Rethinking and Reimagining Identity in Patricia Powell’s “The Pagoda” Essay Example
Gender is one of the primary means through which identity is socially constructed. The term gender has transcended its earlier "grammar-based" usage of classifying nouns as male, female and neuter. It is not used to describe the biological sexual characteristics by which we identify females and males but to encompass the socially defined roles, attitudes and values which communities and societies ascribe as appropriate for one sex or the other. In this specific sense, it was first used as a phrase, "the social relations of gender", for which gender has become a kind of shorthand.
The social relations of gender seeks to make apparent and explain the asymmetry which appears in male/female relations in terms of power sharing, decision-making, the division of labour, and return on labour both within the household and in the society at large. The phrase directs our attenti...
on to all the attributes acquired in the process of socialization: our self and group definitions, our sense of appropriate roles, values and behaviours and, above all, expected and acceptable interactions in relationships between men and women.
Society seeks to define people according to gender by placing them at either of the two extremes masculine or feminine. Whether one is considered female or male is dependent upon one's respectability or reputation. There are certain roles and activities that are only considered "kosher" for certain sexes. For example, the nurturing of children and upkeep of the household is considered the domain of the woman whereas the man is expected to fulfill the roles of breadwinner and disciplinarian.
These rigidly circumscribed roles are based on theories of functionalism which insist that for healthy family life and by extension a
healthy society there must be a differentiation between what is socially acceptable for males and females. "Reputation" and "Respectability" serves to divide the sexes. There are many ideas about what men "should" be and they are all opposite to what a woman "should" be. Male and female in the functionalist view exist only on a plane of contradictions: strong/weak, gentle/firm, breadwinner/homemaker, powerful/powerless.
This antagonistic comparison of gendered identities more often than not portrays women as victims. (references in Barrow 1998) Mr. Lowe/ Lau A-yin in the Pagoda defies this narrow definition of gender. In the novel, gender, rather than being simply two extremes, is a continuum. Placing the binaries of male and female within the context of continuum allows one to see the two points of 'masculine' and 'feminine', for example, as well as everything in between, as valid. A continuum validates everything between two points, necessarily expanding two binary possibilities into many.
Conventionally, society views sex and gender, and thus sexuality, as dichotomous; one is thought of as either female or male. The existence of such labels: 'male', 'female', 'feminine', and 'masculine', are social constructions which imply the non-existence of anything in between. Mr. Lowe is a woman who is impersonating a man, who has a child and is also a lesbian. He has lesbian relationships with Joyce and Miss Sylvie and heterosexual relationships with Omar and Cecil. The question here is whether these men desire Mr.
Lowe as a woman or a man. The simultaneous hetero and homosexual relationships work to distort typified reality and distort gender roles. Mr. Lowe is also a "man" who has taken on the role of primary caregiver to a child
which further contradicts the idea of what a "man" is. The novel also explores the role of women and their agency in society. Mr. Lowe feels betrayed by is anatomy. He was very close to his father until he began to develop into a woman at which point he was unceremoniously sold into marriage as a payment for a debt.
Because of his gender he was not sent to school like his brothers and forced to let go of his dreams of seeing the world that his father had implanted. Cecil treats Mr. Lowe as he likes, and according to Mr. Lowe "loved him as he liked" pg. 22. He controlled Mr. Lowe by virtue of his masculinity. Cecil also has power over Miss Sylvie as a result of knowing the truth of her racial background and knowing that she killed her white husband. Chinese women not being able to emigrate was Mr. Lowe's reason for cross dressing.
He refuses to settle for a life of housewifery. Mr. Lowe is a contradiction of the idea of women as the "weaker sex" in the latter parts of the novel. He has big aspirations for himself and his daughter and is disappointed that she has "settled" for marriage and children. He shows himself as capable strong despite a life characterized by pain and secrets. Mr. Lowe is not the typical woman as society defines it. By his/her dress, thoughts, actions and mannerisms he/she encompasses characteristics we think of as both male and female.
Discourses on race and ancestry are a large part of the formation of identity. This novel shows that we cannot assume a person's race fully describes who
they are. Mr. Lowe represents an anomaly in the predominantly black Jamaican society. There is a hierarchy of race established by colonization. Cecil and other white people are of course at the apex of this. Miss Sylvie, by virtue of her "alabaster skin" is afforded the same respect as a white person. Mr. Lowe however is a harder case. He his not black but at the same time he cannot be on the same tier as the whites.
He is always "Chink" or "Chinee man" - an oddity to be mistrusted and mocked. As Mr. Lowe's friend Kywing notes, they are treated as substandard by the black populace, and their shops are destroyed with little or no repercussions from the authorities pg. 37. The Chinese represent a strange sub class. Mr. Lowe notes that Miss Sylvie can issue orders to Dulcie and her son Omar easily because of her skin color in comparison to theirs (they being black) but with him she doesn't know what to do pg. 2.
There is confusion with respect to how he and his people fit into the racial hierarchy. He is simultaneously tolerated and abhorred. The problem is ultimately that Mr. Lowe is not simply Chinese. He has to an extent become Jamaican in his effort to assimilate and fit in. Hence, he has been left with a double consciousness: that which he is ancestrally and that which he has become as a function of his socialization. Miss Sylvie's position as a person of mixed race is also an interesting one.
She has the outward appearance of being a white but is in fact "octoroon" - the offspring of a white and
a quadroon. All is well until she marries. Her husband is white but her sons are all born "much too brown". She tries to hide this by giving them all up for adoption but when her deception is discovered by her husband she kills him to protect herself and her station is society. Her story illustrates the colonial mindset of black as inferior as she tries to deny this part of herself only to find it impossible to hide in the indelible stamp on her children.
Both parts of what Miss Sylvie is are important. To define her simply by one or the other would be erroneous. Race as it applies here is fluid, there is no way to pin Miss Sylvie down and place her in either category as Black or White. Since her race is fluid then consequently so is her identity since so much of it is dependent on her racial composition. Depending on the situation she is in she is seen differently.
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