The Emperor’s Babe

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         The Emperor’s Babe is a beautiful novel written in verse and follows young Zuleika through her life in Londinium. The novel forms a commentary on the various kinds of oppression of people and small liberations found within these spaces of restriction. As Londinium itself serves as a community made mostly of slaves and immigrants, the place is a practiced space of many different forms of restrictions; whether those restrictions are set by race, gender, age, or general poverty. The spaces in The Emperor’s Babe are interesting to analyze because they are chosen and dictated by others. Many, if not all, of the spaces that we inhabit on a daily basis are by choice, our social spaces being reflections of our interests and the people that we most easily develop relationships with, our homes representing wealth and social status, and how we think about and describe these places all evolve from a common discourse that stemmed from our choice to spend time in these spaces. By having our spaces predetermined for us, the perception of these spaces are then complicated because the spaces were not constructed by choice. This would lead to an entirely different dialect to stem from the spaces and alter the perception of space. Many of the spaces that the characters inhabit represent a sense of oppression to them.

Even in instances of slavery and arranged marriages, the spaces that these characters inhabit cannot be defined as definitively restrictive. Michel Foucault states in his interview on “Space, Power, and Knowledge” that he “does not think that it is possible to say that one thing is of the order of ‘liberation’ and another is of the order of ‘oppression’…there always remain the possibilities of resistance, disobedience, and oppositional groupings” (Foucault 135). I believe that Foucault’s theory is tested and enforced in The Emperor’s Babe because Zuleika is able to find power in areas of her life within the confines of the space that she inhabits. While slavery and Londinium serve as symbols of oppression, as well as the arranged marriage, Zuleika is still able to find liberation in her affair with Septimius Severus and her sexual endeavors. Being a woman is usually observed in books as a badge of oppression; constantly being expected to conform to societal norms and the needs of men. However, Zuleika uses her womanhood throughout the book as her badge of liberation and resistance. Her sexuality is what gives her the most power. In sexual endeavor’s Zuleika is able to have complete control over the situation, making men become submissive to her desires. She teases to seduce, asking “who’s the boss?” (Evaristo 226) until men beg for her and give in to her control.

Perhaps one of the most interesting quotes in the book was Zuleika’s statement that “we exist only in the reflection of others” (Evaristo 139). I really liked this quote but I feel that it could be taken in two different ways. First, that we exist by comparison to other people and every emotion that we experience exists in comparison to other emotions. The poor are considered poor because the wealthy existed. If there were no wealthy, then there would be no poor. I believe that this interpretation of the quote can again be applied to the commentary on how people perceive the spaces that they inhabit. Due to Londinium being representative of an oppressive space, the people who live within the confines of its boundaries are aware of the world that exists outside and therefore aware of their oppression. However, the people within Londinium would not be unhappy with their space nor would they feel oppressed if they were unaware of a better world by comparison outside of those boundaries. Also, people constantly compare themselves to the people around them, which cause us to see faults in other people and create an image of what we do not wish to be, but also see things that we envy in others and attempt to embody those qualities. This nature causes a cyclical habit of creating ourselves to reflect or rebel against the images of how others portray themselves.

The second way I believe that this quote can be interpreted is in regards to Foucault’s theory of the Panopticon effect. This theory stems from a prison known as the Panopticon, in which the cells were made of glass and encircled around a large, cylinder watch tower that the prisoners could not see into. By not being able to see into the watch tower, the prisoners were therefore unaware of the moments when they were under surveillance and assumed that they were constantly being watched. This paranoia of constantly being observed provoked the prisoners to regulate their own behavior, leading to one of the best behaved prisons in history. Foucault applies this model to the social world, by arguing that people regulate themselves and their actions based on the belief that they are constantly being watched and monitored by all of society, which has a set of expectations and norms for everyone to fulfill. The characters in The Emperor’s Babe therefore believe that they are constantly being watched and regulate their behaviors to succumb to societies demands in order to best fit in. The only time the characters seem to find instances of rebellion against this are in sexual endeavors.

Interesting Links:

Oppressive Spaces, Social Networks, and the Panopticon

Interview with Bernardine Evaristo

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