(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

“America keeps sending these ambiguous messages,” and Jane Ripplemeyer—also known as Jasmine and Jyoti Prakash—keeps trying to decipher them. So, through her, does the reader. The narrator of Jasmine, Bharati Mukherjee’s first book since The Middleman and Other Stories, which won the 1988 National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction, is, like her author, a newcomer to the United States. Immigrants from India, both gaze at this country through the kinds of eyes not commonly found in American literature.

Jane, in fact, believes herself endowed with special ocular advantages. At the age of seven, in her native village of Hasnapur, Jyoti (whose name means “light” in Punjabi) slips and falls headfirst after hearing an astrologer prophesy widowhood and exile. She emerges with a permanent star-shaped wound engraved on her forehead.

“It’s not a scar,” she tells her sisters, “it’s my third eye.” With the aid of that third eye, the twenty-four-year-old narrator tells the reader how, “greedy with wants and reckless from hope,” she moves from the Punjab to Florida, New York, Iowa, and California. Jasmine recognizes intimations of a reality beyond physical vision. She describes her attraction to future husband Prakash Vijh as a case of “love before first sight.”

Born in a mud hut without water or electricity, the seventh of nine children, Jyoti is almost strangled by her mother to spare her daughter the anguish of nubility without a dowry. She chafes against a feudal patriarchal upbringing by insisting on an education. At the age of fifteen, she marries Prakash Vijh, a brilliant young electronics student who wants a modern, liberated spouse and renames her Jasmine. The couple’s dreams of business and marital partnership explode in the Sikh terrorist bomb that kills Prakash. Jasmine journeys to the United States, with the intentions of a traditional widow, to immolate herself on the campus of Florida International Institute of Technology, where, at the urging of his mentor Devinder Vadhera, Prakash had planned to study.

An undocumented alien raped by the repulsive sea captain who smuggles her ashore, Jasmine first sees an American landscape devoid of anything as inspiring as the Statue of Liberty; sneaking off the boat near a graceless nuclear power plant, she wades “through Eden’s waste: plastic bottles, floating oranges, boards, sodden boxes, white and green plastic sacks tied shut but picked open by birds and pulled apart by crabs.” Her first American food is from Dairy Queen, and her first American job, after fleeing a claustrophobic Hindu household in Queens, is as an au pair girl with an attractive faculty couple in Manhattan. She becomes an American, she tells us, in an enlightened household across the street from a Barnard College dormitory. When the husband, physicist Taylor Hayes, becomes attracted to her, she flees to Iowa.

Bud Ripplemeyer, a fifty-three-year-old banker in Elsa County, Iowa, abandons his wife Karin to live with the plucky Asian vagabond, whom he prefers to call Jane and would like to marry. Bud and Jane adopt a Vietnamese refugee, Du Thien, who, like his new mother, is part of that vast, motley, and otherwise invisible army of modern wanderers that Mukherjee is keen on making her reader see: “We are the outcasts and deportees,” says Jasmine, “strange pilgrims visiting outlandish shrines, landing at...

(The entire section is 1405 words.)

Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Written in a playful and racy style, punctuated with the vernacular of the island, the story develops an ironic perspective on the problem of emigration and assimilation. Mukherjee uses the limited omniscient third-person point of view to make Jasmine the center of consciousness in the story. Throughout the narrative, the focus is on the actions, thoughts, feelings, and inner workings of Jasmine’s mind. Although she herself does not speak much in the story, the entire process of emigration and assimilation is seen from the viewpoint of this starry-eyed optimist. Through this narrative technique, the author makes the reader aware of Jasmine’s class consciousness, her sense of superiority over the Daboos, her effort to deceive the Moffitts in inventing a suitable story of her home and family, and her subliminal desire to usurp the Moffitts’ marriage with a view to building a family of her own.

The author also uses Jasmine’s wide-eyed naïveté and her ignorance about the American way of life to develop an ironic perspective on the process of Americanization. Jasmine’s knowledge about the United States is limited to stories she heard about other Trinidadian girls who had gone there. As such, even her working conditions with the Daboos seem to her like a good deal, although Loretta sees her as nothing more than her father’s drudge. Similarly, she thinks that her job with the Moffitts as mother’s helper is as good as anyone’s, but the narrator undercuts her view by parenthetically inserting that “Americans were good with words to cover their shame.” Again, when she calls herself the flower of Ann Arbor, not Trinidad, as she surrenders her body to Bill, the omniscient narrator comments that “she forgot all the dreariness of her new life and gave herself up to it.” Thus, the narrative technique allows Mukherjee to celebrate what she calls “the exuberance of immigration,” the process of Americanization with all of its gains and losses.

Historical Context

(Literature of Developing Nations for Students)

The Partition Riots
Jasmine, the title character and narrator of Bharati Mukherjee's novel, was born 18 years after India's...

(The entire section is 879 words.)

Literary Style

(Literature of Developing Nations for Students)

In Jasmine, the time, place, and culture of the action constantly shifts. The narrator tells of events that...

(The entire section is 1104 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Literature of Developing Nations for Students)

When Dr. Mary Webb and Jasmine meet for lunch at The University Club, they discuss reincarnation. What is reincarnation? Name at least three...

(The entire section is 212 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Literature of Developing Nations for Students)

In The Mistress of Spices (1997), a novel of magic and everyday life by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, the heroine, Tilo, forgoes a life...

(The entire section is 288 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Boire, Gary. “Eyre and Anglos.” Review of Jasmine, by Bharati Mukherjee. Canadian Literature 132 (Spring, 1992): 160-161. In this highly suggestive review, Boire views Jasmine as “the paradigmatic postcolonial’ narrative.” He points out that young Jyoti’s abandonment of novels by Charles Dickens and Charlotte Brontë because she found them too difficult to read, is significant because it symbolizes the author’s “own need to rewrite’ past literary and political wrongs” by rejecting well-known icons of the British Empire.

Chua, C. L. “Passages from India: Migrating to America in the Fiction of V. S....

(The entire section is 561 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Literature of Developing Nations for Students)

Banerjee, Debjani, article, in Bharati Mukherjee: Critical Perspectives, edited by Emmanuel S. Nelson, Garland...

(The entire section is 323 words.)