On Seeing England For The First Time
Jamaica Kincaid’s Seeing England For The First Time; A Study On The Symbolic Use Of Clothing
In Jamaica Kincaid’s nonfiction story, On Seeing England for the First Time, it is about Jamaica’s experience in Antigua when everything was representative of England and how glorious of a place it is. However Jamaica saw the real side of England when she went and it wasn’t as grand as it was made out to be. In her story, she described that the majority of things made in England helped to prove the point of social status and if a family had wealth. She focused mainly clothing and fashion being a symbol of power. People usually view clothing to be a symbol of sex or seduction as well as a symbol of personality however in this it is symbolized to be a sign of power and wealth .
Kincaid describes England as a jewel, a jewel that only English people could wear. Kincaid’s father would wear a felt hat and clothes made from England. She describes the reason why her father wears the hat by saying, “My father must have seen and admired a picture of an Englishman wearing such a hat in England, and this picture that he saw must have been so compelling that it caused him to wear the wrong hat for a hot climate most of his long life” (Kincaid 366). In this quote it describes how her father wanted to fit in by buying this hat. By owning this hat for him it symbolized being English and acting like someone from England. Her father realized that even though this hat wasn’t suitable for what he did for work it still showed he could afford clothing from England. To Kincaid’s father this embodied wealth and she continues on to describe how that hat was always on his head as if it was his prized possession.
Before Kincaid wrote her story about England, people would view fashion as a form of trickery and seduction. An article called “Material Fictions of Desire,” talks about various authors who symbolize women’s clothing as symbols of desire or sex. In one of the sentences in the essay it mentions how English people think about clothing. It says, “For not only where elite English women viewed as agents of disguise because of their love of clothes they were also seen as essentially flawed creatures who tricked men into loving them —and worse marrying them—through dissimulation and deceit” (Emberley 471). This basically described how women would wear promiscuous clothing in order to attract a male’s eyes. Through this it seemed like clothing was the only way to get men to like them. However as time went on, clothing transitioned from being something that was seen as promiscuous to something that signified money and power. For example in Kincaid’s story, she talked about how at a store they were selling clothing with the crest of the Prince of Wales. She said “I said, my husband and I hate princes, my husband would never wear anything that had a prince’s anything on it. My friend stiffened. The salesman stiffened” (Kincaid 372). This quote displayed the importance of a prince’s crest mainly because one of the friends said that having something from the Prince showed her Englishness. By wearing something that displayed power, it made the people wearing the clothing look like they came from the upper class.
Clothing to Kincaid, while symbolizing power, also symbolized a sense of confidence and beauty. Kincaid described the women of England’s clothing as, “They were special, everything about them said so, even their clothes; their clothes rustled, swished and soothed” (Kincaid 369). She described the clothing as if the clothes made the women perfect. She related it to her dresses and said they didn’t do what the women of England’s dresses would do. She tied it in later in the story as well by saying how the women mainly used their clothes and beauty to disgrace themselves and win over the men. Kincaid seemed to feel lesser compared to these women by describing how her clothes couldn’t compare. By having cheaply made dresses, she felt lesser to the women because she felt as though they had more of the world then she did. She described it by saying the women could wear their dresses in public where as her weren’t as nicely made so she looked ratty because of the many washes her clothes had endured.
From the same article called “Materials of Desire”, the author says, “My argument rests on the assumption that a materialist history and a corporeal feminist theory of women’s oppression in the twentieth century must focus on a range of practices, knowledges, and representations that develop desire for things at the expense of a desire for social change and meaningful social relations” (Emberley 467). Overall this quote sums up the message of how people tend to oppress women based on materialistic items. This quote ties into the fashion is power because while women do try to impress people with clothes in order to get higher up on the ranking, men tend to feel they need to be oppressed because of the fashion.
The idea of fashion symbolizing power relates to Kincaid’s story in its entirety. People were influenced by the idea that clothes not made in England were worn by lesser people. Throughout the story it depicted the people who Kincaid admired for their clothing choices as well as criticized those who didn’t wear nice clothes. Overall even in today’s society, people still view clothing as a sign of wealth. By wearing high end or expensive clothing people are looked highly upon because they have wealth or show signs of wealth. Overall this story and idea of how fashion symbolizes power is current even in today’s time.
Jamaica Kincaid’s Seeing England For The First Time; Cynicism Against Britain And Imperialism
Kincaid Essay Analysis
In the satirical essay, “On Seeing England for the First Time” (1991), Jamaica Kincaid, an essayist and novelist, describes her spiteful attitude towards Britain by displaying the effects of colonialism on her island and family. She illuminates the effects colonialism by using sarcastic language to distinguish between the brainwashing of her people and her thoughts on the matter, caricatures to display her loved ones’ actions from the British, and also symbolism and metaphors to exemplify her attacking Britain. She exaggerates in order to show how England treats the people versus how they should be treated. This message is to inspire the Antiguan residents who have been “Made in England” that they need to embrace their own culture.
Kincaid depicts her people she grew up with through caricatures to inspire them to rebel against British assimilation and return to their roots. She desires Antiguans to realize how ridiculous they are by conforming to the British. She presents her father as one of the men who have sacrificed their ability to think for themselves. Pointing out the weather, which is a “hot climate,” but her father insists to wear a hat that is ‘’not [made of] proper material’’ to provide shade from the sun (55,61). Ultimately, her father wants to be an Englishman wearing a fancy hat that is the “the last thing” that he will take off (64). Failing to realize the logical use of such a hat. Kincaid’s portrayal of her father reveals the destructive nature of British culture and her hunger to rebel. She likewise reinforces her desire to resist the British by recounting how her Mother enforced British manners at mealtimes. Kincaid discloses how she enjoyed her food more with her bare hands, but that her mother took pride in the times she ate the British way. (91-96). Kincaid’s ridicule of her mother’s religious adherence to British manners develops her feelings of disgust and desire to incite rebellion.
Kincaid utilizes metaphors and allusions to attack Britain’s vile effects of colonialism on not only her people, but anyone who has been under colonialism. Growing up on Antigua, Kincaid further claims that only natural born British area “special jewel”, but whereas colonists are not. Such a jewel was worn by the English as badge of honor, “in jungles, in deserts, on plains, on top of the highest mountains.” However, not so for the poor brainwashed people who were colonized. Her teacher then acts as if Britain is Jerusalem as it is a, “place you will go to when you die but only if you have been good”(23). By alluding to the crusades, Kincaid reinforces how that all the “true” English already get the “privilege” to die there. However, the colonists must earn the right to be English. Kincaid further alludes that the people don’t need the right to become British, they want to be their own people.
Kincaid has so much disgust in Britain that she even changes her British sounding name,”Elaine Cynthia Potter Richardson,” to Jamaica Kincaid as another means of attacking Britain in her own personal life. She does this not only to attack the British, but to inspire the colonists who have been reared in such a condition where they can’t even embrace their culture. If a woman that grew in poverty grew up to become such a writer and influence not only in Antigua, but in the USA, anyone can rise up against the terrors of colonialism.
Kincaid’s usage of Sarcastic language, metaphors and allusions, and caricature in her essay to convey her disdain at Britain’s horrible actions towards her country, Antigua, and all of the other countries, including America, that have faced the iron grip of the “Special Jewel.” In the end, the world must move past colonialism and work with everyone equally while embracing everyone’s culture and practices.
The Theme Of Ambition Askew And Materialism In The Narrative Seeing England For The First Time And Plays Pygmalion By Shaw And Rushdie’s Ruby Slippers
The Age of Mechanical Reproduction
Ambition is a double-edged sword. One rewards the fierce determination needed to complete a daunting task, but is also wary of the greed and arrogance that can result from ambition. Ambition itself is neither a good nor bad trait, but it is a human one. Over time, the word “ambition” has taken on a much more negative connotation as in recent history, greedy imperialists, corrupt elites, and materialistic capitalists have used their ambition to feed their desire for honor, popularity, and power at the expense of the wellbeing of others. It is perhaps because of these human qualities—to desire love, honor, knowledge, and power—and similarities to modern society that the theme of ambition is prevalent in literature. Personal narratives like On Seeing England for the First Time, plays such as Pygmalion, and Rushdie’s Ruby Slippers in East, West highlight the consequences of ambition gone awry. Greed, which makes characters oblivious to human compassion and humility, results in destructive actions and consequences on personal and global levels.
Colonial British literature reflects the broad and pervasive impact of imperialistic greed on British culture. Through ideals such as the “white man’s burden” and proud exclamations that “the sun never sets on the British empire.” On the flip side, the literature of the subjugated cultures, such as Jamaica Kincaid’s On Seeing England for the First Time, attempt to show the narrow-minded public to the horror of the imperialist machine as it seizes their economic resources, land, and cultural identity. British superiority over natives forced Kincaid to think that she “was incomplete, or without substance, and did not measure up” (Kincaid 374) because she was not English. In doing so, she unknowingly played into the imperialist ideology, designed to designate the colonized as “others,” and thus to ignore the reality of the colonized culture and people. Colonists saw Antigua, Kincaid’s hometown, only as economically profitable and a way to gain resources that were unavailable in Europe. Kincaid angrily describes the greed which blinded them to the hegemony and dominance they instilled over her community. The British set up restrictions that prevented the native economies from operating on their own; natives would produce the raw material for British manufacturing, but their competition with British trade was eliminated as natives were forced to only buy British goods. Kincaid’s daily can of cocoa, box of oats, her shoes, socks, and undergarments, the family’s car, and even her satin ribbons were manufactured in England. Her father buys into the Western styles of dress and behavior after being compelled to “wear the wrong hat for hot climate most of his long life” (Kincaid 366) to appear more English. The brown felt hat, which symbolizes the complete British dominance over Antiguan economy and culture, becomes so associated with the father’s character that it becomes the first thing he puts on and the last thing he takes off. This reinforced brainwashing in her personal life and in her education, in which she is told to draw a map of England one every test, creates an outsider complex where Kincaid is forced to idolize English culture but never partake in it: “England is a special jewel all right, and only special people got to wear it” (Kincaid 365). Her cultural identity and value is carelessly replaced in colonization. Everything in her life, including herself, is “Made in England” (Kincaid 365), with “the exceptions being the sea, the sky, and the air we breathe” (Kincaid 366). Western greed for raw material and ambition to industrialize their countries imposed culture and identity on colonies, destroying the “reality” of the place and substituting it with an idea.
Similarly, colonial ideology is also seen to have an impact on class relations, where the lower classes are internal foreigners, colonized by upper classes, who employ strategies of imperial and colonial control. By exploring the class, gender, and racial politics that influence societal conventions in Pygmalion, Shaw reveals the complexities of how ambition and power are closely linked to selfishness and material reward. Because he is upper class, wealthy, and male, Higgins displays the inherent power in class status, money, and gender, which gives his ambition to “make [Eliza] a duchess of this draggletailed guttersnipe” (Shaw 16) a greedy and cold edge. It is a power he yields without conscience, eventually landing Eliza in a position unfit for any role in their society. As he corrects her accent and grammar, dresses her in stunning dresses, and teaches her modern conversational behaviors, he becomes almost obsessed with creating the perfect human being: “how frightfully interesting it is to take a human being and change her into a quite different human being…It’s filling up the deepest gulf that separates class from class and soul from soul” (Shaw 43). Higgins’ goal is no longer to win a bet, to train Eliza, or to even test his own skill and intelligence. He believes he can bring together humankind, one person at a time, and in his ambition to attain social status and be a respectable man, Higgins disregard for the power game he had created and abused to strip Eliza of her independence and identity. Eliza herself is not without ambition, as she approaches Higgins to follow up on his offer to better her position in society. However, Higgins training bestows upon Eliza the power she needed to support herself, to adapt, and to find an independence without the aid of Higgins. “I don’t want no gold and no diamonds” (Shaw 19) Eliza declares, demonstrating how her ambition to retain her dignity and make a better life for herself gives her the strength to reject Higgins and firmly carve a place for herself in the new corners of society she can now explore. Eliza’s father, on the other hand, whose desire is to be indolent forces him to be just the opposite, acts as a foil to Eliza. A man content with poverty and life as a garbage collector, Alfred Doolittle extorts only enough money for a drunken spree, refusing more when it is offered because he does not want to be tempted to save and thus trap himself in middle-class responsibilities. Higgins sends a joking letter to a millionaire, who subsequently bestows Doolittle a stipend to lecture on the morality he abhors. Doolittle feels compelled to accept the remuneration, and his life is no longer impoverished, but neither is it as free and simple as it once was. Forced to become middle class, he must now embrace restrictive middle-class morality and marry his wife. Alfred Doolittle’s ironic ambition to be unambitious binds him to societal structures and conventions on how to behave, stripping him of his very beliefs and identity. Eliza is able to reshape her own identity despite remaining quite penniless while her father gains great wealth but feels as if he has destroyed his individual spirit. Shaw’s concepts of ambition and fame reflects the consequences of both too little and too much ambition: the damage of laziness and greed is an almost dystopian-like society divided not just by wealth, but by accents, mannerisms, and material goods.
Concentration on material success, while ignoring how striving for a variety of rewards beyond mere fame, like professional success and world peace can be largely beneficial, is captured in Salman Rushdie’s At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers in East, West. The narrator describes an extremely capitalist society, very similar to today’s Western society, where one bids at auctions for everything and anything, from edible underwear to the Eiffel Tower, in an ambitious reach for power, namesake, and legacy. The narrator describes a community where people “bid, the Auctioneers knock down a lot down, we pass on” (Rushdie 99), displaying how life and success has become measured by objects that are bought at the auction. He also mentions, with complete indifference, acts of total disregard for human life, such as the astronaut trapped in space due to lack of funds to return him to Earth, as if leaving a human being to die was something ordinary. This distancing from compassion and treatment of people and objects as the same is Rushdie’s harsh criticism of the culmination of European imperialism and class division and how such greed has driven society insane. The red ruby slippers, most commonly associated with the Wizard of Oz, is symbolic of home and freedom, from fiction to reality, but such freedom must be paid for in this materialistic society. This cult of apparently miraculous slippers represents how people seem to have become subordinate and susceptible to what the auctioneers, the hegemonic class, claim to be important, which is goods and their marketing values. Like in Kincaid’s On Seeing England for the First Time and Shaw’s Pygmalion, imperialistic supremacy and distinct class conventions tears the identities of the bidders away. The auction hall is a place where everyone can arrive and be accepted, but only by the auctioneer’s approval. They have all been homogenized by the auctioneers, all visiting the same place as “Political refugees… conspirators, deposed monarchs, defeated factions, poets, [and] bandit chieftains” (Rushdie 91). A human is considered nothing more nor less than his or her money: “anyone’s cash is as good as anyone else’s” (Rushdie 93). In today’s society, human identity is no longer defined by moral action, but by what one owns. The narrator grimly accentuates this point, saying “In fiction’s grip, we may mortgage our homes, sell our children, to have whatever it is we crave” (Rushdie 102). Monetary ambition has created a society in which something is deemed worthwhile if there is the acquisition of large amounts of money, rendering human emotion, identity, and worth virtually useless.
Ultimately, it is up to individuals, whether through literature, politics, or daily life, to determine how they will use their ambition. Modern society struggles to understand how ambition can—and should—be acted upon in a world that has new means of waging warfare, merging cultures, free-market economies, and evolving forms of communication. Shaw’s Pygmalion, Kincaid’s On Seeing England for the First Time, and Rushdie’s At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers demonstrate the dangers of unchecked ambition and how greed for power and glory can lead to ability to ruin individuals and countries. Such desires to go through extremes to achieve goals can easily produce negative effects because ambition values the individual and the elite over everyone else, spiraling into catastrophic and damaging consequences for identities, society, and human values.