Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Advancing the Dialogue: Reading Paul Scott's Raj Quartet

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Advancing the Dialogue: Reading Paul Scott's Raj Quartet

Article excerpt

Peter Childs's analysis of Paul Scott's panoramic treatment of the British in India offers a new voice to Quartet scholarship, the voice of an ever increasing number of readers who are well-versed in Scott's novels and eager to enter into a substantial dialogue about them. Building on over two decades of critical discussion, Childs applies an original lens to the Quartet by way of Bakhtin's theory of language and art. No less an innovation is Childs's application of Scott's own artistic trademark--his technique of creating a primary image or "memorial picture" with both a "front" and "back" dimension--to explore the theme and message of the Quartet. In short, Childs succeeds in both widening and deepening our understanding of this significant and complex sequence of novels.

Childs offers his interpretation in two parts. The first half of the monograph deals with what Scott himself called the "broad canvas" of human events. Using occasional references from the early novels, folding in unpublished typescripts of essays and speeches, and topping off with excerpts from the manuscripts of the tetralogy (both published and unpublished), Childs sets out to map the major features of Scott's view of life as enacted through the metaphor of British-Indian relations. In his first chapter, Childs compares Scott's novels to "earlier English anti-colonial fiction" (namely, Forster's A Passage to India) to establish similarities and highlight "current critical debates.(1) The next chapter offers an analysis of the Quartet's religious iconography used, as Childs demonstrates, to dissect the "fallen" or exiled condition of the raj. Chapter 3 focuses on Scott's use of Emerson's philosophy to map the "janus-faced" nature of the imperial embrace between England and India. Finally, Scott's historical and political views of the British-Indian experience are carefully defined and articulated in chapter 4 through the views of pivotal characters like Robin White, Barbie Batchelor, and Guy Perron.

The second half of Childs's treatment utilizes concepts from Bakhtin--heteroglossia, alterity, and carnival--to unlock both individual scenes and major themes of the Quartet in an especially rich and original series of chapters. In chapter 5, Childs concentrates on a single and hitherto neglected incident in The Day of the Scorpion: the meeting between Pandit Baba and Ahmed Kasim. The variety of social voices merging into dialogue alerts us to heteroglossic tensions within Scott's scene: the desire of the center to use language to vindicate a single, dominant viewpoint, and the resistance from marginal perspectives that broadens the use of language. Childs astutely demonstrates how Scott creates a myriad of situations in which certain characters resist the hegemonic or centripetal use of language, but in turn seek to establish a monolithic ideology of their own. As Childs rightfully observes, the narrative structure of the Quartet is itself centrifugal or heteroglossic; it "broaden[s] meaning and perspective until the complexity of a situation is realized and one's biases are reduced by an awareness of the predicament of others" (p. 86).

Childs next applies alterity to what he believes is one of the primary concerns of the Quartet: the theme of division. The epitome of this theme is a single character with two names: Harry Coomer/Hari Kumar--the westernized Indian, the brown Englishman, who is imprisoned within native society by the "club mentality" of the English and exiled from the very Anglophile culture that makes him who he is. He is thus a prisoner, invisible to the raj community that cannot recognize him as English. All natives are "unknown" to this enclosed and exclusive society that fails "to recognise the equal humanity of Indians and its consequent perception of itself as superhuman or god-like" (p. 111). But in a move typical of Scott, this image is reversed (Childs refers to the author's habit of establishing an image, like Indians-as-prisoners, then going in through the "back of that image"). …

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