Main Character in Interpreter of Maladies
In Jhumpa Lahiri’s intricately beautiful The Interpreter of Maladies, Mrs. Das serves as both a catalyst for plot development and vehicle for social commentary. Through her indirect characterization, Mrs. Das serves as a direct cultural contrast to Mr. Kapasi, thereby moving the plot forward and creating poignant social commentary.
The short story begins with the Das family meeting Mr. Kapasi as they prepare for their trip through a certain part of India. Almost immediately it’s clear that there is a cultural gap between Kapasi and the Das family when it’s mentioned that “Mr. Kapasi found it strange that Mr. Das should refer to his wife by her first name when speaking to the little girl” (page 14). The cultural gap is later clear when it’s mentioned that “Mr. and Mrs. Das behaved like an older brother and sister, not parents” (page 16). Such drastic differences often leads to curiosity, as is the case of Mrs. Das and Mr. Kapasi. Mrs. Das represents a land far away, a land that Mr. Kapasi can’t understand. As the story progresses, Mr. Kapasi’s infatuation with Mrs. Das grows: he finds himself staring at her, admiring her legs, wishing to be with her. What makes this infatuation different and more interesting than other infatuations is the cultural clash between Mrs. Das and Mr. Kapasi (thereby carrying the story forward). On one hand is Mr. Kapasi, a poor, down-on-his-luck Indian who translates and does tours for a living. On the other, Mrs. Das seemingly has a life of luxury. In reality, she doesn’t: she’s miserable because she lives a life of irresponsibility, shallowness, superficiality, and extremely unhealthy serenity.
Mrs. Das moreover represents stereotypical American flaws: self-centeredness, ethnocentrism, carelessness, and a lack of regard for the world around it. It’s her characterization that reveals this. Our initial impression of Mrs. Das comes when it’s mentioned that “[Mrs. Das] did not hold the little girl’s hand as they walked to the restroom,” suggesting that she is both a bad parent and a careless, miserable person who focuses on herself rather than her kids (pg. 12). This elicits a response from their tour guide Mr. Kapasi. He’s fascinated. Fascinated by the drastically different culture than his own and fascinated by Mrs. Das herself. He’s also intrigued with her because she and her family are ethnically Indian; in terms of their identity, though, she and her family are American. This is because people are often attracted to things that they don’t understand fully; Mr. Kapasi is no exception. They find that they are share many things in common with each other and have an odd moment together in which Mrs. Das tells Mr. Kapasi of her adultery and how her son Bobby was born out of said adultery. In other words, like Mr. Kapasi, she has a loveless, miserable marriage. However, after these words are exchanged, it’s clear that the two are nothing alike. In fact, they are complete opposites. This is illuminated when Mr. Kapasi asks Mrs. Das if “It [is] really pain you feel, Mrs. Das, or guilt?” (pg. 28), angering her and severing the connection that they had once held despite their differences. All of this is social commentary and a scatching indictment of America and the family unit its culture promulgates. The Interpreter of Maladies argues that America and its people are too privileged and too ethnocentric, leading to poor marriages, bad parenting, and an unnecessary superiority complex, all of which are bad through the eyes of the author and presumably most Indians.
In effect, Mrs. Das is characterized in a way that moves the story forward and in a way that creates social commentary. Mrs. Das is a self-centered, ethnocentric, careless woman who happens to be ethnically Indian like her tour guide, Mr. Kapasi. They became attracted to each other, creating the main conflict in the story (thereby moving it forward), providing a stark and ironic contrast between their lifestyles. Their differences also creates social commentary. That is, American culture is propped up on cruelness and shallowness, bad marriages that often lead to infidelity, unwarranted privilege and an unjust sense of arrogance, as well as a glaring superiority complex. In other words, Americans have an incredible amount and don’t know how lucky they are, so they should, in the words of one of the more famous idioms, either shape up or ship out.
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