Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Wife is a tightly constructed novel that is divided into three parts. Primarily an immigrant narrative, it chronicles the cultural disorientation, alienation, and mental deterioration of a young Hindu wife who emigrates to the United States with her husband. Bharati Mukherjee uses third-person limited omniscience to tell the story from the wife’s point of view and, at the same time, to develop a counterperspective on the ideological gender role models for the reader. The novel is steeped in violence.

Part 1 is set in Calcutta. In this section, the author explores, with undermining humor, the social, cultural, economic, and sexual context of the protagonist’s premarital state of mind. Born into a middle-class Bengali family, in which a girl of twenty is considered past marriageable age, Dimple Dasgupta is worried about her marriage prospects because of her dark skin, “sitar-shaped body,” and “rudimentary breasts.” Nevertheless, haunted by erotic fantasies fed by film and beauty magazines, she entertains the vision of her marriage to a neurosurgeon as a portal to romance, freedom, love, and happiness. Her romantic vision collapses when her father arranges her match with Amit Basu, an engineer who is about to emigrate to the United States. She sadly thinks of herself as “someone going into exile.”

Dimple’s first night after marriage comes to her as a rude awakening when her husband ignores her wishes completely in matters of...

(The entire section is 605 words.)

Wife Context

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Wife is Mukherjee’s testament for women’s liberation and women’s right to self-expression and self-determination. Commenting on the novel in a Publishers Weekly interview with Sybil Steinberg, Mukherjee states that “the wife was going through feminist and immigrant crises.” By telling the story from the wife’s point of view, Mukherjee provides a feminist perspective on the Indian system of arranged marriage. She offers a radical critique of patriarchal ideology by questioning the concept of the ideal woman in Hindu society. She also touches on the related issues of women’s oppression and madness, and she seems to advocate a woman’s right to control her sexuality and reproduction, to work outside the home, to express herself, and to seek self-fulfillment. Dimple’s bitter outrage at her pregnancy—“that no one had consulted her before depositing it in her body”—and her subsequent attempts to successfully terminate it are both crucial issues, from the woman’s viewpoint. Mukherjee’s portrait of Dimple is steeped in modern feminist consciousness.

Dimple thought that the best part of marriage was “being free and expressing yourself,” but she was in for a rude shock. By focusing on Dimple’s inner thoughts, feelings, and behavioral patterns, Mukherjee shows how the oppressive system of arranged marriage not only deprives a woman of her identity and freedom of choice but also dehumanizes her by treating her as a marketable commodity. Through Dimple, she also questions the tyranny of social mores that require a wife to be submissive and self-effacing in order to adapt to the ways of her husband’s extended family.

In a society that looks upon marriage as a sacrament for women, Mukherjee adroitly engages Dimple in reading two letters to the editor, which introduce the debate on the moral virtues of traditional wifehood versus the contemporary reality of abused wives. The editor’s comments on both these letters curtly counter the dominant patriarchal ideology and advocate the feminist agenda of more political power for women to fight abuse and to assert their right to self-determination.

That Mukherjee condones Dimple’s final act of liberation by murdering her husband is evident from her interviews with both Canadian Fiction Magazine and Iowa Review. She called it a “midguided act” but nonetheless a “positive” act of “self-assertion.” “Wife,” she stated, “is a novel that is very dear to me.”

Wife Bibliography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Jain, Jasbir. “Foreignness of Spirit: The World of Bharati Mukherjee’s Novels.” The Journal of Indian Writing in English 13, no. 2 (July, 1985): 12-19. Considers The Tiger’s Daughter and Wife primarily as “novels of and about isolation,” and demonstrates how the female protagonists of the two novels remain essentially “immigrants both in place and mind.”

Mukherjee, Bharati. “An Interview with Bharati Mukherjee.” Interview by Geoff Hancock. Canadian Fiction Magazine 59 (1987): 30-44. An important interview in which Mukherjee provides useful information about her family background, formative influences, and early works, including Wife. She also offers illuminating comments on her fictional characters, themes, voice, and obsessions.

Nelson, Emmanuel S., ed. Bharati Mukherjee: Critical Perspectives. New York: Garland, 1993. This collection of twelve essays provides a wide range of contemporary critical perspectives on Mukherjee’s art, ideology, and achievement. Maya Manju Sharma’s essay, “The Inner World of Bharati Mukherjee: From Expatriate to Immigrant,” in particular, offers a brief feminist perspective on Wife. This indispensable volume includes a perceptive introduction, a selected bibliography of primary and secondary sources on Mukherjee’s works, and an index.

Rustomji-Kerns, Roshni. “Expatriates, Immigrants, and Literature: Three South Asian Women Writers.” The Massachusetts Review 29, no. 4 (1988): 655-665. An introductory comparative study of three women writers from India—Santha Rama Rau, Kamala Markandaya, and Bharati Mukherjee—who are preoccupied with re-creating the lives and experiences of immigrants and expatriates in their works. Provides brief critical summaries of the major works by these three writers.

Sivaramkrishna, M. “Bharati Mukherjee.” In Indian English Novelists: An Anthology of Critical Essays, edited by Madhusudan Prasad. New Delhi: Sterling, 1982. Sivaramkrishna offers a perceptive analysis of the theme of disintegration and displacement in Mukherjee’s first two novels, The Tiger’s Daughter and Wife. The author’s protagonists, he argues, “are victims of life which is visionless because it is voiceless.”