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.
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,...
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because they eschew duty for desire. Prakash gets blown to pieces holding the money that would purchase the clothes in which he would follow his American dreams. Darrel, who made a desperate, futile attempt to follow his desires, hangs limp from an electrical cord, chewed on by the hogs who represent his duty. Bud winds up in a wheelchair, partly because the wife he left—his duty—could not apply her relative wisdom to the task of saving him. (Jasmine thinks that Karin, under the same circumstances, would have understood to call the sheriff and thus stop Harlan Kroener's assault).
Darrel, like Jasmine, internally debates the value of acting out his desires at the price of neglecting his duty. "Crazy, Darrel wants an Indian princess and a Radio Shack franchise in Santa Fe. Crazy, he's a recruit in some army of white Christian survivalists. Sane, he wants to baby-sit three hundred pound hogs and reinvent the fertilizer/pesticide wheel.’’
Mukherjee's careful use of imagery and sensory details in Darrel's suicide scene demonstrates the danger of both desire and duty. The fantastical images of far-off galaxies and the pleasantly strong smell of cumin stand in contrast to the word "rawness."
The frail man who is still slowly twisting and twisting from the rafter with an extension cord wrapped around his stiffly angled neck isn't the Darrel, would-be lover, would-be adventurer, who only nights ago in a cumin-scented kitchen, terrorized me with the rawness of wants. This man is an astronaut shamed by the failure of his lift-off. He keeps his bitter face turned away from the galaxies that he'd longed to explore.
Desire, however, does not necessarily end in blood. The danger is always there, but Mukherjee allows for success. Du, Jasmine's adopted Vietnamese son, represents this opportunity. In following his own desire, he betrays Jasmine's sense of duty. In Du's departure scene, he bends over a rifle to kiss Jasmine. The two are fairly close in age, seven years apart, and given their history it's fair to assume an undercurrent of sexual tension. At least, the tenderness goes beyond that normally exchanged between mother and son. The kiss seems to symbolize so much desire, just as the rifle symbolizes so much violence. Mukherjee might be suggesting that it's necessary to pass through violence to fulfill desire.
Suddenly, I'm bawling. How dare he leave me alone out here? How dare he retreat with my admiration, my pride, my total involvement in everything he did? His education was my education. His wirings and circuits were as close to Vijh & Vijh as I would ever get...This time his face is smiling, confident. He's mastered his demons. For the first time in our life together, he bends down, over the rifle, to kiss me. You gave me new life, I'll never forget you. I hear the crunch of gravel. He undoes the lock, announces it's John, not Darrel, not Bud, and on a hot Iowa night, he steps into the future.
Make no mistake: Mukherjee's novel supports the Western notion of self-determination and individual initiative. Of all the settings in the novel, only Manhattan allows for the possibility of freedom, which seems closely tied to happiness. Hasnpur is mud huts and arranged marriages and a lifetime of servitude. Prakash and Jasmine experience a certain kind of bliss in plotting their escape from Hasnpur. Florida is economic and sexual shame. Jasmine gets raped and wanders penniless, sure to die if not for the saint-like kindness of Lillian Gordon. Flushing is India all over again, in costly replication. Jasmine lacks the power, financial and otherwise, to purchase her escape. Baden, Iowa, is India with white people: an agricultural community bound, in so many ways, to tradition. Jasmine plays the role of dutiful wife. The postcards Prakash received from his old teacher—‘‘CELEBRATE AMERICA. . .TRAVEL. . .THE PERFECT FREEDOM’’— don't ring true.
Manhattan is different. It is where Jasmine claims to become an American. ‘‘On Claremont Avenue I came closest to the headiness, dizziness, porousness of my days with Prakash. What I feel for Bud is affection. Duty and prudence count. Bud has kept me out of trouble. I don't want trouble. Taylor's car is gobbling up the highways.’’
The Hayes, an urban professional couple, represent the antithesis of Dida's stubborn relationship with duty. The Hayes possess confidence, wit: they seem happy. Their inclination, surely, is to act according to desire. Wylie Hayes on the surface lives an idyllic life. She's involved in an equal-partnership relationship with her husband Taylor, who is smart, caring, and sensitive. She loves her darling daughter Duff. The family has sufficient financial means and meaningful work. Yet, when she falls in love with Stuart Eschelman, she sees an opportunity to improve upon all that. Forget the ripples of pain Wylie's divorce from Taylor will cause. It isn't about those other people, it's about Wylie. ‘‘It's all so messy,’’ Wylie says. ‘‘Taylor's such a sweetheart, and there's Duff and Stuart's three kids, but this is my chance at real happiness. What can I do? I've got to go for it, right?’’
It's as natural for Wylie to act out her desires as it is for Jasmine to suppress them. Taylor, though hurt, never seems to begrudge Wylie's decision. Taylor, like Wylie, does not seem to consider it a wife's duty to remain with her loving husband and daughter.
Earlier, Taylor and Jasmine exchange ideas on the subject of free will. Jasmine explains, in Hindu terms, how ‘‘a whole life's mission might be to move a flowerpot from one table to another; all the years of education and suffering and laughter, marriage, parenthood, education, serving merely to put a particular person in a particular room with a certain flower. If the universe is one room known only to God, then God alone knows how to populate it.’’ Taylor responds angrily to this, saying that a world in which rearranging a particle of dust ranks with discovering relativity is ‘‘a formula for total anarchy. Total futility. Total fatalism.’’
This argument frames Jasmine's ultimate dilemma: to remain as caregiver to the crippled Bud Ripplemeyer, or run away with the man of her dreams, Taylor Hayes. Jasmine finds safety in her duty to Bud, in being a caregiver. She understands responsibility, such as raising her child there in Iowa, as not only practical but expected. She cannot, however, deny the oppression that comes with the duty. ‘‘I am not choosing between men. I am caught between the promise of America and old-world dutifulness. A caregiver's life is a good life, a worthwhile life. What am I to do?’’
Notice the similarities between Wylie's rhetorical question, ‘‘What can I do?’’ and Jasmine's more sincere question, ‘‘What am I to do?’’ Jasmine, of course, chooses to run away with Taylor, to once and for all show that a person can determine their own fate. Jasmine will not end up like Darrel. Earlier, she disagreed with Bud's insistence that Darrel keep up the farm. ‘‘What I say is, release Darrel from the land." Jasmine, in the end, releases herself. As Taylor says, ‘‘Why not, it's a free country?’’ In doing so, Jasmine executes all the traditional values held by Dida. She leaves a crippled lover to fend for himself. She takes a baby away from his father. She trades security for the unknown.
Mukherjee in the end circles back to the astrologer. ‘‘It isn't guilt I feel, it's relief. I realize I have already stopped thinking of myself as Jane. Adventure, risk, transformation: the frontier is pushing indoors through uncaulked windows. Watch me re-position the stars, I whisper to the astrologer who floats cross-legged above my kitchen stove.’’ Here, the astrologer, the teller of fate, seems to symbolize old-world duty. The astrologer's position above the stove recalls Vimla's suicide scene. In the Hindu practice called sati, or suttee, the widow cremates herself on her husband's funeral pyre in order to fulfill her true role as wife. Jasmine intended to follow the same ritual after Prakash's death. She brought his suit to America in order to make a pyre. This practice is predicated on the idea that a wife's duty to her husband is absolute and eternal. Now, Jasmine mentally has the astrologer hover above the stove, as if to commit a kind of sati. The image seems to symbolize a ritual death of duty.
The ending of the novel recalls so many Hollywood endings in which the happy couple ride off into the sunset. ‘‘I am out the door and in the potholed and rutted driveway, scrambling ahead of Taylor, greedy with wants and reckless from hope." The tone and language, along with the final word "hope," suggest that Jasmine does not regret her decision to act out her desires. The author draws very little attention to the sorrowful image of an abandoned Bud, and rather focuses on the thrill of Jasmine's liberation.
Source: Donald G. Evans, in an essay for Literature of Developing Nations for Students, Gale, 2000. Evans is a novelist, journalist, and instructor of writing.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1226
Despite postcolonial readings of Bharati Mukherjee's novel Jasmine, Western critics have not placed in context the pivotal play of migrations, forced and voluntary, literal and figurative, found in the plural female subjectivity of the novel. With the connotations of both dislocation and progress within the tangled framework of the narrator's personal history, journey as metaphor in the novel stands for the ever-moving, regenerating process of life itself. In presenting a woman capable of birthing more than one self during the course of her lifetime, Mukherjee invests her novel with the unique form of a Hindu bildungsroman, where the body is merely the shell for the inner being's journey toward a more enlightened and empowered subjectivity.
But the material self exists and is the site of oppression and transformation. Cognizant of the formidable interventions of gender, class, religion, and historical circumstance, Mukherjee shapes her heroine as a "fighter and adapter," who is perpetually in the process of remaking her self and her destiny. Set in the seventies and eighties when the violent separatist demands of the militant Sikhs forced many Hindus to migrate from Punjab, Jasmine centers around the experiences of Jyoti, a teenage Hindu widow, who travels all the way from Hasnapur, India, her feudalistic village, to America. These experiences are told in first person by a woman who identifies herself as Jane Ripplemeyer, the pregnant, twenty-four-year-old, live-in girlfriend of Bud Ripplemeyer, a Jewish banker in Baden, Iowa. But the "I" in the past and present fragments of this first-person narrative belongs to a woman who sees herself as more than one person. Officially known as Jyoti Vijh in India, the narrator, in America, is a many-named immigrant with a fake passport and forged residency papers. By giving her protagonist more than one name, usually through the character of a husband/lover, Mukherjee subverts the notion of a fixed, uniform subject. Simultaneously, the narrator's plurality of names—Jasmine, Jazzy, Jase, Jane (which successively became more Westernized)—helps to mask her ethnic difference and enable her to survive in a hostile, alien land.
Jasmine's decision to leave her homeland coincides with her desire to escape the confines of her cultural identity. This desire, articulated in the dramatic recollection of the opening chapter, is a subtext that continually spurs the narrative's critique of the patriarchal underpinnings of Hindu culture and its social fabric. The little girl's refusal to accept the astrologer's prophecy translates into the adult narrator's unwillingness to imprison herself within traditional, predetermined codes of femininity. As Jyoti matures into a young woman, her resistance against a determinate existence continues in her unconventional marriage to Prakash, a "modern man,’’ who wants them to leave the backwardness of India for a more satisfying life in America. Within a cultural context that privileges arranged marriages, Jyoti's romance, that she has engineered, can indeed be seen not only as nontraditional but also as a subversive tactic against the established cultural norm. Her marriage is not only liberating but transforming as well. Comparing her husband to Professor Higgins, the benevolent patriarch of Pygmalion, the narrator recollects the early days of her marriage when Prakash, in an attempt to make her a "new kind of city woman," changes her name to Jasmine. Although ‘‘shutt[ling] between identities,’’ the narrator is eager to transcend the name/identity of her child self in the hope of escaping the doomed prophecy lurking in her future. To leave the country of her birth would mean new beginnings, ‘‘new fates, new stars.’’ But before the seventeen-year-old bride can embark on a new life with her husband, he is killed in a terrorist bombing.
The motif of the broken pitcher in Jasmine epitomizes not only the temporality of one life journey within the ongoing Hindu cycle of rebirth, but also the fragility of constructed boundaries, whether of the self, the family, or the nation. The author parallels the violence of the Khalistan movement that is responsible for Jasmine's widowhood and her subsequent displacement and exile to the bloody communal riots between the Hindus and Muslims at the time of India's independence in 1947. Despite her distance from this historical event, which rendered millions of people homeless and destitute overnight, the narrator can still empathize with her parents' anguished memories of the Partition that forced them to leave their ancestral home in Lahore and flee to Punjab. The fragmentation of the nation and the family as well as the haunting journey from terror to refuge have seeped into Jasmine's subconscious—‘‘the loss survives in the instant replay of family story: forever Lahore smokes, forever my parents flee.’’
Directly or indirectly, historical conflicts (sparked by religous intolerance) within India determine the problematic constitution of Jasmine's shifting individuality. Her "illegal" migrant life in America is an extension of an existence that began in the shadow of political refuge and later, with her husband's death, almost ended in her widowed status. Within the enclosures of the Hindu culture, a widow must atone the death of her husband for the rest of her life. Jasmine's widowhood cancels her right to material fulfillment. It entails a life of isolation in the "widow's dark hut," on the margins of Hasnapur society. For Jasmine, to live the life of a widow is to live a fate worse than death.
Jasmine's difficult "odyssey" to America and her initial experiences in an alien society parallel the emergence of a new selfhood despite the vulnerability of her youth and material circumstances. Her brutal rape at the hands of Half-Face, a man who represents the worst of America in his racist and inhuman treatment of the Asian and black refugees aboard his trawler, is a climactic moment in the text which signals the sudden awakening of Jasmine's ‘‘sense of mission.’’ Refusing to ‘‘balance [her] defilement with [her] death,’’ a traditional ending for most rape victims in orthodox Indian society, Jasmine, infused with the destructive energy of the goddess Kali, murders the man who symbolizes the ‘‘underworld of evil’’ and begins a new ‘‘journey, traveling light.’’
Given a world where violence and bloodshed, exploitation and persecution are constants, Jasmine's plurality of selves is her only strategy for survival. Knowing only too well that there are "no harmless, compassionate ways to remake oneself,’’ Jasmine views her multiple selves with a detachment that has been forged in pain. But beneath this carefully maintained distance is the terrible agony of a woman who cannot free herself from the collective memory of her haunting past:
Jyoti of Hasnapur was not Jasmine, Duff's day mummy and Taylor and Wylie' s au pair in Manhattan; that Jasmine isn't this Jane Ripplemeyer.... And which of us is the undetected murderer of a half-faced monster, which of us has held a dying husband, and which of us was raped and raped and raped in boats and cars and motel rooms?
Having lived through ‘‘hideous times,’’ Jasmine, in her arduous journey of survival, has accomplished the rare mission of transcending the boundaries of a unitary self and identifying with all the nameless victims of gender, culture, class, and imperialism. The narrative ends on a note of optimism where Jasmine, "cocooning a cosmos" in her pregnant belly, and about to "re-position her stars" again, is ready to plunge into another life and another journey of transformation.
Source: Abha Prakash Leard, ‘‘Mukherjee's 'Jasmine,'’’ in The Explicator, Vol. 55, No. 2, Winter, 1997, pp. 114-118, Jasmine.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5844
We are the outcasts and deportees, strange pilgrims visiting outlandish shrines, landing at the end of tarmacs, ferried in old army trucks where we are roughly handled and taken to roped-off corners of waiting rooms where surly, barely wakened customs guards await their bribes. We are dressed in shreds of national costumes, out of season, the wilted plumage of intercontinental vagabondage. We only ask one thing: to be allowed to land; to pass through; to continue. (Mukherjee)
Who are these ‘‘strange pilgrims?’’ Certainly, we see them infrequently on the evening news when their "vagabondage" becomes intolerable, when their passage can no longer be ignored, when they put spectacular pressure on our borders. Then, these ‘‘outcasts and deportees’’ emerge into a brief visibility beneath Western eyes. Watching TV the other night, I saw Haitian ‘‘boat people’’ crammed on their small, overcrowded crafts off the Florida shore. Through its spokesman, the United States administration reasonably explained its policy of denying these refugees entry, citing a benevolent and humanitarian concern with the possible loss of life. In other words, their "vagabondage" was being treated as an issue of water safety, of laudable nautical rigor, rather than as an issue of political and material conditions. In addition, and due to the interests of electronic brevity, the Haitians had been resolutely fixed into the already known, and therefore available, category of ‘‘boat people,’’ a distinction that defined them as a collective identity. As Chandra Mohanty writes, "the idea of abstracting particular places, peoples, and events into generalized categories, laws, and politics is fundamental to any form of ruling.’’
We are thus insulated from the historical trajectories that set this population in motion, the contradictions and ruptures that have propelled them out of their native culture. This insulation involves a substitution, a metalepsis, where a sociopolitical effect is identified as a cause. As a result, these ‘‘strange pilgrims’’ become the originary cause of scrutiny, interest, or benevolence of a discourse that seeks to situate them in teleological narratives of Western civilization and progress, rather than as the effects of these same narrative gestures. In this paper, I want to suggest that texts such as Bharati Mukherjee's Jasmine attempt to disrupt this even flow of narrative historiography with a counter-discourse that thematizes prior narratives of enforced identity—narratives that through accumulation and repetition seek to define and circumscribe identity as a fixed and available resource, constituted wholly by another's desire. At the same time, Jasmine illustrates the inherent difficulty of such an attempt, since Mukherjee's overt critique of debasing stereotypes based on gender and exoticism tends to impede a sustained critique of problematical representations of India.
Although Jasmine is a narrative of emergence, I do not wish to assert, in any sense, that this novel relates an immigrant's success story, charting a steady and inevitable progress that culminates in the achievement of an autonomous, unified self. Nor is it a completely realized postcolonial text, since Mukherjee' s portrayal of India relies on the trope of the manichean allegory and the demonization of the Sikh community. Rather, Jasmine is a novel that resists closure and suggests a strategy of continual transformation as a necessary and historically contingent ethic of survival. This continual remaking of the self invokes "two temporalities: that of oppression, memory, and enforced identity, and that of emergence after the 'break,' the counter memory, and heterogeneous difference’’ (Radhakrishnan, ‘‘Ethnic Identity’’). On the one hand, Jasmine thematizes narration and identity by bringing into focus how differences are social products of interested desire. At the same time, it offers the symbolic possibility of the emergence of a reinvented, paralogical, heterogeneous "family," based on affinity and multiplicity rather than fixed identity. Thus, I will be reading Jasmine as a counter-narrative where ‘‘re-inventing ourselves a million times’’ becomes a reflexive, historically situated strategy for negotiating power.
Discussing narrative history, Frantz Fanon writes that when the colonizer comes to write the history of the colonial encounter "the history which he writes is not the history of the country which he plunders but the history of his own nation....’’ Such interested productions become, for Lila Abu-Lughod, "the great self-congratulatory literature of the rise of the West, which for so long has shaped our view of the past....’’ Suggesting that this literature should be "revaluated" and "remade," Abu-Lughod recommends an analysis based on triangulation, or multiple, contradictory points of view. It is just this voice of the excluded and marginalized respondent that feminist, Afro-American, and multicultural studies try to recover. But, at the same time, this voice is seen as a threat to the accomplishments and values of Western culture simply because it has been historically marginalized and may have a different story to tell. In other words, the silent, demarcated subject who is the product of Western and patriarchal historiography built upon theories of synchronous development is again resituated just at the very moment of emergence, at the very moment s/he speaks.
Moreover, as Edward Said suggests, when the postcolonial subjects speak, they are considered by many Western intellectuals to be merely "wailers and whiners,’’ denouncing the evils of colonialism. They are thus implicated in the politics of blame. As Said explains, such a politics proceeds from a willingness to assert that colonialism has ended. Therefore, "any claims about or reparations for its damages and consequences into the present are dismissed as both irrelevant and preposterously arrogant" ("Intellectuals"). The phrase ‘‘into the present’’ is crucial. As I mentioned earlier, the former colonial subject becomes an originary cause, a source of discourse. Instead of being grateful for what "we" have historically done for them, "they" are constituted in the present as a pack of unappreciative whiners. They have declined the invitation, refused the call to step up into a world that is not of their own making. They are then implicated in a failure of recognition that only confirms their essential and underdeveloped nature.
This rhetorical and strategic resituating of the resisting respondent tends to maintain boundaries of exclusion. What is at risk here is the erasure of those traces of resistance that might disrupt the inevitability of the Western narrative of progress and benevolence. These exclusions occlude the complete record of colonialism, even as they resolutely try to define the excesses of colonialism as the product of aberrant individuals, a succession of Kurtzes, rather than as effects of the system that produced them. Such an experience of colonialism does continue into the present, producing an endless ripple of effects. For specific reasons, different in each case, the historical discourse produced by the colonizer created a system of representations (mostly centered around, and justified by, supposed traits of the native) that effaced the possibility of resistance. Resistance to domination was portrayed as an essential misrecognition on the part of the native.
This is the complex of concerns articulated by Jasmine: resistance, hierarchical distinctions, and boundaries that exclude and include. In what follows I will be examining these in light of what Chandra Mohanty calls (following Dorothy Smith) "relations of ruling"—a model for cultural analysis that "posits multiple intersections of structures of power and emphasizes the process or form of ruling, not the frozen embodiment of it.’’ In Jasmine these concerns, embedded in relations of ruling, reveal themselves through the actions of the religious fundamentalist, Sukhwinder, the rapist, Half-Face, and the seemingly benevolent banker, Bud Ripplemeyer, individuals who continually attempt to place Jasmine into prior narratives of desire that would define her as a known, visible, and essential self conforming to one or another of the myths that their narrativized knowledge of her authorizes and legitimizes.
Confronted by the repeated pleas from Bud Ripplemeyer, the father of her unborn child, the narrator of Jasmine reflects upon how much he doesn't know about her. In fact, he has studiously avoided such knowledge, since her ‘‘genuine foreignness frightens him.’’ Instead, his desire and interest are spurred by his image of "Eastern" women. For her prospective husband, she is "darkness, mystery, inscrutabllity. The East plunges me into visibility and wisdom.’’ This visibility then involves an identity as an already-known subject. But she knows differently: she has been ‘‘many selves’’ and has ‘‘survived hideous times.’’ In contrast to her, Bud lives innocently within "the straight lines and smooth planes of his history.’’
Two versions of history and narration emerge in the narrator's comments. For Jasmine, history is the discontinuity and rupture produced by material and political events and, as a result, the self becomes plural and contradictory. Her survival depends upon a flexible strategy of appropriation and transformation. For Bud, history is a straight line, a teleological and progressive ordering of existence where the phenomenological world is transparent and the self is unified and autonomous. It is "a history whose perspective on all that precedes it implies an end of time, a completed development’’ (Foucault). The narrator's displacement of fixed identity and these two views of history provide a point of entry into Mukherjee' s Jasmine. In the course of the novel, the narrator is Jyoti, Jasmine, Jane, and Jase. Each of her names represents a transitional self as she travels from Hasnapur, India to Baden, Iowa. Rather than a recapitulation of the stereotype of the deceitful, mendacious Asian, these name changes can be seen as a response to the still ongoing effects of colonialism. She must change to survive and to continue her journey. In fact, the narrative structure is that of a journey and passage, a liminal state, which places the third world inside the first world. In the process, the narrator must continually remake herself to avoid the threat posed by enforced identity. She must avoid the limiting boundaries that seek to confine her in traditional and specific gendered roles, both in India and America.
As a village girl from Hasnapur, she is "born to that kind of submission, that expectation of ignorance.’’ Her transformation from Jyoti to Jasmine represents her ability to escape from "a social order that had gone on untouched for thousands of years.’’ This social order can be seen as symptomatic of the relations of ruling I discussed earlier. For Jyoti and the other women of Hasnapur, these relations of ruling involve a submission to the patriarchal order, which demands limited education, arranged marriages, and constant reproduction. These gendered restrictions are also configured along the lines of class and religion in Jasmine. Jyoti's expectations as a bride are limited by the fact that she is undowered. Her husband dies in sectarian religious violence. As the fifth daughter of nine children, Jyoti is born into a culture where daughters are a curse, since they must have dowries—which her family is unable to provide. Jyoti's mother, in an effort to spare Jyoti from a history similar to hers, a history of incessant childbearing and beatings, tries to kill her at birth. This is a culture that brings up daughters ‘‘to be caring and have no minds of our own.’’ Nevertheless, her mother fights to keep Jyoti in school for six years and to prevent her from being married at the age of eleven to a widowed landlord.
When Jyoti does marry, it is to Prakash Vijh, a city man whose values are those of Gandhi and Nehru. In contrast to the other men of the traditional culture, Prakash does not see marriage as the cultural sanctioning of patriarchal control and enforced obedience. He renames Jyoti as Jasmine, a symbolic break with her feudal past. Yet this break causes Jyoti/Jasmine deep conflict. As a traditional woman she wants to get pregnant immediately to prove her worth and to validate her identity. Indeed, in this society, pregnancy is the only available identity. Jyoti still feels ‘‘eclipsed by the Mazbi maid's daughter, who had been married off at eleven, just after me, and already had had a miscarriage.’’
The point to note here, as Jasmine later realizes, is that Prakash does exert a Pygmalion effect on her, since he wanted ‘‘to make me a new kind of city woman"—a new woman for his new India. Thus, Prakash is entirely determining Jyoti's new identity. He tells her that it ‘‘was up to women to resist.’’ Despite his modern views, Prakash is first defining Jyoti's role in the new political landscape of India, and then he is telling Jyoti how to be this new woman. As such, Prakash exerts a more subtle form of patriarchal control, disguised as benevolence and demanding her active complicity. Jyoti fully recognizes her husband's limitations. She instinctively hides her detergent sales' commissions from Prakash. "For all his talk of us being equal, was he possessive about my working?" she wonders. Indeed, his talk of equality contradicts his belief that a "husband must protect the wife whenever he can.’’ At the same time, Jyoti begins to read, even reading Prakash's repair manuals. Her ability to read and understand technical manuals leads to the turning point in their marriage: the night when they work together, repairing a VCR with an equal division of labor. They dream of opening their own business, Vijh & Vijh. This vision is important in the narrative economy of Jasmine, since it provides the first model of the reconstituted family in the novel.
This possibility is decisively put to an end by the religious fundamentalist, Sukhwinder, who has "unforgiving eyes" and a "flat, authoritative voice.’’ Conveniently forgetting the history of violence that followed Partition, Sukhwinder wants to create the new, separatist state of "Khalistan, the Land of the Pure’’ for believers who renounce ‘‘filth and idolatry.’’ Within this codified economy of sameness, "whorish women" would be kept off the streets. Indeed, ‘‘all women are whores,’’ and ‘‘the sari is the sign of the prostitute." Sukhwinder thus wishes to uphold the traditional rigid segregation of the sexes and the exclusion of women as a corollary of his religious beliefs. For Sukhwinder, the nation-state is an exclusionary border, an enclave that celebrates the will to sameness in its univocal narrative of historical and human destiny. In her desire for stark narrative contrast, Mukherjee, however, demonizes the entire Sikh community, portraying them solely as violence-crazed fundamentalists. Here, as in her portrayal of the asymmetrical relationship between India and the West, Mukherjee succumbs to those relations of ruling that, at other points, she struggles to dismantle.
Jasmine and Prakash cannot escape the sectarian violence that has spread from the provinces to the city. Prakash is killed by a bomb wired into a radio as his assassin yells ‘‘Prostitutes! Whores!" The bomb is meant for Jasmine, who becomes a political target because her aspirations pose a threat to the social order built on women's subjection. Like Jasmine's father, and later Professor Devinder Vadhera, Sukhwinder and his cohorts desire to return to an imagined, timeless, and seamless moment that, to them, reflects the natural order. For Jasmine, this political killing means an abrupt end to the dreams of Vijh & Vijh. Instead, she must join her mother in enforced widowhood. As she laments, "I am a widow in the war of feudalisms." In spite of this temporary recognition, however, she is still balanced precariously between Jyoti and Jasmine. Her place, her "mission," is to travel to the United States and commit ritual suicide, suttee, where Prakash intended to go to school. As such, she is still ensnared in the same imaginary relations as her contemporary from the village of Hasnapur, Vimla. When Vimla's husband dies of typhoid, Vimla, although just twenty-two, douses herself with kerosene and flings herself on the stove. "In Hasnapur, Vimla's isn't a sad story.’’
At this point in the novel, India merely serves as a regressive and repressive background to further Mukherjee's thematic aims. It is a timeless India that is forever feudal, undeveloped, and barbaric, and, hence, still in need of Western guidance. On strictly literary grounds, Mukherjee argues that "I had to give her [Jasmine] a society that was so regressive, traditional, so caste-bound, genderist, that she could discard it" much easier than "a fluid American society’’ could be discarded (‘‘Interview’’). Here, India's stalled backwardness is unfavorably contrasted to the more attractive fluidity of Western society. Following Abdul JanMohamed, we can see that Mukherjee deploys the trope of the manichean allegory in her representation of India, since ‘‘the putative superiority of the European’’ depends upon "the supposed inferiority of the native.’’ As JanMohamed explains, the manichean allegory exerts such a powerful influence, consciously or subconsciously, that "even a writer who is reluctant to acknowledge it and who may indeed be highly critical of imperialist exploitation is drawn into its vortex.’’ Mukherjee's interests in Jasmine do not include such a critical attitude towards "imperialist exploitation’’ or the practice of suttee. Instead, her focus remains on the gendered subject in transit from the third world to the first world. For Mukherjee, then, a critique of stereotypes based of gender and exoticism supersedes a critique of imperialist influence in India. In many ways, this omission points to the inherent difficulties involved in avoiding the powerful attraction of the manichean allegory and, again, indicates the pervasive effects of colonialism continuing into the present.
These effects become more apparent in Mukherjee's novel when Jasmine leaves Hasnapur. She joins the dangerous, unstable category of ‘‘refugees and mercenaries and guest workers,’’ slipping into ‘‘a shadow world’’ of interchangeable bodies. This floating population only asks to be allowed "to continue,’’ while it journeys, simultaneously and side-by-side, with the tourists and businessmen who travel through legal channels of access and availability. These pilgrims are thus seen and unseen. They are ignored because of their obscene message that colonialism is not over yet. Colonialism has merely shifted into a different register. As Donna Haraway writes, the international economy of electronics and capital has redefined the notion of work. This new worker is ‘‘female and feminized,’’ conforming to the twin imperatives of constant vulnerability and availability, as she is thoroughly ‘‘exploited as a reserve labor force.’’
For the refugees, the goal is simply to survive. However, this survival is threatened at the moment of their emergence into visibility. They then become the locus of suspicion and discourse. As a ‘'visible minority,’’ these refugees are enveloped in an "atmosphere of hostility" based upon a whole series of "crippling assumptions" (‘‘Interview’’) that are the product of prior colonialisms, textualities, and cultural myths. These myths then represent and influence behavior towards the native. For Jasmine, these myths of the available and passive Eastern woman create the climate that legitimizes her rape.
Jasmine's journey has taken her from Hasnapur to the United States aboard unregistered aircraft and ships. As an illegal immigrant traveling on a forged passport, she must complete her pilgrimage to Tampa aboard The Gulf Shuttle, a shrimper engaged in ‘‘the nigger-shipping bizness.’’ She ends up in a motel room at the run-down Florida Court with the captain of the trawler, Half-Face, whose name derives from the loss of an eye, an ear, and half his face in Vietnam, where he served as a demolitions expert. Half-Face, a character "from the underworld of evil,’’ is thus marked by his neocolonialist experience in Southeast Asia, and in this sense is like the young man at the bar later in the novel who reacts to Jasmine's entrance with the remark that ‘‘I know whore power when I see it.’’ Recognition and association are immediate: "His next words were in something foreign, but probably Japanese or Thai or Filipino, something bar girls responded to in places where he'd spent his rifle-toting youth." The young man and Half-Face, both veterans of the East, respond similarly because Jasmine represents an already known and gendered subject.
With banal conviction, Half-Face tells Jasmine, ‘‘You know what's coming, and there ain't nobody here to help you, so my advice is to lie back and enjoy it. Hell, you'll probably like it. I don't get many complaints.’’ For Half-Face, Jyoti's vulnerability is a ‘‘sort of turn-on," and his boast implies a prior knowledge/narrative of known Eastern women and an entire history of others who have not complained. In other words, for Half-Face and his cohorts, women have not complained because ultimately they accepted the inevitability of the hierarchical situation and their presumed sexual nature, thus discovering that they "really" liked it after all. In this interested configuration of desire, cause and effect are conflated, and the threat of violence occluded. The myth of the available and passive Eastern woman eliminates any possibility of resistance, any possibility that these women did not "really" like it. For Half-Face, Jyoti is merely ‘‘one prime piece,’’ a gendered marking of the body that "cancels out" any other considerations. With mechanical and perfunctory obliviousness, Half-Face drinks, rapes, and then falls asleep. As a consequence of her ‘‘personal dishonor,’’ Jasmine considers killing herself as Half-Face snores in the next room.
Occurring at the exact center of the novel, Jasmine's rape signals a crucial moment in her successive transformations and in the formation of her ethics of survival. Instead of killing herself and passively conforming to an identity politics that would define her solely as a victim, she decides instead to kill her attacker. With ritualistic attentiveness, she first thoroughly cleanses her body, and then she purifies her soul through prayer. She has a small knife, given to her by Kingsland, a savvy fellow nomad traveling aboard The Gulf Shuttle. She first uses it on herself, cutting a strip across her tongue. As Mukherjee explains, Jasmine becomes Kali, the goddess of destruction, since "Kali has her red tongue hanging out" ("Interview"). In addition, this gesture of marking and naming reclaims her body. It is an active intervention in the relations of ruling that provided the justification of her rape and her subsequent conception of herself as a victim.
One further observation here has implications for Jasmine's later desertion of her crippled husband. Mukherjee has remarked that Kali is ‘‘the goddess of destruction, but not in a haphazard, random way. She is the destroyer of evil so that that world can be renewed" ("Interview"). As such, this restructuring and renewing function of Jasmine as Kali provides a key to the possibility of a postcolonial politics where resistance to the myths, histories, and narratives of the metropolitan center involves an active thematizing of the structures of enforced identity, and an affirmative transformation that involves appropriating the weapons and technologies that have served to maintain the center. Jasmine's killing of Half-Face involves a reappropriation—a violent sundering and subsequent adapting of the controlling strategies of violence and desire—and the reinscription of active resistance into the patriarchal narrative of vulnerability and availability. She appropriates the knife/phallus, and she penetrates his body. Then, instead of committing suttee—burning the suit of her dead husband and then lying on the fire, the "mission" that controlled her journey to the United States—Jasmine burns Prakash's suit and her Indian clothes in a trash can next to the motel. She breaks the chain of causality, the metalepsis that continually tries to substitute cause for effect in the relations of ruling, the terrible causality that led to her being "raped and raped and raped in boats and cars and motel rooms" on her journey to America. With the killing of Half-Face, Jasmine passes from innocence and enacts a radical break, suggesting a form of resistance that is contingent, disruptive, and strategic. Rather than reifying a past that is continuous and identical with itself, Jasmine suggests a history dislodged from origins and a self fractured from organic wholeness.
As R. Radhakrishnan writes, ‘‘[t]he task for radical ethnicity is to thematize and subsequently problematize its entrapment within these binary elaborations with the intent of stepping beyond to find its own adequate language" ("Ethnic Identity’’). For Jasmine, this ‘‘adequate language’’ involves the ability ‘‘to adjust, to participate,’’ without succumbing to the desire to hold on to the past and certainty. To do so would be to become like Professor Vadhera and his family, who recreate an artificially maintained Indianness. In contrast, Jasmine must seek to negotiate and resituate, continually, the horizon of her fears and desires. This process of constant adjustment propels her to New York, where she acquires an illegal green card and comes to work as a domestic in the Hayes household. In the process, she is again renamed. Like Prakash, Taylor Hayes acknowledges her liminal state: ‘‘Taylor didn't want to change me. He didn't want to scour and sanitize the foreignness. My being different...didn't scare him.’’ In contrast to her earlier transformations, she asserts that ‘‘I changed because I wanted to.’’ She thus becomes ‘‘Jase, the prowling adventurer.’’
But Sukhwinder reappears in New York. To protect her new family, Jase escapes to Baden, Iowa. Here again, she changes, exchanging Jase for Jane. The point to note here is that she is actively changing her name, rather than passively accepting a name as she had with Prakash. But this new role requires a ‘‘regression, like going back to village life, a life of duty and devotion" ("Interview"). Settling in Baden as the wife of Bud Ripplemeyer, the head of the local bank, would be the same as remaining in Hasnapur, since becoming Bud's wife would be merely another form of enforced identity. As Jane, she only feels affection for Bud. Crippled by a distraught farmer whom his bank has foreclosed on, Bud appeals to her feelings of responsibility to be a caregiver as she had been in the Hayes family. To become Mrs. Jane Ripplemeyer, therefore, would require renouncing her desire to gain control of her body and destiny.
I began my reading of Jasmine with Jane and Bud by noting their two different conceptions of narrative and history, and I want to return to the connection between these conceptions and the production of enforced identity through another's desire. These two contrasting views become apparent when Bud and Jane are driving through Baden and pass ‘‘half-built, half-deserted cinder-block structures at the edge of town.’’ The "empty swimming pools and plywood panels in the window frames" remind her of the Florida Coast motel where she was raped because as constructed by prior narratives of female identity she could be imagined as provocatively vulnerable and available.
Bud reacts differently to the cinder-block structures. Contemplating these undeveloped resources, Bud ‘‘frowns because unproductive projects give him a pain.’’ In fact, Bud sees these unproductive resources and can only wonder ‘‘who handled themr financing.’’ For Bud then, individuals, resources, and land are only understandable within an economy of productivity and efficiency. Thus, "Asia he'd thought of only as a soy-bean market," presumably tended by productive and silent natives. And, indeed, Bud imagines the natives of his own region in terms of similar evaluative categories. A ‘‘good man’’ is one who displays ‘‘discipline, strength, patience, character. Husbandry.’’ To Bud, individuals like Darryl who do not want to be tied down by the family farm, who want to make ‘‘something more of his life than fate intended,’’ are irreducibly "flawed."
Bud Ripplemeyer is like a series of characters in this novel—Sukhwinder, Professor Vadhera, and Jyoti's father—who want to preserve a vision of the past as a pure, uncontested, and originary terrain. This nostalgia precludes change while it authorizes relations of ruling that seek to deny the interested subordination of oppositional voices and knowledges. Thus, the narrator can easily "wonder if Bud ever sees the America I do.’’ The answer is no. Bud's desire manifests itself in the will to possess and to define. Jasmine has learned a different lesson from history.
Rather than preservation, stasis, and attachments, Mukherjee's novel proposes a counter-narrative that suggests that "transformation" must be embraced. Such a strategy questions the drive to essentialize that characterizes Sukhwinder, Half-Face, and Bud Ripplemeyer. It also suggests a different relationship between former colonial partners, a resituating of history that involves a thematizing of prior myths of enforced identity and a breaking into a new space, provisional and based on affinity, not identity. This postcolonial space is portrayed symbolically as the reconstituted family that emerges at the end of the novel: Jase is carrying Bud's child, Duff is an adopted child, and Taylor is emerging from a failed marriage. In addition they are going to California to be reunited with Du and his sister, victims of Vietnam's colonial past.
In the reconstituted family, they do not have the certainty of Bud's straight line of history, but neither do they have those benevolent assumptions that authorize exclusions based on fear of immigrants. Here, individuals survive through a flexible strategy of ‘‘scavenging, adaption, and appropriat[ing] technology,’’ not exactly because they want to, but because they must in order to survive. It is not coincidental that the skills of Prakash and Du involve the rewiring of the circuitry of electronic machinery. Yet, this skill can also be turned to destructive ends, since Sukhwinder and his cohorts, the Khalsa Lions, wire bombs into radios. In this sense, an affinity that recognizes difference and contradiction, rather than an affiliation solely based on identity politics, becomes a necessity.
But survival also depends on a recognition of the historical and material forces that set this floating population in motion. As I indicated earlier, such a recognition might have informed Mukherjee's portrayal of India and her understanding of the ideological complexity of suttee. With its title character scarred by history, Mukherjee's Jasmine concludes with an image of affiliation through affinity—a hopeful imaging of a postcolonial world where difference is acknowledged and history is reconfigured. Yet, at the same time, this achieved state or topos of the reconstituted family cannot be seen as fixed and realized. Instead, Jasmine wonders how many "more selves" are in her. There are no answers to these questions in Jasmine, since any answer would involve a refutation of the novel's ethic of survival, adaptation, and transformation.
‘‘Re-inventing ourselves’’ may be seen as an active strategy that implies the possibility of resistance and reappropriation through a reconfiguring of the received knowledges that constitute colonial hmstory. As JanMohamed and Lloyd note, such a critical reinterpretation "assert[s] that even the very differences which have always been read as symptoms of inadequacy are capable of being re-read transformatively as indications and figurations of values opposed to the dominant discourse.’’ Thus, this archival work involves a strategy of re-reading the received history of the past, with particular attention to its silences, ruptures, and contradictions. It strives to avoid mistaking effects for causes, and to maintain a critical activity that sees differences as a product of competing discursive fields. Identity is never reducible to one stable and essential position, but is an effect of these discourses and contestations. To think only in terms of the implacable opposition of center to margin is to revalidate the essentializing binary grid of identity. To think in terms of shifting the center, de-centering, is to imagine an ascendancy of the margins, a simple reversal, where "interested" versions of heterogeneity vie for prominence. A third option is to illuminate the borders where centers and margins rub against each other in often contradictory ways. It is to bring the border into visibility, while resisting the urge to speak for it.
Jasmine examines this play of borders. As such, the novel avoids becoming a simple attack upon identity-based discursive formulas. Instead, it addresses the multiplicity of material forces and discursive regimes that seek to position the gendered subject. Put another way, Jasmine examines the doubleness involved in being "always moving and always still,’’ a shifting and multiple identity that is in a state of perpetual transition. This novel presents the possibility of the acceptance of a plural self, one that resists the impulse towards certainty and totalization. In addition, resistance and transgression become viable alternatives, since, as the narrator remarks, ‘‘[t]here are no harmless, compassionate ways to remake oneself.’’ Remaking oneself becomes the only possible response to enforced identity and subjugated knowledge.
It is a mistake, I think, to seek agency at the conscious level of enactment. Even when there is a face on the machine—for instance, Half-Face or Bud Ripplemeyer—it is only one of many replaceable faces. The task for the intellectual is to delineate the workings of the machine, the relations of ruling, at its tentacle extension, at the extended point where it is most vulnerable, disputed, and diffused. Such a strategy involves a reappropriation, but also a negotiation, since negotiation recognizes difference as a site of both affinity and contestation. Negotiation is a desire to open up larger spaces in a common field of dialogical interaction. Yet, at the same time, there is the persistent danger noted by R. Radhakrishnan, related to the "profound contradictions that underlie the attempt to theorize change,’’ that ‘‘our attempts to change the subject’’ may be "potentially wrong and repressive, even barbaric" (‘‘Changing Subject’’). In other words, there is the real danger of reproducing the very same relations of ruling that we have identified. To some extent, these processes occur in Jasmine.
Rather than locating agency in a unified subject position capable of correctly reading the real, a subject who has somehow "successfully" resisted its interpellation, Mukherjee's Jasmine struggles to articulate another form of knowledge. This negotiated knowledge is a modality of action predicated on a series of shifting subject positions. These temporary roles then become vectors of intersection and intervention, and, because they are temporary and mobile, possibly prevent succumbing to the desire for certainty and completeness. A "role" is not originary, unique, or substantial. In fact, it points to the fictiveness of the gesture towards complete, realized development and continuity. It reveals discontinuity beneath the "role,’’ the mask. Rather than a frozen category, Identity, then, becomes an historically specific strategy: not a "free" subject acting, but an available site for negotiation. Mukherjee has argued that an ability to adapt and appropriate is transformative, establishing the "sense of two-way traffic" ("Interview"). This ‘‘two-way traffic’’ captures the sense of Said's call for ‘‘a tremendously energetic attempt to engage with the metropolitan world in a common effort at re-inscribing, re-interpreting and expanding the sites of intensity and the terrain contested with Europe’’ (‘‘Intellectuals’’).
No doubt, this ‘‘common effort’’ does not in any way help the Haitian ‘‘boat people’’ that I began this paper with. Nor will it probably help the next floating population of refugees and deportees. The failure lies in the too-easy conflation of cause and effect and the ready availability of abstract categories, so that these people are not seen as the effects of colonialisms ‘‘into the present.’’ We can, however, continue to create the conditions where these silent people might speak of a different history. I think Mukherjee's strategy of ‘‘re-inventing ourselves" does open up the transformative possibility of not only interrogating these structures of power and knowledge, but also suggesting a historically-situated strategy where borders serve as multiple sites of contestation, transformative re-readings, and affinity. As such, the visible border becomes the site for critical interruption and discontinuity, for rewiring the circuitry.
Source: F. Timothy Ruppel, '‘‘Re-inventing ourselves a million times': narrative, desire, identity, and Bharati Mukherjee's 'Jasmine,'’’ in College Literature, Vol. 22, No. 1, February, 1995, pp. 181-92, Jasmine.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 980
In Bharati Mukherjee's new novel, the inhabitants of Hasnapur, a fictional village in India's Punjab state, dream of better lives in richer lands. As a girl, the title character of Jasmine listens with fascination as the men around her debate over which countries would be best for making a new start. Her brothers talk of well-paid jobs in the United Arab Emirates. But Prakash, their friend—and Jasmine's future husband—says that guest workers there are mere slaves, even if they are rich ones. He insists that the place to go is the United States. "When I go to work in another country,’’ he declares, ‘‘it'll be because I want to be part of it.’’ In the end, the brothers stay at home when their father is gored by a bull in a freak accident, and Prakash is killed in Hasnapur by a bomb planted by Sikh extremists. It is only Jasmine who becomes part of America.
The novel grew out of a story that appeared in Mukherjee's The Middleman and Other Stories, a collection that won last year's prestigious U.S. National Book Critics Circle Award. And it elaborates on a theme that Mukherjee, 49—who was born in Calcutta but moved to the United States in 1961 (she later lived in Canada for 14 years)—has carved out as her own: the assimilation of Third World immigrants into the American melting pot, which is itself enriched by those she describes as ‘‘new pioneers.’’ Jasmine is one of those pioneers, a survivor with courage, wryness and a hopeful streak at odds with her fatalism. At the end of the short story, even though Jasmine was a domestic worker without a visa, papers or a birth certificate—and had been seduced on the Turkish carpet by her boss, an academic—she was still happy, ‘‘a girl rushing wildly into the future.’’ By the time the novel's complex, textured and violent story comes to a close, Jasmine is still ‘‘greedy with wants and reckless from hope.’’
Using flashbacks and crosscuts, the novel weaves the story of the heroine's life from her early days in Hasnapur to her extraordinary adventures in the United States. The narrative begins when Jasmine is 7 and an astrologer in her home town foretells a future of exile and widowhood. As Jasmine evolves, she is given different names. Born Jyoti, she is renamed Jasmine at 14 when she weds the modern-thinking Prakash. When his murder leaves her widowed three years later, Jasmine emigrates to the United States. There, she undergoes a series of metamorphoses as she struggles to leave her old self behind and find a new, American identity.
She lands in Florida, where a kind Quaker woman nicknames her "Jazzy" in response to her quick take on American-style walking and dressing. She goes to work for a New York City academic—a variation of the one depicted in the short story—and he names her Jase. Then, she leaves him and travels to rural Iowa, where she meets her second, common-law husband, Ben, an invalid banker with whom she adopts a refugee teenage boy from Vietnam. Ben calls her Jane. The naming underlines her mutability—it is part of the melting process.
While Jasmine remains curiously passive and adaptable to her new country, ready to reinvent herself, she is also tough and resilient. She has to be to endure all of the violence that she encounters. Violence has always characterized Mukherjee's work, but in Jasmine the body count is so staggeringly high that it reinforces one of the novel's many aphorisms: ‘‘Dullness is a kind of luxury.’’
Jasmine's devoted schoolteacher, Masterji, who recognizes her intelligence and saves her from an arranged marriage at 14 to an old widower, is murdered by Sikh punks on scooters—"emptying over 30 bullets in him.’’ Her girlfriend douses herself with kerosene and flings herself on a stove after her husband's death. During her migration to Florida, Jasmine is raped by a Vietnam veteran who lost half his face in a paddy field. She murders him with a small, sharp knife.
Even one of her Midwest American neighbors chokes to death on a piece of Mexican food while vacationing in California. Another hangs himself from the rafters of his unfinished hog barn. Still another maims Ben and then kills himself. Mukherjee suggests that people everywhere—whether they are Indian victims of Sikh extremism or Iowa farmers distraught by bankruptcy—are ripped apart by terrorism, passion and despair.
In her powerful depiction of clashing cultures and philosophies, Mukherjee has created an ambitious and impressively compact work. The writing is vivid and economical as the author moves easily between the Punjab and Iowa, Florida and New York City. In one of the novel's more poignant sequences, Jasmine discovers that her husband's old teacher, Professorji, now living in an immigrant enclave in Flushing, N.Y., is not a professor in his adopted country but an importer and sorter of human hair.
Working in the basement of the Khyber Bar BQ, he measures and labels the length and thickness of each separate hair, which is then sold for wigs and scientific instruments—which use human hair as a gauge for humidity. "A hair from some peasant's head in Hasnapur could travel across oceans and save an American meteorologist's reputation," Mukherjee writes. "Nothing was rooted anymore. Everything was in motion.’’
But the author seems unafraid of change. Her heroine surveys the havoc of American farm country and observes: "I see a way of life coming to an end. Baseball loyalties, farming, small-town innocence.’’ It is clear that Jasmine feels no regret. Her fatalistic Eastern perspective—the long view—assumes that everything has a purpose and change is as it should be. At the same time, Jasmine is willing to push fate to elude its hold. That is how American she becomes.
Source: Eleanor Wachtel, "Jasmine," (book review) in Maclean's, Vol. 102, No. 43, October 23, 1989, p. 72.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5484
During the 1980s, Republican administrations glorified nostalgic visions of family life. These visions coexisted with social and fiscal policies that had negative ramifications for small farms, families, and women. This paper analyzes three contemporary novels—Jasmine by Bharati Mukherjee (1989), A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley (1991), and A Map of the World by Jane Hamilton (1994)—in which the heroines' lives on their farms are influenced by contemporary myths. Like some of their predecessors, today's novelists express nostalgia for a harmonious homestead; however, they reveal the flawed nature of such visions and question their public acceptance. Ultimately, the heroines leave their farms for anonymous lives in town, indicating some resignation to the power of dominant ideologies. At the same time, the three novels offer distinct perspectives on region and narrative, as well as more specifically on what it means to be a Midwesterner. These perspectives complicate the connections among farming, families, and ideology, throwing into relief global events such as the surge in undocumented immigrants, as well as questions of identity.
During the 1980s, the American press documented hardships experienced by rural families as a result of shifts in public policy and attitudes. More recently, women novelists have provided another record of these events, focusing on the interrelated effects of government regulations and domestic ideology on the lives of farm women. Specifically, three novels—Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres (1991), Jane Hamilton's A Map of the World (1994), and Bharati Mukherjee's Jasmine (1989)—use first-person narratives to comment ironically on the farm woman as popular icon. Yet, even as the authors offer a critique of social and political values, their heroines remain enmeshed in powerful ideologies regulating gender, sexuality, and the family. The novels reflect on the nature of literary regionalism as well, illustrating how it may give voice to some of those neglected by the dominant discourse, while it may silence still others.
In The Land Before Her: Fantasy and Experience of the American Frontiers, 1630-1860, Annette Kolodny has traced the existence of connections between social ideology and domestic fiction back to novels written prior to the Civil War. She indicates the ways in which some nineteenth-century women's novels about the West perpetuated nostalgic visions of the American home, and she outlines how several authors reinforced contemporary ideals of frontier farms and ranches. Such portraits of farm life, accompanied by pastoral imagery, were opposed to views of corrupt, dirty towns and cities. Kolodny links this theme in fiction to nineteenth-century conceptions of women's roles, indicating how novels at once supported and subverted popular values. Carol Fairbanks (1986) expands on Kolodny's theory, writing about later authors. Fairbanks suggests that these women, like some of those described by Kolodny, "wanted to undermine or, at a minimum, modify the public's image of the lives of women on the frontier’’ (1986). Works about farming in the Midwest during the turbulent 1980s suggest that these points apply to contemporary literature as well.
In their edited collection of articles, Sherrie Inness and Diana Royer go beyond Kolodny and Fairbanks, arguing that regionalism "offers a forum for social protest’’ (1987). Yet even protest is complicated because of women's liminal status as community insiders and outsiders: "As regional writers present their communities, real and imagined, they engage in multiple discourses born out of those communities, discourses that embody cultural conflict and reflect social tension even as they seek to resolve those very issues.’’ They emphasize that protest arises out of women's need to construct their own identities. Thus, by definition, such regionalist works address issues of difference and in particular of ‘‘how foreignness is constituted,’’ literally and figuratively. By implication, they are "essential to understanding how the United States constitutes itself.’’ The importance of this concept is evident when one considers the historical context of the novels to be discussed. During the 1980s, the Reagan and Bush administrations, spurred on by the Moral Majority and other conservative coalitions, glorified visions of family life, even though—or perhaps because—many Americans were convinced that the family as they knew it was rapidly disintegrating. Magazines such as Newsweek devoted special issues to the plight of the family, including articles such as one wondering, ‘‘What Happened to the Family,’’ which lamented, ‘‘marriage is a fragile institution,’’ and the ‘‘irony here is that the traditional family is something of an anomaly’’ (Footlick 1990).
At the same time, farms were portrayed as a refuge from the forces pulling families apart, as well as from isolating and corrupting aspects of urban survival. For many, the Midwest remained a metonym for rural living, and farms took on metaphorical associations with a prelapsarian America, where families enjoyed prosperity, togetherness, and a certain moral certitude. In this almost mythical realm, women kept impeccable houses and baked bread, and people of color were virtually invisible.
In the first half of the decade, country was, quite literally, the fashion. In 1979, Mademoiselle featured an article entitled ‘‘Barn Makeover,’’ offering readers advice on purchasing items necessary to replicate the effect. In 1985, Vogue chronicled socialite Robin Duke's conversion of a barn on Long Island into a "haven for simple pleasures after decades of globe-trotting" and a "dream house, a pleasingly rustic, French-accented country retreat" (Talley 1985). Never mind that the old horse stall separating the dining and living areas was probably as close as the socialite and her guests would get to farming, or that the homes on most Midwestern farms lacked imported French antiques. What such texts recorded was an enduring fantasy of mythic proportions.
Idealized visions coexisted with increasingly conservative social and fiscal policies that had negative ramifications for small farms, families, and women. The same week that Time magazine reviewed the film Witness, noting the ‘‘tone of civilized irreconcilability’’ between the heroine's rural, Amish life and the hero's spiritually starved urban existence as a policeman (Schickel 1985), its cover stories recorded the crisis facing America's farms. Popular magazines throughout the year ran articles about the farm bill, the administration's attitudes toward price supports and credit, and their negative effects on family operations.
Specialized magazines, such as Successful Farming, recorded similar circumstances as the decade progressed. The April and May 1979 issues of Successful Farming hinted at trouble with articles entitled ‘‘Loan Request Denied’’ (Kellum 1979) and "He Sold His Cow Herd in the Face of Rising Prices’’ (Kruse and Baxter 1979). Yet, such troubles seemed scattered and remediable; the farmer who had to relinquish his cow, for instance, turned to raising corn. An article by Carol Tevis, who reported on women and families, was optimistically entitled ‘‘Mom is the Key,’’ and noted the importance of women to successful farm transfers and keeping the family together (Tevis 1979).
Thus, in the first part of the decade, farming and general-interest magazines revealed that for many the vitality of the Midwestern farm belt was associated with and perceived as a reflection of the condition of the American family. Any threat to the farm represented a potential assault on the family, as well as on the moral values in which the family was grounded. The government crackdown on farm and price supports met bitter anger, having provoked in farmers a sense that their way of life was under attack, with "partisans...waging the battle with nearly religious intensity’’ (Church 1985).
Ironically, these perceptions of a direct relationship between the fate of the family and of the farm, between moral and economic stability, may have facilitated the administration's pursuit of its agricultural policy. In the middle of the decade, public personages such as David Stockman and Agriculture Secretary John Block presented farmers as irresponsible financial managers who failed to provide for their families and thus undercut the stability of the nation. Concomitantly, what had been portrayed as valuable, fertile "real estate" (to use a category proposed by Carol Fairbanks) was increasingly referred to as a kind of ‘‘waste land,’’ over-cultivated or left fallow in crop plans designed to yield maximum federal subsidies (1986). The 1985 issue of Time on farming prominently featured Stockman's reproach: ‘‘For the life of me, I cannot figure out why taxpayers of this country have the responsibility to go in and refinance bad debt that was willingly incurred by consenting adults who went out and bought farmland when the price was going up’’ (Church 1985). Through such rhetoric, politicians were able to weaken popular nostalgia surrounding agricultural life. This strategy made policies hostile to farming interests more palatable to taxpayers in towns and cities, who felt they had something to gain—morally and financially—with the elimination of easy credit and price supports for their neighbors. Farmers themselves blamed the "greed" of their colleagues (Tevis 1992), as well as the government and bankers, but not their own practices.
By the end of the decade, Successful Farming testified to the devastating effects of the 1980s on farms and their families. In "Diminished Expectations,’’ Carol Tevis (1992) compared 1974 and 1991 surveys of thousands of families. The results were discouraging. Federal policies were frequently blamed for the desperate plight of farms; the author reported that ‘‘A strong sense of disillusionment prevails regarding government." More specifically, said a woman from Kentucky, "I believe the government wants the family farm out.’’ Respondents also linked government policies to the collapse of the family: "Many farm men and women point to the increase in off-farm employment [necessitated by the economy] as a factor behind the erosion of social relationships, and the decline in neighboring in their communities.’’ Not only did the survey indicate that ‘‘[t]he feeling that family life is threatened is more pronounced,’’ (1992) but it cited a farmer who took a stab at earlier rosy pictures of rural life: "I hate the way farm magazines glorify the farm with all the sentimental slop.’’ In light of such disgruntlement, it is not surprising that in the 1991 survey, only 63 percent of the respondents thought the family farm would survive.
Similarly, sociological and anthropological studies of women in rural America have noted increasing anxiety and tension, which they locate historically and contemporaneously. Their methodologies include large samples, as well as interviews and case studies, and some of them take an explicitly feminist perspective. For instance, Deborah Fink traces the history of the myth that ‘‘farm people were happier, healthier, and more virtuous than city people’’ back to Jeffersonian idealism (1992), entrenching perceptions of rural America in the political ideology of the new Republic. Fink further argues that visions of the "frontier West as a place where women could shake free" are feminist reconstructions of the past, whereas many farm women have lived and continue to live in virtual isolation. She indicates that ‘‘the organization of labor within the nuclear family undermined its liberating potential’’ and permitted the elision of women from study, as well as the neglect of farm women's troubles. Her work chronicles ‘‘subtle acts of sabotage,’’ or women's modes of resistance, in contrast to the portraits of united families in popular farm publications.
In Open Country, Iowa: Rural Women, Tradition, and Change, Fink (1986) takes a feminist anthropological perspective in focusing on women since World War II. In this work, Fink emphasizes the importance of economics in farm country, in particular in such changes as increased mechanization and women's difficulties in finding adequately paying off-farm jobs that might reduce their dependence on men. She also identifies land transfers and a lack of social services to help with domestic violence, child care, and other needs as difficulties for farm women. And, unlike the reporters in popular farm publications, she contends that the patriarchy itself is a major source of tension and unhappiness in farm life. To the extent that other social and political structures support the patriarchy, she finds them complicit as well. Thus, while farmers in the public press blamed many of their problems on external forces, and the government accused farmers of fiscal irresponsibility, scholarly researchers noted internal family tensions as well.
These connections between the health of the family and of the farm, between political policy and domestic ideology, which researchers such as Kolodny documented in nineteenth-century novels, are central in Jasmine, A Thousand Acres, and A Map of the World. Smiley's novel is set in 1979, and Hamilton's at the end of the 1980s or beginning of the 1990s. Mukherjee's focuses primarily the middle of the 1980s. The novels thus span the decade and offer a retrospective on its events. At the same time, the three texts provide distinct perspectives on the region and what it means to be a Midwesterner: the heroine of Smiley's work is born and bred in Iowa, the family in Hamilton's book has chosen to farm in Wisconsin, and Mukherjee's protagonist arrives in Iowa after a long odyssey that began in Punjab. These different temporal and spatial removes complicate the connections among farming, families, and ideology, throwing into relief global events, such as the return of Vietnam war veterans or the surge in undocumented aliens, as well as questions of national and regional identity.
The effects of these various removes are particularly significant, because they exemplify theories developed by contemporary scholars on regionalism in literature. First, these novelists contest the idea of a single, monologic definition of a region, instead ‘‘[v]iewing geography as a two- or three-tiered field, as a combination or dialectic of what there is and what people believe or imagine there is’’ (Loriggio 1994). Every one of these texts supports Marjorie Pryse's assertion that the region that is experienced by marginalized individuals, including women, minorities, and ideological ‘‘outsiders,’’ is very different from the Midwest experienced by members of the dominant population (1994). This difference generates conflict and plot (Loriggio 1994).
Second, these novels illustrate a distinction made by Marjorie Pryse between regionalist literature, written or narrated by insiders, and regional literature, which is written or narrated by outsiders and captures ‘‘local color’’ (1994). The literature of insiders tends to elicit "empathy" (Fetterley and Pryse, 1992) and to express an ‘‘implicit pedagogy’’ (Pryse 1994), while outsiders maintain an ironic remove. While all three novels include characters whose perspectives exemplify this duality, Mukherjee's text ultimately challenges and collapses the distinction.
Third, the novels enact various, contested views of region by presenting conflict not only among differing factions in the local population, but also between inhabitants and government outsiders, or between long-term residents and newcomers. Thus, just as the article from Vogue (Talley 1985) cited above offers a view of farming that differs from the representations in Successful Farming, these novels contain myriad perspectives on farms and their owners. At their best, these novels are about the (re)possession of space, and of memories or myths of that space, which inhabit it and affect individual constructions of it.
Specifically, in all three novels, the heroines' lives on their farms are influenced by myths of "an idyllic rural life’’ (Hardigg 1994). Moreover, the ultimate collapse (or near collapse) of their families and modes of living is directly related to economic policy, government farming regulations, and social ideologies that offer oppositional views of their efforts. Because citizens of neighboring towns represent or carry out government threats, the distinctions between farm and town life become critical.
Within the novels, these issues are embedded in contemporary discourse pertaining to sexuality and sex crimes. Just as the fate of the family farm is directly related to who holds political and financial control, so is the fate of the protagonist's body. The heroine of Smiley's book finds herself deeply affected by her experiences as an incest victim; Hamilton' s protagonist is accused of molesting children; Mukherjee's Jasmine is raped (and her husband is crippled by an angry farmer). Ultimately, the novels might be considered maps of a world, charts not only of the limited acreage the heroines possess and are possessed by, but also topographical surveys of an important segment of American society and reflections on the forces that shape and dominate regions. As Mukherjee's heroine notes repeatedly, the Midwest has much in common with Punjab, a reference to the presence of violence and factionalism, as well as to agrarian life.
The question of whether and how much difference is tolerated by the community is even more pronounced in Mukherjee's Jasmine, another novel concerning a woman's attempts at self-definition. Even though the novel was not written by a Midwesterner, Jasmine offers significant variations on the themes developed in Hamilton's and Smiley's texts. Beginning in India and ending with a journey to California, Mukherjee's text presents a ‘‘map of the world" that is embedded in a regional setting even more explicitly than A Thousand Acres or A Map of the World itself.
Moreover, Jasmine invokes the distinction between regional and regionalist texts or characters only to throw it into question. On one level, Jasmine renders the very distinction moot, because the heroine takes different perspectives during various points in her life. On another level, the novel offers both regional and regionalist perspectives simultaneously. Jasmine is a regional work in the sense that it is written and narrated by an outsider with critical distance from the milieu. At the same time, it offers a regionalist perspective, giving voice to the increasing numbers of Asian immigrants in the Midwest, individuals who may be marginalized on the basis of linguistic, racial, and cultural differences. Most importantly, the novel draws attention to the fact that distinctions between insiders/outsiders are questionable, because they are based on discriminations made by those empowered and rendered visible by their status as members of the majority.
These distinctions between insiders and outsiders come into play as Jasmine travels around the world, adopting different personas. She is given various names—Jyoti, Jasmine, Jase, and Jane—to indicate the shifting phases of her existence. Having emigrated to the United States and served as a nanny in New York for several years, Jasmine chooses exile in Elsa County, Iowa, because it is the birthplace of Duff, the adopted little girl she looked after. The money from the adoption covered Duff s mother's college tuition, and the opportunity to be her nanny offers Jasmine an escape from the stifling Indian community in Flushing. Consequently, Jasmine decides, ‘‘Iowa was a state where miracles still happened’’ (Mukherjee 1989). For Jasmine, Duff—and, by extension, the county of her birth—initially represents openness, acceptance, freedom, and caring.
Once again, the Midwest—with the community of Baden—is presented as an idyllic environment. Jasmine is offered a job as a teller and rapidly enters a relationship with Bud Ripplemayer, the bank's manager and "secular god of Baden." The breakup of Bud's first marriage causes a stir, but as Jasmine and Bud adopt Du, a Vietnamese child, and Jasmine becomes pregnant, they appear to blend back into the community of families.
Like Smiley's Ginny, Jasmine offers advice about understanding the Midwest and farmers' lives. She explains that unfed hogs sound like abused children and that farmers need to get away from their reponsibilities in winter. Additional information is reported, often originating with Bud or his ex-wife Karin: "Bud always says, of young farmers or the middle-aged ones with shaky operations, 'Look out for drinking.'’’ In this community, too, character and the success of a farm are inextricably linked: "The First Bank of Baden has survived in harsh times because Bud can read people's characters. Out here, it's character that pays the bills or doesn't, because everything else is just about equal.’’ This determination of character exists as part of a network of gossip, which is communicated over the telephone and at events such as quilt sales.
Community gossip reveals danger under the town's bucolic veneer. In contrast to the towns in the other two novels, in Elsa, violence is so frequent as to seem almost banal. ‘‘Over by Osage a man beat his wife with a spade, then hanged himself in his machine shed,’’ comments Jasmine flatly. Bud is shot and paralyzed by Harlan Kroener, ‘‘a disturbed and violent farmer,’’ and Darrel Lutz, the owner of a neighboring farm, adopts the rhetoric of hate groups and eventually commits suicide.
The violence is driven both by a literal drought and the drying up of credit, which in turn is caused by government policy. Whereas Bud "used to welcome" the state inspectors' visits,
it's become impersonal. Cranky bureaucrats, men with itchy collars and high-pitched voices, suggesting that this looks like a bad loan, and this and this, saying in pained voices that a banker who cosigns his neighbor's loan...is getting that farmer in a tougher spot.
In the communities in Smiley's and Hamilton's books, bankers are associated with the external forces destroying farms; here ‘‘[e]ven a banker is still a farmer at heart.’’ The enemies are functionaries enforcing policies that trap farmers in debt and despair, tearing apart their families.
A few farmers are able to leave for winter or to negotiate loans to develop and sell their land. Others are rooted like crops in the soil. As Karin comments bitterly (and somewhat comically), "I won a Purple ribbon in a 4H state fair with my How-to-Pack-a-Suitcase demo...but I never got to travel.’’ Yet economics alone do not determine who will go. Karin notes that ‘‘She could have [left], but she chose to stay.’’ What really traps local residents is an inability to conceptualize other parts of the world as distinct: ‘‘In Baden, the farmers are afraid to suggest I'm different....They want to make me familiar.’’ Bud never questions Jasmine about India because ‘‘it scares him;’’ to the extent that he recognizes her past, he does so in cliched terms that cast Asia as Other, unknown: ‘‘Bud courts me because I am alien. I am darkness, mystery, inscrutability." "The family's only other encounter with Asia" was when Bud's brother Vern was killed in Korea, adding to the aura of danger and silence surrounding the continent. Torn between ignoring difference and fearing its perils, the inhabitants of Elsa County have no compelling reason to leave home.
Even Jasmine denies difference. Of Florida, she says, "The landscape was not unfamiliar: monsoon season in Punjab.’’ Iowa is flat like Punjab, and the farmers there remind Jasmine of the ones she ‘‘grew up with.’’ The Indians in Flushing ‘‘had kept a certain kind of Punjab alive, even if that Punjab no longer existed,’’ so that after a while, Jasmine notices that "I had come to America and lost my English.’’ Unlike the inhabitants of Elsa County, however, Jasmine is repulsed by such similarities, especially since the greatest resemblance is in the area of regional or factional prejudice.
To the extent that Midwestern characters acknowledge the existence of otherness, they do so only to tame or domesticate it. Asia and Africa provide the women of Baden and Elsa County multiple opportunities for charitable events, such as quilt sales. These allow the women to socialize and trade news. At a fair to raise funds for starving Ethiopians, the women seem oblivious to the fact that ‘‘[e]very quilt auctioned, every jar of apple butter licked clean had helped somebody like me [Jasmine]." The merchandise consists of little more than cast-offs from local families. Instead of representing genuine compassion for the sufferings of others, the objects seem designed to elide any sign of difference or exoticism:
There was a model tractor commemorating John Deere's fortieth anniversary. All the dolls had yellow hair. It had been a simpler America. The toys weren't unusual or valuable; they were shabby, an ordinary family's cared-for memorabilia. Bud's generic past crowded in display tables. I felt too exotic, too alien.
The surface of Baden, with its deliberate and continual references to a ‘‘simpler America,’’ obscures violence and difference in the same way that the apparent fertility of the farm in A Thousand Acres hides subterranean pollution. As in Map of the World, the locals blame outsiders for the violence, but like Alice, Jasmine shows repeatedly that it is inherent in the community. Moreover, even though Jasmine remarks, "Every night the frontier creeps a little closer," immigrants remain invisible. At the hospital, Asian doctors treat women, but one has to "poke around" to find them. The stories of people like Jasmine and Du remain undocumented, outside the law and the "official" versions of the television newscasts. The silencing of foreignness exemplifies the ‘‘conservative, nostalgic’’ qualities of regionalism described by Warren Johnson, who notes that ‘‘[r]egionalism would seem to be the converse of exoticism. The depiction of the foreign and exotic frequently seeks to evoke what is repressed in the dominant culture for being extreme or excessive’’ (1994) and is thus perceived as threatening.
Despite its international flavor, then, Mukherjee's novel insists on fragmentation and regional conflict in a way that the other two works do not. From the beginning, for instance, Jasmine specifies that Baden is neither Danish or Swedish, but German. The early sections of the novel show the effects of Sikh separatism and of a terrorist attack that kills Jasmine's first husband. Not only does the murderer reappear in Central Park, but when Darrel Lutz begins to lose his sanity, he accuses Bud of being a tool of the Eastern establishment. There is even a pecking order among immigrants; Du, who is from urban Saigon, looks down on the Hmong emigres. Ironically, even though such prejudices constantly invoke difference, they ultimately render it impossible to distinguish between insiders and outsiders; the policies that create have and have-nots also spawn endless numbers of factions, and factions within factions.
Rather than embracing such fragmentation, Jasmine leaves Bud for the ‘‘perfectly American’’ Taylor, choosing a myth of nationality over the actuality of factionalism, a fiction of self-development over a narrative of entrapment. Jasmine's departure echoes Ginny's abandonment of the farm in Smiley's novel. Jasmine has changed with her names from the timid Indian widow who wanted to immolate herself to the self-sufficient Iowa farm woman tending a handicapped husband. Her ability to transform herself, gained through years of traveling and suffering, distinguishes her from the rooted Iowa women: ‘‘The world is divided between those who stay and those who leave.’’
In much canonical literature, the quest is presented as a male prerogative, while females remain at home. One could therefore argue that much regional literature is gendered as female because ‘‘characters in regional fiction are rooted’’ (Fetterley and Pryse 1992), too. In her discussions of some of the nineteenth-century texts she analyzes, Kolodny (1984) supports these assertions, tracing the historical efforts of pioneer women to cultivate their environment, rendering it homelike and familiar. Yet, even as these three novels about farming in the 1980s question ideological and social traditions, they break with literary convention by presenting female characters who choose, or are forced, to journey. Their itinerancy is instigated by the devastation of the land and the accompanying cruelty of its owners. Women such as Ginny in A Thousand Acres and Alice in A Map of the World ultimately must forge urban existences, contradicting stereotypes that gender the earth as female and portray it as freer and somehow purer than the city. Similarly, Jasmine is a traveler leaving behind natives and other migrants who have walled themselves in: "the frontier is pushing indoors through uncaulked windows’’ (Mukherjee 1989).
With its reference to the frontier and "uncaulked windows" of makeshift abodes, the conclusion of Mukherjee's novel reinscribes itself within the lore of America's past, reinforcing a notion that anything is possible for someone with the correct spirit. Indeed, Jasmine constitutes a female version of the myth of the self-made American: "We murder who we were so we can rebirth ourselves in the images of dreams" (1989). If, as she claims, the people of Elsa County are "puritans," then Jasmine is one of the Elect (1989), protected by the trinity of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva.
Jasmine's "Rescuer" (1989), the man who encourages her to escape from Iowa, is Taylor. Yet Jasmine's decision to follow Taylor is ambiguous. Jasmine presents the choice as liberatory: "I am not choosing between men. I am caught between the promise of America and old world dutifulness.’’ The America she claims for herself is one where "Adventure, risk, [and] transformation" are possible. Taylor is not taking her back to New York but to the Western edge of the country—California—which is also Du's new home. The novel concludes with the heroine "reckless from hope" (1989) like a male adventurer in a nineteenth-century novel.
But what has Jasmine chosen? She is initially attracted to Taylor because he seems ‘‘entirely American": ‘‘I fell in love with what he represented to me, a professor who served biscuits to a servant, smiled at her, and admitted her to the broad democracy of his joking, even when she didn't understand it’’ (1989). This statement makes an essentialist equation between being an upper middle class intellectual and being American, as if to be a banker/farmer in the Midwest were somehow less American (a comment that reverses many stereotypes, even as it colludes with 1980s political rhetoric against farmers). Although Jasmine denies being a ‘‘gold digger’’ (1989), one cannot help wondering about Taylor's increased attraction after Bud is paralyzed and his bank is increasingly controlled by outsiders, given the importance of financial success in the myth of the self-made American. Similarly, Jasmine's astoundingly rapid acquisition of knowledge of literary classics such as Jane Eyre, together with her ready acceptance outside the immigrant world, obscures the realities and prejudice in American society.
The world Jasmine chooses, then, is not free of the ideological illusions surrounding the Midwest of the 1980s. Like the heroines in Smiley's and Hamilton's works, one could argue that Jasmine has chosen a diminished realm and a fractured or weakened family. Taylor offers not wholeness but an ‘‘unorthodox family’’ (1989), appropriately, as he is a physicist specializing in subatomic particles. Moreover, Jasmine's departure leaves traditional family structures and roles intact; although Jasmine claims that she is relinquishing her role as a "caregiver" (1989), she initially met Taylor when she was his child's nurse, and she will continue to tend Duff. It is questionable, therefore, whether the move is truly liberatory, or whether her narrative merely reinscribes conventional gender and power relations: ‘‘As exotic caregiver, homemaker, and temptress, Jane is the model immigrant woman who says and does nothing to challenge the authority or ethnocentrism of the white American male" (Grewal 1993). If this is the case, the manual embedded in the text is not so much a guide to the Midwest as a revision of Benjamin Franklin's autobiography, another work that equates character and worldly success.
To the extent that Jasmine has learned about America, she has familiarized herself with a 1980s ideology that lays claim to classlessness but looks down on farmers, that values technology and money over the vagaries of crops, livestock, and the weather. Even though Jasmine bears the psychic and physical effects of rape, she seems reborn after killing her attacker and slicing her tongue, effectively silencing herself. The effects of this violence do not seem indelibly written on her body, although Bud is permanently crippled and can only father a child with the assistance of technology. The novel seemingly liberates Jasmine, but fails to challenge a system that traps and oppresses many Midwesterners. Similarly, the novel elides the fates of most immigrants, who continue their undocumented existences on the margins of the American economy. By leaving such social and political structures in place—and suppressing alternative stories—Jasmine bows to their power. The book gestures toward a regionalist perspective that ‘‘speaks for us, the new Americans from nontraditional immigrant countries’’ (Mukherjee 1988), but ultimately settles for a critical distance from the newly reconstituted Midwest.
Taken together with A Thousand Acres and A Map of the World, Jasmine demonstrates that fiction continues to document the complicated effects of social beliefs and economic trends on individuals, as well as the silencing of women, immigrants, and the otherwise marginalized. Like their predecessors, today's novelists express nostalgia for a more harmonious form of life; however, they reveal the flawed nature of earlier social visions and question the public's acceptance of them. In the end, the heroines leave their farms for lives in town, indicating a certain resignation among the authors to the overwhelming power of dominant ideologies concerning women, farming, and family in 1980s America.
Ultimately, the ambiguous endings of all three novels, including the heroines' mixed success at finding a more liberated existence, have significant implications for our readings of contemporary women's regionalist fiction. While this fiction succeeds in giving voice to the unheard and offering a critique of agrarian idealism, the authors are unable to conceive of a world where women can extricate themselves from powerful discourses pertaining to gender, social policy, and politics. The protagonists offer readers advice, but the advice is not what it seems, outdated, or useless. The strength of regionalist fiction—that it comments from inside the region rather than from outside—is also its weakness, for it cannot rise above community structures and social ideology. For women heroines, this means that their narratives must express nostalgia for a past that never was and dream of future unity that may never be.
Source: Amy Levin ‘‘Familiar Terrain: Domestic Ideology and Farm Policy in Three Women's Novels About the, 1980s,’’ in NWSA Journal, Vol. 11, March 22, 1999, p. 21, Jasmine.