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Prof. Robert T. Madrilejos

Literature Professor/Research Staff
Technological University of the Philippines
Philippine National Research Center for Teacher Quality
A DFAT-Australian Aid Project through the University of New England-SiMERR National
Research Centre in partnership with the Philippine Normal University The National Center
for Teacher Education

STRUGGLE AND RESISTANCE: The Postcolonial Society in

Pramoedya Ananta Toers This Earth of Mankind
This Earth of Mankind tells a story of Minke, a Native, who was enrolled in an elite
Dutch High School named Hogere Burger School (HBS) in Surabaya, Central Java in 1898.
Minke, who is a son of a Bupati, is exceptionally a brilliant student and a good writer. His
stories, under the pseudonym Max Tollenaar, were later published in a newspaper.
The narrative follows his last year at the school as he encounters the Mellema
family. Mr. Robert Mellema, a Pure, has taken a concubine named Sanikem or called as Nyai
Ontosoroh, a Native. The couple have two Indo (mixed) children: Robert and Annelies.
Minke first visits the house when Robert Suurhof, his classmates, invited him to go to
pursue Ann but Ann takes an interest towards Minke and become dependent to him in the
latter part of the novel. Minke spends considerable time in Mellemas home. Ann and Minke
become lovers, with Nyais approval, and later become husband and wife under the Islamic
Mr. Mellema is largely absent in their house. Because of this, Nyai takes over their
successful dairy business and farm. Minke was astonished with the vast knowledge of Nyai
Ontosoroh and her flawless Dutch. Minke later found out in his one visit that Mr. Mellema
spends his time in a brothel beside their house.

As Minke is admitted in the home of the Mellema, Robert Mellema becomes jealous
of him. Robert becomes hostile towards Minke and withdraws himself eventually from
their home and becomes like his father. He stays in the brothel and is later infected by
syphilis by a Japanese prostitute.
As Mr. Mellema died, Engr. Maurits Hellema, a legal son of Mr. Mellema, initiates
legal proceedings to claim his rights and of his mothers to all the businesses of the Mellema
and the guardianship of Ann and Robert. Minke and Nyai Ontosoroh try to resist but
because of the colonial power behind Maurits, he prevails over Nyai, Minke and Ann.
This Earth of Mankind shows the complication of its colonial society in terms of
racial differences policy that has occurred during the Dutch colonialism wherein the worth
of an individual is measured according to the amount of European blood that is running in
ones vein.
Struggle and Resistance
The first struggle that the main character, Minke, faces is to study in an elite Dutch
colonial high school, the Hogere Burger School (HBS). Though he is a son of a royal
Javanese family and a brilliant student, his classmates and teachers still see him no less
than a native. Being the only native, he becomes the ridicule of his classmates and even his
teacher named him Minke, which he later found out as a form of an insult. Still, he remained
in school and showed his dominance through mastering the colonials language, manner
and knowledge. He writes in Dutch with a pen name Max Tollenaar and even places second
to the state examination administered in the Indies. It is shown in the following how harsh
the environment is to him when it was announced that he places second:
I shook. I had no idea. In fact, no one ever imagined that a Native could beat
Europeans. Such an idea was taboo in the Indies. (p. 301)
Another struggle that Minke faces is when he started living in the house of Nyai
Ontosoroh. People see it wrong to live in a Nyais house because they are known for being
of low morals and only concerned with wealth and lust. Even his own father, who is a

bupati of Bis against the idea of him, an educated man, living in a house of a nyai.
However, Minke refused from moving out of the house because of (1) Jean Marais
suggestion to be not affected by what people would say and only he himself could prove
whether the peoples judgement towards Nyai is right or wrong; and (2) Annelies Mellema,
the woman who captivated the heart of Minke. Later in the novel, Minkes stay in the house
of Nyai and sleeping in the same room with Annelies was questioned in court, following the
death of Herman Mellema, the master of Nyai Ontosoroh and the father of Annelies and
Robert Mellema. Minke was also dismissed in HBS because of this case which was
withdrawn in the latter part because of an article which Minke has written regarding the
issue of Pures, Indos and Natives. Minke later resolved the issue of this morality through a
marriage under the Islamic Law after he graduated from the HBS.
Nyai Ontosoroh, another central character in the novel, has faced her own struggle
because of the fate her parents chose for her. In the novel, it was revealed that she was
sold like a slave by his father because of its dream to hold a higher office in the
government. She becomes the concubine of Herman Mellema and as a concubine, she has
no right to the man and her children will be considered as bastards. Nevertheless, she did
not remain as an ordinary nyai. She learn every possible thing that she could learn from his
master. Though she was not schooled, she was able to learn the ways of a European its
manner, language and business. She worked hard to gain the respect of other people. She
even managed the Boerderij Buitenzorg agricultural company herself, raised her own
children and defended her right before a Dutch court:
With a clear voice and in flawless Dutch defying the judicial order that she use
Javanese, and ignoring the pounding of the gavel (p.287)
Orientalism: Defying Stereotypes
According to Edward Said in his seminal work Orientalism (1978), The notions of
the Orient and the Occident will always appear as an unavoidable reality since it is the
impact of the simultaneous interactions among the groups and individuals in postcolonial
society. This line of thought becomes repository of images of how to view the colonized
but also a reminder of the colonized as inferior. Denys Hays (1968) also claimed that it is a
collective notion identifying us Europeans as against all those non-Europeans, and

indeed, it can be argued that the major component in European culture is precisely what
made the culture hegemonic both in and outside Europe: the idea that European identity as
a superior one in comparison with all non-European peoples and cultures.
In This Earth of Mankind, Minke and Nyai Ontosoroh are both Native which the
Dutch society deemed as unimportant. Minke, though a brilliant student, is refused to be
given importance in his school even though he places second in the state examination
because he is a Native and it is even a taboo idea that a Native surpassed the European
which deemed as a superior race in the country. Nyai Ontosoroh, as well, is neglected in the
Dutch White Court when she is defending for her right and her right to her daughter; and is
dismissed altogether:
Actually our business is only with Annelies, the judge said. You are a nyai, a Native,
you have no business with this court. (p. 329)
However, this both characters resist from being subjugated under the Pure Blooded.
They rise above the stereotype that the Occident had created for the Orient. Both were
able to liberalize themselves through education Minke, being in a Dutch elite school and
Nyai Ontosoroh, learning through her master and her books. Both criticized the society that
antagonizes them. Minke criticizes how the Dutch colonial power is manipulating their
status as a Native through writing in a newspaper while Nyai Ontosoroh proclaims right in
the face of the Dutch people her political stance against the ruler of the country:
In the end, she said later in a very soft voice, the issue is always the same: European
against Native, against me. Remember this well: It is Europe that swallows up Natives while
torturing us sadistically. Eu-r-opeonly their skin is white, she swore. Their hearts are full of
nothing but hate. (p. 329)
Hybridity and Ambivalence
Within the context of the society, hybridity exists. The colonized and the colonizer
cannot have one merely static identity. According to Bhabha (1994), the hybrid agent,
having the traits of two cultures, has the ability to mediate by translating meanings and
negotiating differences; thus countering the hegemonic power of the colonizer. This is the
effort of the hybrid identity to recreate its own identity through these two cultures and to

advocate against homogenization. Nyai Ontosoroh and Minke, though both Native,
exemplify this cultural hybridity created in their society.
Because Minke is educated in a Dutch elite school, he received the ideals of the
Dutch culture. Thus, he moved in a society like a Dutch. His enthusiasm to study gives him
the privilege to be beyond a simple native. In fact, he is admired by every Javanese and
Dutch in his hometown Bwhen he is invited by the Assistant Resident.
If the assistant resident has started inviting you, naturally you are without flaw,
everything you do is right, there is nothing you would ever do that could be said to have
violated Javanese custom. (p.137)
However, Bhabha (1994) also contends that colonial mimicry is the desire for a
reformed, recognizable Other, as subject of difference that is almost the same but not quite
mimicry must continually produce its difference. The ambivalence of identity that is
almost the same but not quite can be seen towards how Minke reacts to the comments of
the de la Croix sisters regarding the Javanese attitude.
Her word hurt. Yes, every time the essence of Java was insulted, offended by the
outsiders, my feelings were also hurt. I felt so totally Javanese. But when the ignorance and
stupidity of Java was mentioned, I felt European. (p. 148)
In the situation of Nyai Ontosoroh, hybridity exists because of what she learned
from her master which she applied in her life. She keep on identifying herself as Nyai but
people around him like Minke and Jean Marais do not see her as an ordinary Nyai but
rather an educated one. She learned her manner and gained her knowledge through Mr.
Robert Mellema and his vast collection of books in their home until she herself, become a
Dutch woman.
Had I become a Dutch woman with brown skin? (p. 91)
In this sense, Nyai Ontosoroh is able to express her willingness to leave the
boundary of Javanese feudalism and absorb the liberation virtues of Europe.

However, like Minke, she did not let herself be confounded by her status as a native.
She maintains her political stance against the Dutch colonial power who exacerbate the
status of Natives in their own country.
Nobody ever challenged my relationship with Herman Mellema. Why? For the simple
reason he was a Pure-Blooded European. But now people are trying to make an issue of Mr.
Minkes relationship with Annelies. Why? Only because Mr. Minke is a Native? ...If Europeans
can act in these ways because of their superior wealth and power, why is it that a Native must
become the target of scorn and insults? (p. 287)
Pramoedya Ananta Toers This Earth of Mankind shows postcolonial discourse of
binary opposition of Orient and Occident, hybridity and ambivalence. The postcolonial
surrounding triggers every Minke and Nyai Ontosoroh to recreate their own identity and
status in the society. These characters embody the virtues and the hopes of the Indonesian
people to challenge the colonial power that keeps on dragging and subjugating their
identity as a nation.

Bhabha, Homi. (1994). Location of Culture. London: Routledge.
Denys, Hay. (1968). Europe: The Emergence of an Idea. 2nd ed. Edinburgh: Edinburgh
University Press.
Said, Edward. (1979). Orientalism. London: Routledge.
Toer, Praemodya Ananta. (1990). This Earth of Mankind. New York: Penguin Books.

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