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Burnt Shadows Critical Summary, Characters and Themes

Burnt Shadows is a Postcolonial novel written by Kamila Shamsie in 2009 and discusses the effects of some major events of twentieth century.

There are four major events discussed in this novel including:

  • Atomic Explosions of Hiroshima and Nagasaki
  • Partition of Sub-continent
  • Russian Afghan war
  • 9/11 incident of World Trade Centre

This novel is a literary and historical fiction written in the third person narrative. The narrator is unidentified and omniscient.

Vidzhome will discuss the Characters, Summary, Themes and Critical Analysis of this Novel Burnt Shadows.

Title Significance

Burnt Shadows Title Significance

The title of this novel Burnt shadows is quite significant and explain the major theme of Pain and affliction associated with the characters in it.

The title contains two content words “Burnt” and “Shadows“.

Burnt signifies pain in the novel which is consistent throughout with every character either physically or psychologically.

Shadow is a symbol of past memories and also attachment that could also be seen in the characters.

The use of plural form “Shadows” shows this pain is not limited to the protagonist or any one of other character but is present with every character in some way.

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Burnt Shadows Main Characters Analysis

There are many characters in this novel who belong from different backgrounds and have their role in different scenes.

Protagonist and Antagonist

The protagonist of the novel is Hiroko Tanaka. She is depicted as a very strong-willed woman.

The antagonist of the novel is the Western forces that have been acting against Hiroko throughout the novel. They have been causing destruction and grief in her life throughout the whole novel.

These characters are the only ones who remains consistent througout the novel and all other characters are continuously changing.

Hiroko Tanaka

Hiroko Tanaka is the protagonist of the novel. She appears in all four parts of the novel.

She is a school teacher and also works in a factory and is called the traitor’s daughter due to her father Matsui Tanaka, the traitor.

She is depicted as a very strong-willed woman, who never gives up despite all the losses she had to face. It is mentioned in the novel:

A woman who’d squeeze the sun in her fist if she ever got the chance, yes, and tilt back her head to swallow it’s liquid light.”

Burnt Shadows

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Konrad Weiss

Konrad Weiss is a German man and stepbrother of Ilse. He is a loving person and because of his love and care, Hiroko comes to Delhi.

He loved Hiroko as he proposed her.

“I don’t want to wait until the war ends to hear the answer. In saying it he realizes his purpose in coming here. Will you marry me?”

Burnt Shadows

Ilse

Ilse is half-sister of Konrad. She is very polite and friendly with Hiroko when she comes to Delhi. “Could we offer you a cup of tea, Miss Tanaka?” She is a kind woman as she behaves with her.

James Burton

James Burton is the husband of Ilse and brother-in-law of Konrad.

He is a flat character in the novel as he remains the same throughout the progression of the novel.

He was the one who resided in Delhi and to his home Hiroko comes to meet Ilse but was unhappy to see Hiroko Tanaka in his home.

He is a proud person and talks many times in satiric manner in the novel but very sincere with his work.

You know I can’t let him work half-days now. I don’t have an office full of clerks to be more”.

Burnt Shadows

Sajjad Ali Ashraf

Sajjad Ali Ashraf is portrayed as a humble young man who has a great love for his homeland. His love for Delhi can be seen when he was refused entrance to Delhi.

“They said I can’t go back to Delhi. I can’t go back home?”

Burnt Shadows

He dreams of becoming a lawyer and is depicted as a confident fellow who knows his self-worth.

He has a strong imagination and is an open-minded person in terms of Feminism and Patriotism.

He was a good father and a good husband. Yet, he failed to understand his son and put the burden of his dreams on his son.

Later, he realizes his mistake and tried to rectify what he did to his son but it was too late then.

Harry Burton

Harry Burton is Ilse and James’s son. He is shown as a man who remembers people who cared for him.

He is a responsible person and knows how to take responsibility. When he comes to Hiroko after the death of her husband Sajjad:

I wish to condole with your family on behalf of my family.

Burnt Shadows

Later, when he helped Raza get a job, he always remembered his promise to Hiroko and kept Raza away from life-threatening situations as much as possible.

He went through an identity change as he said when he was a kid, ” I am an Indian. “But afterward he asserted his American identity. As, ” Henry Baba! Just Harry now.”

Raza Konrad Ashraf

Raza Konrad Ashraf is Sajjad and Hiroko’s son. He is a smart and intelligent boy and an obedient son, who doesn’t want to disappoint his parents.

So, he doesn’t tell them that he doesn’t want to become a lawyer. ” Why didn’t you tell me this earlier, Raza Chan? ”  He has a passion for different languages.

He is realistic and knows that his passion could not be fulfilled in his life.

In the novel, he has been depicted as a boy who wallows in grief and cannot leave it behind. As, ” Raza was the miring sort, despite of the inheritance he should have had from both his parents

He has a rebellious nature and wants more from life than it has to give. He remembers his friends and his responsibilities for his actions.

It could be seen when he took responsibility for Abdullah and helped him escape USA but unfortunately got himself caught by the CIA.

Kim Burton

Kim Burton is Harry’s daughter. She is a very strong-willed girl. She could be observed as a wise women for her age in novel Burnt Shadows.

She has a very forceful personality that is evident from her appearance. ” Odd creature with her metal studded leather jacket, her black lipstick and her short copper colored hair. “

She faced a broken family. So, she had the desire to keep things together and that is why she approaches Hiroko and takes care of her.

Her childhood experience developed in her the need for control as she lost of her father and grandmother and realized what loss was. She is portrayed as a girl who feels loss dearly.

Kamila Shamsie has portrayed the characters in the novel in a very detailed and efficient way. She has given us an insight into how war changes people and affects their lives.

The way she has depicted different characters in the novel shows what people have to face during war times and also gives us the different aspects of humans in these troubling times.

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Setting and Plot

The setting of the novel is convoluted and keeps on changing in every part of the novel. In the first part, the temporal setting is 9 August 1945 and the spatial setting is Nagasaki. The second part is set in Delhi (1947). The third part takes us to Pakistan in 1982-3. Then it discusses incidents in New York and Afghanistan after the 9/11 incident.

Part 1 (Nagasaki, Japan)

Nagasaki Explosion Burnt Shadows

The novel starts with a prologue in which an anonymous prisoner is shivering with cold in a cell.

Part 1 begins on August 9, 1945, in Nagasaki, Japan. The exposition starts when the protagonist, a former school teacher, Hiroko Tanaka, and German translator Konrad Weiss fall in love.

Konrad Weiss proposes Hiroko to marry him in her house and that is the last meeting between the two

Hiroko Tanaka accepts his marriage proposal but here, the rising action occurs when Konrad’s life is ended by an Atomic Bomb on Nagasaki.

Part 2 (Delhi, India)

Delhi Shadows

Part 2 is set two years later when Hiroko goes to Delhi to meet Konrads’s sister Ilse, who is Elizabeth Burton now.

She starts living with Konrad’s half-sister. She changes her name to hide her German Identity and adopts a new identity with her husband James Burton.

Hiroko develops love with James Burton’s legal assistant, Sajjad Ashraf, who was teaching her Urdu.

James and Elizabeth objects to their relationship due to Sajjad’s poor financial condition but no use and at last, they agree to marry each other.

After the marriage, they go to Istanbul and when they come back they are not allowed to enter Delhi due to partition and forced to live in Karachi as refugees.

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Part 3 (Karachi, Pakistan)

Karachi Love

Part 3 takes place in Karachi in 1982. Raza, who was the son of Hiroko and Sajjad. He becomes friend with an Afghan, Abdullah who was about to join the Afghan training camps.

Meanwhile, Raza gets acquainted with Harry Burton, James and Elizabeth’s son, who was a CIA agent and came to visit them.

The Islamic war is an astonishing climax of the story. Raza intended to leave Abdullah but he perceived that he himself was in a danger there. He was saved by a commander but his father was killed by unknown assailants in Karachi.

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Part 4 (New York, USA)

New York Taxi

Part 4 begins three months after the 9/11 2001 attacks. Hiroko is now living in New York with Kim Burton, Ilse’s daughter.

The plot reaches its falling action when Harry gets killed in Afghanistan and Raza has to leave Karachi because he may get in danger.

Raza comes to know that Abdullah was working as an illegal taxi driver in New York and decides to help him go back home.

Kim helps to infiltrate Abdullah into Canada, but she gets him captured because on their way to Canada, they exchanged hot words about Islam.

The plot completed its resolution when Raza presented himself for arrest and later on, he was handed over to the USA.

Literary Devices Used in the Novel Burnt Shadows

A number of literary devices are visible in this novel. Suspense is a literary device in which curiosity is invoked in the reader about what is going to happen in the next moment.

The novelist has created a sense of deep suspense by mentioning the prologue at the beginning of the novel.

The metallic cries of the cicadas are upstaged by the sound of the air sirens, as a familiar now like the call of insects”.

Hiroko says: “We will find an island where only the two of us will have to live”. The island is a metaphor for a place where they can live. To describe all the havoc brought by the atom bomb, the narrator metaphorically says: “And then the world goes white”.

The “bomb” in the novel is the symbol of war and destruction. The bird-shaped scar on the back of Hiroko’s back is the symbol of the aftermath of war.

Different types of images have been in the novel. “There are feelings, then no feelings, skin and something else”. In this quote, the word “feelings” is an example of tactile imagery.

Visual imagery like bomb, trees, gardens and birds have been used in the novel. Auditory imagery has been used through the air sirens and the metallic cries of cicadas.

Themes in Burnt Shadows

Different themes have been portrayed in the novel.

Burnt Shadows as a Post-Colonial Novel

The theme of post-colonialism can be seen in the novel. The effects of colonialism on people’s lives, the social changes caused by colonialism, partition of India and the migration to Pakistan have been depicted in the novel. ” You write about a Nagasaki filled with foreigners. “

War and Displacement

War and displacement are also themes in this novel. This displacement has become more traumatic when linked with the extensive human tragedy of the dropping of an atomic bomb in World War.

As it is stated, “I’ve lived through Hitler, Stalin, the Cold War, the British Empire, segregation, apartheid, God knows what.”

Shamsie’s novel unveils the story of a series of traumatic displacement of the Pakistani prisoner, his Japanese mother, his Indian father, and his Afghan friend from the colonized world.

Feminist Novel

Another theme of Feminism has been portrayed in the novel. Shamsie has shown three major women characters Hiroko Tanaka, Elizabeth Burton, and Kim Burton.

All of these characters have been shown as self-sufficient characters. When Hiroko was asked if she traveled alone, she said ” Yes. Why? Can’t women travel alone in India?

Kim Burton can be seen as a dominant and rebellious character just from her appearance. “Odd creature with her metal_ studded leather jacket, her black lipstick, and her short, copper-colored hair.”

Powerful women who led troops and sat in council with men. And it was his mother who had made him fall in love with those images of womanhood.

Burnt Shadows

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Change and Loss of Identity

The theme of change and loss of identity is evident from the novel. Shamsie has portrayed many of her characters facing identity crisis.

For example Hiroko, she became Hiroko Ashraf from Hiroko Tanaka, and she had to face identity crisis during her life in Pakistan. As Raza said, ” Why can’t you be more Pakistani?

Elizabeth had to face loss of identity as she became Elizabeth Burton from Ilse Weiss.

Harry Burton went through change in identity too. ” The American, Harry _ formerly Henry Burton. “

Language as a theme

The theme of language is also evident from the novel as this novel is set in different geographical locations with different languages.

The importance language holds and the acceptance of different languages can be seen in the novel. “The weight attached to language lessons.

Knowing more than one language has been depicted as something to take pride in. ” I beat you “, Raza said in German. “Conclusively”, Harry replied in English. 

Also, it was the language barrier who brought Hiroko close to both Konrad and Sajjad.

Motifs in Burnt Shadows

Violence and War

War and Violence in Burnt shadows

Different motifs like that of war and violence can be found in the novel. The idea of violence and war is shown through the novel.

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Loss

Also, the idea of loss is repeated through the novel. “The bomb did nothing beautiful.” And, ” She had to learn about falling, about breaking, in order to do it.”

Migration and Journey

The motif of Migration and Journey is also found in the novel. The characters have to constantly migrate from one part of the world to another.

Hiroko, Elizabeth, Sajjad, Harry, Kim, Raza, all moved from one place to another. All of them faced displacement in their lives.

Memories

The idea of memories is also repeated in the novel. So, it will also be the motif in the novel.

Hiroko always remembered Konrad, the bomb and the afflictions caused by the war. “She touched her back, just above the waist. It’s always there.” It was same for other characters.

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Language used in Burnt Shadows

The language of the novel is refined and simple. The use of Pakistani idioms can be seen in the novel like, Karachi walllas and ghum khur. 

The tone of the novel is solemn and gloomy. It is humorous and light at times that then serves as a comic relief.

The mood of the novel is gloomy, distressed and pensive. It is gloomy because of war and deaths. The feeling of impending loss and looming death makes the mood pensive and bleak.

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Conclusion

In short, Kamila Shamsie has portrayed the life during the background of war. She has shown how people reacted to war and how it destroyed the lives of people who were left alive.

Such people had to keep on living while remembering all that they had lost. The novel acts as a warning to avoid wars in future in order to keep the world safe from destruction.

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