Devdas versus Heathcliff

One of my blog readers was interested in discussing her work on Devdas, the novel and the film which Bimal Roy made in 1955. She being a student of feminism used categories of the discipline, namely marriage, patriarchy and so on. These were perhaps to highlight the conditions of separation between Devdas and Paro. But these were the excuses to set up the real tale, which is of Devdas. The real tale is not about Devdas not being married to Paro; not even of an unsuitable marriage of Paro; nor a discourse upon Paro’s character but rather about Devdas, the story about an all-consuming love. The authorial intent of Saratchandra, admits my reader is perhaps not to seek vindications of feminist theories and hence Devdas the novel cannot be treated in a similar class of objects whose study constitute the scope of feminism. Sometimes in a haste to apply our skills at theories, we tend to stamp things with categories which are inappropriate for such objects. Theory in the hands of such scholars becomes absurdities. I suggested to my reader that s/he (could not guess the gender) better compare Devdas with similar categories so that a comparative reading of texts might help her derive some patterns.
If there is ever a comparison of Devdas, then it is Emile Bronte’s immortal lover, Heathcliff, in her novel Wuthering Heights. The idea in both cases is an all-consuming love, which destroys the lover and eventually leaves him dead. The difference between Heathcliff and Devdas are merely apparent, not deep. Heathcliff bears an exterior which is harsh, a cultural imposition of masculinity upon him by the various developments in the British society; Devdas is softer only because he emerges from a culture in which masculinity is not constructed as being physically rough and immune to emotions. But apart from these the two characters are similar in the sense that they are bent upon being totally cruel to themselves, no not in a manner of dealing with themselves but in a manner of not dealing with themselves at all. These men are suicidal in a sense and through the intensity of self-destruction; they can only express the intensity of the emotions they feel. In the language of the Bhakti literature, such men are the quintessential image of Radha, the eternal lover who pines for her lost love. Both Heathcliff and Devdas show to us the consequences of being ignored.
I have never understood the sense of either of these novels, though I must admit that as a young reader I would be much taken in by Heathcliff. Devdas, not so much. But I distinctly remember that the boys would love Devdas. If Heathcliff was a ladies man, Devdas was a man’s man. And these polarizations were complete. Heathcliff may have been a ladies man because he was constructed with so much of roughness that he invariably invoked a delicate woman, his beau as a contrast. Devdas, on the other hand was an unfree man, bound by rules of society, spaces of the family, patterns of marriage. His love was a way out of these bindings twined around him. Realistically a man as Heathcliff could have never claimed Lucy; social class stood in the way of what would have been a delirious love affair. Devdas could have married Paro had he insisted but he possibly understood and relented to Paro’s self-pride. He left Paro totally untouched, distance, contained in her totality, unpoked in her wholeness. Heathcliffe, on the other hand desires to consume Catherine totally. There is desire in Heathcliffe, a tendency to intimacy; in Devdas intimacy is displaced into the despised Chandramukhi, a fallen woman in any case. This difference is crucial in order to understand why women love Heathcliffe and men love Devdas. This difference is crucial to the understanding the female desire and male sexuality. Social constraints are placed upon Heathcliffe; Devdas places social constraints upon himself.
To my mind, the categories of feminist thought do not do justice to either character. Neither character is located in patriarchy and similar discourses about suicidal lovers about the Bhakti poetry about Radha and Krishna. In medieval India, both men would have been the classical kalankini Radha; one wonders what makes ideal lovers become male in the modern age. This is perhaps the masculinity of modernity when all categories of perceptions are thought through the men. But little else; why were such characters created, what kind of intellectual tools does one use to analyse or justify such characters? To the best of my mind, both these characters were created in the backdrop of cultural contexts of their times.
If we look at the cultural milieu of Emily Bronte, she faced a life of deep uncertainties just as did so many girls of her age and her times. Men could die in disease and war, they could go away into wasteful voyages or spare away in distant colonies leaving women utterly distraught precisely because women’s economic rights as estate owners depended on their male relations, father, brother and husbands. A good marriage could turn the wheel of fortune in favour of these women and it was mostly marriage that women looked towards to release them of their bondage. Jane Eyre, a creation of Emily’s sister, Charlotte was rescued by the rich and melancholic Mr Rochester, a ladies man too and Jane Austen’s girls were rewarded for their pleasant personalities by finding very rich men as husbands. These heroes were thus products of feminine imagination, of female gaze.
Devdas is rather different. He is a man who allows free will to women; unlike Heathcliff, Devdas is not a man who rescues woman, but is a man who surrenders to women. He is the product of his times when Bengal was agog with projects that would humanize women, rescue them from being burnt as widows, not incarcerate them as young widows and accept their rights of being educated. Such projects around women could work only if men allowed them space and refrained from making women objects of their will, desire and lust. Devdas refrains from entering Paro’s space and the more and more he immerses himself in his addiction, the more and more space he gives to Paro, creating an ever greater scope for her to develop herself. We know very little of Paro which is not Devdas’s construction of her and all the regard we have for her is because Devdas makes her so worthy of it. In many ways, Paro does not exist except through Devdas; his dissolution of his own self actually breathes life into Paro’s character. Devdas is like a devoted worshipper who sacrifices himself as an offering for his Goddess. Devdas is the male fantasy because the enormous ability to suffer creates value for his character as the ultimately refined man because he raises women to such heights. The male sexuality which seeks Devdas as a model seeks surrender to the feminine force and not its control. Devdas’s self-dissolution gives a meaning to his life; it makes him into a whole, renders him a totality.
Heathcliff, on the other hand is a product of female sexuality, one who can tear through social constraints and claim a woman. The female sexuality which seeks Heathcliff as a lover is passive and is in need to be rescued. Female desire in this case is subdued, subjugated while Heathcliff as a man seems to be fragmented in his desire for Catherine; Heathcliff would have conquered the world had he not loved Catherine. His love for Catherine robs him of his potential for the fulfilment of his promises as a young man of capabilities. Heathcliff’s love contains him, constricts and stifles him, brings him from the wide world into the dungeons of Wuthering Heights. Heathcliff is a construction of feminine possessiveness for their men.
Heathcliff is a female fantasy because he is a strong man who can be bound and captured. Devdas expands his existence with Paro’s love in his heart, he makes a pilgrimage into a world he has never seen, widens his experience, meets new people, and relishes new cultures. He is a male fantasy because through him men can be expansive and free from any real commitment. To the best of mind, Devdas is a novel about structures of male feeling, attempt at inventing a new male sexuality, a new idea of masculinity that is graced by granting more and more space to women.

About secondsaturn

Independent Scholar. Polymath.
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