Leonard Woolf: Photo by 50 Watts on Flickr http://flic.kr/p/8t2v71

The jungle as central to the embodied experience of Ceylon during the early C20th

Leonard Woolf’s The Village in the Jungle

(Featured Image – Leonard Woolf: Photo by 50 Watts on Flickr http://flic.kr/p/8t2v71)

Leonard Woolf’s The Village in the Jungle (1913) is a novel based on the author’s experiences in Ceylon between1904-1911. Indeed, the jungle itself dominated a large proportion of the island, which meant it by definition played a central role in the lives of locals and expatriates alike. However, to the British, who occupied Ceylon from 1817-1948, the vast and unknown jungle landscape would also play a huge role because of its absolute foreignness compared to the natural environment in Britain. The language employed by Woolf to describe the jungle space denotes an arguably mistrustful western stance, it is haunting, engaging and rich but it is often negative and full of fear, sterility and death.

It has been argued that such negative and often sensational descriptions of the jungle (as the embodiment of ‘evil’) signify imperial or western attitudes of suspicion towards and alienation from the natural jungle landscape. While it was a challenging place to live, such personification of the jungle as having a malicious agenda is somewhat exaggerated. However, the jungle was an all-encompassing and unpredictable place and Woolf was praised by local writers for his poignant descriptions which capture the harsh realities of the landscape which ruled most of the country. I also strongly believe we need to view and critique Woolf’s novel within its historical context, taking into account his role as a member of the Ceylon Civil Service. Woolf, not native to Ceylon, did not live in the jungle as do the characters in his novel; therefore the extent to which he can successfully capture an embodied experience of the Ceylonese jungle is somewhat limited.

For me however, Woolf’s greatest achievement is his attempt to capture a unique presentation of the jungle landscape as central to any island experience, it is the overriding force and chief presence within the work. While the people in and out of the village are important to the action, the jungle is the nucleus which affects and determines the life around it. Through its power and influence, be that negative or positive, we understand how it was central to an embodied experience of Ceylon during the early twentieth century.

Interestingly, there was a lack of scholarly interest taken in The Village in the Jungle before the early 1970s. However, in more recent years this “unique and extraordinary novel” (Glendinning 165) has been given more attention. The most common area of debate that has resulted from the emerging critique is whether or not the text is anti-imperialist or imperialist in its outlook. I believe the depiction of the natural environment plays an important role in this discussion. The natural environment was essential to Woolf’s personal experience in Ceylon and he certainly represents it as central within his novel. Indeed, we know that “he got to know the jungle very well, under the tutelage of Engelbrecht, a Boer prisoner of war who preferred to stay on in Ceylon” (Ludowyk vii). Also, he eventually became the assistant government agent of Hambantota, thirty miles from where the fictional village, Beddegama, is supposedly situated…, “midway between the sea and the great mountains” (Woolf ‘VITJ’ 3).

However, Woolf told his Sinhalese friend Shelton C. Fernando that he had “no particular village in mind, but any one of a whole group in the north of Magam Pattu” (Glendinning 165). Therefore, I would argue that because the jungle and village area is not specific, Woolf was trying to represent the collective experience of the jungle environment, one that was not exclusive but essential to the embodied and shared experience of the island. Further evidence of how important the jungle was to Woolf can be seen when he remarked that “the jungle and the people who lived in the Sinhalese jungle villages fascinated, almost obsessed me…they continued to obsess me” (‘Beginning Again’ 47). Indeed, he also said that the novel was in some curious way a “symbol of the anti-imperialism which had been growing in me” (Woolf ‘Beginning Again’ 47).

Judith Scherer Hertz maintains that the novel was very daring for its time and was “a profoundly anti-imperialist text” (82). I agree with Hertz to a certain extent as Woolf empowers the Sinhalese people and their native surroundings by making them and it the centrepiece of the novel. By charting the lives of the villagers in the jungle he shows that not only is it essential to understand their way of life but it is also important to appreciate the ways of the natural environment, even during a time of colonial rule. Furthermore, the praise Woolf received from Sri Lankan critics suggests that they felt he was correctly voicing their experiences. Indeed, the novel was and still is an important book for Sri Lankan writers, critics and readers. Regi Siriwardena asserts it is “the finest novel about Sri Lankan life” (18). Subsequently, the fact that Sri Lankans praise Woolf for placing his village in the jungle itself and making the natural environment an all-encompassing force provides evidence for the case that the jungle was the focal point of Ceylonese life in the early twentieth century.

On the other hand, some of Woolf’s descriptions are more problematic and so may not have pleased Sri Lankan writers. I believe the animalistic descriptions of Silindu having the “pinched up face of a grey monkey…[and being] like a dog” (Woolf ‘VITJ’ 9-10), express imperial anxieties rather than native, village opinions. Subsequently, Woolf falls into the trap that Fanon describes when “the settler seeks to describe the native fully in exact terms he constantly refers to the bestiary” (23). Through Woolf’s urgent desire to make the reader understand the physicality of both jungle and people, he sometimes slips into racist or stereotypical associations of the native as inhuman and the jungle as ‘evil’. For if Woolf was arguing that the jungle was essential to an embodied experience of Ceylon and that jungle is then described as ‘evil’, it is easy to see how some critics view the novel as quintessentially imperialist and negative.

Yet we must view Woolf’s descriptions in the context of 1913 when the novel was published. In the heyday of Empire, such language would not have had the same implications or social consequences as it would now. Moreover, I believe he was trying to demonstrate that recognition and understanding of the jungle was essential. I would also argue that he is more engaged with the genuine Ceylon rather than the exotic western idea of the jungle as purely beautiful and mysterious.

Regardless of how Woolf describes the jungle, the descriptions themselves are vivid, intense and sometimes overpowering, thus conveying the importance of the natural environment to the embodied experience of Ceylon. We are continually arrested with rich passages evoking the jungle landscape and its fauna. It is a place where everyone and everything must fight for survival as death, stagnation, sterility and silence alternate with bursts of unrelenting life and greenery as a result of intermittent rainfall. Although describing the jungle as ‘evil’ and “as if it were a living monster” (Goonetilleke 163) is problematic because in Buddhist tradition and also Hindu, “the jungle…is not regarded as a place of evil. It was/is the refuge and… haven to which religious men, hermits and sages, withdraw in pursuit of peace and wisdom” (Goonetilleke 164), the imagery itself pulls the reader into the jungle. Moreover, Glendinning argues that the combination of “devils, animals and trees” (Woolf ‘VITJ’ 16) enabled Woolf to “mix Buddhist thinking with both Hinduism and with primitive ritual devils and jungle gods in the popular consciousness” (165).  Thus, he was able to appeal to a variety of readers and cultures.

Indeed, the jungle devils appear to be as real as the trees, leopards and buffalo, “it was a strange world, a world of bare and brutal facts of superstition, of grotesque imagination; a world of trees… hunger and fear and devils” (Woolf ‘VITJ’ 15). The combination adds mystery but it also plays with our mind and disorientates us as we lurch from vivid realism to shadowed ambiguity.  We learn that the jungle “looks like a great sea… [as] the sun beats down and scorches it; and the hot wind in a whirl of dust tears over it… the trees are stunted and twisted…[there are] enormous cactuses, evil looking and obscene” (Woolf ‘VITJ’ 4). Subsequently, it “does not remain an empty, abstract exaggeration” (Goonetilleke 163), it is made concrete and powerful by Woolf’s descriptions. Nevertheless, we can see why some critics have made the case for Woolf depicting a relatively naïve, western view of the jungle. Although he conveys the harsh reality of the jungle, he often slips into the stereotypical western mixture of fear and awe in his descriptions of the ‘other’. For example, with Silindu, “though he feared it, he loved it in a strange unconscious way, in the same unconscious way in which the wild buffalo loves the wallow” (Woolf ‘VITJ’ 10). However, although the native jungle is shown to be harsh, “between Silindu and the animals there exists an understanding and humane relationship” (Ludowyk ix), which suggests that it is only mysterious to those to do not respect or understand it, indeed those who do not fully embody the natural environment.

Indeed, “it is not the East that is mysterious here, but the West” (Glendinning 166). For example, when Silindu and Babun are charged with theft and brought from the natural environment of the jungle to the courthouse in town, they understand neither the language, the metropolitan setting nor the white judge. Goonetilleke argues, and I would agree, that Woolf is “critical of the British system of justice operating in the colony and of the native officials who subvert the British administrative and judicial system” (166). We know that by 1912, Woolf was no longer enjoying a position in the imperial service and said “I disapproved of imperialism and felt sure that its days were already numbered” (‘Growing’ 248). The colonial system and the ways of the jungle had crept their way into his system and he had to work through such a paradoxical dilemma.  Indeed, the rotten principles of the Headman Babehami, who is influenced by the colonial power system of gun permits and taxes, have seeped into the whole village and caused the entire community to breakdown and eventually be absorbed into the undergrowth. Moreover, at the courthouse, the reader feels alienated from the novel.

I believe that Woolf wanted to show that the jungle and the people who understand the jungle are where and with whom we can fully understand the embodied experience of Ceylon.  The language that describes the courthouse is paradoxical as it both distances the jungle and sharply focuses it. Subsequently, we understand its separation from the urban setting and its great importance despite the differentiation and detachment. Woolf tells us that “the court seemed very small now, suspended over this vast and soundless world of water and trees” (‘VITJ’ 123). It is as though we are behind a zooming camera lens from which we can symbolically view Ceylon, both colonial ‘civilisation’ and the natural environment of the jungle. The former is depicted as insignificant and out of focus while the latter is both vast and essential to the overall picture. Ludowyk supports my view by reflecting how the “panoramic view diminishes the human, yet the vast amphitheatre concentrates the attention on the human action… the jungle is neither character nor destiny; it is the envelope of the human action” (x). Indeed, by making the jungle an ‘envelope’ for the action within the text, we see how Woolf depicts the jungle as the encompassing and embodying experience of Ceylon.

Moreover, I believe Woolf is asserting that the ‘evil’ jungle is only this way because of the foul deeds that take place in the village and nearby towns due to bureaucracy and hierarchy. The natural environment is not free from imperialism and vice versa. Therefore, the conflicts between the natural and the unnatural landscapes have tragic consequences for all the characters in the novel. The jungle does not even belong to the villagers, “it belonged to the Crown, and no one might fell a tree or clear a chena… without a permit from the Government” (Woolf ‘VITJ’ 21) evoking inefficiency as a result of imperialism. Furthermore, Woolf continually associates the jungle with the village as “the spirit of the jungle is in the village and in the people who live in it. They are simple, sullen, silent men” (Woolf ‘VITJ’ 9). Beddegama “was in, and of, the jungle, the air and smell of the jungle lay heavy upon it… its beginning and its end was in the jungle… [which] surrounded it, overhung it, continually pressed in upon it” (‘VITJ’ 3). Indeed, “just as in the jungle fear and hunger forever crouch, slink and peer with every beast, so hunger and the fear of hunger lay upon the village” (Woolf ‘VITJ’ 8).

So, while the jungle influences and is engrossed within the village, the village is not a well organised or peaceful environment because it is continually in opposition with the natural environment. Subsequently the village and the jungle are both “so silent and still… so sterile” (Woolf ‘VITJ’ 5). The jungle is described as “a living wall about the village” (‘VITJ’ 3) which conveys the sense of separation that exists simultaneously alongside the intermingling of the two spaces. Yes, the jungle is merciless, but it is the men of the village, specifically the cruel native doctor Punchirala, the village Headman Bebehami and Fernando who are depicted as equally, if not more brutal. They have “the blind anger of the jungle, the ferocity of the leopard and the sudden fury of the bear” (Woolf ‘VITJ’ 9) but the leopard or ‘yakkini’ Silindu encounters at the start is more civilised than any of these men. Eventually, the jungle wins, “bursting through the walls, overwhelming the house from above… it was as if the jungle had broken into the village” (Woold ‘VITJ’ 169). It is the village’s inability to stay united that allows the jungle to subsume it and make it disappear into the jungle from which it had sprung. The natural environment which is so central to Ceylon overcomes the corrupt community who eventually disintegrate and break apart. I believe that Silindu’s long imprisonment, Hinnihami’s surrender to death after her child and fawn die and Punchi Menika’s horrifying death at the very end of the novel, all result from human error rather than the natural order. Woolf had no illusions that the natural environment of the jungle was harsh but the ‘evil’ we see here is, I would argue, a direct reflection the stagnation and death that increasingly defines the village of Beddegama.

For Woolf, the Ceylonese jungle was the core essence of the island. Though he “never overcame his feeling that the jungle was cruel” (Ludowyk vii), he presents it as an instantaneously concrete and superstitious place that should be respected and valued despite its complexities. Subsequently, Woolf gave western readers the unique access to a previously imagined world and empowered locals by voicing the uncharted experience of the landscape which dominated their island. Indeed, he embodied the jungle and the people of Ceylon when he decided to write “his story from the point of view and from within the consciousness of the Sinhalese villagers” (Glendinning 164-165). The jungle encircled and affected all that lived within or near it and while it was not forgiving, it was one of the determining forces in the lives of Silindu and the other villagers. The association of the jungle with ‘evilness’ verges on hyperbole but I admire Woolf’s bravery in transcending normative associations of the jungle as a place of exotic ‘otherness’ and believe the ‘evil’ of the jungle is a means of indirectly highlighting the corrupt village and inefficient colonial courtroom. Indeed, the jungle is still mysterious but Woolf also makes it an intense, powerful and vivid place for us, somewhere we may not fully understand but feel we have been able to embody during the narrative.

Works Cited

Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. London: Grove Press, 1967. Print

Glendinning, Victoria. “Mongoose and Mandril”. Leonard Woolf. London: Simon and Schuester, 2006. 152-187. Print.

Goonetilleke, D.C.R.A. “Leonard Woolf’s Divided Mind: The Case of The Village in the Jungle”. The First Annual Leonard Woolf Memorial Lecture, Colombo. 2007. 159-     170. Lecture. Web. Ariel.synergiespraries.ca.

Hertz, Judith Scherer. “To Glide Silently Out of One’s Own Text: Leonard Woolf and The Village in the Jungle” ARIEL 32.4, 2001. 69-87. Print.

Ludowyk, E.F.C. Introduction. The Village in the Jungle. By Leonard Woolf. 1913. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981. Print.

Siriwardena, Regi. “Woolf and the Jungle Village”. Lanka Guardian. 1.23. April 1979:18.

Woolf, Leonard. Growing: An Autobiography of the Years 1904-1911. London: Harvest, 1984.

Beginning Again: An Autobiography of the years 1911-1918. London: Harvest, 1967.

A Village in the Jungle. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1913. Print

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