Clear Light of Day

by Anita Desai

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Critical Evaluation

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It is appropriate that the major influence on Clear Light of Day, which has been called Anita Desai’s most complex novel, was the poetry of T. S. Eliot, the American British writer whose intricate works transformed the poetic traditions of the early twentieth century. Desai credits Eliot’s Four Quartets (1943) with having inspired her to write her novel in four sections that, like Eliot’s work, ignore chronology. Clear Light of Day reflects the concept of time suggested in one of the epigraphs to the novel, in which Eliot defines the human experience as a series of dreamlike sequences in which people, places, and the individual all continually appear, vanish, and then reappear. Interestingly, though in that passage Eliot also mentions love, the implication in Clear Light of Day is that neither reason nor the will can cause one person to love another. Instead, love is influenced by seemingly random memories along with the inevitable fact of change.

In Clear Light of Day, Desai traces Bim’s relationship with Raja as it alters through time. In the first section of the book, the adult Bim tells her younger sister Tara that she intends never to see Raja again. Later, she shows Tara a letter that Raja wrote years before; she presents it as providing a rational basis for her feelings. However, in the second part of the novel Desai shows how kind Bim is to Raja during his illness, when, without ever complaining, she takes the primary responsibility for his care. It seems almost unbelievable that within just a few years she would change so radically in her attitude toward her older brother.

In the section devoted to the Das siblings’ childhood, it is evident that when they are very young the two oldest children do have a special bond. It is only when Raja becomes aware of the difference between males and females that he distances himself from Bim, and her sense of rejection is so painful that she deliberately inflicts pain on her sister. Years later, Raja’s move to Hyderabad, his acceptance as a member of Hyder Ali’s family, his preoccupation with his wife and children, and his financial success all contribute to Bim’s growing hatred of her brother. However, she cannot admit, even to herself, that her feelings began in adolescence and that they have been fueled not only by a sense of injustice but also by envy and a desire for revenge. Thus, she fixes on the insult she read into his letter as a justification for her rejection of Raja. Ironically, it is only after the anger that she has cherished for so long has spent itself that she is able to take Raja back into her affections. The change that Eliot would probably have called redemptive, however, is portrayed as a purging of the emotions, achieved not through human effort or divine grace but as a result of the shifting patterns of the human experience.

Desai’s brilliant application of profound philosophical concepts to the everyday lives of her characters would alone have justified the high praise Clear Light of Day received from reviewers. However, the work is also important as a feminist novel. Desai’s approach to gender is subtle. She does not comment explicitly on the inequality between men and women in her culture; instead, she shows how a patriarchal society works or, rather, how it fails.

In one way or another, the women in Desai’s novel are all victims of the patriarchal system. It is assumed that they will find both protection and fulfillment in being wives and mothers. However, marriage does not...

(This entire section contains 901 words.)

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necessarily bring them either security or happiness. After being married at twelve, Mira finds herself at fifteen a widow and a slave to her husband’s family. The two Misra girls are sent home because they cannot please their husbands, and, although at eighteen Tara appeals to Bakul by being helpless, as a woman in her thirties she must continue to defer to him to keep him happy.

Women are also victimized by being denied the educational opportunities that are open to men. In Clear Light of Day, it is assumed that boys will be sent to college while girls will remain home and prepare for their careers as wives and mothers. Thus, Raja takes his schooling for granted, while Bim has to work her way through college. The Misra girls, who are intelligent and would have liked to go to college, are married off instead. Having been denied an education, they have to work for a pittance to support their lazy, dissolute brothers. Although their elderly father tells Bim that it used to be different, that in the old days men knew that they must protect and cherish the women in their families, the old man’s defense of the patriarchal system is negated by his proud assertion that, when he was their age, he was even worse than his sons.

In the end, despite her prickly personality, it is Bim who is the real protagonist of Clear Light of Day. Unlike Tara and Raja, Bim is determined to make her own way in the world. As a strong, independent woman who adheres to her own standards throughout the changes that time brings, she can serve as a model for the young girls she teaches and, by influencing them, she will change society.

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Critical Context