leah, the daughter of a Protestant Irish mother (or, as she is presented by Smith in harsher terms, “a rare Prod on the wing, back when most were of the other persuasion.” (Smith 19), is acutely conscious of her race, being “the only white girl on the Fund Distribution Team,” (Smith 39) and married to an Algerian immigrant. For Natalie, race is quickly presented as a hurdle for her legal career, exemplified in her conversation with Theodora Lewis-Lane, one of the barristers on her chambers’ diversity programme, who explains to Natalie that the Black lawyer “is never [seen as] neutral” in court, but instead seen by the White-dominated justice system as an “interloper” that needs to be toned down (284). While not a post-ethnic novel, the novel’s exploration of race and ethnicity represents another layer of periphery and boundary that NW explores, upending the idea of White homogeneity in modern-day London.
In addition to this post-colonialist reading of NW that “portrays postcolonial London as a space where race and ethnicity are still important epistemic realities in need of continued interrogation” (80), Fernández Carbajal also argues for viewing NW through Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, in both texts’ demonstration of a “queer modernist dissidence” (76). When Leah spots Shar in the street, for example, she comments on her “neat waist you want to hold,” and “something beautiful in the sunshine, something between a boy and a girl, reminding Leah of a time in her own life when she had not yet been called upon to make a final decision about all that.” (Smith 44) Leah, Fernández Carbajal argues, is a more modern version of Clarissa Dalloway herself, in her seeming hints towards love for Natalie and her unfulfilling marriage; for her part, Natalie resembles Sally Seton, with her decision to choose a simple marriage than explore her own sexual desires. In doing so, Fernández Carbajal draws attention to another lens through which readers might understand the novel as one of demonstrating and breaking boundaries – whether in the physical or metaphorical sense. Indeed, he suggests that the novel’s depiction of sexuality is used “as a release from a sense of social inadequacy” (Fernández Carbajal 79) present in 21st century British society.
It is in the sum of these boundaries where we see Leah and Natalie performing their role as actors in the metropolitan space, with both of these first-generations immigrants seeking to refashion themselves throughout the text. Even from the first page of the novel, Leah is presented as ruminating on the fact that “I am the sole author of the dictionary that defines me,” a nod to her reclamation of the power to define her relationship to the boundaries that society places her in. Natalie, meanwhile, is presented “in drag” in her intersecting characteristics:
Daughter drag. Sister drag. Mother drag. Wife drag. Court drag. Rich drag. Poor drag. British drag. Jamaican drag. Each required a different wardrobe. But when considering these various attitudes she struggled to think what would be the most authentic, or perhaps the least inauthentic. (Smith 333)
In this question of authenticity, both women are presented as unsure of their own place among these shifting borders (both real and imagined). Even at the end, despite the creations of these new identities, both women appear to have reverted to their original personas. As Pérez Zapata notes in her article, “‘In Drag: Performativity and Authenticity in Zadie Smith’s NW,” the end result of Natalie’s exploration of her own boundaries is that, by the end of the novel, Natalie “has no self and, consequently, no origin,” (93) with her character reverting back in name, form and speech pattern to the character of Keisha (her birth name, having changed it in the process of her secondary schooling.) This performative aspect is encapsulated by the novel’s final paragraph, where the two call the police to report what they know about a murder:
Leah found the number online. Natalie dialled it. It was Keisha who did the talking. Apart from the fact she drew the phone from her own pocket, the whole process reminded her of nothing so much as those calls the two good friends used to make to boys they liked, back in the day, and always in a slightly hysterical state of mind, two heads pressed together over a handset. “I got something to tell you,” said Keisha Blake, disguising her voice with her voice. (402)
With this final image of a certain circularity to the novel for both Natalie and Leah, Smith appears to ask the reader to question the ability of the immigrant to refashion their own identity, suggesting that, in the multi-ethnic, socio-economically diverse London of the 21st century, the inheritance and persistence of one’s locations of birth are both inevitable and inescapable.
Fernández Carbajal, Albert. “On being queer and postcolonial: Reading Zadie Smith’s NW through Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway.” The Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Volume 51, Number 1, 2016, pp. 76–91
Shaw, Kristian. “A Passport to Cross the Room’: Cosmopolitan Empathy and Transnational Engagement in Zadie Smith’s NW (2012)”. C21 Literature: Journal of 21st-century Writings, Volume 5, Number 1, 2017, pp. 1–23.
Slavin, Molly. “Nowhere and Northwest, Brent and Britain: Geographies of Elsewhere in Zadie Smith’s NW.” Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association, Volume 48, Number 1, Spring 2015, pp. 97-119.
Smith, Zadie. NW. New York: Penguin Books, 2012.
This paper represents my own work in accordance with University regulations. Jack L. Allen
Monica Ali’s portrayal of London and Nazneen’s experience as an immigrant is, to a great degree, inflected by a comparison to which Ali repeatedly returns – Hasina’s experience in her homeland of Bangladesh. The epistolary form of Hasina’s narrative – and its role in Nazneen’s life – is an issue that often perplexes readers and critics alike, especially given the seemed stereotypes that litter Hasina’s narrative. What critics tend to overlook, however, are the subtle ways in which Ali subverts or complicates both Nazneen and Hasina’s characterisations. In this paper, I will argue how it is fruitless to interpret the inclusion of Hasina’s life in Dhaka as a foil intended to project certain messages about the ability of London to enrich an immigrant’s life through providing them with the tools to emancipate themselves. Rather, Ali seeks to create a more nuanced portrayal of how London uniquely shapes the life of a few immigrants and how in doing so, she evades totalisations of the immigrant experience in London. I argue that the lengths Ali goes to in order to establish the distinctness and individualisation of Nazneen’s experience, combined her depiction of fringe characters, such as Chanu and Razia, as they interact with London and British culture absolves Ali from the “burden of representation”.
Nazneen’s experience of London as an immigrant is explicitly and implicitly represented in a comparative manner, with Hasina’s experiences in Bangladesh acting as a sort of proxy for what Nazneen’s life could have been like. Many critics have identified the portrayal of Hasina as a stereotype, with her continual suffering and misadventures cementing her status as a symbol of subjugation. Pankaj Mishra of the New York Review of Books even likens Hasina’s letters to that of a tourist, stating ‘at times, Hasina sounds more like a travel writer from England than an oppressed woman from Bangladesh, especially when she reports on the rickshaws in Dhaka painted with the face of Britney Spears’. Attempts to reconcile such depictions have led to a variety of different inferences as to Ali’s attempted meaning behind Hasina’s letters. Jane Hiddleston in her essay “Shapes and Shadows: (Un)veiling the Immigrant in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane” explores how the stereotypical representation of Hasina draws attention to the way in which myths circulate around both the culture of London and that of Dhaka. For Hiddleston, Hasina’s letters are ‘testimony to the pervasiveness of such stereotypes in Bangladesh as well as in Britain, and their inclusion in a novel…forces us to consider the difficulty of attempting to free any representation of cultural identity from their influence’ (63). Hiddleston’s analysis of the purpose served by Hasina’s epistolary presence within the novel illustrates the tendency to view Hasina’s experience relatively to Nazneen’s London life. For Hiddleston, it is the inclusion of Hasina that allows Ali to shed light on the mythic immigrant narrative that revolves around London.
Michael Perfect in his essay “The Multicultural Bildungsroman: Stereotypes in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane” further scrutinizes the dialogue of controversy surrounding Hasina’s portrayal and how it inflects Ali’s portrayal of London and the immigrant experience. He expresses how many critics have sought to ‘emphasise [the use of stereotype’s] sense of knowing irony in doing so’ (110). Perfect rejects this interpretation of stereotypes within the novel, arguing instead that the presentation of Hasina’s life in Bangladesh as a contrapositive to Nazneen’s experience as an immigrant in London serves to celebrate integration. He argues that stereotypes are employed as ‘aesthetic counterpoints in order to further emphasise the protagonist’s final integration into contemporary British society’ (110). Perfect works to undermine the assumption that Ali ironically utilises stereotypes in the text. He identifies Naila Kabeer’s book The Power to Choose as a source of inspiration for Ali. In fact, many of Hasina’s anecdotes and experiences seem to have been directly pulled from testimonies of female Bangladeshi garment workers expressed in Kabeer’s book. Perfect notes that Ali appropriates these testimonies, picking ‘the most despairing ones that Kabeer’s study has to offer’ and that she ‘occasionally modifies them to make them even bleaker’ (118). In this way, Perfect argues that Ali alters the fundamental message of Kabeer’s book, which is to demonstrate that ‘it is the women in Dhaka rather than London who are experiencing an increase in personal agency; indeed, in their “power to choose”’ (118). Perfect concludes that Ali’s use of stereotypes in her representation of Hasina is integral to Ali’s message – that ‘Nazneen does not lose her identity in multicultural London but rather discovers it’ (119).
Both critical responses to the use of stereotypes in Ali’s novel seem to depend on a certain critical gaze whereby life as an immigrant in London is necessarily inflected by a contrapositive of life in Dhaka. In this interpretation, Hasina’s life as a Bangladeshi native in her hometown of Dhaka is used relatively as a foil to portray the effect of London in providing Nazneen the tools and opportunity for self-empowerment. The concern surrounding the use of stereotypes reveals a somewhat fundamental assumption about the function and purpose of the immigrant novel – to authentically represent an underrepresented group of people. In this way, Ali’s novel does indeed suffer the “burden of representation”. I argue, conversely, that Ali complicates a generalised interpretation of the life of a Bangladeshi immigrant in London. She does this through her intricate, distinct and personalised portrayal of Nazneen and her interaction with specific locales in London. Further, she elucidates the perspectives towards and experiences of London through the eyes of other characters, such as Chanu. Finally, she provides key details that push back against the perceived representation of Hasina in Dhaka as the innocent and uneducated contrapositive to what Nazneen would have become had she not been liberated and freed by the city of London.
Ali attempts to avoid the generalisations that often accompany readings of immigration novels by seeking to portray London as distinctly and uniquely experienced under Nazneen’s gaze. Firstly, Ali seeks only to expose a portion of London, with Nazneen confined mostly to her apartment and few other key locations. For the first few chapters, Nazneen’s experience of London is limited to her flat and housing estate. Becoming accustomed to her surroundings, Nazneen notes, ‘She walked slowly along the corridor, looking at the front doors. They were all the same. Peeling red paint showing splinters of pale wood, a rectangular panel of glass with wire mesh suspended inside, gold-rimmed keyholes, stern black knockers.’ (36). Ali’s use of detailing draws attention to the individuality of the way in which Nazneen experiences London. For Nazneen, London has already become uniform, predictable and familiar. Far from the seeming “immigrant trope” of the new land being foreign and alien, Nazneen perceives London in a way that complicates this stereotype. When she does venture into the city and moves beyond Brick Lane for the first time, she notices, ‘Men in dark suits trotted briskly up and down the steps, in pairs or in threes. They barked to each other and nodded sombrely.’ (39). Nazneen analyses the men she passes as one would a flock of animals. They are described in similar terms, no one individual differentiated from another. They come in pairs or threes, and “bark” – a term more frequently applied to dogs than humans. On one hand, Ali may serve to describe these men in a manner that emphasises Nazneen’s dissociation from the cultural landscape she finds herself in. However, at the same time, the seemed homogeneity of these men underlines the monotony and limitation of London life – a far cry from the diversity and variety the foreign land is expected to offer in the typical immigrant narrative.
The idea that immigrant life in London is posed as a favourable alternative to life in Dhaka is also complicated by the characters who operate at the fringes of Nazneen’s narrative. Chanu’s understanding of London culture is complex and paradoxical. Nazneen says of his decision on what his daughters shall wear, ‘If he had a Lion Hearts leaflet in his hand, he wanted his daughters covered. He would not be cowed by these Muslim-hating peasants. If he saw some girls go by in hijab he became agitated at this display of peasant ignorance. Then the girls went out in their skirts.’ (217). Chanu’s seemingly paradoxical behaviour – dressing his daughters traditionally upon feeling threatened by lower-class bigots only to demand that they wear more mainstream clothing when wanting to differentiate himself from other Muslims – serves to dissect and critique the idea that London is converse to Bangladesh. People from both groups are deemed “peasants” in Chanu’s eyes (whether Chanu’s use of the term “peasant” in both cases is justified is another argument), thus diminishing the idea that the process of enlightenment and empowerment is unique to London and alien to a country like Bangladesh.
Razia’s story also offers a unique perspective in order to complicate the idea that London offers a sense of freedom and autonomy unavailable to women in Dhaka. As Nazneen discusses her adultery to Razia, her friend explains that to be “in love” is the “English style” (360). Nazneen reacts, ‘How irritating Razia could be sometimes! Who was it who made herself so English, anyway? With her British passport and tracksuit and Union Jack sweatshirt…She would not ask for Razia’s opinion now. She would do as she pleased.’ (360). The embrace of British culture, seemingly embodied through the character of Razia, is here rejected by Nazneen, who responds with a sentiment bordering on disgust. While Nazneen’s affair suggests a turning away from Bengali tradition and a greater acceptance of a freer and more autonomous “British” culture, Nazneen simultaneously rejects London, deciding rather to “do as she pleases”.
Just as Ali undoes the generalisation of London as a pinnacle of emancipation for immigrants through Nazneen’s perspective, she similarly complicates the interpretation of Hasina as the innocent and helpless Bangladeshi contrapositive. Hasina, unlike Nazneen, is considered to be the one who ‘kicks against her fate’ (10) by marrying for love – a tradition that Razia later ironically labels British. Furthermore, just as Nazneen moves from the village to the city, so does Hasina; ‘In morning soon as husband go out for work I go away to Dhaka.’ (41). The idea that Nazneen’s village innocence informs the empowering effect London has on Nazneen is thus discredited. Both sisters move to the city and as such, this binary of Dhaka and London is not one of village and city, but rather city and city. Furthermore, Hasina’s choice to leave her husband, albeit due to domestic violence, predates Nazneen’s own choice to leave Chanu later in the novel. It is Hasina who is arguably more emancipated and self-autonomous than Nazneen – at least initially. Far from the innocent and naïve Bangladeshi “peasant”, as Chanu would say, Hasina proves to be resourceful, autonomous and ultimately successful in finding a secure position as a maid for a wealthy couple with anglicised names – James and Lovely.
The call for authenticity in representing underprivileged communities in immigrant novels places Monica Ali’s novel Brick Lane under pressure, specifically in regard to the stereotypes she employs. The controversy surrounding Ali’s portrayal of Hasina places focus on how the depiction of London is inflected by a contrapositive experience in Dhaka. However, Ali goes to great lengths to avoid totalising London and the immigrant experience through her unique portrayal of Nazneen’s interaction with London and the spaces she explores, the perspective of Chanu and his paradoxical experience of British society and the complication of Hasina’s characterisation.
Ali, Monica. Brick Lane: A Novel. First Scribner trade paperback edition.
Hiddleston, Jane. “Shapes and Shadows: (Un)Veiling the Immigrant in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane.” Journal of Commonwealth Literature, vol. 40, no. 1, 2005, pp. 57.
Perfect, Michael. “The Multicultural Bildungsroman: Stereotypes in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane.” Journal of Commonwealth Literature, vol. 43, no. 3, 2008, pp. 109.
In his five-film anthology series Small Axe, Steve McQueen explores the varied dimensions of Black British life, particularly within Caribbean immigrant communities in the city from the late 1960s through the 1980s. In Mangrove, the first film, McQueen depicts the story behind the Mangrove Nine, a group of Caribbean immigrants living in Notting Hill who were harassed by police and arrested after staging a protest. McQueen centers the film on the Mangrove restaurant as a physical and figurative representation of how the characters’ shared Caribbean heritage shapes their experiences in London. Over the course of the film, McQueen traces the Mangrove’s evolution into the political center of the story.
McQueen opens the film with an overhead shot of Notting Hill, following Frank across the neighborhood. As Frank walks along the streets, the sound transitions from the ambient din of the city into Bob Marley & The Wailers’ “Try Me.” As the viewer sees the setting in which the film will take place, McQueen juxtaposes the sights and sounds of London—playing children, construction projects, and more—with the Caribbean influences that shape Notting Hill. Adding to this effect, layered over the music, Darcus Howe (another member of the Mangrove Nine whom the viewer will meet later) reads the words of C.L.R. James: “These are new men. New types of human beings. It is in them that are to be found all the traditional virtues of the English nation, not in decay as they are in official society, but in full flower. Because these men have perspective. Note particularly that they glory in the struggle. They are not demoralized or defeated or despairing persons. They are leaders, but are rooted deep among those they lead.” The scene ends with Frank arriving at the central site of the film: the Mangrove restaurant (0:01:00-0:02:48). With this opening scene, McQueen introduces the viewer to the key issue of the story: the Mangrove as a political community space. While Frank is hesitant to recognize it as such at first, this first scene shows that politics inherently inflects Notting Hill because it is a Black immigrant community. C.L.R. James’s quotation emphasizes this point. James was a Trinidadian historian who was pivotal in calling attention to the revolutionary struggles in Haiti and elsewhere in the Caribbean. These lines foreshadow the action of the film. By positioning the camera on Frank as Darcus reads the words, McQueen implicitly presents Frank as one of these “leaders,” and depicts the community in which he is “rooted.” McQueen also sets up an argument that the “traditional values of the English nation” lie with these “new men,” Caribbean immigrants like Frank, rather than in “official society.” In the police brutality and trial to come, the viewer will have the opportunity to judge for themselves which side embodies these values. Thus, McQueen opens the film by positioning the Mangrove as a community space, and a latent political space.
In addition to C.L.R. James, McQueen highlights other Caribbean activists alongside important moments at the Mangrove. After the police first violently raid the restaurant, the scene cuts from Frank resisting the officers to a poster of Paul Bogle on the restaurant’s wall (0:18:50-0:19:03). Bogle was a leader of the 1865 Morant Bay Rebellion in Jamaica, in which Black Jamaicans protested economic inequality in the post-emancipation society. Thus, although Frank has not explicitly linked himself or the Mangrove to a larger political movement to challenge police power, McQueen’s directorial choices highlight that the resistance Frank is waging is still connected to a lineage of Black Caribbean resistance. The poster is also shown in the background of the scene in which Althea offers Frank the Black Panthers’ support (0:19:30-0:19-56). Frank at first fears making more trouble by having the Mangrove serve as a space for political activism, telling Althea that the Mangrove is “a restaurant not a battleground.” But he agrees to let the Panthers meet at the Mangrove if Althea plays in the Mangrove steel band at the carnival (0:20:32-0:21:50). Thus, the Mangrove begins to shift from being a community space into a political space.
McQueen further conveys the interconnectedness between the Mangrove as shared community space and as activist space through his filming of the police second raid of the restaurant. This time, the camera takes on Frank’s perspective and the viewer sees through his eyes. The camera sits at floor level, where Frank lies after being tackled, and the viewer sees a colander fall to the ground after an officer knocked it down. The scene stays silent for thirty seconds until the colander stops rocking (0:28:20-0:29:30). Through McQueen’s directorial device, the viewer sees that the Mangrove cannot just exist as a restaurant and gathering space; the police see it as a political space, a political threat, and thus the people of Notting Hill must protect it through activism. By putting the viewer in Frank’s place, McQueen compels them to consider Frank’s point of view, literally and figuratively. This allows the viewer to understand his eventual agreement to participate in protest.
The second poster McQueen uses to highlight the latent political potential of the Mangrove comes again juxtaposed between police brutality and Frank’s increasing openness to political action. After a scene in which Frank intervenes in a stop and frisk, McQueen’s camera lingers on a poster of Jean-Jacques Dessalines at the Mangrove, while Darcus tries to convince Frank to hold a march (0:40:55-0:41:07). Dessalines was one of the most important generals in the Haitian Revolution and the author of the Haitian Declaration of Independence as well as its 1805 Constitution. Darcus also alludes to the unfolding Trinidadian revolution when persuading Frank. Thus, McQueen highlights through visualization and dialogue the way in which Caribbean revolutions influence the characters. Demonstrating this further, Darcus repeats the C.L.R. James line that opened the film, this time explicitly identifying Frank as the leader rooted deep among those he leads. Darcus says he sees Frank as a man “of great patience and humility who unbeknownst to him has become” this leader (0:42:44-0:43:23). But while Darcus—and through McQueen’s direction, the viewer—sees a direct tie between the revolutionary politics of the Caribbean and the need for action here in London, Frank is more hesitant, telling Darcus, “We’re not in Trinidad now, boy. This is Notting Hill.” Darcus, however, sees that as all the more reason to protest. He argues that Frank must assert the Mangrove, and by extension Black Caribbean immigrants, as having a right to exist in Notting Hill. “This place, the Mangrove, it is Notting Hill,” Darcus implores Frank. The Mangrove’s importance as a community space necessitates political action in Darcus’s view, as he tells Frank that “this is community, the Black community is your community. The Black community who rely on the Mangrove just as much as you rely on them. Take it to the street” (0:43:37-0:44:03). Darcus insists that Frank has a duty to fight back against police brutality because the Mangrove is so central to the Caribbean community in Notting Hill. Thus, the Mangrove’s status as a community space for Black immigrants makes it a locus for political activism as well.
Darcus’s closing statement at the Mangrove Nine’s trial further shows the Mangrove’s evolution into a political space. He starts by recounting how the Mangrove came to be, stating that “in defending themselves against attack” by the police, “a community [was] born” in Notting Hill. “And wherever a community is born, it creates institutions that it needs.” The Mangrove became such an institution not by design, but by circumstance. Frank did not intend for the Mangrove to be the political community space that it became, but Darcus argues that this eventuality was inevitable: “But that sense of community, born out of struggle in Notting Hill, was so profound that there was no other way for it to be but a community restaurant. We created the Mangrove. We shaped it. We formed it to satisfy our needs! The Mangrove is ours. It is ours, it’s not Frank’s! He lost it to the community, he knows that.” (1:54:11-1:54:33). Here, Darcus extends his logic from his earlier conversation with Frank, articulating how a “community restaurant” is inherently political when “born out of struggle.” More than just serving Notting Hill’s Caribbean immigrants the food they recall from their homelands, the Mangrove served as an institution for community organizing and coalition building. As Darcus says, activists “formed” the Mangrove “to satisfy [their needs],” including being a space for political activism. Thus the Mangrove was bigger than just Frank’s restaurant—it was the community’s restaurant. In the film, then, it represents the political capacity of London’s Caribbean community, acting as a symbol for the struggles and achievements they experienced.
Immigration shapes every aspect of Mangrove, as the characters’ shared cultural backgrounds bring them together around the Mangrove restaurant and tie them to one another through the discrimination they face. To visualize the importance of immigration to his story, McQueen uses a number of techniques including allusions to Caribbean political activists and the centrality of the Mangrove itself as a community space. Over the course of the film, the political valence of the Mangrove moves from the background to the foreground, a shift that McQueen conveys through visual symbolism and dialogue, culminating in Darcus’s closing statement at the trial. In an interview about the film on the Big Picture podcast, McQueen emphasized the power of representing these stories in film because these histories are not often discussed, even within Black British communities. As a striking example, McQueen said on the podcast that one of his father’s best friends is Rhodan Gordon, but McQueen did not know Gordon was one of the members of the Mangrove Nine until he started working on the film. McQueen also described the post-traumatic stress that pervades the Caribbean community in England because of police brutality, which motivated him to bring Mangrove to life. This theme has even more contemporary resonance as the Small Axe films debuted amidst the worldwide Black Lives Matter protests that unfolded after a series of police killings in the U.S. Reflecting on the timing of the film, McQueen told the New York Times “it took a long time for people” in Britain “to believe the West Indian community about what was going on. All of a sudden we’re being believed. It’s taken a man to die in the most horrible way. It’s taken a pandemic. And it’s taken millions of people marching in the streets for the broader public to think ‘possibly there’s something about this racism thing’” (Clark, “In ‘Small Axe,’ Steve McQueen Explores Britain’s Caribbean Heritage). By depicting the complex stories of the Mangrove Nine, McQueen compels audiences to confront the experiences that Caribbean immigrants, and Black Britons more generally, have faced and continue to face.
I pledge that this is my own work in accordance with University regulations.
/s/ Julia Chaffers
Clark, Ashley. “In ‘Small Axe,’ Steve McQueen Explores Britain’s Caribbean Heritage.” The New York Times, November 11, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/11/arts/television/steve-mcqueen-small-axe.html.
McQueen, Steve, director. Mangrove. Amazon Studios, 2020.
“Rewatching ‘Tenet’ (at Home) in the Year of Christopher Nolan. Plus: Steve McQueen!” The Big Picture, December 17, 2020, https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/the-big-picture/id1439252196?i=1000502767874.
Steve McQueen’s film The Mangrove illustrates the violence faced not only by direct immigrants but by their descendants as well. As the son of first-generation immigrants, McQueen had firsthand experience with deeply ingrained racism towards immigrants widespread in the United Kingdom. The Mangrove centers around the “mangrove nine” who were wrongly accused of inciting a riot after months of being unfairly targeted by local police.McQueen deftly moves the viewer through the film so as to paint a full picture of how the unique problems faced by the West Indie community in Notting Hill came to reflect the prevalence of racism in the justice system throughout the United Kingdom.McQueen manipulates elements of film – such as camera angle, setting, and music – to offer different points of view on the Mangrove Nine’s story. His film tactics allow for an all-encompassing portrait of the underlying issues at play in the film – namely the desire of White authority figures to disallow the Black immigrant community from fostering any sense of community or self-sufficiency. Using the Notting Hill neighborhood as a microcosm of the greater United Kingdom, TheMangrovehighlights how pervasive corruption was in the 1960’s justice system that allowed for Black citizens to be terrorized.
The Mangrove uses setting to illustrate both sides of the war for survival. The black individuals centered throughout the film represent a desire of community and stability in the midst of constant and oftentimes random violence. On the other side, the White members of the justice system represent a desire to disallow the black immigrant population from establishing themselves in British culture, looking at them as an affront to British society and values.Each location illuminates a different element of the immigrant experience and the fight for justice. The first half of the film bounces between The Mangrove restaurant, police quarters, and the streets as McQueen builds the tension. The second half is almost entirely confined to the Old Bailey courtroom as the 11 weeklong trail unfolds.Finally, the viewer is brought back to Notting Hill to celebrate a hard-earned win for the Black community. McQueen uses lighting, set, and sound to foster different feelings within the viewer as we move through the film while at the same time giving voice to a community that has been historically marginalized in British society.
At the start of the film, The Mangrove restaurant acts as a center of the Black community in Notting Hill. While The Mangrove’s owner, Frank, consistently asserts that his restaurant is “just like any other restaurant,” it is clear from the beginning of the film that that is not the case.In the scene depicting the Mangrove’s opening night, the restaurant is filmed in warm light as the patrons are bathed in a homey orange glow. The camera pans around the restaurant as if you are viewing the scene as a patron yourself, showcasing the lively banter that fills the space. McQueen has the music of steel drums play over the lively sounds of conversation, bringing the sounds of the west indies to London. As the steel drums weave through the patrons and move outside, the characters flow into the street dancing and drinking around them in a festive ambiance. Through allowing his characters the space to flow freely from inside to outside the Mangrove, McQueen illustrates how the restaurant instilled a sense of safety in its patrons that extends outside of the its physical borders. All these elements work together to provide the viewer with a feeling of community and happiness, visually placing the Mangrove at the center of the film as McQueen uses the space to represent home and community.
McQueen consistently contrasts the happiness of The Mangrove with the sterile, dark environment of the police station and their patrol cars. In the viewers first introduction to PC Pulley, the sadist police officer who terrorizes Notting Hill’s Black community, he is shrouded in the darkness of a cop car looking out into the night as though stalking his prey. Pulley’s face is the sole focal point of the scene as he is illuminated by outside streetlight in an otherwise pitch-black car. In the first five seconds there is no noise apart from the muted music and chatter coming from The Mangrove. The silence is broken by Pulley when he says, “See the thing about the Black man is he has his place… He’s just gotta know his place. If he oversteps, he’s gotta be gently nudged back in.”As he speaks, the camera angle switches and appears to enter his vision as McQueen shows a view of The Mangrove from inside the patrol car. Where the mangrove was bathed in orange hues in the prior scene, it is now slightly unfocused and illuminated primarily by its green sign – the community the viewer was watching just minutes ago now hidden from view. It appears as though this view of the Mangrove is colored by Pulley’s extremely overt hatred of the Black community as the viewer sees it from what appears to be his own eyes. In contrast to the fluid movement of the camera angles inside the Mangrove, the camera is stilled in this scene as it switches from Pulley’s profile, to Pulley’s view of the Mangrove from the police car, to Pulley’s partner. The ambiance of the scene is a polar opposite to the liveliness of the Mangrove that directly proceeded it. By juxtaposing the Mangrove’s opening scene and Pulley’s view of it with one another, McQueen visually introduces the tension that is to unfold throughout the rest of the film.
McQueen continues to use lighting and sound to portray the coldness of the police who calmly inflict pain and terrorize the Notting Hill community. He periodically moves the viewer to the police station and their patrol cars to illustrate the police officer’s apathy towards the community they are allegedly serving. For example, in the police station scene, the viewer is privy to a ‘behind the scenes’ picture of the police’s overt prejudice. The office is coldly lit with white light that creates a sense of ominous foreboding in the viewer. It is interesting to note that directly preceding this sterile scene the viewer was in the midst of a colorful street festival outside The Mangrove. Where the previous clip was filled with music and energy the viewer is now confronted with silence only interrupted by the sound of darts hitting the wall and PC Pulley’s unsettling comments. While the viewer already has a feeling that something is going to happen, the direction of the scene becomes clear when PC Royce says, “whoever draws the Ace of Spades has to go out and nick the first Black bastard they clap eyes on.” McQueen brings the viewer along for the insidious event, placing the camera inside the patrol car as if we are complicit in this crime of hate. The soundscape is, yet again, almost entirely silent apart from the rain and screeching of tires as the police chase the innocent man. The darkness of the scene gives it an ethereal feel and seems almost like a horror movie. Through these two scenes, McQueen illustrates the constant danger faced by the Black community on the streets that should be their own.
The streets, while a place of fear, also act as the setting for the beginning of justice as the tension between the Black community and the police culminates in a protest meant to call out the Police’s unjust harassment of the Mangrove. McQueen places Altheia at the center of the crowd as she acts as the voice of the people, calling attention to the fact that the oppression faced by the Mangrove is not an isolated event. A light rain persists throughout the scene, casting a grey light is over the demonstration. The use of rain draws a parallel between the protest and the earlier scene of the police chase as we watch Altheia’s reflection through a rain splattered window. As the group mobilizes and begins its march to the police station, McQueen highlights individual faces as they chant, “Black power,” humanizing the crowd. Conversely, the mass of police officers who encircle the protest are almost faceless as they dissolve into a swarming mass. McQueen only films the officers’ feet as they stream out of the police station towards the crowd, taking away their individuality as they hurl insults at the peaceful protestors. As the tension builds between the two groups, the camera angle begins to jostle between frames. This manipulation of angle and frame makes the viewer feel as though they are a part of the crowd, providing a sense of confusion and fear. The Black community uses this demonstration to give themselves a voice in the face of systemic injustice. Despite the protest being for The Mangrove, it also applies to the injustices faced by all Black citizens of the United Kingdom.
The second half of the film marks a moment of transition as what was a unique Notting Hill issue becomes a problem of national importance. Nearly the entire second half of The Mangrove takes place in the Old Bailey Courtroom, a place “normally reserved for only the most serious of crimes.” The setting itself does a lot of work for the film. Placing the proceedings for a decidedly peaceful crime in a building defined by violence represents an unequal playing field as well as the intimidation tactics employed by the government to silence Black voices. The physical nature of the court room serves to separate individuals from one another. Where the camera moved smoothly around the flowing tables of the Mangrove it now sits stagnant in the rows of the courtroom. McQueen places the viewer in various parts of the courtroom as the camera angle moves from the balcony to the witness stand to the jury to the prosecution. This manipulation of angle gives the viewer a sense of being inside the court with the defendants. When panning through the court room, McQueen stills the camera on the protest signs affixed to the witness stand. The signs are beacons in an otherwise antique looking room – illustrating the presence of a new energy in the court. Throughout the hour of the film spent in the Old Bailey, McQueen peppers in reggae music such as Skinhead Moonstop over the proceedings. Yet again, this stylistic choice inserts the Mangrove Nine’s west indie heritage into the stuffy, historical British building.
Two of the defendants, Howe and Altheia, decide to represent themselves in court allowing them to “take [their] message inside the building… and talk directly to the jury,” and transition from “victims to protagonists of their own stories.”Throughout their time in court, the defendants find ways to work the court’s prejudice against itself, taking charge of the narrative. In the court’s final testimonies, McQueen presents Howe in soft light which illuminates him as he takes his stand. Unlike the rest of the defendants and prosecution who are clothed in dark colors, Howe is wearing white and blue. This stylistic choice places Howe apart from the courtroom, yet again illustrating a new energy that is asserting itself. As Howe’s speech progresses the camera angle pans upwards to show members of the Notting Hill community above him. The angle gives a sense of community as the audience lifts Howe’s words and project them through the court room. When the verdicts are finally given, instead of moving the camera through the room McQueen keeps it statically posed on Frank’s face. The scene conjured up Howe’s quote before the protests when he told Frank, “I see a man who has become a leader to his people… leaders who are rooted deeply in the people they lead.”Frank took up the burden of leadership when all he wanted was peace. By centering the Mangrove Nine’s win on Frank, McQueen is affirming his position within the group and allowing Frank the space to savor the win for justice.
The Mangrove embodies McQueen’s ability to showcase the “interplay between the pleasures and frustrations of everyday life and the larger struggles around race, class and state power in post-imperial Britain.”To end the film, McQueen brings the viewer back to Notting Hill where it all began. Finally free from the stress of the court room, the viewer is yet again placed in the homey Mangrove restaurant. The camera follows Frank as he flows through the patrons, a far cry from the mostly stilted camera angles of the courtroom. Outside the Mangrove, Frank talks to Dolston who says he is “going home,” to which Frank counters, “This we home Dol. The Mangrove.” This claim is powerful as the viewer knows just how arduous the journey to justice and homecoming was for Frank and the rest of the Mangrove Nine. As the scene closes, the soft tune of Toots and the Maytals’ “Pressure Drop” plays as a triumphant song about karmic justice.The song is a fitting way to end the movie as it leaves us with lyrics promising those who do bad against he innocent will have a storm coming to them.
- Steve McQueen, The Mangrove, Small Axe Series,
- Nitish Pahwa, “What’s Fact and What’s Fiction in Steve McQueen’s Mangrove”, Slate, November 20, 2020.
- Professor Schor, London Literature Lecture Notes.
- AO Scott. ‘Mangrove’ Review: A restaurants Radicalism. November 19, 2020.https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/19/movies/mangrove-review-small-axe.html
- Catherine Baksi, Landmarks in law: When the Mangrove Nine beat the British State. November 10, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/law/2020/nov/10/landmarks-in-law-when-the-mangrove-nine-beat-the-british-state
- Diane Pien, “Mangrove Nine Trial”, Black Past, July 2, 2018. https://www.blackpast.org/global-african-history/mangrove-nine-trial-1970-1972/
This essay represents my own work, in accordance with University regulations.
“It was as if she had woken one day to find that she had become a collector, guardian of a great archive of secrets, without the faintest knowledge of how she had gotten started or how her collection had grown. Perhaps, she considered, they just breed with each other. And then she imagined her secrets like a column of ants, appearing at first like a few negligible specks and turning so quickly into an unstoppable force” (228).
Unlike adventurous protagonists in the tradition of the realist novel such as Oliver Twist and Jane Eyre, Nazneen is confined to the domestic arena and draws her power only from within. This is hinted at in the epigraphs announcing fate as the major theme of the novel. Because each of Nazneen’s attempts to forge into the outside world is considered a transgression in her society, she turns into a “guardian of a great archive of secrets”: her first walk in the city; her sister’s despair; her knowledge of Tariq’s descent into drugs, and most significantly the affair with Karim, are all secrets. While her husband, Chanu, conceals to abscond responsibility and soften his wounding humiliations, Nazneen uses secrecy to test the suffocating social boundaries around her before eventually breaking free from them.
As the secrets compound, the gulf between Nazneen and her husband widens, and by the end of the novel, the roles of husband and wife in the family have completely reversed. Secrecy allows Nazneen to ascertain her power and attain selfhood, sharpening her perception and allowing her to establish roots in the city, even as the marriage crumbles.
I: Quiet Rebellion
Mishra (2003) finds Chanu’s depiction is fuller than Nazneen’s. This is indeed a correct first impression. But if one takes Nazneen’s secrecy into account, she acquires a more complex interiority. In the first half of the novel, Nazneen’s secrets afford her a quiet rebellion, a profound rejoinder to Chanu’s hollow tirades.
While Chanu’s past is only one of glory, Nazneen’s is more nuanced. She clings to the legend of her nativity: Nazneen had been taught that she had survived her childhood only because she was surrendered to fate. Her mother, Amma, downplays the role she had played in nursing the daughter and instead attributes it to fate. This grants the child freedom from life’s drudgery and banishes all ambition. For a woman, the desire for self-improvement is itself considered a sin. But Nazneen’s life is nothing but toil: she submits to her father, who marries her off to Chanu. And at her house, she essentially becomes a maid, tending only to Chanu’s needs: she cuts his corns and trims his nails. Because there is no satisfaction in such humiliating work, Nazneen falls back into her mother’s philosophy: she surrenders to fate, which justifies the toil and gives her a different source of purpose, a purpose she may have found in a job of her own. Unrooted and displaced in London, Nazneen grounds herself in tradition. She draws resilience from the conviction that there is nothing she can do about her life. “What could not be changed must be born,” was how Amma had put it (p. 4). But the toil becomes too unbearable for Nazneen and she quietly rebels. These transgressions gather into secrets.
When Jorina, a woman in the neighborhood, commits suicide, Nazneen is concerned. The news is broken by Mrs. Islam, whose authority over the neighborhood rests solely on her archive of secrets. For women, secrecy is a source of power. This is made more explicit when Nazneen inquires about why Jorina had killed herself. “You can hardly keep it a secret when you begin going out to work,” Razia theorizes (p. 13). The woman’s sin, it turns out, was that she had found a job for herself. This piques Nazneen’s curiosity. She formulates a question about Jorina’s death, rephrasing it endlessly, but she never gathers enough courage to pose it to Chanu. This sets the ground for her rebellion.
When Nazneen accompanies Chanu to Dr. Azad’s practice, he introduces her as “shy”, but she locks eyes with the doctor, finding herself “caught in a complicity of looks” (p. 19), which threatens to give off what her husband is not saying. Although she has no role in the conversation, she still manages to tip Chanu off. Nazneen also represses her desire to act, secretly hatching plans in her head, which compensate for her passivity. “She wanted to get up from the table and walk out of the door and never see [Chanu] again” (p. 18). So forceful is her desire for rebellion even when she is completely subdued.
Nazneen’s first true transgression is the walk she makes to the city by herself, unaccompanied by her husband. This journey represents independence. Chanu confines her to the house, locked from the outside world. Embarrassed, he also hides the details of his job from Nazneen. He wants to live with her in the same house but still somehow maintain a distance, keeping the assaults against his manhood only to himself. Even in his ramblings, Chanu manages to remain obscure, rarely briefing Nazneen on the true contents of the books he reads, claiming that they are not easy to translate. This forces Nazneen to forge into the city on her own. And when she takes the walk to the city and makes it back to her house safely, having asked for directions, this cements Nazneen’s power and bolsters her self-confidence. “See what I can do,” she says to herself, addressing Chanu, although she cannot yet summon the courage to tell him about the walk (p. 40). At least she discovers she no longer has to rely on him. And this must be kept a secret: he wields too much power over. If Nazneen confesses her transgression, Chanu may restrain her and this is not a risk she is ready to take.
But Nazneen finds a different outlet for action. Her sister, Hasina, writes to her from home to tell her that she had escaped from her husband to Dhaka. This is Hasina’s secret and no one in the village knows about it. Nazneen is convinced her sister’s action will put her in great peril. “Once you get talked about, then that’s it,” she confirms (p.38). A woman is only safe as long as she remains servile to her husband; if she breaks free, that is the end for her, as has been the case of Jorina. Nazneen is worried such a fate is awaiting her sister and she appeals to Chanu for action. But Chanu downplays the sister’s case and instead sympathizes with the husband, whom Hasina had confessed had brutally beaten her. “What will happen will happen,” Chanu says, echoing Amma’s philosophy of submission to fate. Nazneen feels betrayed and withholds Hasina’s future letters from her husband. This, she believes, is a case she must take up on her own. For the first time, she punishes Chanu for the grievance. She stops praying for his promotion, puts “fiery chilies’ into his sandwich, slips the razor when cutting his corns, and registers her rebellion in all the chores she undertakes (p. 40). But Chanu barely notices Nazneen’s discontent. If anything, he suppresses her even more. For instance, when Nazneen suggests enrolling in Razia’s college, Chanu feigns indifference (p. 51). This confirms to her that she cannot rely on him for anything. Nazneen must rebel more fiercely.
II: The Affair
Walter (2003) finds fault with Hasina’s letters, writing, “I don’t quite understand why Hasina’s letters are written in such broken prose, since presumably she would write in her own language”. This ignores the fact that spelling mistakes can also occur in the Bengali language. But the true distinction between the sisters is one of temperament. Nazneen admires Hasina’s broken spelling and finds her correspondence more lively than her own letters, which are anguished and forever in search of perfection. Gorra (2003) lucidly captures the true intention of Hasina’s letters. “Hasina’s account of her life in a desperately poor city [tells] Nazneen that the “home” she imagines no longer exists,” he writes.
Hasina’s desperation is clearly overstated. Mishra (2003) points out that Hasina “sounds more like a travel writer from England than an oppressed Bangladeshi woman”. However, there is no doubt that Hasina’s grim experience back home alleviates Nazneen’s nostalgia and grounds her in the city. This is a secret she withholds from the tormented Chanu, until later in the novel. But her sister’s correspondence is not enough solace for Nazneen. The “external three-way torture of daughter-father-daughter” becomes too unbearable for her (p. 147).
This slowly leads to Nazneen’s biggest secret. Estranged from her husband, Nazneen begins dreaming of finding a job for herself and sending money to Hasina (p. 133). She swings into action and masters “basting, stitching, hemming, buttonholing and gathering” (p. 139). In this way, she invents a job for herself without leaving the house, as Jorina had been forced to do. At this point, Nazneen also finds out that Chanu had taken a loan from Mrs. Islam and she confronts him about it. As always, he merely ignores her. But when Nazneen starts working at home, Chanu does not ask her to stop; instead, the roles of wife and husband reverse and he begins helping her, “passing scissors, dispensing advice, making tea, folding garments (p. 147.” He desperately wants to be in charge, even calculating the profit margins on her behalf. Chanu is unmotivated and he has given up his big ambitions. He has essentially resigned to fate. “Now, I just take the money, I say thank you. I count it,” he says (p. 154). This sense of despair bothers Nazneem and she desperately wants an escape.
This is when Nazneen falls for Karim, the middleman who brings her the garments. Unlike Chanu, Karim is a man of action; in fact, his favorite catchphrase is “man”. Though he is of the same generation as Tariq, Karim is different. Where Tariq steals from his mother (saying “Ok-Mama” to everything she says) and succumbs to drugs (a secret Nazneen picks on early but never discloses to Razia), Karim rebels from his parents and loathes them intensely. He scolds his father for spending too much money calling back home and faults him for growing passive after decades of driving. Karim just cannot stand weakness and this attracts Nazneen to him.
In Nazneen’s eyes, Karim accounts for Chanu’s weaknesses: he is confident and knows his place in the world. And he gives her the attention she needs. Being an Islamic activist, Karim brings Nazneen leaflets and slowly radicalizes her. This allows her to avenge Chanu for a lifetime’s grievances. “You are not the only one who knows things,” she would retort, secretly and only to herself (p. 176). But Chanu still remains indifferent, even oblivious. Threatened by the leaflets, he finds mistakes in them, claiming they give “a wrong impression of Muslims” (p. 188), though he is himself not a practicing Muslim. But this does not discourage Nazneen. The secrecy of her affair with Karim and the possibility of Chanu finding out only intensifies her desire (p. 188).
The affair permits Nazneen to break free from the philosophy that she had inherited from her mother (and subsequently Chanu) and grants her urgency, almost instantly. “For a glorious moment,” we are told, “it was clear that clothes, not fate, made her” (p. 201). This allows her to bridge the barrier between her and Karim, while at the same time drawing closer to her daughters, who are of the same generation. And as soon as Chanu alienates Shahana by calling her memsahib and addressing her through her younger sister, Bibi, she begins confiding in Nazneen. The immensity of the transgression (considered to be the biggest sin in Islam) endows Nazneen with a fearlessness she had never known before. The city also justifies her action: Nazneen overhears the “rhythmic knocking” from the bed of her next-door neighbor, who drops one new boyfriend after another, and this allows her to view her own affair as nothing out of the ordinary (p. 221).
III: The Epiphany
After the affair, Nazneen changes and begins to use her power: she stands up to Mrs. Islam, who had been bullying her with her two sons for a long time; she breaks up with Karim after realizing he is not the man she had imagined him to be, and she refuses to return back home with Chanu when he acquires the tickets. These are all out of sync with Nazneen’s temperament in most of the novel. The secrecy takes on an outward force, which surprises the reader. Yet, even when she awakens, Nazneen still lacks a strong conviction. Though she refuses to return home, she does not entirely abandon Chanu and one can imagine her sending money to him.
Therefore, Brick Lane leaves loose ends. For instance, no reason is provided for why Nazneen does not tell Razia about Tariq’s descent into drugs, although the two are close friends. And the epiphany about Karim comes too suddenly. Moreover, the relationship between Chanu and Nazneen continues to linger on. These moments can all be seen as an extension of Nazneen’s passivity. Hiddleston (2005) argues that the novel operates on “shapes and shadows”, playing with “provisional forms, rather than determinate individuals or incontrovertible truths” (Hiddleston, 71). In a sense, the novel is itself cast as fate, unrooted, uncertain of itself. It becomes a secret to unravel. This hesitancy in the narration is one Ali herself confesses in a 2003 essay in The Guardian. “Standing neither behind a closed door, nor in the thick of things, but rather in the shadow of the doorway, is a good place from which to observe,” she writes. But I am convinced that these are just the faults of a debut novel. Although Nazneen’s epiphany comes too late and lasts only briefly, I think this force can be gleaned even in the early pages if one pays attention to her power for secrecy.
Nazneen’s power gathers slowly, almost like an army of ants, and this is driven by her talent for secrecy. These secrets allow Nazneen to transcend the social boundaries and eventually take control of her fate. But the journey to this moment is too slow and it comes too swiftly, which necessitates close attention to detail, particularly the secrets.
Hiddleston J. Shapes and Shadows: (Un)veiling the Immigrant in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. The Journal of Commonwealth Literature. 2005;40(1):57-72. doi:10.1177/0021989405050665
Micheal Gorra, “East Enders”, The New York Times, September 7 2003. Available here.
Monica Ali, Brick Lane. New York: Scribner, 2003.
————— “Where I am Coming From”, The Guardian, June 17 2003. Available here.
Natasha Walter, “Citrus Scent of Inexorable Desire”, The Guardian, June 14 2003. Available here.
Pankaj Mishra, “Enigmas of Arrival”, The New York Review of Books, December 18 2003. Available here.
The world is ever-changing, and London in the 1840s was changing more rapidly than most places in most time periods. Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens is a novel trying to come to terms with this change. It is a novel with one foot in the past and the other in the present, exploring post-industrial life with its new technology, new business, and new society. There is an element of uncertainty that comes with change, and Dickens examines the effects of these uncertainties through his multigenerational account of the Dombey family. Professor of Victorian Literature Catherine Waters notes, “Dombey and Son marks the beginning of Dickens’s engagement with the family as a complex cultural construct, exploring the connections between familial and economic relations” (127-8). As a result, the family is a reflection of the society in which it lives and likewise constantly changing, because in Dombey and Son, London is defined by change.
Trains and railways mark the death of an earlier London in Dombey and Son and also function as markers for significant changes for the life of the Dombeys. Professor of English and founding director of The Dickens Project Murray Baumgarten writes, “Dickens understood that his was a world in transition, and that it was defined not just by the modern habits it was moving toward but the traditional habits it was leaving behind” (111). Perhaps no passage exemplifies this transition as vividly as the description of Camden Town early in the novel when Polly Toodle is taking Paul, Florence, and Susan with her to visit her home.* “The first shock of a great earthquake had, just at that period, rent the whole neighbourhood to its centre” (Dickens 63). Dickens has not yet revealed what is causing this commotion, but whatever it might be is clearly unsettling and devastating, like an earthquake. Before the reader has the opportunity to find their bearings, the setting is introduced by recounting how the ground feels—shaking—followed by the horrifying visual companion: “Houses were knocked down; streets broken through and stopped…Here, a chaos of carts, overthrown and jumbled together, lay topsy-turvy at the bottom of a steep unnatural hill” (Dickens 63). The moment that is supposed to be a homecoming for Polly is interrupted by chaos—she cannot return to the Camden that she knew—and suspense is built as the description continues. The reader does not know what has happened here, but it is worse than an earthquake, because this is an “unnatural” and intentional disaster.
That the damage is a by-product of construction work is particularly jarring due to the juxtaposition of the detailed description of destruction with the curt reveal. “In short, the yet unfinished and unopened railroad was in progress; and, from the very core of all this dire disorder, trailed smoothly away, upon its mighty course of civilization and improvement” (Dickens 63). This one sentence is a paragraph onto itself following the longest paragraph in the chapter with its lofty sentences dedicated to unpacking the specific consequences of industrialization in a community. The sudden change in tone matches the visual contrast on the page. Dickens is mocking the idea of linear progress. He does not think continuing to build suspense is worth the mundane reveal, which creates an impatient and dismissive tone. “In short,” the reader surely knows what is going on: the railways are championing modernity; they are the vanguard of progress. Dickens is playing with the common image of industrialization as “mighty” and an unambiguous sign of “civilization and improvement” by showing the “dire disorder” that the railway leaves behind.
There is implicit class critique in Dickens’s portrayal given that the construction affects the neighbourhood of little Paul Dombey’s nurse. It is almost impossible to imagine a similar situation occurring near Mr. Dombey’s mansion “on the shady side of a tall, dark, dreadfully genteel street in the region between Portland Place and Bryanstone Square” (Dickens 24). Camden is in contrast with the quieter, wealthier Dombey neighbourhood, and this dichotomy is played up to an extreme level later when Florence is separated from Susan and the rest of her group because of a mad bull. What is more, Polly is as shocked by the railway as the rest of her group, highlighting the fact that she has been away from her family and home due to the demands of her job. It is almost as if she moved to a different city and not a different place within the same city. The text does not let the reader forget Polly’s job by referring to her as “Richards,” the name given to Polly by Mr. Dombey (Dickens 63). Professor of English John Mullan observes, “The renaming is so wonderfully unnecessary—such a foolish assertion of power” (135). In addition, the renaming further distances Polly from her family. The railway, like Polly’s new work name marks change.
Another critical moment in the plot that both signifies a change for the Dombey family and London is Mr. Dombey’s train ride to Birmingham. Little Paul—the Son in Dombey and Son—is dead, and the train is leading Mr. Dombey to his soon-to-be second wife, Edith. Understandably, the tone is much more morbid than the description of the construction at Camden. Mr. Dombey “found no pleasure or relief in the journey,” because he is grieving, and the train comes to symbolize death (Dickens 261). Even though Dickens had already written about the damage caused by the construction, his tone was slightly more playful then. Now, “the very speed at which the train was whirled along, mocked the swift course of the young life that had been borne away so steadily and so inexorably to its foredoomed end” (Dickens 261). Dickens is serious, angry even, because Mr. Dombey’s emotions overshadow all else. The train is a death machine “that forced itself upon its iron way—its own—defiant of all paths and roads, piercing through the heart of every obstacle, and dragging living creatures of all classes, ages and degrees behind it” (Dickens 261). It is interesting that the accessibility of mass transportation is brought up as an additional reason for disdaining the train in Mr. Dombey’s mind. Earlier in the novel, he had sent Florence and Paul to Brighton with a carriage and had also used a carriage himself when visiting them. His use of the train is a shift away from the past. Not only is London and his family changing, but so is the way Mr. Dombey goes in and out of London.
The train transforms from a metaphorical death machine to a literal one with James Carker’s accident. When Mr. Dombey was on his way to Birmingham, the train was defined as a “monster,” a “remorseless” and “indomitable monster, Death!” (Dickens 261-2). Dickens’s tone in the passage leading up to Carker’s accidental death is much more sinister. If the train was an obvious iron death machine in the Birmingham passage, now it is a sly murderer, a predator quietly biding its time: “Death was on [Carker]. He was marked off from the living world, and going down into his grave” (Dickens 718). This change in the portrayal of death is partially to do with whose death is associated with the train. Paul’s death was tragic, while Carker’s death is not given the same courtesy. Carker is the biggest villain in the novel, and his death is described in the same, grim detail that one comes to expect from Dickens for his villains. Ironically, his last words in-text are, “Take away the candle. There’s day enough for me” (Dickens 717). Dickens accepts the ubiquity of industrial machinery; however, he does not welcome it with open arms. On the contrary, the gruesome death scene is almost a warning to remember the power of the new technology in the world. Carker’s death changes London by changing the Dombey family. Carker is responsible for a lot of misfortunes in the lives of the other characters, whether it be the downfall of Mr. Dombey’s firm, which eventually goes bankrupt “and the great House [is] down”; the deception of Captain Cuttle; or the mistreatment of Edith (Dickens 748). As a result, Dickens is able to highlight the significance of just one person in the makeup of London.
Change can be big or small. London changes with each railroad, and with each person. A huge change that is not as tangible in Dombey and Son is societal. Dickens constantly questions gender roles in Victorian England, most notably through the characters of Florence and Edith. Mr. Dombey treats the women in his life as inconsequential at best and often as though they were property. In the very first chapter while Paul is just a few minutes old, the reader is told the Dombeys “had been married ten years, and until this present day…he had no issue—To speak of; none worth mentioning. There had been a girl some six years before” (Dickens 6-7). Florence is an afterthought for Mr. Dombey; while son is always written with a capital “s,” girl is lowercase.
Mr. Dombey’s treatment of Edith is just as bad, and Edith knows this will be so before they get married. The night before her marriage to Mr. Dombey, she says to her mother, “You know he has bought me. Or that he will, tomorrow. He has considered of his bargain; he has shown it to his friend; he is even rather proud of it; he thinks that it will suit him, and may be had sufficiently cheap; and he will buy tomorrow” (Dickens 365). Edith knows she is a commodity in Mr. Dombey’s eyes and refers to herself as “it.” She criticizes the marriage market that denies women any agency, and later she decides to finally run away from her loveless marriage to Dijon, France with Carker. Dickens unequivocally takes Edith’s side. He shows his affection for Edith and her decisions, which is made evident by the fact that Edith loves Florence. Within the novel, the characters we are meant to root for all have a positive relationship with Florence. This is the case for Sol Gills, Captain Cuttle, Walter, and also for Edith. Another way Dickens favours Edith’s point of view is by going out of his way to mention that Edith did not have a relationship with Carker outside of her marriage so as to make sure she would remain sympathetic to a Victorian audience. This is additionally significant, because Edith’s decision to run away with Carker highlights the different opportunities for men and women to migrate within the text.
Edith has no say over her migration to London as she is essentially sold off to Mr. Dombey to be an obedient wife—the perfect angel in the house—and she is only able to leave by running away. Florence, likewise, tends to migrate with people. Firstly, she moves to Brighton with her brother, because her father wants her to. She is later left alone in the Dombey house and goes to China with Walter after they are married. The last case is when she has the most say over where she will live as her marriage is one based on mutual love.
Change begets change. In a city with so many people from so many different backgrounds and reasons to be there, it is no surprise that the one constant is that there is continuous change. In fact, Dickens’s London is defined by change; however, the way the city changes for different characters is affected by their gender and class.
*The trip to Camden is additionally the inciting incident for Florence to meet Walter Gay and is critical for the development of the subplot between the two characters.
Baumgarten, Murray. “Fictions of the City.” The Cambridge Companion to Charles Dickens, edited by John O. Jordan, Cambridge University Press, 2001, pp. 106-119.
Dickens, Charles. Dombey and Son. Wordsworth, 1995.
Mullan, John. The Artful Dickens. Bloomsbury, 2020.
Waters, Catherine. “Gender, Family, and Domestic Ideology.” The Cambridge Companion to Charles Dickens, edited by John O. Jordan, Cambridge University Press, 2001, pp. 120- 135.
This paper represents my own work in accordance with University regulations.
/s/ Kayra Guven
“No one ‘becomes’ a woman purely because she is a woman… it is the intersections of carious systematic networks of class, race, [hetero]sexuality and nation… that positions us as “Women,” (Mohanty et al. 12-13, qtd. in Chakraborty 32). In “Bengali Women’s Writings in the Colonial Period: Critique of Nation, Narration, and Patriarchy,” Sanchayita Paul Chakraborty and Dhritiman Chakraborty show how this gendered, self-formed conception about the intersections of the systemic networks of patriarchy, race, religion, and identity is visible in the ‘caged’ and submissive condition of Bengali women. While Chakraborty asserts that “there are no basic differences between man and woman in consideration of their nature, rationality, and intelligence,” the ‘caged’ injustice of Bengali women is the direct result of the carious and corrupt patriarchal culture that’s written off as tradition (Chakraborty 31). The patriarchal culture of ‘tradition’ in Bangladesh diminishes and oppresses female visibility by actively rejecting the trappings for women to achieve economic freedom and individual autonomy by threatening fear, abuse, and even death.
Monica Ali’s Brick Lane details the diasporic experience through the narratives of two Bangladeshi sisters, Hasina, a displaced migrant in Dhaka, and Nazneen, an immigrant in London. Ali complicates a simple dichotomy between civilized London and primitive Bangladesh through Hasina and her written correspondences that compare the oppression and abuse against women in both geographical spheres to disclose the corruption endured by Bengali women due to their patriarchal tradition. While Hasina’s letters reveal the inability of Bangladeshi women to obtain cultural recognition, they also show the banishment of female autonomy in Bangladeshi culture that normalizes harsh punishment. However, the narratorial force of Nazneen’s immigrant experience works to unveil the possibility for growth and opportunity that culturally exists for women in London. While the patriarchal system in Bangladesh benefits only men, Brick Lane displaces immigrated men from a culture that supports the oppression of women and relocates them into an environment that does not. The doubling Ali manipulates in the dual-narrative provided by Nazneen and conveyed through Hasina’s letters discloses that while these immigrants originate in a highly patriarchal culture, there is a gap between the fates of men and women immigrants in London. Ali reveals that those who assume success ultimately fail in an environment where the patriarchal tradition is not the norm, while women conversely flourish and develop autonomy and self-determination. The free indirect discourse of Nazneen’s narrative constructs a parallel that differentiates between the woman’s experience in Bangladesh and London to argue that a tradition wholly reliant upon patriarchal extremes and female oppression will inevitably fail without the holistic support of a cultural backing. Brick Lane confronts the Bangladeshi tradition of gendered politics through Ali’s diasporic distinction that relies on the novel’s characterization of women to demonstrate that women can achieve recognition and autonomy without fear of reprisal.
The sister doubling Ali applies through the trope of letter writing provides a parallel and a glimpse into what traditional Bengali life may have held for Nazneen. A close analysis of extracts from Hasina’s letters alludes to the reality of life for women in Bangladesh, which confirms that while patriarchal structure benefits men, women often face punitive, if not deadly, consequences. Hasina recounts the beating and continuous threats that her coworker Aleya suffered from her husband in reaction to his wife’s acknowledgment at work, retelling to Nazneen:
Last month gone she best worker in factory and get bonus. They give sari and for this sari she take beating. Foot come all big like marrow and little finger broken… Renu say at least you have husband to give good beating at least you not alone (Ali 124).
In a culture that maintains patriarchal oppression and power, men thrive because the culture of the community supports it; and women fail because there is no viable alternative. When Hasina chooses to inform Nazneen about Renu’s reasoning that “at least [Aleya] has a husband to give a good beating,” the disturbing mentality of this tradition corroborates and accurately conveys the corruption of a culture that overlooks domestic violence. Aleya’s recognition at work brought about her publicized attention that led to her suffering. However, Ali consequences the resistance and rebellion of the patriarchal tradition with greater severity. Hasina visits her friend Monju at the hospital, who, after refusing her husband’s decision to sell their seven-day-old son, burns them both with acid while accompanied by his siblings. Hasina relays the story to Nazneen in a visceral sensory description of the “thing that lie on mattress”—her inability to stomach the odor, Monju’s melted cheek and mouth, and the ear that “have gone like dog chew off,” (Ali 275). The husband’s sister’s participation in the mutilation of another woman and child suggests that this ruthless behavior is standardized in a targeted pattern of widespread gender-based violence against Bangladeshi women and girls.
However, when presented with the opportunity to develop autonomy outside of patriarchy, Nazneen comes to realize and be inspired by women’s prosperity in London. The possibility for female recognition, even within Brick Lane’s Bengali community, without punishment is not only possible but acceptable. Nazneen’s first moments outside of her Tower Hamlets flat without the supervision of her husband Chanu excite and embolden her curiosity and self-awareness as she confronts women and people outside of her immediate community. Walking alone, Nazneen felt a “leafshake of fear—or was it excitement?—passed through her legs. But they were not aware of her. They knew that she existed… but unless she did something, waved a gun, halted the traffic, they would not see her. She enjoyed this thought” (Ali 40). The equalizing freedom of anonymity Nazneen experienced with the excitement that “passed through her legs” emboldened a moment of self-confidence at the realization that her slight against Chanu in leaving her house had gone unpunished.
Similar to Hasina’s interest in the lives of her female friends, Nazneen remarks on the women in her surrounding life. In particular, Nazneen perceives Razia’s resilience and achievements—her decision to learn English and obtain British citizenship, that arouses hope and instills confidence as she witnesses Razia prevail in the face of adversity. As a businesswoman, the sole provider for her family, and as a Bengali woman who prospers outside of the patriarchal tradition, Razia represents optimism for Nazneen. However, the most explicit patriarchal rebellion is the resistance demonstrated by the nameless girls in burkas at the Islamist fundamentalist meeting of the Bengal Tigers. The downfall of the patriarchal tradition is that it is only successful if the culture it populates holistically supports its practices. The two girls wearing burkas refused to allow men to silence them while rising to correct the Questioner’s failure to recognize women, insisting that the audience be addressed as “brothers and sisters” and not simply “brothers” (Ali 235). The success in this small act of rebellion is the direct result of the patriarchy’s failure to recognize the female population—that which the greater community of London does. The multicultural metropolis London constitutes likewise showcases competing forces in representing other people and cultures unbounded by systemic barriers. This ethnic diversity encourages resistance by awakening a sophisticated understanding of freedom and agency, whereas in Bangladesh, speaking out against the patriarchal structure is discouraged and inconceivable.
While women thrive given these new opportunities and freedoms, Brick Lane’s male diasporic experience differs because the men cannot fathom surviving without a patriarchal structure. While London embodies the opportunities for women that Bangladesh does not, allowing for both genders to succeed without the formula for patriarchal dominance, the Bengali men in Nazneen’s life cannot move beyond the limitations of their own culture and community in this new locale. Chanu failed to succeed in England because of his sense of entitlement that prevented him from being satisfied with his occupation, so he inevitably returned to Bangladesh. Hasina astoundedly remarks on Chanu’s transitional search for work in a letter to Nazneen, noting, “Your husband is very good in finding jobs,” (Ali 135). Ali’s inflection of humor in this dramatically ironic comment relies on the cultural barriers between Bangladesh and London. The reader understands that while Chanu occupies many menial jobs, they never uphold the degree of sophistication that he thinks he deserves. Karim likewise failed to reach the impact and influence over the Islamic community that he aspired to, so he also retreated to Bangladesh to join an Islamic extremist group. Ali symbolically declares the end to the patriarchy’s indomitability with the death of Razia’s husband. Ali’s deadpan declaration about Razia’s husband’s death by “seventeen frozen cows” in his slaughterhouse job utilizes Ali’s dark humor to argue man’s failure to survive outside of hierarchy (Ali 295). As the sole beneficiaries of this ‘tradition,’ men cannot comprehend that opportunities exist for both men and women outside of the community. The ability to think tolerantly was never ingrained in them.
Nazneen’s newfound self-awareness at the novel’s end overcomes the plight of women in Ali’s narratorial quest for female autonomy. In her rejection of Chanu and Karim, Nazneen renounces the patriarchal life of autocracy they represent for her and her two daughters. While refusing Karim’s marriage proposal, Nazneen conceptualizes the life he’d imagined for them. He said, “she was his real thing. A Bengali wife. A Bengali mother. An idea of home,” she was “an idea of himself that he found in her,” (Ali 382). Nazneen admits to Karim, “what we did—we made each other up,” confirming that after finding her voice and self-determination, Nazneen can distinguish between the role of the ideal Bengali wife and mother left behind in Bangladesh from the independent and competent woman that London constructed (Ali 382). In a crucial moment of feminine resilience and autonomy, Nazneen rejects her former passivity along with her decision to remain in London with her daughters without Chanu. Nazneen asserts, “No, I can’t go with you,” to which Chanu admits that “[he] can’t stay,” exposing their arrival at crossroads in their marriage (Ali 402). Nazneen cannot return with her daughters to the oppression her sister writes about, while Chanu cannot remain in a society that does not cater to his esteemed expectations.
Chakraborty’s claim about female agency and women having their own “identity and purpose in life irrespective of her position in relation to the man and the family” is embodied in the novel’s ultimate partnership. After Karim and Chanu withdrew to Bangladesh, Razia and Nazneen face taking their lives into their own hands, prompting a sense of belonging and even acquiring agency as they find work as independent seamstresses. In a moment of ecstatic liberation, Nazneen “waved her arms, threw back her heard, and danced around the table” to what we can presume is Janis Joplin’s “half singing, half screeching” cover of The Isley Brothers’ “Shout” (Ali 412). She continued to sing along, “filling her lungs from the bottom, and letting it all go loose,” while “abandoning her feet to the rhythm, threading her hips through the air,” Nazneen even “swooped down and tucked her sari up into the band of her underskirt,” to expose her bare legs (Ali 412). Brick Lane contrasts the abuse of women that Hasina describes in Bangladesh with the embodiment of liberated joy and celebration of female communion Nazneen experiences in London to challenge and expose the exploitation of women in a cultural tradition that denies them recognition, let alone sovereignty. Nazneen’s physical and mental release in this dancing passage reveals that women want to let loose and act for themselves given the opportunity.
Brick Lane demarcates the diasporic experience of both men and women that becomes apparent through the cross-cultural barriers uncovered by Hasina’s correspondence with Nazneen. Without Hasina’s letters, Ali’s novel loses its sense of achievement, performing as a novel about one woman’s diasporic experience rather than a complex comparison and political commentary about gender roles within the patriarchal Bangladeshi tradition. Razia’s final confession to Nazneen announces, “This is England, You can do whatever you like,” signifying an uplifting end to a novel that includes socially constructed gendered oppression (Ali 415). Given that the men arrive with the cushioning of having been raised and benefitted from a patriarchal system, London should theoretically bolster the perceived success for men and women. However, aided by Hasina’s incidents in Bangladesh, Ali inflects free indirect discourse into Nazneen’s narrative to reveal that the novel’s demonstrated patriarchal dependence and upbringing disadvantages the male diasporic experience, assuming a sense of entitlement that inhibits the development of male autonomy and independence.
Ali, Monica. Brick Lane. Black Swan, 2014.
Chakraborty, Sanchayita Paul, and Dhritiman Chakraborty. “Bengali Women’s Writings in the Colonial Period: Critique of Nation, Narration, and Patriarchy.” Zeitschrift Für Anglistik Und Amerikanistik, vol. 66, no. 1, 2018, pp. 19–34., doi:10.1515/zaa-2018-0004.
Mohanty, Chandra Talpade, Ann Russo, and Lourdes Torres. Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.
This work represents my own in accordance with University regulations. /s/ Nicole Kresich.
Post-colonialist literature, exemplified by Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners, challenges ideas of race, class and migration within an imperialist context. Kenneth Usongo’s claim that “the movement of the West Indians to England constituted a process of colonization in reverse in that the periphery was moving to the centre” resonates with Selvon’s novel; in many ways, the group of West Indian migrants that Selvon depicts in his text are precisely those unseen voices moving into the forefront (Usongo 182). In the wake of World War Two, West Indians were granted British citizenship as members of the British colonial empire, and began to migrate to London in droves. Although this ‘reverse colonization’ allowed the formerly colonized West Indians to inhabit the same social, political, and economic realms as their former colonizers, Selvon’s novel offers a more complex perspective on the particularly difficult position of West Indian migrants in London. On the one hand, Selvon’s choice to write the novel in dialect subverts British imperial power by allowing the West Indian migrant community to narrate and control their own stories. However, in his depiction of this colonization in reverse, Selvon also acknowledges the continued power white British citizens wield over the formerly colonized West Indian community — particularly via racialized attacks. Throughout the novel, Selvon demonstrates how white Londoners attempt to move the West Indian minority communities back into the periphery of society by employing colonial stereotypes to fetishize Black bodies, ignore Black individuality, or even outright deny the migrants access to skilled labor jobs. The apparent contradiction between Selvon’s subversive use of dialect and his portrayal of these damaging colonial stereotypes reveals the author’s keen awareness of how the particular power structures of ‘reverse colonization’ shaped the unique migration experience of the West Indian community at the heart of his novel.
When examining the style and form of The Lonely Londoners, one of the first things that scholars mention is Selvon’s choice to write the novel completely in dialect. As Kenneth Ramchand notes, the language of the novel is “a careful fabrication, a modified dialect which contains and expresses the sensibility of a whole society” (Ramchand 97). By inflecting his English prose with West Indian dialectical phrasing and terminology, Selvon offers readers a uniquely West Indian lens by which to interpret the migration stories of West Indians. Thus, he grants these migrants ownership over their own narratives and challenges former colonial accounts in which colonizers would rob indigenous populations of agency by writing about them in languages only the colonizers could understand. Additionally, by using dialect to craft his novel, Selvon uses a dual approach of “abrogation” and “appropriation.” Nick Bentley explains that, for a white British reader, the text serves as an “abrogation of the cultural centre” — in other words, the rejection of Standard English exemplifies a rejection of the assumed superiority of white British cultural practices. Meanwhile, for a reader who is a member of the Black migrant community in London, the use of dialect fuels an appropriation process that serves as “an empowering strategy by establishing a specific subcultural identity, and by…subverting the colonial language” (Bentley 76-77). Through this interpretive framework, Selvon’s use of dialect throughout the novel almost becomes a language of resistance as the formerly colonized Black communities take ownership over the language their former colonizers imposed upon them and, in so doing, challenge the authority white Londoners wield over them in cultural spaces. By using this subversive language to narrate a story of West Indian migration, Selvon invites the reader to consider that perhaps migration itself can similarly upend imperialist power dynamics.
But while Selvon’s use of dialect may suggest that West Indian migration subverts British colonial power, he also presents several scenes throughout his novel that demonstrate how white Londoners wield racist stereotypes in order to assert their continued power over the Black West Indian migrants. During his extended prose poem that describes summer in the city, Selvon writes:
“people wouldn’t believe you when you tell them the things that happen in the city but the cruder you are the more the girls like you you can’t put on any English accent for them or play ladeda or tell them you studying medicine in Oxford or try to be polite or civilise they don’t want that sort of thing at all they want to see you live up to the films and stories they hear about black people living primitive in the jungles of the world…” (Selvon 108).
This quote illuminates one of the central problems encountered by the Black West Indian migrants of Selvon’s novel. Despite their migration into the city atmosphere of their former colonizers and their newfound ability to mingle with white women, London is not a fully free sexual space for the migrants. The process of colonization in reverse may allow these peripheral groups to move into the geographical center, but these men are subjected to racist tropes of the ‘native’ or of “black people living primitive” and pushed back into a subjugated role within the dating sphere. They are not viewed as worthy and complex individuals but rather as exotic others who offer only a specific type of crude fantasy for the white women who have sex with them. This discrimination is perhaps most clearly illustrated by Selvon in a separate scene, when an unnamed Jamaican man goes home with a white woman and “the number not interested in passing on any knowledge [about art] she only interested in one thing and in the heat of emotion she call the Jamaican a black bastard” (Selvon 109). In the London that Selvon depicts, Black men are hypersexualized and treated as brutes — racist stereotypes that deny them the opportunity to express their personhood.
Beyond using racialized colonial stereotypes to hypersexualize the West Indian men and fetishize their bodies, the white Londoners of Selvon’s novel also employ colonial tropes in fear mongering efforts against the migrants. Moses notes, “Whatever the newspaper and the radio say in the country, that is the people Bible. Like one time when the newspapers say that the West Indians think that the streets of London paved with gold a Jamaican fellar went to the income tax office to find out something and the first thing the clerk tell him is, ‘You people think the streets of London are paved with gold?’ ” (Selvon 24). The clerk’s use of the phrase “you people” suggests that, to him, the Jamaican man is just one of a nameless, faceless horde of Black West Indians that are streaming into the city in search of work. Additionally, Moses echoes the phrase “streets paved with gold” when he is warning Galahad about what to expect from the white British public in his hunt for a job. “To them you will be just another one of them black Jamaicans who coming to London thinking that the streets paved with gold,” Moses tells Galahad (Selvon 41). The concept of “streets paved with gold” is highly reminiscent of the insatiable lust for gold revealed in the language white colonizers used to describe their hopes for what they might find in new lands like the West Indies. When those hopes were largely dashed, the white colonizers were still able to take control of the new lands, subjugate the indigenous communities, and win acclaim from their home nation. Yet for the West Indians moving to London, the same colonial phrasing is used derisively and employed mostly to suggest the migrants’ incredible ignorance about the city. Rather than arriving into the new cityscape and becoming the conquerors, the West Indian migrants are treated as an uncultured, uneducated mass of “you people.”
But the Black West Indian migrants in Selvon’s novel don’t just face discrimination in the words white Londoners wield against them. Because they are Black, the migrants are also forced into certain jobs due to a filing system used by the government. Moses informs Galahad about a mark that he will see on the records of all of the Black migrants: “J—A, Col.” He elaborates on the meaning of this mark, saying, “That mean you from Jamaica and you black” (Selvon 46). According to Moses, this is helpful because it allows the people who work at the employment office to first find out if a specific firm will hire Black people before they send the West Indian migrants to fill any vacant positions — saving “time and bother” (Selvon 46). Just what kind of jobs West Indian migrants might be deemed acceptable for is further defined by Moses when he expresses his frustration at the lack of employment opportunity to Cap. He says, “They send you for storekeeper work and they want to put you in that yard to lift heavy iron. They think that is all we good for, and this time they keeping all the soft clerical jobs for them white fellars” (Selvon 52). Once again, West Indian migrants are kept in a quasi-colonial, subjugated state even as they move into white spaces within London. Rather than being afforded the opportunity to progress economically, Black West Indians are forced into lower-paid, unskilled jobs that require physical labor of them — work that is not dissimilar to that which would have been required of them during Britain’s former days as an imperial power. Stephen Wolfe identifies the discussion between Galahad and Moses about the practices of the employment office as one that “forces Galahad to negotiate his colonial otherness” (Wolfe 131). Like any other British citizen, Galahad has been welcomed to apply for employment; however, unlike white British citizens, the racial identification on Galahad’s file limits the job opportunities he has access to.
By depicting the ways in which Black West Indian migrants are broadly discriminated against by white Londoners, Selvon appears to suggest that the traditional power structures of British imperialism were maintained in London — seemingly contradicting the subversion of such power structures implied in his choice to write the novel in West Indian dialect. With this in mind, it is worth returning to Selvon’s decision to use dialect to see if he may be employing the technique to create more than just a language of resistance or of empowerment. Bill Ashcroft presents a useful interpretive framework in his discussion of a “metonymic gap,” which are the phrases and references that a writer might insert into their novel that may be unknown to a reader of the colonizer culture. According to Ashcroft:
“The local writer is thus able to represent his or her world to the colonizer (and others) in the metropolitan language, and at the same time, to signal and emphasize a difference from it. In effect, the writer is saying, ‘I am using your language so that you will understand my world, but you will also know by the differences in the way I use it that you cannot share my experience.” (Ashcroft 74-75)
In some ways, writing his novel in a modified version of Standard English does allow Selvon to present West Indian migration to London in a way that challenges the previously unquestioned presumption of British cultural supremacy over colonized cultures. However, Ashcroft astutely notes that modifying Standard English with dialect implies both a kinship and an impossible distance between the cultures of the former colonizer and the formerly colonized — the latter of whom has an experience that can never be fully articulated to or understood by the former. As Galahad’s date, Daisy, says, albeit more crudely, “You know it will take me some time to understand everything you say. The way you West Indians speak!” (Selvon 93).
As much as Selvon’s use of dialect adds power to the West Indian cultural experience in London, it also reminds his readers that West Indian migrants had a unique expectation when they arrived in London. Because the West Indians grew up in British colonies and were granted British citizenship, they “had arrived in Britain considering themselves to be British and expecting to be treated as such, yet they found the rudiments of respectability—a job, a wife, a home, independence —being withheld by a host society which betrayed their expectations” (Collins 417). Unlike the Polish restaurateur — who Moses identifies as a foreigner yet still someone who wouldn’t deign to serve the Black West Indian migrants — these men were “British subjects” and “[bled] to make [Britain] prosperous” (Selvon 40). The language of the West Indian migrant community is English, even if a modified version of its standard form. Sam Selvon very intentionally places the migration depicted in this novel against the concept of ‘colonization in the reverse’ to explore the ways in which their status as formerly colonized people impacts the particular migration story of West Indians in London. While there is a subversion of British power when the West Indians move into British geographical space and begin to socialize with London natives, there remains a sense of British colonial authority over the West Indians in London that presents itself in racially-charged colonial tropes and forced unskilled labor. By probing this continued colonialism vs. subverted colonialism dichotomy, Selvon ultimately advances a compelling argument for why West Indian migration into London was a particularly painful process compared to the experiences of other migrant groups. When they gained rights as British citizens and subsequently moved to the center of the former empire, Black West Indians had every reason to expect a warm welcome from their British family. Instead, racist stereotypes deeply rooted in colonialism allowed white Londoners to assert power over Black West Indians and shove them back out into the societal periphery.
Ashcroft, Bill. Post-Colonial Transformation. London, Routledge, 2001.
Bentley, Nick. “Form and language in Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners.” ARIEL, vol. 36, no. 3-4, 2005, p. 67+. Gale Literature Resource Center, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A160750019/LitRC?u=prin77918&sid=LitRC&xid=4cb6d0a8. Accessed 7 May 2021.
Collins, Marcus. “Pride and Prejudice: West Indian Men in Mid-Twentieth-Century Britain.” Journal of British Studies, vol. 40, no. 3, 2001, p. 391-418. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3070729. Accessed 7 May 2021.
Herald, Patrick. “‘The Black’, space, and sexuality: Examining resistance in Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners.” The Journal of Commonwealth Literature, vol. 52, no. 2, 2017, p. 350-364, DOI: 10.1177/0021989415608906
Ramchand, Kenneth. The West Indian Novel and its Background. Jamaica, Ian Randle Publishers, 2004.
Selvon, Sam. The Lonely Londoners. New York, Longman Publishing Group, 1998.
Usongo, Kenneth. “The politics of migration and empire in Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners,” Journal of the African Literature Association, vol. 12, no. 2, 2018, p. 180-200, DOI: 10.1080/21674736.2018.1515567
Wolfe, Stephen F. “A Happy English Colonial Family in 1950s London?: Immigration, Containment and Transgression in The Lonely Londoners,” Culture, Theory and Critique, vol. 57, no. 1, 2016, p. 121-136, DOI: 10.1080/14735784.2015.1111157
I pledge my honor that this paper represents my own work in accordance with University guidelines. — Alexandra Gjaja
In Dickens’ Oliver Twist, Oliver descends into the world of criminals when the Artful Dodger introduces him to Fagin. Throughout the novel, Oliver is led across London by these criminals as they attempt to initiate him into a life of crime. Oliver’s migration around the city implicates the entire city as bystanders to his unjust treatment, thus placing London itself on trial. In this trial, London is charged with an indictment of injustice against a migrant child in need. Evidence of the city’s guilt emerges from a variety of sources: mob justice, the court system, and the policing system all fail to provide the migrant child with aid. Thus, by the end of the trial, there is little choice but to find London guilty of all charges.
The mob justice system is an incredibly potent force in the novel. It often acts as the first level of law enforcement before officers can arrive on the scene. This is especially evident in the passage where Oliver is chased by an angry mob after he is falsely accused of stealing a handkerchief. Here, Dickens writes of the pursuit:
“’Stop thief! Stop thief!’ There is a passion for hunting, something deeply implanted in the human breast. One wretched
breathless child, panting with exhaustion; terror in his looks;
agony in his eyes; large drops of perspiration streaming down
his face; strains every nerve to make head upon his pursuers; and
as they follow on his track, and gain upon him every instant,
they hail his decreasing strength with joy.” – Oliver Twist, Chapter 10
Oliver’s pursuers are not drawn into the chase because they’re concerned with the proper execution of justice; rather, they are enthralled by the thrill of the hunt. The language in this passage is so powerfully evocative of a predatory pack that the word ‘child’ can easily be replaced with the word ‘deer’. Dickens’ portrayal of the “attraction of repulsion” comes from a history of observing the attitudes of London bystanders in relation to capital punishment. In February 1946, Dickens wrote a letter about his experiences at Courvoisier’s hanging in 1840. He remarked that among the entire crowd he saw “no sorrow, no salutary terror, no abhorrence, no seriousness; nothing but ribaldry, debauchery, levity, drunkenness, and flaunting vice in fifty other shapes.” He further goes on to say “I should have deemed it impossible that I could have ever felt any large assemblage of my fellow-creatures to be so odious” (Horne). Dickens is repulsed by their lack of repulsion, a sentiment that emerges clearly in his references to mob justice carried out on an innocent child. He continues with this theme in the second instance Oliver is placed at the mercy of the crowd: when he is being kidnapped from Pentonville.
When Mr. Brownlow sends Oliver on a task to return some books to the book-stall in Clerkenwell, Nancy captures the boy by pretending he is her runaway brother. Despite Oliver’s protests, all of the looker-ons refused to believe him. Rather, they encouraged his kidnappers, even when Bill Sikes used violence:
“With these words, the man tore the volumes from
his grasp, and struck him on the head.
‘That’s right!’ cried a looker-on, from a garret-window. ‘That’s
the only way of bringing him to his senses!’
‘To be sure!’ cried a sleepy-faced carpenter, casting an
approving look at the garret-window.
‘It’ll do him good!’ said the two women.” –Oliver Twist, Chapter 15
Just as in the Clerkenwell mob, the crowd is unified by their approbation of punishment despite a lack of evidence proving the child’s guilt. There seems to be something about Oliver that makes him appear particularly culpable to the public eye. From the very beginning of his life, Oliver is classified as a ruffian. When Oliver was named by Mr. Bumble, he was given the last name “Twist”. “Twisted” was one of the slang words for “hanged” at the time, referring to the way one twisted as they swung on the rope (Horne). By giving Oliver this name, Mr. Bumble lays out his expectations for a young child born in poverty, as well as that of London society. Criminals were often sentenced to death by hanging, especially thieves. The Londoners predict that a child like Oliver is bound for the same fate. Nothing Oliver says seems to be enough to convince the crowd of his innocence, so much so that “overpowered by the conviction of the bystanders that he really was the hardened little wretch he was described to be” (ch. 10), Oliver gives up resistance.
Societal expectations for the migrant, impoverished child are not only evident in the city’s common crowd, but also in its court system. Oliver is shown no mercy by the judge, even when evidence against his involvement in the crime is produced by the officer. At the trial, the policeman gives his account of the events:
“The policeman, with becoming humility, related how
he had taken the charge; how he had searched Oliver, and
found nothing on his person; and how that was all he knew
about it. ‘Are there any witnesses?’ inquired Mr. Fang. ‘None,
your worship,’ replied the policeman.” – Oliver Twist, Chapter 11
Oliver is found innocent of the crime that he is charged with; however, he is still treated like a criminal. Right after receiving this evidence, the justice calls Oliver a young vagabond, branding him with the title of a criminal simply because Mr. Brownlow assumed Oliver to be connected with the thieves that had performed the crime. Moreover, the court dismisses the fear and illness of the boy, even when he faints in the courtroom:
“’I think he really is ill, your worship,’ remonstrated the
‘I know better,’ said Mr. Fang.
‘Take care of him, officer,’ said the old gentleman, raising his
hands instinctively; ‘he’ll fall down.’
‘Stand away, officer,’ cried Fang; ‘let him, if he likes.’
Oliver availed himself of the kind permission, and fell to the
floor in a fainting fit. The men in the office looked at each
other, but no one dared to stir.
‘I knew he was shamming,’ said Fang, as if this were
incontestable proof of the fact. ‘Let him lie there; he’ll soon
be tired of that.’” – Oliver Twist, Chapter 11
In the eyes of the court, Oliver didn’t deserve the kindness that would normally be shown to a child of his age on account of his possible association with criminality. Childhood is a social construct; who is perceived as a child varies between cultures, hence, the concept of child innocence also carries a sort of ambivalence. There is an ignorance expected of children at a certain age that makes it unreasonable to accuse them of a crime. Legally, in 19th century London, this age only extended as far as seven years old. Any child older than this would have to prove their innocence before a court of law. Oliver, who is older than seven when he is placed before the court, is not guaranteed protection because of his age. He is tried as any adult would be in a court of law, and unfairly. Hence, he is given a sentence of 3 months’ hard labor as he lays unconscious on the floor of the courtroom. Dickens’ juxtaposition of judgement and vulnerability in Oliver Twist emphasizes the city’s black and white approach to justice. In the robbery at Chertsey this juxtaposition resurfaces, demonstrating the importance of this idea in identifying the problems with London law enforcement.
Bill Sikes takes Oliver to Chertsey to break into the home of Mrs. Maylie and let the robbers inside. Oliver attempts to warn the family as soon as he enters the house, but in the process he gets shot in the arm. Abandoned by the robbers, Oliver is left with no choice but to crawl to the Maylie’s door and beg for assistance. When the child has begun to recover, he divulges his entire story to the doctor and Rose Maylie. Yet, even this does not seem to free Oliver in the eyes of the law. The doctor and Rose discuss Oliver’s predicament in this passage:
‘Surely,’ said Rose, ‘the poor child’s story, faithfully
repeated to these men, will be sufficient to exonerate him.’
‘I doubt it, my dear young lady,’ said the doctor, shaking
his head. ‘I don’t think it would exonerate him, either with
them, page or with legal functionaries of a higher grade.
What is he, after all, they would say? A runaway. Judged by
mere worldly considerations and probabilities,
his story is a very doubtful one.’ – Oliver Twist, Chapter 31
In the end, to prevent his arrest, the boy’s supporters have no choice but to cast doubt on the claim that Oliver was the same child who broke in through the window. The doctor firmly believed that if they had told the truth, Oliver could still be arrested while he was on the brink of death. This cold-hearted approach to justice appears to be an intense dramatization of a rather small crime. Indeed, Wolff speculates ‘if Dickens indulges in some displacement of affect, charging the issue of theft with the highest literary energy, it is because there may be more at stake than stealing. For Dickens himself theft was the first term, and the only criminally specific term, in a series that culminated in “all that’s bad.”’ Oliver Twist isn’t a novel about a child struggling against becoming a thief; rather, it is a novel about a child battling against total moral corruption. Hence, the punishment for becoming a thief, a choice that is comparative to becoming all that is evil, is most severe. However, Oliver wasn’t a thief, nor the willing associate of thieves. He was a sickly, weak, and wounded child. The fact that his story would not be accepted by London’s enforcers of justice is one of the greatest injustices in the novel. Indeed, a punishment so severe for a child so innocent threatens the very meaning of justice itself. Chertsey’s law enforcement, just like the law enforcement in other parts of the city, has failed Oliver.
In conclusion, Oliver Twist is a story that follows a migrant child and his struggle against the injustice of the city of London. London fails to prove Oliver’s guilt through a fair trial and questioning, instead assuming his criminality from the start; it fails to help him when his life is in danger; finally, it fails to believe him when he attempts to show his innocence. London is guilty of grave injustice to the migrant child; it is only through the kindness of individuals that Oliver is saved in the end.
Dickens, Charles. Oliver Twist. Leigh Little.
Wolff, Larry. “”The Boys are Pickpockets, and the Girl is a Prostitute”: Gender and Juvenile Criminality in Early Victorian England from Oliver Twist to London Labour.” New Literary History, vol. 27 no. 2, 1996, p. 227-249. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/nlh.1996.0029.
Horne, Phillip. “Crime in Oliver Twist”. British Library. 15 May 2017. https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/crime-in-oliver-twist#. Accessed 3 May 2021.