English 580: World Literature Spring 1998
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Discussion Questions/Talking Points on Ruth Prawer Jhabvala1s Heat and Dust
[pagination references are to Touchstone edition, ISBN 0-671-64657-5]
1. In addition to the literal references to the physical conditions of heat and dust, to what else do "heat" and "dust" refer? Whom is supposed to be most affected by these conditions? Cf. men/women, Indian/Foreigners.
2. One obvious feature of Jhabvala's novel is the doubling of plots; using Olivia's letters the narrator tells both Olivia's story and the narrator's. This leads, of course, to comparisons between the two characters, the two time periods, and the two plots themselves, and so on (what else?). In what ways are the plots brought into parallel focus; in other words, which events in the narrative present "echo" events in Olivia's life? How do the two main characters react the same, differently? What do we learn about the changes in mores, manners, expectations, cross-cultural relationships and so on through these comparisons?
3. What kind of man is the nawab? What are his attitudes toward the British? What does he mean when he says that talking with Major Minnies "is like talking with servants" (p. 144)? Does he make any exceptions perhaps for Harry and Olivia? What about his exaggerated politeness? How are outr reactions to the nawab changed as we learn about his later life after he leaves India, all but abandons Olivia, and becomes so fat and lazy he cannot hardly function?
4. What kind of man is Douglas? Olivia makes it clear that she truly finds him attractive and cares for him--what does she find attractive? What are Douglas's strengths? What are his shortcomings? Why does Olivia leave him for the nawab? What are his attitudes toward the nawab (why does Douglas say, p. 148, that the nawab is ". . . the worst type of Indian--you can have")?
5. What are we to make of the British as a group? Are they all the same? To what does Major Minnies refer when he confesses he is "fascinated" but warns about "stepping too far" into "the other dimension"? (pp. 150-1)?
6. What is the relationship between Harry and the nawab? Between Harry and Olivia? What understandings to Harry and Olivia seem to reach?
7. Describe Olivia's character. Why does she make love with the nawab at the shrine? Why is she attracted to him? Why does she have the abortion? Why does she decide to go with the nawab? What are we to make of her staying on in India?
8. What are we to make of Chid and his conversions first to Hinduism and then away from it? Are we meant to compare Chid and Maji? What does the narrator learn from of get from these characters? How about the narrator's relationship with Inder Lal? What are the "echo" scenes in this relationship (cf Olivia/nawab)? What does it mean that she decides to have her child? To make the pilgrimage to Olivia's house high in the Himalayas?
9. What is the significance of the Baba Firdaus shrine, the Husband's Wedding Day, and the history of the nawab's family especially Amanullah Khan? Symbolically, is the shrine an oasis of sorts to be compared to Olivia's house which is also referred to as an oasis?
10. This novel seems to interrogate women's roles not only across generations but across the British/Indian cultures as well. What can we say about these roles? What about the Begum in the scheme of things? What power does she seem to wield? Why does she help Olivia with her abortion?