The Dual Womanist Perspective of Jhumpa Lahiri’s Short Stories
Jhumpa Lahiri is a Pulitzer Prize-winning short story author, one who has been lauded as one of the first authors to establish a literature for Indian/Bengali-Americans. These diasporic writings address many issues that involve adapting to new cultures, generational relationships and traditional gender roles for both men and women. Many have declared that Lahiri is a proponent of feminism, however, a closer reading of her the characters and plot within her short stories reveals that her writings display both pro-womanist and anti-womanist sentiments. Jhumpa Lahiri has written two books of short stories: Unaccustomed Earth and The Interpreter of Maladies. These short stories contribute to the womanist genre but also subvert this genre in other ways by placing the masculine over the feminine. This occurs in “A Temporary Matter” from “The Interpreter of Maladies” as well as “Unaccustomed Earth” and Nobody’s Business” from her other collection. An examination of characters and plot within these stories allows us to see the conflict that is created between the expected gender roles of male and females, generational differences in the perspective of this dichotomy, as well as the difficulties that surround cultural diasporization—all of which demonstrates that her stories contribute and detract from womanist ideals. If many of her critics would take a closer look “they would have known her to be writing against rather than with those significant segments of the past half-century’s feminist culture” (Cussen 5).
The womanist movement differs from that of feminism only because it is focused on women of color, in this case American-Bengali women. Thus it may seem it requires an even greater focus because of the greater persecution of women of color over Caucasian women, though both often lie at a disadvantage. Up until this point, womanism has primarily focused on African women and the desire they have for greater freedom and rights. Other forms of womanism may develop but in the meantime, “Indian-/Bengali-American womanism is yet to be heard of, let alone articulated and this is unfortunate. Though she never explicitly addresses womanism by name in her fiction, the womanistic manifestations of Jhumpa Lahiri in her various works of fiction provide an insightful point of exploration” (Kasun 8). Many of the characters in her stories are women that are exploring their independence in the face of their traditional genders role, rooted in their culture. Indian/Bengali women face different cultural expectations than African or Middle Eastern women would and Jhumpa Lahiri seems to make an effort at raising awareness of their plight. However, we can also see evidence that contradicts a womanist reading of her collections of short stories. Her stories “highlight Lahiri’s intervention in complicating and expanding feminist critical expectations” (Ranasinha 175).
The first of these stories is “A Temporary Matter”. It begins with a young married couple, Shukumar and Shoba. Despite the fact that they are married, because of a tragedy they live like strangers until a scheduled electrical outage in the neighborhood brings them together. The four nights of darkness gives them time to talk to teach other. We are slowly given bits and pieces of memory that bring insight to the distance that separate Shukumar and Shoba. It is revealed that they are mourning over the death of their stillborn baby. This traumatic loss drives a wedge between them. The readers feel hope that they can be reconciled because with each night of darkness, they confess more and more of their secrets to each other. Many of them are simple things like having a late night with a friend, a photo from a magazine, or disliking a sweater vest. However, this hope for their marriage is quickly dimmed as they both reveal one last confession. Shoba admits that she is moving out and has found her own apartment and Shukumar tells her that he saw and held their stillborn son. Ultimately, “they wept for the things they now knew” (Lahiri, “Interpreter of Maladies” 22).
In this story, Lahiri uses her descriptions of Shoba to place masculine over feminine. In this vein of thought, “the woman becomes the object, the body, wheras the masculine is granted the power of asserting his nihilating look at the feminine being-in-itself as a passive object” (Asl 124). This idea of nihilating the female by placing the masculine in a station of power and the metaphor of vision are both connected with constructs of sexual differences and gender roles. We see this phenomenon in advertising and the way that a woman’s physical appearance is viewed. Men are frequently placed in a position of power while women are merely passive objects in the story of their lives. This is obvious in the writing of Lahiri in “A Temporary Matter” because Shoba is frequently being looked at by Shukumar or described to the reader. She is reduced to a physical entity as she and Shukumar only occupy the same space physically, not emotionally. This is a method Lahiri also uses in a few of her other stories. It undermines a feminist reading of the story. Her physical appearance is discussed frequently throughout the story. In one instance, Shukumar notes that “her beauty, which had once overwhelmed him, seemed to fade. The cosmetics that had seemed superfluous were necessary now, not to improve her but to define her somehow” (14). Shoba is put into the position of being looked at and relegated to being an object which is defined by her cosmetics. Shukumar can no longer relate to her on an emotional level and this is causing their marriage to fall apart.
Even before the death of their baby, Shukumar seeks some sort of attraction elsewhere. During the course of their secret telling, he admits to her that he had cut out a picture of a woman—an advertisement for stockings—that he had found strangely attractive because Shoba had been pregnant at the time and had grown so large “to the point where Shukumar no longer wanted to touch her” (19). Especially pregnant, Shoba was not attractive to him anymore and he found himself in a position of dominance over her because of this perspective on her attractiveness. “A Temporary Matter” relegates women to an object in the sight of men and is in direct contrast to the idea that Lahiri is primarily a feminist writer who portrays strong, independent female characters that resist cultural norms. Another story that introduces the same idea of women being objectified is “Nobody’s Business” which is also introduced in the collection “Unaccustomed Earth.” Sang, an Indian American immigrant, is in a relationship with Farouk, an Egyptian man who is away in Vancouver. Farouk returns and he and Sang spend all of their time together. One of her roommates, Paul, is fascinated by her and wishes that he could be in a relationship with her. While Sang is visiting her sister in London, Paul receives a phone call from a woman named Deirdre who says that she is Farouk’s lover. Paul decides not to tell Sang what happened. Eventually she finds out that a woman but does not believe Paul when he tells her what she had called about. Eventually she listens in to a conversation between Deirdre and Paul, Sang decides to go to Farouk’s apartment and she and Paul confront him together. Farouk and Paul fight and eventually the police arrive to calm things down. Sang then returns to London to be with her sister and Paul goes about his life before Sang arrived.
Sang, like Shuma, is frequently described physically in the way that Paul (who desire to have a relationship with her) perceives her. At one point, he sees her in a towel after just finishing a shower. “For weeks, he had longed to catch a glimpse of her this way, and still he felt wholly unprepared for the vision of her bare legs and arms, her damp face and shoulders” (Lahiri, “Unaccustomed Earth” 190). Just like Shuma, she is relegated to an object—a phenomenon that Paul hopes to catch a glimpse of. It is interesting that we never get many physical descriptions of Paul, Farouk, or any other man in her stories. But nearly every story has a description of what the woman looks like. Paul sees her again when “she came up to his room, wearing a pretty dress he’d never seen, a white cotton short-sleeved dress, fitted at the waist. The neck was square, showing off her collarbones” (205). This is an example of when “the woman becomes the object, the body, wheras the masculine is granted the power of asserting his nihilating look at the feminine being-in-itself as a passive object” (Asl 124). Despite the examples of independent, feminist women in her stories, Lahiri reminds her readers of the reality that women are frequently relegated to objects in both the Western world and the Indian/Bengali culture. Another story written by Lahiri that suggests the complicated dichotomy between male and females is “Unaccustomed Earth” from her second book of short stories. This short story involves familial relationships between three generations, a father, daughter, and grandson. This is in addition to the discussion of cultural immersion and gender roles. However, we do not see objectification of the female character. The father visits his daughter, Ruma, and her son, Akash.
After her mother’s death, Ruma suddenly felt a strong desire to resume many of the same roles that her mother played. Ruma left a successful career outside the home to raise children while her husband Adam supports her. After her two-week bereavement after her mother’s death, “overseeing her client’s futures, preparing their wills and refinancing their mortgages, felt ridiculous to her, and all she wanted was to stay home with Akash” (“Unaccustomed Earth” 5). She suddenly has more of a desire for maternity, a womanist trait, and Lahiri points out that “it was the house that was her work now” (6). Since it is also her choice to stay at home, she does display more independence and ability than someone might who is forced to remain at home by cultural requirements. It is also interesting to note that despite the fact that her father is of a more traditional Bengali culture, he encourages her to seek employment outside of the home. He himself is beginning to embrace Western ideas when he begins dating a woman who wears western clothing, like cardigans and slacks. However, Ruma finds staying at home with her son more fulfilling and does not seem to miss the time that she had in the work place. This demonstration of choice in her desire to remain at home, Ruma is different from some of Lahiri’s other characters who stay at home like Mrs. Sen or who in reality don’t speak much throughout the story, like Shoba. “By placing her female characters in traditional roles—such as nearly silent, often jobless housewives and/or mothers—Lahiri displays, through the inner monologue and narrative of her female characters, their impact on other characters’ consciousnesses, and their communal bonding—in short, their great power…despite situating her female characters as outwardly powerless in Western society, Lahiri reveals their inner adaptability yet not over-assimilatory nature” (Kasun 20). The character of Ruma really demonstrates the contrast between the traditional gender roles encouraged by Indian/Bengali culture and the ideas of feminism and womanism that many believe Lahiri promotes. She has an ability to choose for herself a career and be independent, but she realizes that she is drawn to the responsibility of motherhood and staying at home with her son instead of seeking the Western idea of success in a professional life. Lahiri is presenting her audience with the idea that maybe gender expectations can fit with the ideas of womanism.
We see that the subversion and support of a feminist reading of Lahiri’s works exist simultaneously. Both tradition and non-traditional gender roles are demonstrated which leads us to realize that in these stories “the configuration of gender roles for both male and female characters become an intertwined, continuous process. Although there are some characteristics that can be attributed to the different generations of character, an analysis of these narratives show that they reject stereotypical representations of male or female characters” (Marques vi). When characters are surrounded by their own culture, it becomes easier and more necessary to follow the normative approach to gender roles and the traditions of their culture. Many of Lahiri’s stories involve Indian/Bengalis who are transplanted into a new Western culture where traditional gender roles are not necessarily the norm. Their diasporic state creates a conflict between the culture of their heritage and the desire to assimilate with their newfound culture. This creates situations where we begin to see a rejection of typical gender roles and stereotypes.
One of the examples of the rejection of these stereotypes is in how Lahiri writes her male characters. Traditionally male characters in Asian diasporic literature are oppressive figures who are esteemed above women. However, most of the characters in these short stories “struggle almost in the same manner as the female characters do to deal with their feelings of being hyphenated subjects who live in between worlds. As a consequence, the male characters in her narratives often distance themselves from the stereotypical representation of Indian male characters” (Marques 3). We can look at Shukumar for an example of a non-traditional male character. At the beginning of his marriage to Shoba it seems that she followed the gender expectations of their culture by cooking traditional foods for him and cleaning the house. However, after the death of their baby, their roles seem to become opposite. Shukumar begins to do more of the cooking. He stays at home and makes sure that the chores get done around the house. Despite the fact that womanists may choose to reject typical gender roles, they celebrate characteristics like maternity. After the death of her child in pregnancy, she rejects this role of motherhood and seeks to separate herself from femininity in many ways and chooses to work outside of the home more and more until Shukumar does take over the daily duties around the house. Lahiri paints her characters in the typical male/female fashion and then chooses to subvert these characteristics through small differences that separate them from the typical mold.
Another example of a non-traditional male character in Lahiri’s stories is Paul, Sang’s roommate in “Nobody’s Business.” He is not of the same culture as Sang but he does not follow many of the gender norms that have been placed on males even in Western culture. We find him to be unexpectedly feminine. He does not have a strong, assertive personality and has retreated into some form of a shell. Even though the story is written in a third person perspective of his life, Sang is the center focus. He wants to have a relationship with Sang but does nothing to make this a reality. In a self-analysis of a previous relationship, as it came to an end he realizes that “he had not argued; in the wake of his shame, he became strangely efficient and agreeable, with her, with everyone” (“Unaccustomed Earth” 187). Many would see this reaction as a fairly feminine one. He becomes a spectator in his own relationship and accepts the fate that she places onto him. He feels shame and hides by becoming agreeable with everyone—a common coping mechanism for women. The only point that it seems he displays masculine characteristics is when he goes with Sang to confront Farouk and they get into a fight. Despite this, Paul is generally a contradiction—not the masculine character you might expect him to be. Lahiri continues to throw off the balance between the male and female characters in her stories.
Even in “Unaccustomed Earth,” Ruma’s father, who may seem even more displaced because of generational differences begins to embrace western ideas and finds himself struggling to continue to accept the gender norms of his culture. He had been married so long to a tradition woman who cared for him by cleaning, cooking, and being his companion that now that she has passed away, he seeks the companionship of someone radically different. This can be seen as his rejection of a need for traditional roles and a support of both feminist and womanist culture. He also encourages his daughter to work outside of the home despite the fact that this advice goes against much of what their traditional cultural norms are. Ruma’s father is an excellent example of upending the traditional gender roles and upholding a womanist reading of “Unaccustomed Earth”
In some of Lahiri’s stories we see her placing men as the more dominant characters who place the women as objects that they look at, such as in “A Temporary Matter” with Shoba and Shukumar or with Paul and Sang in “Nobody’s Business.” However, we also see the male characters taking on female characteristics like Shukumar’s desire to remain at home and take on the household chores and Paul’s inability to be assertive and put himself in control of his relationships. Even still, Lahiri does uphold feminist ideals throughout some of her stories which complicates a critical reading of her stories. Although some scholars would like to use Lahiri’s short stories as an example of purely womanist themes, further examination reveals that the dichotomy between male and female is increasingly complicated. This is especially true in Lahiri’s text because of the complication of cultural differences and the Indian-Bengali diaspora. Her writings both contribute and contest the ideas of womanism and feminism in a way that demonstrates the difficulty of assigning one reading or the other to these short stories.
Asl, Moussa Pourya, Simon Peter Hull, and Nurul Farhana Low Abdullah. “Nihilation of Femininity in the Battle of Looks: A Sartrean Reading of Jhumpa Lahiri’s “A Temporary Matter”” GEMA Online Journal of Language Studies 16.2 (2016): n. pag. Web. 10 Nov. 2016.
Cussen, John. “The William Morris in Jhumpa Lahiri’s Wallpaper and Other of the Writer’s Reproofs to Literary Scholarship.” Journal of Ethnic American Literature 2 (2012): 5-72. Web.
Kasun, Genna Welsh. “Womanism and the Fiction of Jhumpa Lahiri.” Thesis. The University of Vermont, 2009. Print. Lahiri, Jhumpa. Interpreter of Maladies: Stories. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999. Print.
Lahiri, Jhumpa. Unaccustomed Earth. London: Bloomsbury, 2009. Print.
Marques, Carine Pereira. “Unaccustomed Narratives: Crossing Gender Barriers in the Fiction of Jhumpa Lahiri.” Thesis. Universidade Federal De Minas Gerais, 2013. Print.
Ranasinha, Ruvani. “Migration, Gender and Globalization in Jhumpa Lahiri.” Contemporary Diasporic South Asian Women’s Fiction: Gender, Narration and Globalisation. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016. 175. Print.
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