Literary Shelf

Symbolic Significance of The Birds of Paradise

The Birds of Paradise is Paul Scott’s finest novel before The Raj Quartet. He has found the artistic method congenial to the powers of maturity – the measured development of related themes through simultaneous narratives in retrospect, in the present and in prospect, a complex interplay of shifts in time and place.

His central symbol, the birds of Paradise, like the rape of Daphne Manners in The Raj Quartet, is a unifying thread, a ‘leitmotif’ and also richly meaningful. In the novel Paul Scott has sounded many diverse themes and integrated them successfully into a meaningful and harmonious whole. All these themes had appeared in his earlier fiction and would reach their triumphant final development in The Raj Quartet.

They may be described as follows:
  • the relationship of the private lives of individuals to history; the relativity of ‘truth’ as one knows it;
  • the epistemological question – the difficulty of arriving at truth; the isolation of individuals;
  • the relation of a man’s life to his vocation or career;
  • the lost childhood and the quest for paradise,
  • the distinction (and even the conflict) between ‘the consumers’, who cultivate and survive on illusions, and
  • the ‘questers’ distinguishedby the inability to sustain their illusions; and
  • the real symbolic significance of man’s relationship with the non-human natural world.
William Conway, the hero of The Birds of Paradise, who is spending a sabbatical year away from his London Office on Manoba, an Island in the Malay Archipalago, recollects the various stages in his life. The overall sequence of the flashbacks is chronological, though from his own vantage point, surveying the totality of his life as far as it has been lived. Conway is free in his reflections to halt and reverse this order, flashback or anticipate within a flashback according to the natural association of his thoughts. He has spent the first ten years of his life in Indian princely states, mostly in Tradura, where his father is an assistant to the resident. This may be called a romantic period in which reality and illusion combine in ways never to be disentangled completely. Conway, who lost his mother when he was four, is profoundly influenced by his governess Mrs. Canterbury and later Greyson-Hume, his tutor. Though his father appears cold toward him and cannot communicate, the boy respects him as one of those who are above even the prince, a man who is fulfilling the British imperial mission. Mrs. Canterbury informs him: “Men like your father have put down all the old feudal injustices. Men like your father have given them standards”.

Grayson-Hume, his tutor, too instills in him the idea that he is the heir of his father and his mission.He informs him: “It will be your job to go on helping these people to live better lives.” [Paul Scott. The Birds of Paradise, P.29] His perception of India has been shaped by the humane attitude of his tutor who often reminisces, “we haven’t always been kind . . . and, of course, we haven’t always been wise”. His respect for Gandhi enhanced as his tutor eulogized the non-violent struggle for ‘Independence for the British India Freedom’. It is not surprising that the boy’s favourite subject of study is British in India. In a way, he reflects Paul Scott’s love of India. Stable and house staff often join Conway and his teacher in their sports – as ball boys at Tennis, fielders in Cricket, cheerers-on at Boxing.

The boy fails to understand how such lovable people could kill the British during the Mutiny as repeatedly told by Mrs. Canterbury, who never failed to highlight the atrocities of Suraj-ud-Dawlah and the Blackhole of Calcutta.

Conway distinctly remembers the annual reception, on his birthday, by the old Maharaja of Tradura, who bestows on the boy some of the paternalistic affection and consideration which his real father cannot. The visit to the Maharajah each year is the stuff of which romance is born: he is sent for in a royal carriage, saluted, and received in the grand Durbar Hall. Tradura seems perfectly to fulfill an English boy’s romantic conception of India. His friendship with Krishi, Krishnarama Rao, the prince of Jundapur and his dawning of love for Dora Salford, an English girl of his own age, complete the formation of the sensibilities and the principles that will dominate his adult life. Through Krishi he finds the stuffed birds of paradise in their immense cage on the little island near the Jundapur palace.

The birds identified variously with the British on their way out of India, then with the native princes themselves, their finery and style beautifully preserved, but lifeless, come eventually to fulfill a greater symbolic role. Through Dora, Conway experiences not only the beginning of a complex love for another human being that, as it turns out, is never to be surpassed, but also as a spontaneous complement of this love, the recognition of his place in creation, the limitations of his claims, and, as it were, the illumination that the world is greater than himself. Firmly etched in his memory is the year of Kinwar tiger.

Conway is honoured with riding on the royal elephant in the shikar procession arranged by the Maharajah of Tradura. The Maharani and the women are on a concealed howdah, which looks like ‘covered relic in a religious procession’. Conway has never forgotten how the procession suddenly looked ‘unreal and tawdry’. ‘In the midst of the magnificence’, he notices, ‘the face of damnation’ [P.58], which is of great symbolic significance, seminal to the theme of the novel. Conway sits on a ‘machan’ with Dora, armed with the gun given by Krishi, ready to shoot the tiger:

‘I saw him emerge from the shadow into the morning sunlight and stand arrested, starting at something that aroused his curiosity in such a way that mine was aroused too, and almost unconsciously I turned my head and so saw not what the tiger saw, or fancied he saw, but Dora’s profile : the small speckling of sweat on her upper lip, the partly opened mouth and lowered Jaw, her perfect stillness, the isolated pulsing movement of a vein in her neck, her appearance of being bewitched and totally unafraid. At once the waves of her enchantment made themselves in a faint vibration, a sawing of the air all about the ‘machan’ a compound of our breathing and the tiger’s breathing. The tiger stood quite in the open now, but I made no move to bring the gun to bear on him. He made a perfect target.

The phrase ‘PERFECT TARGET’ was in my mind but there was something wrong with it and presently, when quite unexpectedly he lost interest in whatever it was he had been looking at or listening to and moved to a patch of dappled sun and shade, lay down and began to lick his paws, I knew it was the word target that was wrong. There as no target in that place, just myself and Dora, the surrounding forest and the target washing himself. And then it was not a question of being awestruck by the tiger’s burning bigness or of seeing in it a kind of savage nobility. But it was, and in the sunlight seemed to burn so that Blake’s poem came to me with an authority it would not otherwise have done. It was savage and, I suppose, noble in its way. It was a question of being awestruck by something quite other than these things: by the realization that it had a right to be where it is, as much right as I and Dora; not ‘more’ right, but as much right’ [P.64].

This passage has been quoted at such length because it seemed to be of central importance for understanding not only The Birds of Paradise but the Raj Quartet as well, leading to the comprehension of Paul Scott’s vision. The passage also brings to the reader’s mind vividly Hemingway’s observation in The Old Man and the Sea: ‘Who kills who?’ Conway’s inability to shoot the tiger enrages his father, who orders Paluji, the head syce to thrash the boy. His tutor Greyson-Hume comforts him: ‘He knelt by my side and put hand on my shoulder. The hand on my shoulder was the kind of gesture I wasn’t used to. I burst into tears and sought comfort against his huge expanse of chest; and there was this small shock, the shock of finding a man’s breast was warm even though it was hard’ [P.68].

The boy understands that the idea of his father punishing him was showing them that Paluji and he were born equals into the world and that what they became later was up to each of them. The boy mounts the pony and calls Paluji loudly, feeling it his duty as young master to speak first and show him that he bore no ill-will for having done his duty. Conway recollects the visit to the lake island. He goes there with Dora and Krishi and comes across a hexagonal cage with an onion shaped dome in the middle of the clearing. Looking up he notices the ‘Paradaisaidae’ suspended there in simulated flight, swooping, hovering and soaring, above the leaves and branches of their natural forest.

The birds had been collected by Krishi’s grandfather, their wings and bodes supported on wire cradles and braces and rods connected them to the domed roof. ‘It was the fact that the birds were dead that gave them their special power. Their deadness was more disturbing than the restlessness of a cage full of birds’. Conway declares : ‘And I needed Krishi as a standard of comparison as well as an ally, the British were, indeed, propped up by the native princes. Neither the British Empire nor its faithful Officers like Robert Conway will be able to defend and protect the princess because ‘they were pawns dressed up as Knights’ [P.160].

As Conway realizes: ‘ there was only one player at the chessboard, playing two handed chess, moving the black pieces in a direction which had to threaten the white pieces his other hand jealously protected and moved too slowly, far too slowly in the direction which might, in time, have led to a perfect integration of the whole; so slowly that it was difficult not to see the laggardly pace as deliberate, as part and parcel of a bloody minded game of divide and rule’[P.160]. This is an obvious reference to the manner in which the empire lasted and sustained itself. ‘Like the world of the Maharajahs, the old ‘conway world had gone’ with the decline and end of the empire’. Back in England, Conway talks of his roots in India. In his uncle Walter’s house ‘Four Birches’, “there was only one room in it, where I consciously put down roots, but these were roots I had brought with me from India. . . “[P.99], he declares.

During the war Conway goes through the horrors of prison camp. He vividly recalls the torture and humiliation he had to experience along with Cranston, another prisoner of war. By turns they suffered punishment and humiliation to secure drugs for the suffering and sick P.O.Ws in the camp. Conway realizes that what Cranston was doing at Pig Eye was the only worth while thing, there was left in the world to do – ‘save life, ease suffering’. In Conway the war had revived the old sense of impending duty. But it was turned by Cranston ‘into some thing else: the need to contribute’ [P.146].

Here we notice Paul Scott maturing from his earlier obsession ‘of man and his work’ to the need to contribute for the harmonious existence of humanity. Cranston enabled Conway to know what is a life of high service. This was what was expected of the latter as a boy. At Pig Eye the brutalization of man is manifested. ‘It was all damnation and no magnificence’.

After the war Conway returns to India and learns that his father, in fact, persuaded Sir Pandirakkar, on more than one occasion to join the Indian Union after India gained independence. As he rightly muses : ‘There was nothing logical in the continued existence of placed like Gopalkand, and nothing could have saved them once the illusion of stately togetherness was destroyed . . . . the illusion vanished with the crown.’

Conway learns that Dora married Harry Paynter, who was in the old Indian army. He is a public relations officer now. He joined the Pakistan Army after the partition with his conviction that the Muslims were manlier than Hindus. During the massacres that accompanied partition the trains coming into Lahore from Delhi were littered with bodies of those who were killed between Delhi and Lahore – ‘either Muslims killed by Hindus, or Hindus killed by Muslims, never British’.

The British were treated with courtesy. Krishi, Dora and Conway go shopping. Melba, the green parrot in a cage which imitates Krishi’s “where are you Dora” as “wur rah-Yadoora”, is given as a gift to Conway. The bird takes instant liking for him and repeats his name as told by Krishi. That evening the three friends visit the island to see the birds of paradise in the cage. Krishi informs them a naughty family joke about the birds. The birds in the cage were thought to be like the British Raj, creatures who took it for granted they excited wonder and admiration wherever they went and had no idea that they were dead from neck up and neck down, weren’t flying at all and were imprisoned in their conceit any way. Krishi says that the family joke has misfired, though, because history had shown: “It was the princes of India who were dead, inspite of all their finery and high – flown postures.

The British had stuffed them and burnished their fine feathers, but as princes they were dead even if they weren’t dead as men, and if not actually dead then any way buried alive in a cage the British had never attempted really to open”[ P.217].

Mystery shrouds the birds. No one knows for certain the true account of the birds. The bird of paradise, it had been thought, was too beautiful a creature of inhabit the natural world and if further proof were needed that it belonged to the supernatural it was to be found in the fact that the bird was footless, ‘apoda‘. Being footless where or how would it perch when tired of flying? And who had even seen one alive? The bird must be a creature of heaven, although not immortal. It flew to death without pausing; some said into the sun, others said that it flew into the teeth of any wind that was blowing to keep its splendid training plumes from blinding it in flight.

For food it sucked in through its beak the celestial dews that fell each night and morning. The eggs were laid in flight, on to the back of the male bird whose back was hollowed into shape of a nest. And when its life span was ended it folded its wings and fell dead, down through the airy realms of paradise, to earth where man was at least allowed to see and make use of it. ‘Men like the natives of Aru, who stunned them with arrows throttled them, cut off the legs, cut out the skull, sometimes cut off the purely functional wings, then dried and cured them and stretched the skins on the lengths of bamboo, or alternatively, stripped and dead birds and used their feathers for personal decoration, naturally enough knew the truth; but when it came to bartering the skins with Malay traders and the early European travelers who sailed to the Moluccas to buy cloves and nutmegs . . . how much was one to disguise the truth, how much was left to the commonsense of purchasers, how much of the secrecy that the natives obviously surrounded the birds with was due to their commercial instincts, how much to their awe and superstition of such unique creatures’.

Moved by their experiences in buying the skins of the birds, the Malay traders called them the birds of God; the Portuguese called them the birds of the Sun, the Dutch gave them their lasting European name, birds of paradise. At the end of the sixteenth century, a Dutchman actually wrote them up as legless, wingless, in constant airborne existence from birth to death. In the seventeenth century an Englishman went round the Malay Archipalago and was told that the parisaeidae ate nutmegs, that the nutmegs made them drunk, so that they fell not dead but senseless and were then killed by ants. No one seemed to have been prepared to admit shooting them.

Sometime after the latter half of the eighteenth century when the legend of their having no legs was recorded for all time in the Latin name given to the Great Bird species: ‘Paradisea apoda’ – meaning footless birds of paradise. No one, either, seemed prepared to kill the myth but to let it grow. For William Conway his boyhood delight in them was in their colour and finery which corresponded to the idea of all natural splendour: Sun, shade, nettles, white peacocks that looked like Viking ships and erected their fans if anyone went too close. But with Dora, it has been a different matter. As a child she was horrified at the idea of their legs being cut off and thought this was done while the birds were still alive and still wouldn’t swear that sometimes that hadn’t been the case . . . she also remembered that when Krishi shut her in the cage, she thought, in the first few moments rattled the gate shouting for Krishi to come and open. She feared that he might leave her and the island. It would have been all right if she hadn’t thought about the legs that got cut off.

She knew she missed sooner or later, but that didn’t help when she began to realize how the legs would fall, one by one, if someone got at the stuffed birds in the cage. She lost her head, imagined that the legs were actually falling not as have been expected to, but coming with a heavy plop, one after the other. And when there weren’t any more plops and she thought it was all over she found it wasn’t. She had to close her eyes and press her hands against her ears because the drops of blood had begum to fall from the wounds. She screamed when she couldn’t stand it any longer.

The gate was opened, she ran out and didn’t stop until she reached the place where the boat was moored. ‘She had thought them splendid as well, but more as omens of all the marvelous things that were going to do but of the things that were going to happen to her. She supposed the obsession she had about the bird’s legs was really a warning that the future wasn’t going to be all that great shakes’ [P.223].

Conway calls Melba, the Paraguayan parrot, his ‘mock bird of paradise’ and builds for her an immense outside cage that recreates the island cage of the ‘ Paradaisaidea ‘. He and Melba, as he puts it, ‘are acting out the part of lovers’, and they are ‘committed to each other’. For him alone she sings the wild songs of Paraguayan high lands, becomes jealous, sulks, and tries to please. The mainstay of her vocabulary is his name and ‘Wurrahyadora’ (‘where are you Dora’? with an unmistakable echo of Tradura) so that in her speech and music Melba, whose name is another echo (Monoba, which Conway tells us is pronounced Man’ba) sums up all that is most important to Conway. ‘I feel that it is my youth she has been singing and not her own and at times like this I go up to her cage and we stare at each other and try to break down the terrible barrier that exists between Man and Beast’ [P.19].

The truth is relative, Conway decides, and, then, past largely one’s own creation. He, Dora and Krishi, have mostly quite different memories of the past, and only certain moments, like the experience on the ‘ machan ‘, seem to possess an absolute reality. The barrier between man and man is as terrible as the barrier between man and beast. As Paul Scott himself testifies: ‘The central symbol is ‘about the possible splendours in the midst of ugliness, magnificence among the damned’ [Paul Scott: My Appointment with the Muse. P.17]

The novel is also about the Indian princes – about their feudal magnificence and subsequent damnation. Among all characters it is Dora who is totally disillusioned and learns to live with reality. Conway says, “Leaving the cage our bodies brushed lightly together. Hers felt as hard as flint”. Her body is hard as flint because she is immensely by the sight of the birds and all that they used to represent to her, but she has a long experience of now living with reality.

In The Birds of Paradise, Scott has mastered a metaphorically rich style superior to anything in his earlier fiction. Symbols shift and expand their meanings constantly. Scott succeeds in giving universally meaningful dimension to the story. He is genuinely objective and views his creation with the utmost seriousness, one might even say respect. ‘The Birds of Paradise is a rare literary bird, a novel that in a short space recreates a man’s lifetime. Using exotic backgrounds, it manages to say something useful about growing up – a process that only children believe takes place mainly in childhood’ [P.25].
Paul Scott’s early novels contrast strongly to the lengthy, dense work of The Raj Quartet. Many are set in India and deal with experiences gained while he was on active service in India in World War II as an Officer in an air supply unit. As Paul Scott honestly confesses, “For a novel I prefer a broader canvas, which may be why I have never published a short story. I also tend to write about people in relation to their work, which strikes me as a subject no less important than that of their private lives because their work is so often affected by their sense of personal deprivation. My interest in the closing years of the British power in India is probably due to my feeling that in India, the British as a nation came to the end of themselves as they were and have not yet emerged from the shock of their own liberation”. The common factor that emerges clearly in most of his early novels is ‘the obsession with the relationship between a man and the work he does’. ‘Without work the vessel of life has no ballast’.

It appears as though Scott has a double obsession – an obsession with British India and an obsession with the importance to the main characters of their work. Paul Scott recounts Walter Allen’s definition of the novel ‘as extended metaphor of an author’s view of life to substantiate the themes of his novels.’ The sun-set time of the British Raj is the metaphor he has chosen to illustrate his view of life.

Primary Sources:
Paul Scott. Johnnie Sahib. London : Eyre&Spottiswood Ltd, ,1952.
The Alien Sky . London : Eyre&Spottiswood Ltd,1958.
The Chinese Love Pavilion. London: Eyre&Spottiswood Ltd,1960.
The Birds of Paradise. London: Eyre&Spottiswood Ltd ,1962.
The Raj Quartet . Newyork : William Morrow company Inc,1976. 
My Appointment with the Muse’.Ed. With an Introduction by Shelley C.Reece . London: Heinemann, 1986.

Secondary Sources:
Arun Chacko . ‘English man’s Love for India’. Indian Express. Feb. 9. 1972.
David Rubin. After the Raj: British Novels of India since 1947.
Hanover, University Press of New England, 1986.
Gomathy Narayanan. The Sahibs and the natives . Delhi : Chanakya Publications,1986.
Nancy Wilson Ross. ‘Paul Scott : Unsung Singer of Hindustan’. Saturday Review. June 24, 1992.
Philip Mason . ‘An Essay on Racial Tension.’ London&Newyork : Royal Institute of International Affairs,1954.
Walter Clemons. ‘Paul Scott’s Indian Obsession.’ Newsweek. Dec,17, 1984.


More by :  Dr. T. S. Chandra Mouli

Top | Literary Shelf

Views: 3395      Comments: 0

Name *

Email ID

Comment *
Verification Code*

Can't read? Reload

Please fill the above code for verification.