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Class Positions and Resistant Subjectivities: A Comparison of Althusserian Ideology in H.D.’s HERmione and Mulk Raj Anand’s Untouchable

By Flora Situ

Hilda Doolittle’s (H.D.) HERmione features the titular main character of Hermione Gart, the narrative counterpart of the author’s younger self, who comes back to Pennsylvania after being unable to graduate from Bryn Mawr. As an early twentieth-century woman, Hermione is haunted by a crippling sense of failure due to having no success in higher education and resultantly she is continuously perceived as alien in as much as she resides in a space outside of feminine expectations. Her deep desire to escape her sense of failure leads her to adhere to the sole remaining feminine norm that is offered to her: marriage. Hermione ultimately fails in her romantic relationship as she expresses her dissatisfaction with her newly-assigned role and its subsequent confinement of her identity in the heteronormative standards for twentieth-century wives. Hermione progressively realizes that fulfilling another feminine expectation will not allow her to break free from failure, as both feminine expectations are societally-produced and thereby only exist as ideals; the only means of escape then would be to exist beyond what society establishes as normalcy. Hermione’s resultant desire for social emancipation is mirrored by Mulk Raj Anand’s protagonist Bakha, in Untouchable. His profession as a street sweeper reifies him into a Dalit—the lowest class of the Indian caste system—and his psyche yearns to escape the label ‘Untouchable’ that is inevitably attached to his social status. Similarly to HERmione, this novel presents a plethora of psychological methods that Bakha unconsciously employs to escape his low caste, notably through the imitation of the higher class’s social norms and behaviours. That said, despite this yearning, Bakha is deeply afraid of moments that destabilize the normative caste hierarchy. Consequently, the intense relief he feels when he is interpellated as a lower-caste person morphs into a jouissance that he can only experience through his own subjugation. Throughout the novel, then, Bakha is constantly torn between escaping his caste and remaining in his social class. There lies the defining difference between Hermione and Bakha: Bakha is an ‘Untouchable,’ whereas Hermione is a middle-class educated woman. Indeed, Hermione’s sense of failure alienates her from society, but she is never forcefully removed from it. In contrast, Bakha’s lower-caste position disallows him from entering society as a whole because his community does not regard him as a human being. The pleasure he experiences from being treated like a lower caste derives from the fact that, through interpellation, he is seemingly shedding his ‘Untouchable’ label by being socially acknowledged. Through H.D.’s Hermione and Anand’s Bakha, the process through which ideology^1 is unconsciously reproduced is revealed; however, these characters internalize their respective social misrecognitions differently, illustrating the impact of the caste system in one’s attempts to escape societal confinements.

Hermione and Bakha both begin their internalization of ideology by observing the behaviours of others around them—especially those of their parents. Hermione regards her mother’s artistry highly, going so far as to say that she “wish[es] [she] could have painted like Eugenia” (144). She describes her mother as an “Eleusinian,” referring to the ancient city of Eleusis, which is most known for its Eleusinian Mysteries—a festival that celebrates the Greek fertility goddess Demeter (H.D., HERmione, 29). She contrasts this divine and creative femininity with her father Carl Gart’s patriarchal masculine energy, which she refers to as “Athenian” (29). Eugenia Hart is presented as a Ruskinian ‘helpmeet’ character, insofar as she constantly sacrifices her own self-worth in order to prioritize her husband’s desires. This is most exemplified when Eugenia explains to her daughter how she has willingly given her only source of light to Carl: “‘I am an old lady. I can knit in the dark. I can’t sew in the dark. Your father likes the light concentrated in a corner. He can work better if I am sitting in the dark’” (77). For her husband’s convenience, Eugenia abandons one artistic craft—sewing—for one that can be more easily done in the darkness. Nevertheless, the lack of a viable source of light limits her eyesight and therefore renders knitting more inaccessible. Through this action, Eugenia implies that her art—whether it be painting, sewing, or knitting—will never be as significant as Carl’s scientific research. Eugenia’s diction is simple and matter-of-factly, which is especially shown in the repetition of her words in her “I can” and “I can’t” sentences, as though this social hierarchy between wife and husband was natural. Her self-effacement is symptomatic of her subjugation by a familial ideological state apparatus:^2 she places herself in an inferior position vis-à-vis her husband and thereby perpetuates a patriarchal ideology to her daughter. Women’s subordination through the debasement of their artistic expressions is further reinforced to Hermione in her interactions with her Bryn Mawr classmates. These women do not speak of their artistic talents as intellectual accomplishments but rather as feminine social “achievement” (69), as demonstrated by Jessie Thorpe’s artwork, which was once “exhibited somewhere in Paris,” but is now an unimpressive decorative piano ornament (46). By observing Eugenia’s dismissal of her craft due to the reified subservience that is interlinked with her femininity and the Bryn Mawr graduates’ reiteration of this patriarchal sentiment, Hermione learns that inferiority is normatively feminine.

  Bakha’s father plays a similar role in the protagonist’s internalization of the Indian caste system. When Bakha accidentally grazes a man with a higher caste position than him, he is forced to endure a myriad of insults and physical abuse and this traumatic incident subsequently haunts him for the rest of his day (Anand, Untouchable, 37-40). His father, Lakha, notices his change in demeanor and offers, in a moment of kindness, a space for Bakha to confess his feelings; that said, once he learns that Bakha had touched a higher-caste man, Lakha’s “kindliness” synthesizes with “anger” as he asks him if Bakha had “give[n] a warning of [his] approach” (67). This question is accusatory as Lakha implies that, as a lower-caste sweeper, it was Bakha’s duty to announce his presence. Apart from the kindness in his voice, Lakha’s words are devoid of comfort for his son’s suffering, suggesting then that Bakha’s failure to accomplish his caste-given task rightfully warrants him the ‘punishment’ that he has received. In this passage, then, Lakha’s question acts as a site of ideological perpetuation because he normalizes Bakha’s ‘Untouchable’ label by reducing his son’s self-worth to his caste position. Upon Bakha’s expression of his desire to fight back against the injustice he experienced, Lakha responds by saying “no” three times, and he states: “They [the higher-castes] are our masters” (68). The simplicity of this sentence is reminiscent of Eugenia’s matter-of-factly “I can” and “I can’t” statements, illustrating how Lakha teaches Bakha, as Eugenia did Hermione, the inevitability of his social role. 

The word “master” presents the upper-classmen as people who have mastery—or, put otherwise, ownership—over the lower-class, which consequently dehumanizes ‘Untouchables’ such as Bakha and Lakha himself into mere sources of labour-power. This is further emphasized with Lakha’s use of the possessive pronoun “our” preceding the word “master”—by using this word, Lakha is voluntarily accepting the higher class’s authority over both himself and his son. The willingness through which Lakha is producing himself as an inferior subject of the Indian caste system reveals the ossification of class ideology within his psyche. The objectification of the ‘Untouchables’ additionally negates any claims to justice Bakha posits because it incorporates the discrimination of the lower class into normative social behaviour. Through the repetition of this norm—as exemplified by Lakha’s repeated “no”—Bakha recognizes, through ideological state apparatuses, that his low social position is ‘natural,’ as it were.  

Despite their similar confinement within their societal positions, Hermione and Bakha distinctly incorporate their respective class ideologies, which consequently brings about divergent resistant subjectivities^3 from both figures. In Hermione’s case, the internalization of her role as a 20th-century woman is most apparent in her relationship with George Lowndes. The forest where Hermione meets regularly with George is a place of solace for her since nature’s wilderness, in all of its Kantian sublime, offers a separated space from society in which Hermione can temporarily escape her gendered societal expectations. She takes advantage of this freedom by expressing her literary artistry, which can be seen in her description of her surroundings in which she personifies the forest: “[…] they were knees and brown flanks and the long low swirl of stone arrows that cut them forever and forever from the country they had that once repudiated” (H.D., HERmione, 65). Separated from gendered prejudices, Hermione is able to access a creativity that is uniquely her own, beyond that of the artistic feminine expectations that Eugenia and the Bryn Mawr graduates adhere to. She describes, in detail, the visual images in front of her to illustrate the forest through bodily terms, such as “abreast,”^4 “knees,” and “brown flanks,” personifying the natural setting. Moreover, it is through these bodily fragments’ ability to “cut” Hermione off from normativity that nature’s sublime manifests itself, effectively offering her an escape from the standards that she has since “repudiated.” Hermione’s simple yet descriptive poetic prose in this passage hints at H.D.’s eventual career as a renowned Imagist poet which further demonstrates the liberating power of nature vis-à-vis Hermione’s art. George, however, interrupts her literary creativity by transforming this forest into the forest of Arden in quoting Shakespeare’s As You Like It while attributing to himself the part of Orlando (63). Hermione, by virtue of being his lover, accordingly aligns herself with Rosalind. Through George’s Shakespearian allusion, Hermione reenters a patriarchal society by actively enacting a female role that exists within the male-dominated literary canon. Hermione recognizes, due to her internalization of patriarchal ideology, that this secondary “decorative” role is one that most strongly follows society’s expectations for women, which then would allow her to leave behind the failure that she experienced at Bryn Mawr (168). Despite the societal validation that results from her heteronormative relationship with George, her mind is dissatisfied. She constantly repeats that her identity is “smudged out” as, similarly to Eugenia, her role as the wife constantly forces her to debase herself (71). Having found no solace in her compliance to social standards, Hermione searches for another method of psychological escape from her sense of failure, therefore producing a resistant subjectivity that expresses itself in both her rupture with George and her desire to pursue an identity beyond the ideology of the patriarchy. H.D. thus purposefully presents the failure of a marriage plot between the young male artist George—a personage that fits the standard expectations for a Künstlerroman’s main character—and the unconventional heroine Hermione, whom she presents as the actual protagonist of this coming-of-age novel, to destabilize the literary formula of the Künstlerroman and criticize the extent through which women are demeaned, even in a literary context. 

Bakha’s internalization of the Indian caste ideology results in the exact opposite of Hermione’s discontentment with her gendered societal position: as much as he yearns for emancipation from his caste position, he also discovers a deep satisfaction within his own servitude, as exemplified by his interactions with the hockey player Charat Singh. Upon Bakha’s arrival at the high-caste Hindu’s house, Charat Singh begins to give him orders that the protagonist deems to be reserved for lower-castes that are hierarchically higher than himself, such as “fetching glowing charcoal” for the hockey player’s hookah, and bringing him his tea (Anand, Untouchable, 92). Charat Singh, in his interpellation of Bakha as a subject worthy of touching his belongings, offers him a rare opportunity to leave the normal expectations of an ‘Untouchable.’ This moment in which Bakha momentarily rises in social class based on the requests of a higher-caste disproves Lakha’s teachings by demonstrating that Bakha’s social position is not intrinsic—it exists ontologically solely through the perpetuation of class ideology and the normalization of certain social behaviours, and thereby should not constitute his real identity. This moment, then, brings about a “pleasant thrill” within Bakha because it allows for his resistant subjectivity to express itself through the performance of a social caste that is not originally the one attributed to him, illustrating thus a brief moment of rebellion against the ideology that confines him within his lower-caste status (92). That said, Bakha’s unawareness of his own ideological conditioning prevents him from understanding that his happiness derives from the destabilization of caste hierarchy. He misrecognizes his ability to escape his social class as a mere act of kindness from an upper-classman, echoing the words that his father instilled in him when Lakha was teaching him the innate power disbalance between high-castes and lower-castes: “Some of them are kind” (68). Accordingly, Bakha’s naïve mind misplaces his joy derived fromtemporary social emancipation onto Charat Singh’s interpellation of him as a subject of the higher-castes, which brings about a sentiment of “love,” “adoration,” and “worship” towards him: “‘For this man, […] I wouldn’t mind being a sweeper all my life” (91). Anand, as the implied author, refers to this servility-based jouissance as a trait that Bakha “inherited from his forefathers,” illustrating thereby the generations of social conditioning as a result of ideological state apparatuses (10).  

Bakha’s satisfaction vis-à-vis his caste position is constituted of an antinomy: the higher-castes’ interpellation of him as a subject allows him to escape his ‘Untouchable’ label by producing him into normative society—a space that his social class usually prevents him from entering—, but in accepting servility, he is perpetuating the caste system that reifies him into an ‘Untouchable’ in the first place. Hermione, on the other hand, is a middle-class educated woman and is therefore already included in society. This allows her the ability to recognize the restraints that gendered class ideology enforces onto her identity. The contrast between the protagonists’ reactions to the internalization of their respective class ideologies demonstrates, in H.D.’s HERmione and Mulk Raj Anand’s Untouchable, the significant effects of social class on the production of one’s resistant subjectivity. 

  1.  In this paper, I use the term ‘ideology’ as it is defined by Louis Althusser. With the use of this word, then, I am speaking of socio-economic power structures—in the context of this text, the patriarchy and capitalism respectively—and the dominating social forces that the State uses to monitor and control social behaviour. In other words, ‘ideology’ in this paper refers to a structured misrecognition of people’s real conditions of being (Althusser, “From Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation),” 1477-1484). 
  2.  The Althusserian term “ideological state apparatus” refers to a plethora of institutions, namely the church, private and public schools, the family dynamic, political parties, the media, and culture (1489). These ISAs serve as a means to enforce, through a Gramscian hegemony, ‘normative’ social expectations in order to ensure, through the constant perpetuation of ideology, the reproduction of societal modes of production (1478).
  3.  The term “subjectivity,” in this paper, will always refer to the social production of subjects under state apparatuses. 
  4.  I recognize that the word “abreast” in this passage refers to one item alongside another. Nevertheless, I felt it pertinent to add this word to my argument because the significance of this word derives, in a large part, from the word “breast,” which is yet another bodily term. 

Works Cited 

Althusser, Louis. “From Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation).” Critical Theory Since Plato, edited by Hazard Adams and Leroy Searle, 3rd edition, Harcourt, 1971, pp. 1476-1509.

Anand, Mulk Raj. Untouchable. Penguin Books, 1935. 

Doolittle, Hilda (H.D.). HERmione. New Directions Publishing, 1981.