The Conflict Between Duty and Desire

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2110

Desire is the root of American fairy tales: desire for riches, desire for fame, desire for better this different that. Duty suppresses desire. Jasmine, the Punjabi heroine and title character of Bharati Mukherjee's novel, debates whether to act according to desire or duty. The Indian consciousness in which she was raised, embodied by Dida, her grandmother, supports duty. In her culture, there is a greater connectedness, a sense that individual acts affect so much more than the individual. The Western consciousness, embodied by her Manhattan employers Taylor and Wylie Hayes, encourages desire. The notion of America as a free country seems, in this mindset, to be an invitation to pursue one's wildest inclinations, with little respect for those left behind.

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The novel opens with the phrase, ‘‘Lifetimes ago...’’ This phrase seems deliberately ironical, recalling the classical fairy tale phrase, "Once upon a time.’’ The ensuing scene, in which an astrologer predicts Jasmine's widowhood and exile, frames the discussion of whether fate or free will dictate one's life trajectory. This is the core of existential philosophy: a focus on the conditions humans create for their existence, rather than those created by nature. This relates closely to the idea of desire and duty: does one necessarily follow the prescribed path, or can one make their own path?

The young Jasmine, due to her religious and cultural orientation, has been programmed to believe in predestination. She knows, ‘‘Bad times were on their way. I was helpless, doomed.’’ Outwardly, however, she whispers to the astrologer, "I don't believe you." That she whispers—rather than says, or states, or shouts—indicates the tentativeness of Jasmine's position as an agent of change. The astrologer plays an all-important role in the novel: he is there, under the banyan tree, as the story opens, and he is there, in Jasmine's thoughts, as the novels ends.

Dida, the grandmother, firmly believes in duty. Dida knows that a girl must marry, that she must bear a son. It is the family's burden, their duty, to ensure that the girl find a husband. To tinker with this tried-and-true formula requires a certain amount of arrogance and, in Dida's mind, disrespect. Her pronouncement that, "Some women think they own the world because their husbands are too lazy to beat them’’ demonstrates her unflinching belief in the social order.

When Jasmine fends off a mad dog with a staff, Dida refuses to credit her granddaughter, claiming, instead, that God didn't think her ready for salvation. ‘‘Individual effort counts for nothing,’’ she says. Later, Dida explains Prakash's death according to religious beliefs. ‘‘God was displeased’’ that Jasmine did not marry the man Dida chose for her, that she called her husband by his proper name, that they spent money extravagantly, that her husband planned to go abroad. Reward and retribution: God controls it all.

But Jasmine all along shows an inclination to veer from the prescribed path. She tells her father she wants to be a doctor. This is the first hint that she harbors fantastical Western-like dreams. For Dida, education for a woman seems frivolous, and even dangerous: it defies her future duty.

Jasmine eventually marries a modern Indian man. On the surface, it seems like her life merely represents a breaking of tradition, an exchange of new values for old. Certainly, that's part of it. But in the deeply ingrained mindset of the Hindu Indian, change puts the whole culture at risk. Who will care for Prakash's uncle, now that his nephew has chosen to live in an apartment?

Danger accompanies desire. Mukherjee creates at least three characters who wind up bloody, in part, because they eschew duty for desire. Prakash gets blown to pieces holding the money...

(The entire section contains 15644 words.)

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