Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 491

Primarily an immigrant narrative, Jasmine explores the process of Americanization and brings out the conflict between assimilation and cultural preservation. It is a poignant story of survival, expediency, compromises, losses, and adjustments involved in the process of acculturation to American life. As Jasmine says in the novel, “There are no...

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Primarily an immigrant narrative, Jasmine explores the process of Americanization and brings out the conflict between assimilation and cultural preservation. It is a poignant story of survival, expediency, compromises, losses, and adjustments involved in the process of acculturation to American life. As Jasmine says in the novel, “There are no harmless, compassionate ways to remake oneself. We murder who we were so we can rebirth ourselves in the images of dreams.”

The process of rebirth, even in a metaphoric sense, has been extremely painful for both Jasmine and Du. Both have confronted death closely, endured severe hardships, suffered horrible indignities, and survived. Jasmine calls her own transformation “genetic,” whereas Du’s was “hyphenated.” In her desire for assimilation into mainstream America, Jasmine immolates her Jyoti-Jasmine self to burn her Hindu past. To accomplish her genetic transformation, she conceives a child by a white American from the heartland and feels potent in her pregnancy, as if she is “cocooning a cosmos.”

Du, on the other hand, has retained his identity as a Vietnamese American. A survivor and an adapter, he learns to camouflage himself within the expectations of others, but he instinctively resists the idea of the American melting pot. Although it seems that he is fast becoming all-American, he keeps his language and ethnic heritage alive by secretly keeping in touch with the Vietnamese community. Like Jasmine, he too experiences three lives—one in Saigon, the other in a refugee camp, and the third as Yogi Ripplemeyer—but he never severs his connection completely from his roots. Du’s character exemplifies that in a multicultural society one does not have to erase one’s ethnic identity entirely to become an “American.”

The novel also portrays the problems of immigrants who arrive in the United States with dreams of wealth and success but find it difficult to adjust to the new environment and ethos. Mukherjee probes such troubles through the character of Professor Devinder Vadhera, once a scientist in India, now working as an importer of human hair in Flushing, New York. He does not like his job, but he needs to work to support his wife and old parents. To adapt to his new environment, he undergoes a name change and becomes a diminutive “Dave.” He lives in a ghetto, always feels stressed, and complains that America is killing him. He regards Flushing as a neighborhood in Jullundhar and encloses himself in “the fortress of Punjabiness,” artificially created in his home environment. According to the narrator, Vadhera “had sealed his heart when he’d left home. His real life was in an unlivable land across oceans. He was a ghost, hanging on.”

The novel obviously moves from Vadhera’s cultural isolation to Jasmine’s intense longing for assimilation. Since the novel focuses on the physical, emotional, and intellectual growth of the female protagonist and her quest for self-determination and identity, it can also be viewed as a Bildungsroman, or rite-of-passage novel.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 431

Bharati Mukherjee’s major concern in her fiction is to explore the problems of emigration and assimilation, on both physical and psychological levels. In “Jasmine,” she fictionalizes the process of Americanization by exploring the experiences of a young Trinidadian woman who, driven by ambition and adventure, pulls up her traditional roots and arrives in the New World to forge a new identity for herself. In her exuberance, she views her illegal entry into the United States as a “smooth, bargain-priced emigration.” Thinking exclusively in economic terms, she is unaware of the real price involved in the bargain. Ironically, she is exploited by both her own countrymen, the Daboos, and her new American employers, the Moffitts. In both positions, she is nothing more than a live-in domestic servant, although the Moffitts euphemistically call her a mother’s helper. She does not tell the Moffitts that in Trinidad her family also kept servants. Her adventure thus becomes a story of survival, expediency, and the losses, compromises, and adjustment involved in the process of assimilation into mainstream America. At the end of the story, her half-willingly letting her employer seduce her symbolically suggests the seductive power that the United States wields over new immigrants.

In an interview published in The Canadian Fiction Magazine, Mukherjee asserts that immigration is a positive act for her characters, for “the breaking away from rigidly predictable lives frees them to invent more satisfying pasts, and gives them a chance to make their futures in ways that they could not have in the Old World.” Mukherjee’s remarks apply to Jasmine, who first breaks away from her past by cutting herself off from the Daboos and anything too reminiscent of the island, and then conveniently reinvents a new narrative of her past for the Moffitts to make her shabby island hometown sound romantic. Her inventiveness is instantly noticed by Lara, who discerns in Jasmine the creative talent of an actor or a writer.

The open-ended conclusion of the story makes the reader wonder how Jasmine will invent the narrative of her future life in the United States. Will her instinct for survival make her try to blackmail Bill or break up his marriage so she can live with him and secure the status of a legal U.S. resident? Ironically, in Jasmine’s moment of ecstasy, the narrator seems to use both the spur and the curb to simultaneously unleash and undermine her unbridled fancy by describing her as “a girl rushing wildly into the future.”

As an immigrant narrative, the story shows noticeable affinities with Mukherjee’s novel, Jasmine (1989).

Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1469

Rebirth
The major theme of rebirth plays out literally and figuratively in Jasmine. In literal language, every word is truthful, whereas figurative language is used for a certain effect. Figurative language might be exaggerated, or embellished, or used to help access otherwise difficult-to-grasp concepts. The opening line, ‘‘Lifetimes ago,’’ hints at all the transformations the title character has undergone. Mukherjee consistently highlights this theme, making authorial connections between the fictional action and its significance as a subject under investigation. The narrator says, "There are no harmless, compassionate ways to remake oneself.’’ And, ‘‘I picked [Sam] up and held him. Truly I had been reborn.’’

Jasmine undergoes life transformations, or metaphorical rebirths. Dr. Mary Webb shares with Jasmine her belief in literal rebirth, or reincarnation. Mary claims to have been a black Australian aborigine in a past life. When channeling this past life, she speaks tribal languages. MaLeela, Mary's guru, inhabits a battered, suicidal Canadian wife's body. Mary has presumably confided in Jasmine because she is Hindu. Mary understands that Hindus keep revisiting the world. Jasmine admits that, "yes, I am sure that I have been reborn several times, and that yes, some lives I can recall vividly.’’

This further blurs the distinction between the figurative and the literal. Jasmine never gets into details of these rebirths. When Jasmine, the narrator, considers the concept of an eternal soul, she thinks of distinct stages of her present twenty-four-year-old-life: her youth in Hasnpur, her blissful time in Manhattan, her life in Baden, Iowa. Are these the past lives she means to confide to Mary Webb?

This melding of literal and figurative underlines the importance of the metaphors. It's as if Mukherjee means to say that the experience of a person's self-reinvention is so powerful as to be real.

Identity
Tied to the theme of rebirth is the theme of identity. This is the most persistent motif in Jasmine, infiltrating every aspect of the story. The most obvious manifestation of identity comes in the title character's name. When Jyoti marries Prakash, a modern Indian man, she becomes Jasmine. Lillian Gordon calls her Jazzy, Taylor names her Jase, and Bud Ripplemeyer gives her the name Jane. With each name comes a new identity, a rebirth of sorts, replete with new personality traits.

The narrator says, ‘‘I shuttled between two identities.’’ Other characters, and Jasmine herself, even speak of these splinter personalities in the third person, as if they really did exist independently. She says, "Jyoti of Hasnapur was not Jasmine."

Prakash says, ‘‘You are Jasmine now. You can't jump into wells.’’ Prakash characterizes Jyoti as feudal. Prakash wants Jasmine to call him by his first name, rather than the pronoun used in traditional address between women and men. This identity helps create a semblance of equality between husband and wife in the male-dominated society.

Jasmine seems to like most the name Taylor gave her. "Jase was a woman who bought herself spangled heels and silk chartreuse pants.’’ Indeed, each of Jasmine's identities has distinct characteristics. ‘‘Jyoti would have saved...Jasmine lived for the future, for Vijh & Wife. Jase went to the movies and lived for today...’’

The theme of identity also pertains to place. Jasmine's name, her identity, changes with each locale. The notable exception to this is Flushing, New York, where the narrator's name is never mentioned. Whereas Jasmine forged a distinctive identity in every other place, the Flushing apartment building filled with Punjabis did not represent significant change.

Free Will vs. Predestination
Hinduism and Western notions of self-reliance oppose each other in this debate. Believers in predestination accept the idea that a higher power designs all events. Believers in free will think that each person has the power to change the course of events. In the opening chapter, the astrologer accurately predicts Jasmine's fate of widowhood and exile. This seems to support predestination, which is sometimes loosely referred to as fate. As the novel ends, however, Jasmine boldly decides to change her life, to exert free will.

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.

Jasmine's childhood is a time when she seeks to break free from her inherited circumstances. In one dramatic scene, Jasmine kills a mad dog with a staff. A Westerner would surely credit Jasmine for having saved her own life. Dida, however, knows God willed it to happen that way.

The scenes in which Jasmine's partners are assaulted heighten the debate. Prakash, an Indian, gets killed by a bomb. During the death scene, a voice shouts ‘‘The girl's alive. This is fate.’’ Later, Dida claims that God, displeased with Prakash and Jasmine's modern ways, sent Sukkhi to murder him. Jasmine, even at this early stage of her development, shows an unsteady relationship to fate. She says, "if God sent Sukkhi to kill my husband, then I renounce God. I spit on God.’’ Before Bud gets shot, he tries to communicate covertly his grave situation to Jasmine. But she doesn't understand that Harlan Kroener is about to shoot her partner, and cannot process any of the signals. In retrospect, she realizes that her son Du or Bud's ex-wife Karin would surely have summoned the sheriff and halted the assault. In other words, an act of free will would have changed Bud's fate.

Jasmine clearly exerts free will in her decision to join Taylor and Duff on their trip to California. Earlier in the novel, Jasmine and Taylor disagree about that very topic. The narrator takes a humble position, though the question marks indicate that she leaves room for error. "The scale of Brahma is vast, as vast as space in the universe. Why shouldn't our lives be infinitesimal? Aren't all lives, viewed that way, equally small?’’ Taylor believes that Jasmine's take on the subject is a formula for "Total fatalism.’’

Gender and Sexual Politics
Sex and power are closely linked in Jasmine's life. As a Punjabi peasant woman, Jasmine would naturally have a servile relationship to men. She would be expected, in her homeland, to make herself useful to the male society. We see this even in her relationship to Prakash, a modern Indian man. There is never a thought that Jasmine will pursue an education, get work, and in that way help the couple realize their dreams. Rather, she plays a supporting role to Prakash's education and work. Jasmine carries this attitude with her to America, where she spends five months in Flushing living the life that Professorji plots for her. She even kisses his feet when he agrees to help her get a green card.

Jasmine says, "I have had a husband for each of the women I have been. Prakash for Jasmine. Taylor for Jase. Bud for Jane. Half-Face for Kali."

But Mukherjee depicts sex as being an act that somehow shifts the power balance. Prakash encourages a free exchange of ideas with Jasmine. He is nine years older, however, and always demonstrates a superiority in reasoning. Mukherjee juxtaposes a scene in which Jasmine is defeated intellectually with a scene of the couple in the throes of sex. Prakash says, ‘‘Jasmine...help me be a better person.’’

Taylor, another sensitive and liberal man, pays Jasmine's salary. He provides her food and shelter. Though he promotes equality, Jasmine cannot treat him as anything but a superior—until the night when they consummate their relationship: ‘‘I am leading Taylor to a bed as wide as a subcontinent, I am laying my cheek on his warm cheek, I am closing his eyes with my caregiving fingertips, I am tucking the mosquito netting tight under his and Wylie's king-sized mattress." Here, again, Jasmine wrestles the power away from her male counterpart.

Bud, despite his disability, manages to be the head of the household. He manages, still, to be a leader in the community. When it comes to sex, however, Jasmine is entirely in charge. ‘‘It shames Bud that now, for sex, I must do all the work, all the moving, that I will always be on top.’’

With sex comes power and with power violence. Half-Face rapes Jasmine on her first day in America. He surely will rape her again. She might not survive his brutality. She kills him not out of revenge, it seems, but rather fear.

Alienation
The astrologer predicts Jasmine's exile. Throughout the novel, Mukherjee reminds the reader of Jasmine, the immigrant's, alienation in a foreign land. The most dramatic example of this is when Taylor sends her a postcard of a revolutionary's wife who ended up living among strangers.

Fear
Mukherjee returns again and again to the imaginary window shade Jasmine pulls down to close out the world: "Taylor the Rescuer is on his way here. He taught me to yank down that window shade."

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