Sunday, February 22, 2015

A Critic and Resistance to Priyayi Lifestyle - A Review on Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s Novel

Gadis Pantai is one of Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s famous literary works. The novel whose genre is romance tragedy tells about a story of a village girl living in a fishermen village in Rembang, Central Java. The cultural setting is under the influence of Javanese culture which at that time was still regarded as important concerning to one’s social class. Like some of Pramoedya’s works, this novel concerned on the society views regarding women status. In narrating Gadis Pantai Pram used the third person’s point of view, but sometimes Pram went into the mind of his protagonist to voice her inner emotion.

At first it was the hope to seek a better economical and social status that made the parents of the girl (Gadis) agreed to accept a proposal from the Bendoro, a respectable priyayi. So they gave consent to Bendoro to take Gadis as his wife.

As a matter of fact, internal conflict already shown its presence in the first chapter when Gadis was entering the residence of Bendoro, the priyayi. For Gadis there was an air of alienation in the new circumstance where the big, high fenced house of Bendoro situated.  A circumstance she had never experienced before. At this section, Pramoedya was trying to show the reader that the notion of priyayi power embodied even in his absence and was represented by the physical construction of his house.

Gadis was like entering a new different world in contrast with the remote village of fishermen where she had been so familiar with. So, physical things in the form of inanimate objects can also bear powerful image. Thus, Pram was clear that he was trying to show the reader how immense was patriarchal power which casted upon Gadis, who was in fact representing Indonesian village woman in general.

As the story went on, Gadis tried to resolve her internal conflict through imagining and creating good hopes. The hope for better future prevailed as she looked around the luxury construction owned by her would be husband. Pram showed that consolation in the form of physical luxury often worked out in deceiving woman perception. Gadis herself still did not realize that she would merely be used as one of the Bendoro’s mistresses.

There was romance in this novel since actually this was the story of a woman who sought for love and affection even though she finally realized that her status was merely a mistress. But that fact did not stop her to keep seeking for the love she desired for. Along the story, Pram presented the futility of a low class woman who tried to win her husband’s heart but only to find that he had chosen another woman of his class to be his 'real' wife.

Conflicts appeared not only within Gadis but also between she and the community of the fishermen village where she was raised. When Gadis visited her village there was an air of alienation caused by the reaction of the people who used to get along well in her childhood. But then upon having known about her new status as the mistress of a priyayi, the attitudes of the people to Gadis seemed to change suddenly. She was not regarded as an ordinary village woman then, but a noble one. Consequently, there was a clear distance in the people’s attitude toward Gadis which she indeed sensed it. At this point, Pram showed the irony that could still be relevant to today’s society in that any relation to the so called noble class such as priyayi would be regarded as respectable no matter what really the true status of Gadis was - which was no more than a mistress.

If we contextualize the story in Gadis Pantai depicted by Pramoedya to our society of the present time there are indeed some points to be noted. For instance, a woman who marries a man from a noble or respectable social status will be regarded as being successful in terms of wealth or social status achievement although she was merely taken as a second wife, third wife, and so on. In the story, the people of the village did not understand about the real condition which had been undergone by Gadis. They saw only the outward new fact of her as the wife of a noble class man. Then there was a social distance between the people and Gadis. The new somewhat odd distance that ‘forcefully’ had to be accepted by Gadis regardless of her perplexity.

Another conflict involved the parents of Gadis in that they were positioned between the proudly fact of their relationship to a priyayi man and the fact of their daughter’s unhappiness of being the wife of a priyayi. So, pride and regret mixed up to create another complexity of the characters’ situation.

In the story it was clear that the conflicts only suffered by the ordinary people. Along the story, the Bendoro himself did not seem to be bothered with any problems undergone by his mistress or his mistress’ family. He always took them not seriously either by indicating a relaxing somewhat ignoring and uncommunicative attitude toward them or by ordering his men or servants to take care of them. In that case, there was also a clear distance between the priyayi and the ordinary people. The distance which up to now could still be observed in our society.

Feudalism and male domination in the form of a priyayi class is the issue which Pram tried to criticize. Gadis, the protagonist, was represented as the victim of the priyayi’s arrogance. To Pram, however, such arrogance was not without weakness and incorrectness. Using the female character of Gadis - who in the eye of Bendoro has stereotypically been considered as a powerless, passive object - Pram cynically stated his indignation toward the priyayi class.

Powerless though she was, at the time when Gadis was being dismissed from Bendoro’s house - after he divorced her - defending her dignity she blurted out her resistance verbally and harshly in the face of  Bendoro, the so called noble priyayi.

In terms of feminist ideas, that was the important point of the story. The disagreement with feudalism, the resistance of Gadis was the author’s sympathy to her. At least Gadis was not completely passive and powerless since she voiced her resistance in defense for her dignity.

In some of his works Pram actually pointed out the power of verbal words as a means of defending one’s rights toward any forms of injustice. Pram believed that verbal resistance if expressed sharply and critically will produce a shocking effect to the mind of the unjust person and will be remembered for the rest of one’s life. Pram added that we might be marginalized and physically powerless in certain matters but we still have our weapon to state our resistance and defense, and that weapon is words.

In addition, the novel served as a critic toward the hidden defects of the priyayi class as pointed out by Pram in some lines of the protagonist’s monologues. In one of her monologues Gadis said that to follow the priyayi lifestyle was like living in a senseless hell. In fact there was a paradox in the life of Bendoro as depicted in the novel in that he was presented as being religious ritually - as if the author would like to say that one’s religious observance sometimes did not go together with one’s moral attitude.