Stereotypical (re)-presentations and Feminist existentialism: A thematic study of Kamila Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows.

Gone are the days when women were under the clutch of the so called patriarchal society. The suppression and the numerous atrocities which women had to undergo since time immemorable need no separate addressal. It was as if the female section of a particular society was meant to be the victim of the male section. However, with the advent of the different waves of feminism, things took a different turn paving the path for the females to rise up the ladder and make a mark for themselves. Today, women have made progress in leaps and bound and have surely broken the shackles to establish their own field of assertion. This article is an attempt in order to portray the various stereotypical depictions in the novel Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie. Moreover, the article also vividly unmasks the baseless yet rampant prevailing beliefs in the minds of the people. Surely Kamila Shamsie did a good job!!!!

To read “Burnt Shadows” click on the picture below:

Various stereotypical presentations and representations in different literary pieces is not at all new to the literary circle. There have been many literary pieces being written, irrespective of the genre or the niche, who blatantly show the relegated positions of the women. The so-called traditional figure of a ‘woman’ gets vividly portrayed in such writings. The meek and docile depiction of a woman as opposed to the strong and powerful man is quite a common place depiction when it comes to the portrayal of women adhering to various stereotypical norms and customs. When we take into account of the term “existentialism” as such, we refer to a vast array of ideas and thoughts which get encompassed within this umbrella term. Not only, are the basic tenets of living, well and truly considered within the term ‘existentialism’, but also, the ramifications of the same appear to be indispensable to be neglected. Talking about living, feminist existentialism delves deep into the primary concerns of the solidarity of women, at the top of which rests the concern of identity.

Born in the twentieth century, the Pakistani-British budding new-generation writer, Kamila Shamsie has evolved to a great extent with her portrayal of different strands of thematic meanings intertwined with a delicate thread for a feminine concern in her captivating novels. Be it her first novel In the City by the Sea where she has depicted the difficulty of democracy or her famous novel Burnt Shadows where Shamsie extends her territory to five different countries for a period of long sixty years, the different layers of thematic strands come glaringly to the fore. Talking about the various thematic strands in her magnum opus, Burnt Shadows, the portrayal of the females to be a victim of different stereotypes, unarguably stands at the top.

To read “In the City by the Sea” click on the picture below:

The intermingling of the literary movement of existentialism along with that of feminism or rather the concerns of it has indeed shown the gateway to many more such amalgamation. Although there were attempts made by others in order to pen down certain ideas dealing with Kamila Shamsie, they were quite different from this new endeavour of focussing on the stereotypical depictions.

Naeem Khan Jadoon (2017) has tried to depict the changes in the English language made in the famous novel by Shamsie, Kartography. She focuses on the Pakistanization of English in her research paper “Pakistanization of English in Kamila Shamsie’s Kartography”. This leads to the focus basically on language.

To read “Kartography” click on the picture below:

Safana Hashmat (2015) has made an attempt in order to showcase her talent in depicting the mental cartographies in the most famous novel by Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows. She tries to probe deep into the very essence of the various mental demarcations in her research paper “Physical Cartographies- The Harbinger of Mental Cartographies in Kamila Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows”.

Adriana Kiczkowski (2016) portrays the various issues of globalization in Burnt Shadows thereby bringing to the fore various the relations between cultural studies and literature. She grapples with different tenets of globalization in the novel in her research paper “Globalization in Post-9/11 Literature. Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie.

The research is based on the following methods which helped attain the main aim:

1.The research is primarily based on qualitative approach. It focuses on the textual analysis of the most important novel of Kamila Shamsie, Burnt Shadows. This method abundantly helps uncover the intricacies of the research problem so that a proper solution is achieved for the research problem.

2.The research follows a descriptive method when it comes to design. So the descriptive outlook paves the way for bringing to the fore the hypothetical assumptions. It is linear in its description.

3.Theoretical analysis of the plot of the novel forms another key method for coming to a conclusion of the research question and the title of the research.

4.To study post-colonialism and feminism as specific movements and not cumulative outcomes of different supporting viewpoints. Adopting this method is of utmost benefit because the research question of the thesis deals with the presence of post-colonial elements in the novels concerning identity. 5.Extensive thematic analysis of the novels which discloses the fact that there is indeed stereotypical portrayal of women. However, what strikes is the concern for women; the feeling of self-presence of a woman.

The following objectives will be envisaged for the research work so that the research question is answered:

1.To focus on the representations of women which is purely and quite glaringly pertaining to the issues of stereotypes. Be it cultural or literary, the women in the novel have been portrayed in the traditional manner and this particular research very well tries to uncover this underlying ramification.

2.To address the issues of feminism and the issues of one’s identity in the texts which in a way contribute to the presence of various power relations in the novels. This fact falls in line with the idea by Grewal and Caplan’s remarks in Scattered Hegemonies,

“If feminist movements cannot understand the dynamics of these material conditions, they will be unable to construct an effective opposition to current economic and cultural hegemonies that are taking new global forms” (p. 17).

3. To bring to the fore various ramifications of post-colonialism and existentialism in Burnt Shadows. Although the term “post-colonialism” appears to be a problematic term in relation to texts, the thesis will aim at proving the depiction of the traits in the personal loss of the character of Hiroko Tanaka, the main protagonist of Burnt Shadows.

4. To show the amalgamation of feminism and post-colonialism paralleling well in the novel thereby bringing in the interconnected ramifications and other associated strands of thoughts and ideas.

The novels by Kamila Shamsie always present a captivating pen picture of numerous issues thereby making them a treat for the readers. Be it Home Fire, A God in Every Stone or her most famous Burnt Shadows, all of them depict their own trait of diverse thematic strands. But in spite of all the issues like the emancipation of women, the progressive nature of the female self, the safeguard of people, the historical narration of different countries there is one standout central issue of the identity of females in most of her novels which form the core of her thematic concerns.

To read “Home Fire” click on the picture below:

To read “A God in Every Stone” click on the picture below:

            Earlier research has dealt to a great extent with the above-mentioned issues neglecting one central aspect of the inherent presence of the movement of post-colonialism in the novels notably Burnt Shadows. The presence of post-colonialism in a way strengthens the issue of the identity of the females as its core concern is self-identity.

“Post-colonial criticism has embraced a number of aims to re-examine the history of colonialism from the perspective of the colonized, to determine the economic, political and also cultural impact of colonialism on both the colonized people and the colonizing powers” (Young, p. 22). This thesis deals with the basic question of addressing the elements of post-colonialism and feminism in Burnt Shadows leading to the concern of the existentialist identity of female characters. The problem of not addressing these issues not only affects the intricacies of the novels, but also, at the same time, hinders proper research. This research is a humble attempt to bring to the fore the various post-colonial elements in the novels.

The thesis uses the basic hypothesis that this particular novel of Kamila Shamsie are replete with numerous stereotypical representations of women which make them fall under the scanner of traditionalism and the old-school phenomenon. Moreover, this particular novel is also replete with numerous post-colonial elements. Going a notch further, the thesis also hinges on the idea that the concept of identity associated with existentialist feminism is a central concern of Shamsie. This very rightly leads to a kind of plot narration which is probing yet subtle.

Various literary texts, since the time of them being written, have always had traces of certain historical or theoretical background. The novels of Kamila Shamsie are always replete with the customs, traditions and the issue of feminist identity. The significance of the study lies in its exploration of the various inherent stereotypical depictions in Burnt Shadows. Also, what makes this research significant is the fact that it deals with the post-colonial elements which were unexplored before. The study appears vital in its dealing with the research question which opens up a vast arena of research. Moreover, the significance of the study also lies in its amalgamation of both literary study and literary theory which greatly helps in proving the hypothetical propositions.

Although this particular research has taken up a fairly unexplored area, there are yet other areas which can very rightly be taken up for further research. Aspects like the aftermaths of the World War leading to the change in the theme and topic of writing by Shamsie, her personal life as the reflection in the novels, human memory as the vital link between fiction and meta-fiction etc. form to be good research topics. Thus, this research in a way opens up a multitude of other research topics which can be dealt with. Talking about various stereotypical depictions in Burnt Shadows, one of the glaring one which pertains to the issue of falling under the category of cultural depiction is the dependence of female figures on the society. In the novel too, although the main protagonist, Hiroko Tanaka is portrayed to be someone who is not really bogged down the intricacies of the patriarchal society, she has to lean on the society for getting her things done. Moreover, other characters like Elizabeth and Kim are also direct or indirect victims of the dependency on society for the accomplishment of their tasks.

What is glaring about the stereotypical representation is the portrayal of women of the “Third World Country.” Thus label or the tag is indeed a derogatory stance on the very nature and the self-concerning identity of the women in the novel. “Under Western Eyes” (1984) by the notable post-colonial critic Chandra Talpade Mohanty is a significant writing dealing with the various ideas as to how the females of the third world countries have been given the tag of this and are thus looked through the eyes of the so called superior countries. Mohanty makes a glaring remark in this regard that these women are blatantly “constructed” by the superior countries and are not necessarily low to be falling in this category. Thus, these women are relegated to a level from which they cannot recover from. Mary Eagleton has notably remarked in relation to the various ideologies associated with the females. The statement becomes very important in this regard,

“For feminist literary scholars, the recurring questions underpinning this relationship are: who is speaking and how is she speaking; to whom is she speaking and on behalf of whom is she speaking; how does she read me; how do I read her?” (Eagleton, p. 382).

Representation is also a key aspect of the process of stereotypical representation. It is important to note that a staggering view is presented to the readers when a particular group is represented by someone else. In this regard, the nuances of the represented group arguably get diluted to some extent as nobody can represent anybody in the exact manner. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, another notable post-colonial critic has commented on this very process of representation of a particular individual or a group of people by someone else. She said,

“Two senses of representation are being run together: representation as ‘speaking for,’ as in politics, and representation as ‘re-presentation,’ as in art or philosophy” (Spivak, p. 28).

In the words of Mohanty, a woman belonging to the category of the third world country is “portrayed as sexually restrained, uneducated, family-oriented, victimized and tradition-bound” (Under Western Eyes, 337). Burnt Shadows depicts Hiroko in particular to be someone who challenges the very established norm by the male regulated society and tries very hard in order to establish her own authoritative self. The novel portrays the character to be someone without any kind of national background of a particular country and thus resultantly devoid of any kind of nationalistic sentiment. Moreover, the lack of any kind of agency in the female figures is another notable stereotypical portrayal of women in the novel. Elizabeth in particular is shown to be someone who does not possess any kind of agency, irrespective of having a voice, so to say, which makes her a meek and a submissive figure.

            On the contrary, Hirokos shown to be a determined figure who loves doing and accomplishing tasks as per her own whims and fancies and is quite determined to succeed. What is an able aid to her zeal and determination is her proficiency in various language. However, even in this regard a stereotypical depiction is being seen to be thinking about different possibilities and the result thereby showing women to be a thinking group lacking proper confidence. Her vivid determination and zeal is clearly visible when she says “to know [is] to want,” and her wants require her to seek knowledge (Shamsie, p.16). Talking about agency in relation to Hiroko, it is seen that she does not feel at home with the people of Elizabeth which is clearly depicted by the writer,

“She didn’t know how to behave around these people – the rich and powerful, a number of whom had asked her about the samurai way of life and thought she was being charmingly self-effacing when she said the closest she had come to the warrior world was her days as a worker at the munitions factory.” (Shamsie, p. 64).

This novel also falls in line with one of the masterpieces of American literature, “A Streetcar named desire by the stalwart of American drama, Tennessee Williams. The drama also shows how women become a victim of male domination and are deprived of their own self and authority. The atrocity rises to such an extent that the central character of the drama, Blanche du Bois suffers from split personality. Judith Butler, in her famous book, Gender Trouble remarks,

“There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; that identity is performatively constituted by the very ‘expressions’ that are said to be its results” (Butler 2006, p.34).

The play depicts two contrasting situations of two different individuals. If we observe the life of Stella, she appears to be perfectly happy and quite content whereas, if we take account of the life of Blanche, it is a life which is turned upside down. All she knows is the completion of her sexual fantasies and desires. One of the significant factors that led to the disturbed life of Blanche are the false aristocratic ideals by which she is guided. The world that both these sisters come from is a world that is going to lose its own identity very soon.

All told, the novel thus clearly brings to the fore the various ramification which are associated with both the theories of the third world countries and also the depictions of the different stereotypes in relation to women. However, irrespective of the stereotypical depiction one thing that stands out clearly is the fact that Hiroko, the central character has established herself to be a strong figure who has the potential of dethroning the male established norms and order. Patriarchy has always proved to be a thorn in the flesh in the various dealings of women in the day to day life. Here too, the various stereotypical depictions are largely developed and determined by the male society. Michael R. Hill one of the notable critic comments in Encyclopedia of Gender and Society, “patriarchy is one of the most enduring and pervasive of all social patterns” (629). This statement becomes an undisputed winner in the case of this particular novel.


Grewal, Inderpal, Caren Kaplan. (1994). Scattered Hegemonies: Postmodernity and Transnational Feminist Practices. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota.

Shamsie, Kamila. (2009). Burnt Shadows. New York: Picador. Shamsie, Kamila. (2004). In the City by the Sea. London: Bloomsbury.

Young, Robert. (2001). Post-colonialism: An Historical introduction. Oxford: Blackwell, 2001.

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