Reading Assignment: Chapter 4 (“Subalterns in the Floating World: Bharati Mukherjee’s Jasmine (1989) and The Holder of the World (1993)”) of Rob Burton’s Artists of the Floating World: Contemporary writers Between Cultures.
While I was reading this chapter on subaltern theory in Mukherjee’s work, my mind kept jumping around between two things: first, I began remembering the discussions on subaltern theory from my theory grad class last semester; second, I kept thinking about the roles of the three narrators within The Holder of the World, and if they all really have agency through their voice within the novel.
Now I know what you’re thinking, my faithful reader: “Three narrators? Megan, what are you talking about?” So, here’s a bit of backstory.
Last week during class discussion, many of my classmates brought up the idea that instead of this novel only having two narrators (i.e., Beigh in the present and Hannah in the past), there are parts of the novel where a third narrator peaks in and offers insight that neither Beigh nor Hannah would be able to chime in with. This is best seen as the end of the novel, where the narrative breaks and ends with some background on Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of The Scarlet Letter, which Beigh earlier informs us is based on Hannah’s life after she returned to Salem.
“And so all of this happened a century before the writer’s birth, a century and a half before he wrote his morbid introspection into guilt and repression that many call our greatest work. Preach! Write! Act! He wrote against the fading of the light, the dying of the old program, the distant memory of a shameful, heroic time. Time, O Time! Time to tincture the lurid colors, time for the local understudies to learn their foreign lines, time only to touch and briefly bring alive the first letter of an alphabet of hope and horror stretching out and back to the uttermost shores” (Mukherjee 286).
Backstory about three narrators over; let me rail this blog post back into my overarching point.
When discussing The Holder of the World, Burton notes that, in comparison to Mukherjee’s earlier book, Jasmine, Mukherjee’s novel:
“. . . examines how to give voice to this historic subaltern whose legacy has been buried by time and separated by geography” (Burton 91).
The “historic subaltern” is Hannah Easton as her life’s story has been lost throughout time and place, decades and different points of geography. Both Mukherjee and Beigh attempt to give Hannah a voice: Mukherjee as the author/narrator and Beigh as the narrator/researcher who uncovers Hannah’s life. Both of them allow Hannah to come through and speak on her own behalf as the narrator of her own life, which gives her agency and a voice. However, in Mukherjee’s effort to give the subaltern a voice, does she rob another of their own agency and voice?
In reality, how much do we know about Beigh Masters? Her name is rarely used in the text (so little, in fact, that I missed her name in the first section), we know she’s spent around eleven years of her life dedicated to her research on Hannah Easton and her search for the Emperor’s Tear, and that she works as an asset hunter, traveling throughout the world looking for items for her employers. Beside that? Not much, other than the fact that she is a distant descendant of Hannah. Truthfully, we know more about her boyfriend, Venn: we know all the intricate details of his work (building a time traveling device), where he went to school, where he works, even stuff about his own family and culture. In terms of the three narrators, Beigh is there solely to lead us into Hannah’s life and narration, and when we are in the present time, in Beigh’s world, Beigh spends more time talking about Venn and his work then she does responding to Hannah’s story or telling us about her as an independent person (one of the most detailed passages we get about Beigh is when she tells us about her past romances before Venn, and even then she has to tell us about the phases in her life through the placeholder of a relationship with a man).
Of the three narrators, Beigh is the one with the least agency, the quietest voice. She is a mere sound box for Hannah’s story, and is more flat character than round. Mukherjee herself even has more agency than Hannah as she controls the framing of the narrative, coming and going as she pleases.
Burton highlights the following definition of the subaltern from Antonia Gramsci:
“The word [subaltern] literally translates, therefore, as ‘below the other.’ In military terms, a subaltern receives orders rather than issues them. Gramsci used the term both literally and metaphorically to describe those who had been marginalized, forgotten, overlooked, or ‘othered.’ As I said earlier, it’s not as if they weren’t literally mute or without voice to begin with; it’s more like their voices had not been heard or given airing in political and cultural circles” (Burton 80).
As both Burton points out and I’ve noted earlier, Hannah Easton is the historical subaltern, the one lacking a voice. However, as Mukherjee attempts to bring out her voice via Beigh’s narration, she ultimately silences Beigh and subverts her into the subaltern. Beigh becomes simply the girlfriend of the man who sends her back in time to find the Emperor’s Tear and she becomes defined by her research and her search for the truth of Hannah’s life. Yes, Beigh does help to give Hannah a voice, but in doing so she loses her own.
But please, tell me what you think below. Am I on to a brilliant revelation here, or am I completely crazy? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Until next time.
Burton, Rob. Artists of the Floating World: Contemporary Writers Between Cultures. 2007.
Mukherjee, Bharati. The Holder of the World. Ballantine Books, 1994, New York.