The Third and Final Continent

by Jhumpa Lahiri

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The Third and Final Continent Themes

The main themes in “The Third and Final Continent” are isolation and connection, and the importance of chance meetings and formative experiences.

  • Isolation and connection: All the main characters in the story are lonely and out of place for various reasons, but they find companionship with one another.
  • The importance of chance encounters and formative experiences: The narrator spends only six weeks with Mrs. Croft, but those six weeks help form his experience of the United States and his relationship with his wife. As such, the chance encounter stays with him ever after.

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Isolation and Connection

“The Third and Final Continent,” by Jhumpa Lahiri, is a story about isolation—about loneliness, foreignness, and feeling out of place in a strange world—but it is also one about connection and coming home. As the title implies, America is the third continent the narrator has lived on, and, ultimately, it is the one in which he stays, with the wife he comes to love deeply and the son who becomes a part of that culture (going to Harvard, speaking English) while retaining his Bengali heritage. In the person of the narrator’s son, the threads of the story come together, underlining the theme that the meeting of lonely people—Mala, the narrator, and Mrs. Croft—can actually lead to true togetherness.

All the main characters in the story are lonely and out of place, for various reasons. The narrator is a Bengali man who has left his homeland for England. Having come to understand the cultures of this first foreign land (where, at least, he lived with Bengali people), he is then uprooted and transplanted to another. In America, he struggles to understand new rules, such as that cars are driven on the right-hand side of the road and that an “engaged” telephone is “busy.” At the same time, he is also adrift in the metaphorical unknown country of his arranged marriage with Mala.

Mala, of course, is overtly lonely and isolated after she leaves her parents, whom she misses dreadfully, to become part of the narrator’s family. She has never fitted into her own society, having a dark complexion that dissuaded potential suitors. When she comes to America at first, she does not fit in either, being unable to speak English and feeling uncomfortable with her new husband, who is likewise uncomfortable with her.

Mrs. Croft, an eccentric old lady who lives on her own, is lonely and isolated in her own country because she is a person out of time. At the age of 103, is so old that she can no longer comprehend what is happening in the modern world. The 1969 moon landing seems astonishing to her, and the concept that men and women might talk to each other unchaperoned is unseemly. She rarely approves of or becomes friendly with anyone.

By the end of the story, however, these three lonely, isolated people have come together in their various ways. Mrs. Croft and the narrator have come to care for each other. Mrs. Croft, expressing her approval of Mala, helps the young couple to get over their initial discomfort and start to become a family. And the time the narrator spent with Mrs. Croft remains with him forever, becoming a story he tells to his son.

The Importance of Chance Meetings and Formative Experiences

“The Third and Final Continent” illustrates the importance of details, chance meetings, and formative experiences to shape a life. The narrator spent only six weeks with Mrs. Croft, but those six weeks helped form his experience of America and his relationship with his wife, Mala. As such, the chance encounter has stayed with him ever since. “Mrs. Croft’s was the first death I mourned in America,” he says, “for hers was the first life I had admired.” As a teenager in Calcutta, the narrator had mourned his father’s early death and his mother’s subsequent development of mental illness, formative experiences that have stayed with him as much as his memories of Mrs. Croft.

Like his friendship with Mrs. Croft, the narrator’s marriage to Mala owes a great deal to chance: the two have never met prior to their wedding and have been chosen for each other by their families. Yet this arranged marriage leads to a deep and lasting love, a relationship that brings happiness to both parties and results in the birth of a son. The success of this marriage was certainly not guaranteed; the narrator and his wife might have remained uncomfortable with each other for much longer if not for Mrs. Croft’s enthusiastic approval of Mala when the couple go to visit her. This experience with Mrs. Croft thus proves a formative one for the couple’s relationship, and yet, if he had never seen the advertisement for the room to rent, the narrator might never have chanced to meet Mrs. Croft at all.

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