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The Dutch Wife is a novel that touches upon the harsh realities of the Dutch and other religions during World War II while they struggle for survival against Hitler and his Nazi army. The novel focuses on the story of Marijke de Graaf as she is faces the challenge of either dying a slow death in a concentration camp or join the camp brothel as the only way of survival. When analyzed through the feminist, postcolonial, and cultural literary theories, the novel, The Dutch Wife, by Ellen Keith demonstrates that one who is seen as inferior by society will inevitably become a victim of oppression. This is portrayed through the mistreatment of women, the tyrannical government of Germany, and the alienation of the Jews and homosexuals.
When analyzing through the feminist conflict theory the protagonist, Marijke de Graaf, instantly becomes a victim of oppression due to her gender. As Nazis continue to colonize the land of Germany, women become a target of sexual trafficking. In the prison of Buchenwald, females are placed into whorehouses where they are subjected to sexual, mental, verbal and physical abuse at the hands of men. The males objectify the females, thus creating a cycle of oppression that thrives off patriarchal mentality. When Marijke is placed into the brothel, the brothel supervisor states “‘each man is allotted fifteen minutes, no more than twenty. No fancy positions, just man-on-top. [Women will] receive up to eight clients each night… , [and] regular injections against pregnancy and venereal disease’” (Keith 46). Women are a marginalized group in society as they are portrayed to be low-life individuals that cannot express their sentiments. Females are mandated to follow strict rules placed upon them in the brothel – they are the reward given to privileged men. Stereotypically, females are hidden within the shadows of males where the latter have control of all situations. Women must follow their command because of consist fear of punishment for disobeying. If the females contravene privileged prisoners or Schutzstaffel guards, they are brutally struck with sticks or raped. Marijke is displayed as an object owned by Karl Muller, a Schutzhaftlagerfuhrer, who tends to oppress the former. In the text, Karl states that he has “‘gotten rid of the haughty SS supervisor …hoping it would keep his men away from Marijke… [he wants] her to [himself]’” (186).
Marijke is portrayed to be fragile and weak as she is constantly identified as Karl’s belonging who is not entitled to freedom. Karl is a dominating individual as he continuously beats men who dare to touch or have sexual intercourse with Marijke further indicating that she is no longer seen as a human being, but rather a possession. In society, women are characterized as lack self-defense as the role of a man is to offer protection considering their bodies are built to be strong. The protagonist is not the only victim of feminist oppression; Luciano’s mother is illustrated as a subdued character as well. Luciano’s father, Arturo Wagner, controls his wife as he commands her to follow his orders constantly. Luciano states “[she has] worn her nursing shoes under her skirt as she set the table, making sure to arrange the silverware perpendicular to the table’s edge, as [his father] liked it. Her hair tied back the way [he] liked, everything as he liked it …he forbade her from inviting over guests without [his] permission’” (124). Women are stereotyped to care highly about their appearance as they are required to dress in proper attire and accomplish certain tasks for their husbands. Luciano’s mother is oppressed by the man of the family as he controls her life by stating that she cannot make simple choices regarding the household such as who they are allowed to invite over. Luciano’s mother is constantly trying to please her husband; thus, reinforcing the common stereotype that women submit to men. Through the feminism critical theory, the women of Buchenwald, Marijke and Luciano’s mother are all represented as weak female figures who are forced to follow the orders of men because their gender makes them inferior.
In a similar way, when analyzing through the post-colonial theory, residents of Germany immediately become oppressed by Nazis as they start to control their lives and colonize their land. In the country of Germany “silence spread across Amsterdam with each passing week, [and] felt as if the city were holding their breath alongside [Marijke and Theo] … [Nazis] barged into [Marijke’s] home and separated [her] from [her] husband” (6). As Germany continues to take over more land, residents are forced to leave homes and separate from their spouses to help Hitler assemble a larger army and create a whole new colony. The action of holding your breath symbolizes when one is expecting something to happen but has no hope that it will occur. Amsterdam and Marijke all are hoping that Germany will stop imposing their economy, culture, and government upon them; however, in the end colonization will happen because opposing countries are not taking action against Hitler. This leaves the residents of Germany oppressed. Germany becomes a totalitarian state as Germans, Communists, Jews and others are forced to complete labour work for the benefit of Hitler. In the prison of Buchenwald, Karl Muller states that every prisoner will help “‘[Nazis] rebuild and rearm, and each and every prisoner at Buchenwald will help Germany win the war”’ (222).
Between 1933 to 1945, Nazi Germany is seen as a more superior and stronger country in comparison to others as Hitler takes control over eleven countries. He begins to eliminate all political opposition and amalgamates their power. Dictatorship was in action when Karl and the Nazis took advantage of the residents by enslaving them – they were forced to “build barrack blocks, railways, roads” to achieve a higher status of power in society which will be ‘indestructible’ when attacked from the allied countries. Prisoners were made into personal slaves to rebuild Buchenwald and were not given a chance to disobey. Whether the residents were imprisoned in Buchenwald or Buenos Aires, all individuals had a task at hand that would benefit the dictator. In the prison of Buenos Aires, Luciano, a journalism student, was taken from his family where “‘[he] was forced to do labour work: translating documents”’ (121). Luciano had to obey orders and create “business documents” for entry into United States of America, as well as “translate propaganda.” As a journalism student in Argentina who spoke English, if he were to disobey orders, he would be tortured or killed. Through post-colonial theory, Germany and Argentina residents are seen as weak human beings who will not fight against the superior army – Hitler and Nazis; as a result, they continue to be oppressed and follow orders that only benefit the colonizers.
Additionally, when examining through the cultural criticism theory, Germany inhabitants are forced to strip their abstract values and cultural beliefs, instantaneously becoming victims of oppression. Hitler despises the Communists, Jehovah’s Witness, Jews, homosexuals and other groups, making them victims of persecution. Jews are mostly loathed because of their inferior position in society and for the conflicts between Christianity and Judaism, which initiated an unpleasant ambience of anti-Semitism in Europe. In the prison of Buchenwald, Nazis are “making Jews commit sins…to get rid of [their] cultural beliefs – [have] sex with multiple men”’ (54). Stereotypically, Jews are displayed as incompetent and greedy beings often in propaganda posters. Nazi members in Buchenwald are forcing Jewish women to go against cultural expectations of possessing pure and angelic character traits by commanding them to have sexual intercourse with numerous men. This will convert them into a ‘devil’s spawn’ as they will fail to reach the culture’s expectations of a pure Jew. Jews are required to “blend in with locals, adjust their language, and sometimes dress like Christians” completely ridding them of their Jewish background and assimilating them to a culture Hitler believes is socially acceptable. Similarly, homosexuals are despised and mistreated because of their different beliefs and values. During the Holocaust, homosexuals are viewed as inferior, so doctors ‘“[develop] a typhus vaccine, to cure homosexuality, using [fags] as test subjects…for polluting the Reich”’ (147). Homosexual men are stereotyped as “females” because of their feminine manner of speaking and walking.
They are considered to be going to ‘hell’ for disobeying the Bible because “homosexuality is forbidden by God”. In Buchenwald, homosexuals are beaten and called “fags” – a derogatory term used to identify them. As the population of gay men grows, Nazi members support the idea of producing a “typhus vaccine” that will supposedly “fix” gay men by transforming them to be straight. Homosexuals have their abstract values and beliefs wrenched away, forging them into oppression by Nazis. Through the influence of society, Luciano’s father, Arturo Wagner forbids Luciano of continuing the “traits” he obtains. Luciano’s father “[scolds] him for spending too much time in the kitchen with [his mother], [and] for wearing women colours or having a weak stride”’ (259). In society, men are stereotyped to be manly by having a ‘strong stride’ and wearing dark clothes indicating that the LGBTQ culture is perceived to be pathetic and weak. Luciano’s father strips him of his individuality by coercing him into being a person that reaches society’s standards and accepts the dominant culture. Through the cultural critical theory, Jews and homosexuals are discriminated against for confiding in different values from what is accepted as the norm by society; immediately making them inferior in the eyes of others.
Overall, The Dutch Wife is a remarkable novel narrating the trials and tribulations of survival during World War II. Encompassed throughout this harrowing plot is the theme of oppression as it intersects with gender, colonialism and cultural assimilation. This essay sought to analyze oppression using feminist theory, post-colonial theory and cultural criticism theory. Moreover, these theories were applied to key experiences and incidents the protagonist, Marijke de Graaf, alongside other important characters were subjected to. Feminist theory intersected with oppression throughout the book because many women were sex trafficked and forced into brothels. Post-colonial theory analyzed oppression by highlighting the examples of Nazi invasion and dominance over all aspects of democratic and economic life. Lastly, cultural criticism theory analyzed the theme of oppression by emphasizing how Jews and homosexuals were forced to assimilate to a culture that Hitler deemed appropriate.
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