My dissertation, titled “Disruptive Widowhood in the Indian and British Novel,” investigates the cultural history of women’s rights in Britain and India in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I focus on how the rights of widows are represented in literature, legislated in Britain and India, and discussed in newspapers, to uncover the changing ideas about women’s freedom and women’s rights. For me, this project has contemporary relevance, as many widows in India continue to be deprived of their rights. My hope is that this research expands our understanding of how the idea of private property was central, if unacknowledged, to how women’s rights have been represented in literature and in the field of women’s and gender studies. I offer a fresh comparative analysis that brings to light the similarities in the evolution of women’s rights in Britain and India. In my dissertation, I argue that the figure of the widow is a disruptive one, both in terms of her position within normative and hetero-patriarchal family structures and at the level of the narrative structure and plot. Her ability to disrupt normative structures makes her a powerful and therefore dangerous figure, and in novels centered on widows, we see how efforts are made to minimize that sense of disruption by depriving widows of economic, sexual, and social rights. This project traces the evolution of the portrayals of disruptive widowhood and critically examine how these portrayals were influenced by contemporary socio-cultural and political changes.
While postcolonial scholars have written extensively about the complexities of gender and nationhood in the Indian context, their focus has mostly been on either the woman who commits sati (ritual suicide on her late husband’s funeral pyre) or the Hindu wife (and mother), and the figure of the widow has remained unexamined. Similarly, there has been no sustained inquiry of the role that disruptive widowhood plays in British novels of the time. British literary widows have predominantly remained in the margins of critical examinations and have not received the attention they deserve. The novels I analyze portray different facets of disruptive widowhood and show how such disruption is mitigated by the violent deprivation of various rights. A comparative study of this kind has not been undertaken before. Studying these novels together sheds new light upon the shifting discourses around women’s rights in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Britain and India.