The Middleman, and Other Stories

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

Like the stories in her previous collection, Darkness (1985), the eleven stories in Bharati Mukherjee’s The Middleman and Other Stories explore, from a postcolonial perspective, the contemporary American Dream. Although the stories are not related in terms of recurring characters or settings, the subjects and themes of the stories are remarkably consistent. Mukherjee dissects the clash of cultures as her immigrant, alien (and alienated), foreign protagonists “flutter between worlds,” as Mrs. Bhave describes her state in “The Management of Grief.” This middle state is also related to the title of her book and of the initial story, “The Middleman,” a metaphor she uses in multiple senses throughout the book.

Alfred Judah, the first-person narrator in “The Middleman,” embodies the “middleman” qualities: He is literally and psychologically caught between different worlds. In an unidentified banana republic run by a corrupt president and an American fugitive from justice, Al is himself fighting extradition and attempting to survive the revolution staged by the guerrillas. In “this alien jungle” Al is “an Arab to some, an Indian to others,” a Jew whose dark skin saves him from death while his “gringo” employer is killed by revolutionaries. Al survives and intends to return to the United States, but it is difficult to “learn the ropes,” and Al admits that “there are aspects of American life I came too late for and will never understand.” The American life depicted in the story—the Ted Turner caps, the “New World skill” at opening beer bottles, the hacking away at virgin forests, and the corrupt former agent of the Central Intelligence Agency—hardly seems worth the trading the middleman undertakes at the end of the story.

“Buried Lives” also concerns an uprooted protagonist in transit, this time from his native Sri Lanka to America; like Al, however, N. K. S. Venkatesan does not reach the promised land. The story abounds in irony, since Venkatesan’s “buried life” (an allusion to Matthew Arnold’s poem) is more the product of an unconscious act of violence than a premeditated and political change of heart. In fact, when he leaves Sri Lanka, Venkatesan’s first stop is Tuticorin, India, the town his ancestors had left “to find their fortunes in Ceylon’s [Sri Lanka’s] tea-covered northern hills.” (The irony is not lost on Venkatesan.) Mukherjee’s protagonist seeks to protect his sister from exploitation by a “middleman” selling textiles to Canadian markets, but he himself is ironically the exploited victim of a go-between, a middleman who deals with human rather than manufactured exports. Rather than finding domestic bliss in the American heartland, Venkatesan becomes the fiancé of Queenie, a German woman who runs a boarding house for illegal aliens. She is not “the beauteous, the deliverer of radiant dreams” whom the narrator ironically describes.

Mukherjee focuses on the plight of the refugee in “Orbiting,” the story of a young woman attempting to reconcile her Italian-American family to her Afghan lover. In the ensuing clash of cultural values, Renata de Marco sees the Italian culture as having been adulterated by American values (Renata become “Rindy”) and the Afghan culture as providing vitality and health. She sees her father and her brother-in-law as “children” and her Afghan lover as Clint Eastwood, the anachronistic American hero who embodies American values as they existed before the failure of the American Dream. Ro, her lover, is a refugee “in orbit,” traveling by airplane from one country to another, from one transit lounge to another, until he can obtain forged papers. Though he cannot return to his home, he takes his home values with him and keeps them intact.

The shallowness of the American men/children is epitomized in Griff, the WASP protagonist of “Fighting for the Rebound.” Drawing his metaphors from sports and business, Griff is superficial and morally bankrupt, a bad loser unable to make the commitment necessary for success. Griff can deal with Blanquita, his Filipino girlfriend, only in cultural clichés (“Green Card politics”) that reflect, despite his levity, a colonial attitude: “It’s okay for a nation of pioneers to bully the rest of the world as long as the cause is just.” Since Mukherjee portrays her characters not only as individuals but also as national types, Griff thereby rationalizes his exploitive conduct toward Blanquita. Griff is not a pioneer, however, but an insecure child who reacts to Blanquita’s leaving him by finding another sexual partner. As Griff observes, “There’s a difference between exotic and foreign. . . . Real foreign is a little scary, believe me.”

The protagonists of “Fathering” and “Loose Ends” are also American males, but as Vietnam veterans they are also aliens in their own culture; they do not seem to belong. In “Fathering,” Jason’s...

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Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Bharati Mukherjee’s The Middleman, and Other Stories may be viewed as concise parables about the nature of cultural change and the overwhelming violence it can entail for the individual member or “soul” of a particular culture. The stories, different in their individual settings and mentalities, are linked by multiple themes that express and emphasize two of Mukherjee’s stated purposes: “to make my intricate and unknown world comprehensible to mainstream American writers” and not only “give voice to continents, but also to redefine the nature of America and what makes an American.” Often, her stories focus on characters who are immersed in the struggle of either escaping to America or adapting to the new world it presents once they arrive. Culturally induced incongruities abound, and these incongruities produce wrenching explorations of selfhood or humorous inconsistencies that astound the reader with the monumental misunderstandings that can occur when cultures clash.

Mukherjee’s emphasis in her writing moved to these multiple themes after she experienced painful and humiliating prejudice in her temporarily adopted country of Canada, where she lived from 1966 to 1980. She and her husband migrated in 1980 to the United States, where she completed the manuscript for The Middleman and Other Stories in 1987. The form for her various stories, as she explains, usually takes one of two types of point of view: a strong...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Although the form and content of Mukherjee’s short stories definitely reflect her overriding concern with the immigrant experience—both male and female—her tales also integrate an examination of gender-based issues as they relate to that experience. Feminine perspectives are clearly intertwined with the larger issues of fusing cultures or effecting a “new” global culture. In her longer work, the novel Jasmine, Mukherjee examines the concept of “self-murder” in order to “reinvent” oneself in necessary ways in a new culture. In The Middleman, and Other Stories, Mukherjee’s female characters often appear to submit to little deaths or effacements of character in their processing of a new identity in a new environment. Yet her women often come to a position of power, often manipulating men or the interests of men, for their own purposes (“The Middleman,” “Jasmine,” “The Tenant,” and “Fighting for the Rebound”). In other stories, the women come to know a more powerful, more aggressive self after some process of acculturation or come to experience a new sense of freedom, not delimited by racial prejudice or family perspectives (“A Wife’s Story,” “Orbiting”). As documentary works, Mukherjee’s stories and novels are profound in their understanding not only of the position of the immigrant female but also of that of the Western and so-called liberated female. In addition, the stories themselves are mini-metaphors for the predicament of any woman who must smash barriers (perceptual, racial, sexual) in order to get where or what she wants. Once Mukherjee’s heroines obtain what they want or believe they want, there is often a sense of monumental loss: Where does one go once one is beyond the pale? It is Mukherjee’s triumph that she generates both the question and the sensibility of such a state.

The Middleman, and Other Stories received the National Book Critics Circle Award, a prestigious honor that called national attention to her work. Because her work really straddles two worlds—the world of the nonnative American and the world of women in transition—it has influenced a wide range of writers, from native black American female writers who grapple with both feminist issues and the ironic sense of “foreignness” in their own country to worldwide writers beyond even the broader category of Third World writers.

Historical Context

(Short Stories for Students)

Young El Salvadoran anti-government guerrilla soldiers after attacking the village of San Francisco Javier, El Salvador Published by Gale Cengage

East Asian Immigration to the United States

Immigration to the United States from India and other South Asian countries...

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Literary Style

(Short Stories for Students)


The unnamed Central American country is evoked in full sensory detail. The weather is hot and soon the rains will...

(The entire section is 263 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Short Stories for Students)

  • 1980s: Immigration to the United States from Asian countries continues to grow as a result of the 1965 Immigration and...

(The entire section is 392 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Short Stories for Students)

  • Research historical patterns of immigration to the United States. How did those patterns change during the twentieth century, in terms of...

(The entire section is 309 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Short Stories for Students)

  • Mukherjee's novel Jasmine (1989) emerged out of the short story of the same title published in The Middleman and Other Stories....

(The entire section is 272 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Short Stories for Students)


Byers-Pevitts, Beverley, "An Interview with Bharati Mukherjee," in Speaking of the Short Story:...

(The entire section is 395 words.)


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Mukherjee, Bharati. “Immigrant Writing: Give Us Your Maximalists!” The New York Times Book Review, August 28, 1988, 28-29. Mukherjee herself speaks out regarding the declining influence of American literature because it does not speak for the immigrant per se.

Mukherjee, Bharati. “An Interview with Bharati Mukherjee.” Interview by Alison B. Carb. Massachusetts Review 29 (Winter, 1988-1989): 645-654. Examines the main thematic concerns of Mukherjee’s fiction in general. Includes some discussion of The Middleman.

Mukherjee, Bharati. “An Interview with Bharati Mukherjee.” Interview by...

(The entire section is 197 words.)