The Management of Grief

by Bharati Mukherjee

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Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 625

When The Middleman and Other Stories, the book of short stories that includes "The Management of Grief," appeared in 1988, it won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction and met with great critical success. In the New York Times Book Review, Jonathan Raban praised Mukherjee's style and her growth since Darkness, her first book of short stories. "Her writing here is far quicker," he wrote, finding "no slack in it." Dinah Birch, in the London Review of Books, wrote that The Middleman and Other Stories "presents a razor-sharp reflection of a world which is disconnected, but not without hope."

Critical commentary on the stories since then has centered on two issues, namely, Mukherjee's representations of gender and of the immigrant experience. Though critics Arvindra Sant-Wade and Karen Marguerite Radell, writing in Studies in Short Fiction, do not talk specifically about "The Management of Grief," they find in Mukherjee's stories a "sense of floating" that "is the key to the immigrant woman's experience," a sense that does come through in "The Management of Grief." Suchitra Mathur, in Feminist Writers, sees a development in Mukherjee's fiction, "from an emphasis on the liberating potential of American individualism" to the ideas in The Middleman and Other Stories which explore "the possibilities of cross-national/cross cultural alliances that deconstruct rigid East/West oppositions and foster the construction of a self-affirming hybrid identity for women." Thus the woman immigrant has a certain freedom that allows her to assert herself in unique ways.

Much of what can be said of the woman immigrant can, of course, also be said of any immigrant, and most criticism on the stories has talked of immigration and the postcolonial experience with less attention to gender. Many have praised Mukherjee's work for its representation of the immigrant experience. But critics do not agree on whether Mukherjee has tried to go too far. Though her stories show "an awareness of the complex multiplicity of immigrant experiences," as Suchitra Mathur writes in Feminist Writers, critics such as Gail Ching-Liang Low, writing in Women: A Cultural Review, chide Mukherjee for "seeming not to be concerned with preserving cultural identities" and not wanting "to be labeled an 'Indian' writer."

If Low criticizes Mukherjee for not being "Indian" enough, Alpana Sharma Knippling, in an essay in Bharati Mukherjee: Critical Perspectives, scolds Mukherjee for trying to speak for the experiences of others. She reminds the critical world that Mukherjee led a privileged life as an upper-class Indian and has spent most of her life in the West. Therefore she does not, argues Knippling, have the right or the ability to speak for poor immigrants or immigrants from other cultures, as she tries to do in some of the stories in The Middleman and Other Stories. "She homogenizes her ethnic minority immigrant subjects, instead of calling attention to the actual heterogeneity of ethnic minority immigrant subjects in the United States."

Mukherjee, in her own defense against such attacks, emphasizes the American melting pot of culture, grouping herself among "the new Americans from nontraditional immigrant countries" in a New York Times Book Review article. "Each of us, mainstream or minority, is having to change. It's a two way metamorphosis," Mukherjee explained in an interview with Patricia Holt in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Though "The Management of Grief" may avoid some of the critical attacks made on Mukherjee's work as a whole, since Shaila is, like Mukherjee, an upper-class Indian woman, it still shows the immigrant trying to bridge two cultures. In so doing, it is part of a body of work that Gita Rajan, in Writers of the Indian Diaspora, calls "problematic," one that will continue to "demand a sustained inquiry by the reader into the issues that Mukherjee raises—personal, sociopolitical, and cultural."

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Essays and Criticism