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Problematic Favorites: A Little Princess – Part 23 All the Isms

Wednesday, July 27, 2016 - 20:14

OK, let's just plunge into this.

It is, I suppose, a testament to Burnett's talent that the character of Ram Dass as an interesting, sympathetic, inventive, witty, and accomplished human being shines through from under the layers of Orientalism, condescention, and an oblivious racism that is shared by both the author and the viewpoint character. As the barest of backgrounds: Sara is up in the attic, taking a brief opportunity to view a gorgeous sunset through her garret window, when Ram Dass appears in the corresponding window of the house next door, holding a pet monkey. They acknowledge each other wordlessly, and then the monkey escapes and makes for Sara's open window, precipitating a closer encounter. Sara invites the man to climb over to her attic to catch the monkey. (I suppose we should imagine this to be a set of connected row houses, based on this scene and later ones.) He does so, gets a good look at her living conditions, thanks her, and leaves again.

A great deal of emphasis is placed on Ram Dass's subservient manner and his verbal performace of respect and gratitude. "He poured forth a flood of respectful thanks. ... [he] thanked Sara profoundly ... as if he were speaking to the little daughter of a rajah ... those moments were given to further deep and grateful obeisance." But his manner is not simply presented as a performance. And it never seems to occur to Sara that it is a performance, as opposed to a spontaneous expression of inner nature. When Sara reflects that, in her old life in India, she was "surrounded by people who all treated her as Ram Dass had treated her; who salaamed when she went by, whose foreheads almost touched the ground when she spoke to them, who were her servants and her slaves," she finds irony that she, who had been set so high is now insulted and mistreated by the other servants of the school. But it never seems to occur to her to map her experience onto those "servants and slaves" and recognize their equal personhood.

Well, no, why would it? This is a story about Sara's inherent nobility, not about her being a class revolutionary. And so she accepts the respect of Ram Dass as her due--as a reminder of a now-lost world. And that reminder inspires her to re-dedicate herself to being a princess, in behavior if not in station. I want to come back to Sara's peculiar notion of what it is to be a princess, but this entry is about Ram Dass.

It would be more comfortable if we were able to to read Ram Dass's behavior purely as a performace of servitude, necessary for comfortable survival in his situation of employment. But the authorial voice of Burnett disrupts this possibility by assigning elements of this performance as essential characteristic. When Sara greets him in Hindi, "The truth was that the poor fellow felt as if his gods had intervened, and the kind little voice came from heaven itself." (Note that if we are reading Ram Dass correctly as a Sikh, then "his gods" is wildly inaccurate, as Sikhism is monotheistic. So it's quite likely that despite the cultural trappings of the Sikh religion, the author is presenting him as relgiously Hindu. Or we can just chalk this up to an error from ignorance.)

There continues to be an interesting conflict between interpreting offensive stereotypes as authorial truth and as meta-performance. Ram Dass inhabits the trope of the "Ethnic Magician", but in a way that is explicitly fictional. That is, he is never ascribed actual supernatual power, but rather he is assigned--and takes up--the role of magician in being the driving engine (and most likely the mastermind) behind the "magical" transformation of Sara's attic, later in the story. Jumping ahead, we are repeatedly told of his ability to move soundlessly and invisibly, to observe without being obeserved. And in his discussions with Mr. Carrisford, the image of the magician is repeatedly invoked: "When she awakens [to the transformed attic] she will think a magician has been here." Mr. Carrisford's secretary tells him, "It will be like a story from the Arabian Nights. Only an Oriental could have planned it. It does not belong to London fogs."

In addition to tropes of supernatural Orientalist fantasy, Ram Dass is occasionally infantilized--he does not simply enjoy things, he experiences "a childlike pleasure" or is "filled with rapture" (a description he shares with Becky). On one element under this general umbrella, I will acquit Burnett. When Ram Dass describes how he would sneak across the roof at night to spy on Sara in her bedroom, the lack of any whiff of a sexual element is not a specific desexualization of Ram Dass but a blanket desexualization of the story entirely.

It is not enough simply to say that the book is a product of it's times, or that Burnett is actually quite enlightened in how she presents Ram Dass for her day and age. One of the reasons I have labeled this series as a "problematic favorite" is that I recognize that the presentation of his character is offensive and riddled with stereotypes, and that this presentation goes unchallenged even by the nominally enlighted protagonist. Despite the positive character traits that shine through it all, I squirm every time I read or listen to these passages. (In the same way I squirm every time Georgette Heyer's The Grand Sophy gets to the Jewish moneylender chapter. Though it isn't nearly as bad as that one.)

Next week, I'll tackle Sara's rather startling choice of Marie Antoinette as a role model.