The Housewife Summary
“The Housewife,” one of Jhabvala’s best-known short stories, was first published in An Experience of India. It is a moving exploration of the theme of artistic commitment, discreetly embedded in a domestic drama of marital infidelity. Shakuntala, after being a loving and faithful wife for twenty-five years, begins to take singing lessons and quickly discovers that her music becomes the most important thing in her world. While she has, till now, divided her tranquil affections among her husband, daughter, and grandchild, suddenly her life seems to revolve wholly around her lessons, her practice hour each morning, the appearances or absences of her teacher, and his varied responses to her progress.
Shakuntala’s volatile moods are determined by her passion for her music, and her passion is embodied in the guru figure of her music teacher. Jhabvala subtly maps the ups and downs, the triumphs and disappointments of the creative experience. By placing the dilemma in the midst of the ordinary middle-class life of a contented housewife, she particularly raises the question of how a woman is supposed to balance her social commitments in running a household with an overwhelming creative urge. For the woman artist, the practice of her art is to be fitted with difficulty into her everyday life, and its demands test her loyalties by competing with her concern for her family.
In Shakuntala’s case, the difficulty is compounded by the fact that her music is identified with her music teacher. The fascination of her art is complicated by the fascinations of love. The music teacher, talented, moody, and arrogant, embodies a threat to domestic order and a glimpse into the mysterious world of a life wholly devoted to art and pleasure. She revels in his appreciation of her singing and her money and his intermittent spells of indifference drive her to rashness. When he consistently fails to show up for her lessons, she seeks him out and follows him to his house, where he wastes no time in consummating their tension-filled relationship. Sexual intimacy appears to rouse Shakuntala to a state of telepathic awareness of her teacher and her art. Jhabvala ends her story with an ambiguous question that focuses on the dynamics between ordinary commitments to daily activities and the extraordinary passion for a higher art: “There was no going back from here, she knew. But who would want to go back, who would exchange this blessed state for any other?”
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