Colonialism, Patriarchy and Capitalism in “The Potted Princess”

fairy tale princess

Throughout the ages, fairy tales have been written and recited for their recreational and educational value, whilst many of which were often altered and adapted to correspond with the values of specific eras and cultures. It is ergo important to approach any particular fairy tale from an ideological perspective upon the examination of the ways it perpetuates or contests sociopolitical and cultural order (Duggan, 2012).

Fairy tales from the Victorian period are no different and allow the extrapolation of unique perspectives related to the contemporary ideologies of this period. One fairy tale that incorporates such values and viewpoints is “The Potted Princess” by Rudyard Kipling. This essay will examine the different ideological perspectives in Kipling’s “The Potted Princess” and will focus mainly on how it presents a conflicting approach toward colonialism; in addition, it will show how the fairy tale maintains the value systems of patriarchy and capitalism.

Colonialism in “The Potted Princess”

Without being specifically mentioned, the colonialist setting of “The Potted Princess” is unearthed immediately with the first sentence of the story. The narrator recounts that “Punch and Judy” – presumably two British children – heard the fairy tale from their nurse “in the city of Bombay” (310). Bombay today is commonly known as Mumbai after the name was officially changed in 1995 by the government as “part of a nationalist reclamation of the state from colonial rule” since the former colonial British rulers mistakenly corrupted the original name of the goddess Mumbadevi (Trousdale, 2004). If so, the habitation of a British family in the Indian city that had been erroneously called Bombay in the late 19th century promptly evokes the connotation of British colonialism, whether Kipling actually intended to evoke it or not.

Kipling’s conflicting view of British colonialism is manifested by what can be inferred as a metaphor for the British presence in India at the beginning of “The Potted Princess.” The foreign kids, Punch and Judy, pester the local bird, the pink crane, by “throwing pieces of mud at him” while perceiving their abusive action merely as “making him dance”; at first, their nurse manages to soothe the angry pink crane, but thenceforth the bird jumps off an aloe hedge, and as a result, “Punch got pricked by the spikes” (310).

It is possible to make the comparison between this scene to how the British colonialists maltreated the local Indian natives whilst remaining blind to their own abuse, how they maintained control and order by a local rule with some limited authority, and how ultimately, the natives pricked back. Even if this is indeed the metaphor that Kipling attempted to relay, it is important to note that it does not necessarily mean that he denounces colonialism altogether but solely being critical of the reprobate treatment of the local natives by the foreign colonialists.

Another example in the text of the incongruity regarding the colonialist presence in India is exhibited in the form of language. After the nurse tries to calm down the pink crane with a song in Hindustani, the narrator reveals that she and the kids Punch and Judy “always talked Hindustani because they understood it better than English” (310). This might be an indication of Kipling’s dissatisfaction with the loss of British distinctiveness due to the close mixture of the two cultures.

Alternatively, the story is filled with words and phrases in Hindustani, which was the primary language that the British colonialists were using and advancing for communication in India, whereas Hindi and Urdu carried associations that are much more nationalistic; and indeed, with the decolonization throughout the 20th century, the use of Hindustani has declined on the expanse of Hindi and Urdu (Lelyveld, 1993). Therefore, while Kipling insinuates that the fusion with the locals leads to the erosion of British idiosyncrasies such as the English language, he also simultaneously promotes the use of Hindustani in “The Potted Princess.”

fairy tale magician

The fairy tale the nurse recounts to Punch and Judy also illustrates the two discrepant perspectives about colonialism that are at least somewhat at odds with each other. On the one hand, the fairy tale features the magical allure and enchantment of the East; on the other hand, the fairy tale ultimately ends with the deprecation of that same Eastern enticement and magic. The text consists of remarks directly connecting the nurse’s fairy tale to actual Eastern cultures: she begins her fairy tale by relating to a “rajah,” thereafter the narrator explains that it “means king in Hindustani,” and later on, the nurse geographically sets her story “[i]n a big forest near Delhi” (311) – all of which are clear references to the East.

The nurse goes on and makes links between the fairy tale and the kids’ experiences in the East: she mentions exotic “magicians” who “make snakes come out of baskets, and grow mangoes from little stones,” and then she adds, “such as you, [the kids], have seen” (311); she approves to Judy that the “big, deep grain-jar of dried clay” is like the same one she actually saw “in the Bombay market” (312); and she similarly confirms to Punch that “the holy men in caves” from the fairy tale were the same men whom he “saw at Nassik on the mountain” (312). The nurse additionally explains that “the magicians counted the stars under which the Princess was born,” and following this comment, she describes the kids’ own star constellation on the night they were born (311); she thus creates a personal connection for them with the Eastern fairy tale.

Yet, near the end of her recitation, the nurse changes her tone and begins to diminish the significance of the Eastern magic. First, after describing how the natural scenery returns to normal in the morning following the failed attempts of the powerful princes to open the jar, she states that it was “because it was all magic charm-work which cannot last” (314). Second, she tells how after only the Potter-Prince manages to open the jar, the Rajah’s magicians rebuke the other princes and Subadars because they “rely on holy men and the heads of dead giants and devils’ tails, but do not work with [their] own hands” (315). Third, after she finishes her fairy tale and Punch is doubtful about the ending, she tells him that the charms “were only words” and asks him rhetorically if words could “turn [him] into a tiger” (315).

Hence, while “The Potted Princess” does include the familiar supernatural phenomena of fairy tales, it also eventually subverts the mysterious appeal of the East. This could be read as a colonialist message that the locals may possess a certain mysterious allure; however, in the end, this is merely just a veneer.

Patriarchy and Capitalism in “The Potted Princess”

Other ideological perspectives that “The Potted Princess” perpetuates, this time without any conflict, are patriarchy and capitalism. The Princess in the fairy tale has no voice and no agency at all, and in this sense, she is – not only literally but also symbolically – Potted.

The Rajah does not value his daughter the Princess by her own skills, attributes or aspirations, but only by her possibility of marrying “the best Prince in all India” (311) – a patriarchal notion that a woman is entirely defined through her husband while her own merits are utterly irrelevant. To execute his wish to marry the Princess, the Rajah discusses with his magicians – all men, of course – and they advise him that she “must be shut up” (312), a plan that is implemented immediately without any regard to the feelings of the Princess herself. Throughout the fairy tale, the Princess does not utter even one single meager word, she has no opinion or choice, and she is fully dominated by men – an absolute patriarchal culture and society.

Another ideology subtly promoted in the text is capitalism, which allows rapid social class shifts and, at the end of the 19th century, had already fully blossomed (Burnham, 2003). The Potter-Prince is described as “the son of a potter” who “had neither horse nor saddle, nor any men to follow him” (313); in India, the field of pottery is considered a low social position (Arnold, 1988). Yet, in spite of the Potter-Prince’s paltry means and status, he is nonetheless given an equal chance to compete – just as capitalism, at least philosophically, aims to provide everybody with equality of opportunity for advancement (Schumpeter, 2013).

As stated earlier, after the Potter-Prince succeeds in opening the jar and hence in changing his social position, the Rajah’s magicians scold the other princes that they “do not work with your [their] hands” (315); from capitalistic eyes, this comment suggests that hard work shall lead to gain. The fairy tale, therefore, conspicuously supports a patriarchal culture in which women are bereft of voice and agency, and it supports a capitalistic ideology in a more subtle manner with a rags-to-riches narrative.

“The Potted Princess” assimilates several ideological views, which correspond with the sociopolitical order of the Victorian period. Although it does present a conflicting viewpoint of British colonialism, the fairy tale does not condemn it entirely, nor does it ask to end it; through this fairy tale, Kipling only seems to denote the moral perils from which the colonialists should ward off. “The Potted Princess” does, however, maintain unequivocally a patriarchal social structure that is wholly presided by male figures, and it also sustains a capitalistic stance where individuals can change their social position.

Works Cited:

Arnold, Dean E. Ceramic Theory and Cultural Process, 196-199. Cambridge University Press. 1988.
Burnham, Peter. “Capitalism, State, Political Economy” in The Oxford Concise Dictionary of Politics, I. McLean and A. McMillan (eds). Oxford University Press. 2003.
Duggan, Anne E. “Ideology and the Importance of Socio-Political and Gender Contexts.” Marvelous Transformations: An Anthology of Tales and New Critical Perspectives, 518- 22. Ed. Christine A. Jones and Jennifer Schacker. Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2012.
Kipling, Rudyard. “The Potted Princess.” Zipes, Jack, ed. Victorian Fairy Tales: The Revolt of the Fairies and Elves. New York: Routledge, 1989.
Lelyveld, David. “The Fate of Hindustani: Colonial Knowledge and the Project of a National Language” from Orientalism and the Postcolonial Predicament: Perspectives on South Asia, 189-210. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993.
Schumpeter, Joseph A. Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, 7-8. Routledge, 2013.
Trousdale, Rachel. “’City of Mongrel Joy’: Bombay and the Shiv Sena in Midnight’s Children and the Moor’s Last Sigh.” The Journal of Commonwealth Literature 39, no. 2: 96-97. 2004.