Enlightenment is man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage (inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another). Kant describes Enlightenment as “man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity” (145). This immaturity does not lie in one’s lack of understanding alone but lack of courage and determination to use it. However, enlightenment did not hold the same meaning as far as women are concerned. As depicted in Bimala’s story, The Home and the World, enlightenment is a woman’s freedom from the primitive traditions into active participation in community development while remaining relevant in the domestic setting i.e. household.
The enlightenment caused women to realize that traditions were only some form of prison that kept them from living life to the fullest. Bimala notes that her husband was unable to “break completely” with the family traditions as aspect that deprived them of time to spend quality time together (20). However, she was willing to cope with her husband and be the best wife that she could. This depicts the willingness of women to rise above the challenges and problems caused by tradition. She maximized the one hour that she got to spend with her husband. This is evident here she notes that “but my heart said that devotion never stands in the way of true equality; it only raises the level of the ground of meeting” (20).
The lack of respect or even gratitude to men was a vice that played a pivotal role in causing the women to live the lowly lives. One of the aspects that placed Bimala at a rather higher position than the rest in the family was that she understood that it is not good to take men for granted. She is a symbol of the women who knew that they had to wake up from the ‘umbrella’ of their male counterparts and face the real world.
The enlightenment increased the zeal of women to know more about the outside world. For instance, Bimala asserts that with time, her grandmother who had lived in the ‘dark’ for so many years gradually became interested in the things that the new world had to offer. Among them were the stories in the English books that sought to promote the plight of women in the male dominated society.
Bringing enlightenment i.e. a new perspective of thinking to the women in the society called for several aspects. First, women needed to let go of their traditions since the two could not be contained at the same time. Since women had not experienced the outside world, it was the role of the men in the society to encourage the women as is the case with Bimala’s husband (25). He had to convince his wife to leave their home to Calcutta. Their home is a symbol of the traditional mode of thinking while Calcutta symbolizes the era of enlightenment for the women.
On several occasions, Bimala’s story has urged the world to see the goddess in every woman. To overcome the primitive views about women in the society, women had to act differently. Behaving in a rather different manner did not mean that they had to become males but could use males on the path to liberation. The subject of male objection was supposed to undo a corrosive male ego.
Women had to shun their fear that had deprived them of the opportunity to be actively involved in the building of the nation. Women had been so accustomed to the household matters that they hardly ever got the opportunity to hold meaningful discussions with their male counterparts. The women were under unable to express themselves or even live their live fully prior to the enlightenment. Bimala notes that “the pressure of the society cramped them into pettiness and crookedness” (20).
Before the invitation of Sandip Babu, Bimala never had an opportunity to take part in a discussion between her husband and his male friends. This depicts the first step towards active participation in making important decisions in the society. Their male counterparts perceived the presence of women in their contemporary societal setting as a threat. Consequently, men developed some defensive mechanisms to their views in the public forum as Bimala noted in her first discussion that involved men, “Today for the first time I saw his fencer’s skill in debate” (38).
The women who had been enlightened had to be bold especially in handling issues that had been dominated by their male counterparts. Enlightenment equipped women with a new school of thought that they had to actively exercise to find their way in the male dominated society. It empowered them in such a manner that they were willing to go against all odds to have their voice heard in the society. For instance, despite the fact that the society required women to remain submissive and supportive to their husbands, Bimala had to go against her husband’s stand during the discussion they held after dinner (ibid). This is also reflected on her first statements before she could give her stand, “I do not care about fine distinctionsI will tell you broadly what I feel” (38). Her husband did not react positively to her views. Sandip Babu, a feminist, supports her stand. He understands that although the enlightenment of the women was not welcome in the male dominated society and could have serious repercussions on her family, it was necessary:
But with a stamp of his foot, he continued his declamation “I can see that you are the beautiful spirit of fire, which burns the home to ashes and lights up that beautiful spirit of fire, which burns the home to ashes and lights up the larger world with its flame” (39).
The enlightenment of women brought a new definition to the family setting. Besides her domestic responsibilities, the woman had to go a step further and ensure that she was well-acquainted with what was happening in the society. This meant that she did not have much time to spend with her family, especially her husband, It was a process that required mutual understanding as both parties had to come to terms with the new way of living. However, to some extent the man felt neglected but chose to be patient as Bimala’s husband notes “When she is familiar with this freedom, then I shall know where my place is” (45).
Enlightenment for women also meant transforming the society in a positive manner. The nickname for Bimala, the Queen Bee of the beehive depicts the potential that her enlightenment had in transforming the society. It not only gave her a high social status especially in public forums but also was a point of reference for many people-including men (50). She notes that letters would come from all parts of the country for people to get her opinion. It was the responsibilities of the enlightened woman to build the world by helping the members of the community solve their problems using the available means.
The responsibilities that came with enlightenment of the women required them to be role models in the society. Their increased presence in the public could be a potential source of pride which could make them neglect their domestic duties. As aforementioned, the enlightened woman had to find some means of balancing her domestic responsibilities as well as her societal responsibilities. At some point, Bimala was somehow neglecting her household to attend to public matters (75). This was painful or rather disturbing to her husband who had stood by her in most of her life. She seemed to have abandoned him for Babu. She received much criticism from other women in the society an aspect that caused her to re-evaluate her life. The re-evaluation enabled her to value her household while remaining relevant to the society.
As depicted in Bimala’s story, The Home and the World, enlightenment is a woman’s freedom from the primitive traditions into active participation in community development while remaining relevant in the domestic setting. It enabled women to freely interact with their male counterparts in community development events. Additionally, it added the voice of reason to various aspects of the community that sought to fight for the freedom of women from traditions. However, enlightened is a process with many challenges that the every woman has the overcome to gain significance in a male dominated society. Among the greatest challenges is the ability to balance her social and domestic life at any given moment.
Kant, Immanuel. (1784). What is Enlightenment. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1974.