Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 728
Mukherjee’s central concern in her work is to fictionalize the problems of immigration, expatriation, and cross-cultural assimilation. She has taken it upon herself to illuminate the marginal and almost invisible world of immigrants to North America—most of them South Asian, and others, increasingly, from Third World countries—who pull up their traditional roots and arrive in the New World with dreams of wealth, success, and freedom. She dramatizes the conflict between their old belief systems and the New World ethos, and lends an artistic voice to their experiences of trauma and triumph.
In Wife, she presents the psychological portrait of a young Bengali woman who experiences problems of adjustment to an alien culture and, in the process, undergoes traumatic changes—social, cultural, and psychological. The novel focuses on her acute sense of displacement and gradually heads toward her total alienation: “She was so much worse than ever, more lonely, more cut off from Amit, from the Indians, left alone with borrowed disguises. She felt like a shadow without feelings.” The novel also indicts the traditional Indian system of arranged marriage, which pushes women into oppressive roles in a dominantly patriarchal culture.
Like countless other middle-class Hindu girls in India, Dimple Dasgupta has been reared to emulate the role model of Sita, the archetype of ideal Indian womanhood in the Ramayana, who has been used for centuries to impose ideological hegemony of patriarchal culture. Subconsciously, in her premarital, tradition-bound dreams, she imagines herself to be Sita, who stood the test of fire at her husband’s request. After marriage, however, living with her husband’s extended family drives her crazy, and she feels oppressed and frustrated by playing the role that is expected of a Bengali wife. Her unrealistic expectations of love, freedom, and self-realization in marriage are not reconciled with the hard realities of her wedded life with Amit. Once again, Sita’s image is evoked in a letter to the editor in an English magazine, adulating the virtues of “sacrifice, responsibility, and patience” in an ideal Hindu wife. The editor’s comment, used to mock the age-old tradition of emulating Sita, seems to reflect the author’s feminist stance: “What was sauce for Sita may no longer be sauce for us.”
Dimple catches the hint and begins to question the values of traditional Indian culture, which sets high ideals for women but treats them as marginal persons in society. Thinking about her own husband’s expectations, she reflects: “. . . all her life she had been trained to please. He expected her, like Sita, to jump into the fire if necessary.” In real life, however, women who jump into fire are destroyed or maimed. Dimple, therefore, cannot realize this ideal of wifehood and remain intact. Her inability to be like Sita in a literal sense creates a schism in her personality, resulting in an inward rage beneath her docile exterior. To emancipate herself from the oppressive hold of patriarchal Hindu culture, she looks to the New World as a passport to freedom.
Although Dimple continues to behave like a dutiful wife after her arrival in New York, her docile behavior in the presence of her friends belies her internalized frustration and violence. Inwardly, she feels like an imploding star. She conceives numerous ways to commit suicide: Setting fire to her sari, slicing her jugular vein in a warm shower, and inhaling aerosol pesticides are a few of the methods she imagines. She also conjures fantasies to destroy her symbolic oppressor, her husband Amit. The terrifying freedom offered by America lures her to break loose from the constrictive marriage arranged by her father. She asserts her sexual independence by having an affair with Milt Glasser. Her transgressions in Marsha’s clothes are her rebellious gestures to assert herself and to break with her cultural past. In a symbolic hallucination scene at the end of the book, she sees herself as a bird in a cage held by Amit. Milt stands outside the cage and pokes her with a stick until she is a “mangled, bleeding mess.” The sexual overtones of the scene are obvious. In an ironic reversal, instead of committing suicide, she murders her husband to free herself from her marriage-cage. Her seven stabs to kill Amit are a symbolic repudiation of the seven rounds she took with him around sacrificial fire to solemnize a Hindu marriage.
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