Friday, February 27, 2009

Shifting Angles of Interpretation: Reading Jhumpa Lahiri

Posted by Todd Pierce on February 27, 2009

Jhumpa Lahiri is one of our finest short story writers. She has won such prestigious awards as the O.Henry, Pen/Hemingway and the Pulitzer Prize for her novel the Namesake. Her most recent collection of short stories, Unaccustomed Earth, will be released in paperback this April.

I recently began reading Jhumpa Lahiri after buying her most recent collection of short stories, Unaccustomed Earth. Since then I have closely read most of her work—if not repeatedly so. I believe Lahiri is a distinctive writer because of the way in which she can rapidly change the moods and perspectives of her characters in a subtle yet deceptive manner.

She achieves this effect with the combination of her balanced prose style and abrupt turns of thought. For example, the following two sentences in the excerpt below are roughly the same length, yet the second abruptly contradicts the first, producing a jarring effect:

There were times Ruma felt closer to her mother in death than she had in life, an intimacy born simply of thinking of her so often, of missing her. But she knew that this was an illusion, a mirage, and that the distance between them was now infinite, unyielding.

This passage surprised me in both a pleasant and disturbing way. Ruma, one of the main characters from the title story of Unaccustomed Earth, first claims that she has ironically become “closer to her mother in death,” implying that new life is generated from her grief—but she then abruptly negates herself in the second sentence, claiming that this newly created “intimacy” is actually an “illusion.”

Such moments or epiphanies often permeate Lahiri’s work, but more importantly, they create a complex and ambivalent tension. This feature of her writing, in turn, is intensified by the way Lahiri structures this longest story in her collection: it is nearly sixty pages and is divided into twenty sections; these sections rotate between the two main characters, daughter and father, so that the perspective is always changing.

This structuring technique was appealing in that it allowed me to experience the shifting perspectives of the characters, whose moods and thoughts are constantly changing; I was thus able to participate in the process of how the daughter and father change their perceptions of each other as the story progresses to the point where I felt I had become a character myself in this complex interplay between daughter and father. The oscillating structure of the story, then, enabled me to empathize with their predicament of how they cope with the loss of the mother.

This great absence affects each of the characters in contrasting ways and thus creates distance and misunderstanding between each other; for instance, Ruma feels a renewed sense of grief when her father visits her because she has difficulty separating the image of the father from her mother. Her mother’s absence, then, is intensified with the presence of her father, especially since her father is unable to offer the emotional support she needs as she has become a mother and wife herself. What disturbs Ruma even more is that he appears happier now that her mother is gone: “Though it upset her to admit it, if anything, he seemed happier now; her mother’s death had lightened him, the opposite of what it had done to her.”

Ruma is then right—to some extent; her father is relieved in that he is free from the obligations of having a wife and family. This situation seems even more apparent as the father reflects on the fact that he actually did not really love his wife—even though he did greatly respect her. His apparent contentment, though, as perceived by Ruma, does not reflect the internal conflict that he experiences once again in relation to his wife; for example, when he first encounters Ruma at her home he found that she “resembled…his wife so strongly that he could not bear to look at her directly.” This encounter and ensuing visit, then, actually haunts him in that it evokes his more conflicted memories of raising a family, especially those associated with the hardships his wife and young children endured while he was earning his PhD.

His emotional states, then, seem to oscillate like the structure of the story itself; this structure or pattern (as suggested before) permeates the entire story so that it becomes difficult for the characters to know themselves or each other. In turn, this effect makes it difficult for readers to make certain or stable interpretations on the characters. For instance, on a first reading, I found the father extremely aloof and evasive through the perspective of Ruma; on further readings, however, my perspective changed when interpreting the situation through the perspective of the father. The way in which Lahiri structures her story, then, allows her readers see the characters in a more rounded and complex way.

No comments:

Post a Comment