Nyai Ontosoroh, the main female character in Pramoedya’s novel Bumi Manusia (This Earth of Mankind) is a remarkable woman. She is self-made, successful, formidable, at times manipulative and, most importantly, she turns notions of female subjugation and dependency on their head. Her ability to push against and past the restrictions placed on women make her an unusual female character in postcolonial Indonesian literature. But she is far from an anomaly in Pramoedya’s fiction. Indeed, the story of how she becomes the ‘native wife’, or concubine, of a Dutchman during the colonial period links her to a line of female characters in Pramoedya’s work. All of them are sold into marriage (or a marriage-like union) by their parents.
Pramoedya’s female characters often illustrate the author’s critical view of social structures and practices that place restrictions on women and force them to be subservient to men. An early example of his treatment of this theme is the short story ‘Inem’ in Cerita Dari Blora (Stories from Blora). Sold into marriage at the age of eight, Inem suffers physical abuse and unwanted sexual attention from her much older husband. She is divorced at the age of nine, thereafter largely confined to the house of her parents. Though Inem feels, understands and privately objects to her abuse at the hands of her husband, she nonetheless remains a devoted and subservient wife. Social custom, and attitudes about what is right and proper, mean that she has no other choice.
While ‘Inem’ challenges the subordination of women, the girl who gives her name to Pramoedya’s 1960s novel, Gadis Pantai (The Girl from the Coast), begins to subvert the practice. Like Inem, the girl is to some extent a victim of the injustice of her social system. However unlike Inem, she develops and maintains an awareness of herself that transcends her fate and the expectations of her as a ‘practice wife’. While she remains outwardly faithful to her aristocrat husband she experiences and permits feelings of sexual attraction to another man, one of her husband’s guests. When the two men vacate the dining room after a meal, the girl sits in the young noble’s chair and ‘with excitement, she [feels] the trace of warmth he left behind’. She eats food from his plate, thrilled that ‘the vegetables and grains of rice had touched his lips’.
The girl from the coast also takes practical lessons and skills away from her forced marriage, such as learning how to run a household by herself. Unlike ‘Inem’, which ends with the young girl’s screams of pain as she is beaten by her family, Gadis Pantai finishes on a more uncertain, hopeful note. The girl may have been discarded by her husband and separated from her child but she is not defeated. She has gained a sense of identity that allows her a future beyond her temporary marriage.
By 1980, when Nyai Ontosoroh comes along, Pramoedya has begun to imagine ways for these young women to overcome their situation and even to triumph. Far from being dependent on or subservient to her Dutch master, Herman Mellema, Nyai soon begins to run his business, accumulate money in her own name and later become part owner of the business. ‘I began to realise that in reality I was not dependent on Mr Mellema,’ she reveals to her daughter, Annelies. ‘On the contrary, he was dependent on me.’ When Minke meets her, Nyai, and Pramoedya, have completely overturned women’s subjection to the authority of men. At this point in the story, Mellema has gone mad, and Nyai has thoroughly subdued him to her will.
However the ultimate act of subversion against women’s place in the gender hierarchy is not committed by Nyai Ontosoroh herself. It is reserved for her story about her niece Surati who, upon learning that she is to be made the concubine of her father’s Dutch employer, deliberately infects herself with smallpox so she will pass it on to the Dutchman and kill him. It is an act that impresses Nyai. ‘Surati did the right thing killing that man … That’s what I should have done, not with smallpox, but with my own hands.’ The victories of Surati and Nyai over the men they are sold to as young women are enormously different outcomes to the fate of Inem. Nyai Ontosoroh is a woman who despite her struggles, determines the course of her own life and achieves a happy ending. She marries again for love, manages a successful business and with the fruits of her labour, emigrates to France - an Indonesian woman finally taking on the world!
Joanne McMillan (email@example.com ) is completing an honours thesis on Indonesian literature at the University of New England.