Dianna's Reviews > Interpreter of Maladies

Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
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Nov 27, 2007

really liked it

In "Interpreter of Maladies", Mrs. Sen’s is a tragic story of the immigrant struggle and an ultimate failure to adjust. Many who read this story view Mrs. Sen’s inability to assimilate solely as a result of her own short-comings, placing full blame on her. However, this incomplete reading fails to consider the external and internal social forces that buffet the immigrant body which must also be held responsible for Mrs. Sen’s end state. These forces, both external- people in society of different culture, and internal- members within the home, play a critical role in Mrs. Sen’s attempt to assimilate.
Mr. Sen, the major internal force, furthers Mrs. Sen’s struggle to assimilate through his lack of action. As a university professor, Mr. Sen has a sense of belonging in the new country because he is contributing and interacting with the community. Consequently, he is more easily able to assimilate. In contrast, Mrs. Sen is up-rooted from India and transplanted to the United States as a housewife, mostly isolated. As Mrs. Sen becomes more adamant about getting the fresh fish, a symbol of her attempt to preserve her culture, Mr. Sen becomes more immersed in the university life, unable to find time to get fish or have dinner. Therefore Mr. Sen assimilates, while Mrs. Sen is left on the outside. As signs of Mrs. Sen’s emotional instability become more apparent, Mr. Sen still takes no action to help. In both cases of distress, as with the death of Mrs. Sen’s grandfather and the car accident in the end, we find Mrs. Sen’s alone in the bedroom, while Mr. Sen remains in the living room, removed from the situation (Lahiri 134). This physical divide in location is a metaphor for the divide in their understanding for each other. Mr. Sen’s insensitivity towards Mrs. Sen’s difficulties is partly to blame for the resulting failure.
Aside from internal forces, there are external forces across cultural lines which also affect the immigrant. Eliot’s mother is a major external force which affects Mrs. Sen, fueling her ultimate failure to assimilate. Eliot’s mother makes no attempt to understand and respect Mrs. Sen’s culture. Here, a cultural hierarchy is established, where Eliot’s mother believes that her “American” culture is more “correct” than the marginal cultures. Consequently, even in her own home, Mrs. Sen is violated by Eliot’s mother’s disrespect. Eliot’s mother refuses to remove her shoes at Mrs. Sen’s door and is disgusted by the food which Mrs. Sen’s kindly serves her (Lahiri118).
Mrs. Sen finds herself helpless against this imposed cultural hierarchy and tries to hide certain aspects of her culture in front of Eliot’s mother. Consequently, even in her own home, Mrs. Sen is unable to fully display her culture as she desires and therefore works harder to fight against assimilation of American culture. For example, Mrs. Sen tries to hide evidence of her cooking, one of the most integral parts of her culture, before Eliot’s mom arrives. Eliot describes it is as though they were cleaning up after a crime.
While in India, women cooked and cleaned together almost as a social gathering, here in the United States, Mrs. Sen’s feels as though her cooking is a display of her outsider status. With cultural hierarchy, Eliot’s mother establishes an opposition between American and Indian that does not allow for a middle ground of Indian American. Though in reality it is possible to find a delicate balance that is Indian American, Eliot’s mothers actions cause Mrs. Sen to believe that assimilation requires a relinquishment of her native culture. As a result, this idea augments Mrs. Sen’s aversion to assimilation and leads to her ultimate failure.

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November 27, 2007 – Shelved

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Tanya W Very thoughtful review, thanks.

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