Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“A Wife’s Story” is aptly titled because it is the story of one wife who finds that her sense of self—as woman, as spouse, as cultural being—is being transformed by the culture she now inhabits. Bharati Mukherjee not only indicates the particular and rarefied state of mind and being of an immigrant undergoing a definite process of acculturation within a specific culture, but also produces, through the comments and meditations of her narrator, the sense of alienation and strangeness it creates. In this story, the alienation is not merely cultural, but also takes the form of a vast alienation along sexual lines. Panna is an East Indian transforming into an American—with altered cultural awareness and values—but she is also transforming into a new woman: a female with a vision that is miles away from her husband’s world and universes beyond her grandmother’s restricted female being.

The other major theme addressed in “A Wife’s Story” is the sometimes humiliating process of adapting to a new culture. Panna envisions herself as a new woman at the end of the story, and it is a positive, even if disorienting, expansive image. Throughout the story is interwoven the sense of irony at what the immigrant must undergo to effect a cultural transformation. The initial image of the story is the narrator watching herself being parodied and insulted by characters in an American play. She goes on to rebel at the subtle racism, the misjudgments, the stereotyping inherent in any culture clash between races and ethnic groups. She wants to write to Mamet. She will even write to Steven Spielberg to tell him that Indians do not eat monkey brains. Through the juxtaposition and, ultimately, the union of the universal theme of a global acculturation process, Mukherjee produces the picture of a mixed blessing for the individual immigrant struggling to make his or her way through a new world defined by differing and bewildering cultural codes. It is a complex and exhilarating opportunity for personal growth, but it separates the stranger in a strange land from family, spouse, and previous conceptions of self.