Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 566
“The Third and Final Continent” is a 1999 short story written by American author Jhumpa Lahiri. It is the ninth and final story in her critically acclaimed literary debut, the short story collection Interpreter of Maladies. The collection received positive reviews from readers and critics alike and achieved great commercial success. With her book, Jhumpa Lahiri won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and sold millions of copies.
The title is an interesting element of this story. “The Third and Final Continent” in this case refers to North America, where the main character finally settles after living in Asia (Kolkata, India) and Europe (London, England). This carries deep significance in that the story is about perseverance in the face of dislocation and adversity. Lahiri’s “The Third and Final Continent” covers a variety of socially relevant themes, such as immigration, cultural differences, love and marriage, loneliness, and tradition.
The protagonist is the narrator of the story, and he begins by sharing his experiences as a young Bengali man who is trying to finish his studies in London in 1964. Four years later, he has an arranged marriage to Mala—a woman whom he does not love and, indeed, does not even know—and then immediately moves to Boston, Massachusetts, to work in a library at MIT. There, he rents a room from an eccentric and strong-minded 103-year-old woman named Mrs. Croft for only eight dollars per week. As time goes by, he begins to get close to his landlady, slowly coming to understand her personality and worrying for her health and old age. When Mala arrives in the United States only six weeks later, he moves out of Mrs. Croft’s house, but he and his wife visit Mrs. Croft shortly before her death. Even though his marriage was arranged, he and Mala eventually fall in love with one another and have a son together, who studies at Harvard, and they live happy and prosperous lives in the United States. At the end of the story, the narrator reflects on how far he has come with a sense of wonder, referencing the three continents of the story’s title:
Whenever [my son] is discouraged, I tell him that if I can survive on three continents, then there is no obstacle he cannot conquer. While the astronauts, heroes forever, spent mere hours on the moon, I have remained in this new world for nearly thirty years. I know that my achievement is quite ordinary. I am not the only man to seek his fortune far from home, and certainly I am not the first. Still, there are times I am bewildered by each mile I have travelled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination.
With her unique writing style, Lahiri manages to create a compelling story from seemingly ordinary details. Her prose draws readers in, especially with her direct and descriptive narrative and her relatable characters. She pays attention to all the little habits that define a person’s daily routine—from eating cornflakes in the morning to sitting at the piano in the evening—and manages to capture momentum in a way that is praised by many readers. “The Third and Final Continent” is considered a noteworthy short story about culture, companionship, and society.