Literary Analysis: Gender Issues in This Earth of Mankind, by Pramoedya Ananta Toer Essay
Over the course of Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s novel, This Earth of Mankind, a slew of issues relevant to the period of the colonialization of Indonesia by the Dutch are raised. These range from the influence of Western civilizations on the cultures of their Eastern colonies, to the impact of race on the opportunities one would have in Dutch-controlled Indonesia. However, one issue that stands out and is continually brought to light throughout the novel is that of gender, and the roles it inherently imposed upon members of society.
Evidence of the role of gender in determining one’s position in Dutch Indonesian society is found early in the novel, in the fascinating scene in which Minke meets with Nyai Ontosoroh. Though this scene is near the beginning of the novel, it offers the reader a focused and valuable perspective on gender and its meaning in the Dutch East Indies at the time of the story. Despite the fact that Minke is a guest in Nyai Ontosoroh’s home, and that she is clearly a woman of means and authority, he is unsure of how to greet her.
He hesitates to offer his hand in greeting, and makes a clear distinction in his mind as to how it is appropriate to greet a European woman and a native woman. He is divided; Nyai Ontosoroh is a native, yet she lives in Dutch custom, speaks Dutch fluently, and lives an affluent lifestyle. Making the distinction between treatment of a Dutch woman, and treatment of a native woman of his own homeland, Minke considers both taking her hand, or even outright ignoring her.
However, she proffers her own hand first, to his surprise, and he decides that “if that’s how they do things here” (Pramoedya 30), he would treat her respectfully, as he would a European. This scene is important in highlighting the treatment of women in Indonesian society; it not only illustrates the fact that men considered themselves to be above women in status and worth, but also a duality that existed between treatment of European women and of Native women. This is evidenced, as well, when Minke is “amazed” that Nyai Ontosoroh, a native woman, could both speak Dutch so well, and that “she was so relaxed with a male guest” (Pramoedya 30).
The fact that Minke even considered that she, his hostess, should possibly not feel as relaxed around him, a common native in her home, may seem surprising to a modern reader; however, Minke’s reaction is simply further indication of the way in which women were viewed in society. Additional evidence of the low standing held by native women in the Dutch East Indies is seen in Minke’s introspection about Nyai Ontosoroh’s similarity to his mother. However, upon comparing the positive attributes of the two, he immediately reproaches himself, he immediately reproaches himself, thinking, “Beware, don’t equate her with Mother.
She is just a nyai, living in sin, giving birth to illegitimate children, low in moral character, selling honor to live easily and in luxury” (Pramoedya 32). By reminding himself not to compare Ontosoroh to his mother, he reveals his lack of respect for native women, particular nyais, and their way of life. In Indonesia, a nyai was similar to a concubine in other societies (such as imperial China), a woman who cohabited with a man and bore his children without being legally married to him. Minke establishes that Nyai Ontosoroh is above that low statues, and he even has difficulty bringing himself to call her ‘Nyai,” when he is introduced.
For this, he cites the reasons that she spoke Dutch fluently and politely, unlike native mothers; “She behaved just like an educated European woman” (Pramoedya 32). Because her manners were refined, specifically because they resembled those of women in European societies, Minke is able to overlook her female gender and find respect, even something close to awe, for Nyai Ontosoroh. Even the attitude and behavior of Nyai Ontosoroh’s daughter, Annelies, extends beyond the bounds considered normal for women in Indonesian society. She is very outgoing and straightforward, a trait that initially takes Minke aback.
All the women he knew, prior to his visit to Ontosoroh, were deferential, required to show respect and obsequiousness towards men; Annelies, like her mother, is different. Also, she stands apart from Minke’s conception of a European in that she is entirely accepting, even envious of his status as a native. She wishes she were a native, like her mother. Annelies continues to astound Minke as she gives him a tour of the Ontosoroh property: She reveals that she is not only intelligent and of refined manner like her mother, but also that she, a young girl, has authority over many workers.
When Annelies takes Minke to a work area adjoining the house, he is surprised to see women working in a business. Also, he is shocked by their manner of dress: “Wearing calico shirts too! Village women wearing coats! And not in their own kitchens! ” (Pramoedya 35). His amazement at the mere fact that the women are outside of their kitchens further reveals the tightly patriarchal nature of society in the Dutch East Indies; if seeing a woman outside of her own home and kitchen, and attired in a shirt is an extremely unusual sight, then the male control of women in that society must have been nearly absolute.
An additional example of the role imposed on women, particularly native women, is seen in the trial in chapter seventeen. In response to the rousing speech in her defense and that of the relationship between her child, Annelies, and Minke, Nyai Ontosoroh makes the case that pure love should be considered equally powerful, if not above the bond between concubine and master, asking, “Are such purchases truer than pure love? ” (Pramoedya 287). However, the judge merely responds that Annelies is an Indo, and therefore above her, as was Minke, as he was given permission to appear at the court.
Because she was a native woman, no matter how eloquently and sensibly she spoke, her words fell upon deaf ears. This World of Mankind is a powerful and evocative story that provides for the reader a sense of what life was like in the Dutch East Indies at the turn of the 19th century. It illuminates a number of poignant, emotionally-charged issues, gender and the role of women in society at the forefront. Pramoedya’s work provides invaluable insight into a world and way of life foreign to most modern readers, and lessons on equality and gender that extend far beyond the book’s temporal scope.