The Third and Final Continent

by Jhumpa Lahiri

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Last Updated on October 25, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 600

During the flight I read “The Student Guide to North America,” for although I was no longer a student, I was on a budget all the same. I learned that Americans drove on the right side of the road, not the left, and that they called a lift an elevator and an engaged phone busy. “The pace of life in North America is different from Britain, as you will soon discover,” the guidebook informed me.

In this passage, the unnamed narrator prepares for his new life in America. Although he has lived in England, he realizes that life in the United States will be different. For example, the English drive on the left side of the road, as is the case with many former British colonies. The narrator finds life in America a cultural adjustment, despite his experience living in a Western country (England).

I went to a supermarket called Purity Supreme, wandering up and down the aisles, comparing prices with those in England. In the end I bought a carton of milk and a box of cornflakes. This was my first meal in America. Even the simple chore of buying milk was new to me; in London we’d had bottles delivered each morning to our door.

In the second quote, we see the degree to which the narrator must adjust his expectations about living in America. Naturally, he instinctively falls back on what he knows about English culture and customs to navigate American society. This is why even the “simple chore of buying milk” is a new experience for him.

But she was not satisfied with my reply.

Instead she commanded, “Say ‘Splendid!’ ”

I was both baffled and somewhat insulted by the request. It reminded me of the way I was taught multiplication tables as a child, repeating after the master, sitting cross-legged on the floor of my one-room Tollygunge school. It also reminded me of my wedding, when I had repeated endless Sanskrit verses after the priest, verses I barely understood, which joined me to my wife.

I said nothing.

“Say ‘Splendid!’ ” the woman bellowed once again. “Splendid,” I murmured.

I had to repeat the word a second time at the top of my lungs, so she could hear. I was reluctant to raise my voice to an elderly woman, but she did not appear to be offended. If anything the reply pleased her, because her next command was: “Go see the room!”

In the above quotation, the narrator relates his initial interactions with his landlady, Mrs. Croft. To the narrator, Mrs. Croft is an anachronism. She is strangely out of place in modern American culture. Specifically, Mrs. Croft still holds old-fashioned views about social interactions between men and women. Additionally, she expects to be treated with Old World courtesy and prefers to rent only to students from Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or MIT (which she calls “Tech”).

For his part, the narrator understands Mrs. Croft’s old-fashioned views. After all, he must navigate similar expectations in his own culture. In accordance with these expectations, he submits to marrying a woman of his brother’s choosing.

Later in the story, we discover that the narrator's early marital days are less than satisfying. His wife, Mala, irritates him with her old-fashioned ways. When she weeps with longing for her parents, the narrator finds himself unsympathetic. As a result, he fails to console her. However, just as he eventually embraces Mrs. Croft’s eccentric ways, the narrator also develops a new camaraderie with Mala. In this, the narrator finally becomes secure in his Indian American identity.

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