Summary

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Last Updated June 12, 2024.

Introduction

"A Wife's Story" is a short story by Indian-born American writer Bharati Mukherjee. Published in 1988 within her collection The Middleman and Other Stories, the story explores themes of cultural identity, immigration, and the complexities of marriage.

Set in New York City, a vibrant hub of cultural exchange, the narrative follows Panna, a middle-aged woman who has left behind her traditional life in India to pursue a doctorate in special education. This bold move throws her into a world far removed from her arranged marriage and the expectations of Indian society. This brief yet intimate story invites readers to consider the experiences of immigrants who bridge cultures and the impact on personal lives and relationships.

Plot Summary

Panna attends a play by David Mamet. The play features racist jokes, with a character insulting Indian immigrants. Panna feels singled out and targeted by the play's humor, especially as she's one of the few Indian people in the audience.

Panna is frustrated by the play's casual prejudice. Back home, such a play would not be tolerated. Here, the audience laughs along, making her feel invisible and disgusted. She wants to express anger but feels trapped by her upbringing, which taught her to keep emotions hidden. Despite feeling deeply hurt, Panna stays in her seat, unable to bring herself to make a scene.

She reflects on her complicated position. Having lived in both India and the United States, Panna understands both the perspective of the immigrants being stereotyped and the frustration of the struggling salesmen in the play. She feels caught between these two worlds.

Panna's husband lives in India. Sitting beside her at the theater is Imre, her friend from a seminar. He is married with kids back in Hungary. They are both immigrants navigating a new life in the United States.

After the play ends, Imre and Panna walk down the street together. Although he also finds the show in poor taste, he tries to console Panna by telling her, "You have to let go a bit." To lighten the mood, he starts to dance in the street. Despite feeling out of place and hurt by the play's prejudice, Panna finds a strange sense of connection with Imre's goofy dance. Panna apologizes for ruining the evening, but Imre insists it is fine, so they decide to splurge for a cab home.

In the taxi, Panna reflects on her journey to America to pursue a Ph.D., which is a stark contrast to the limitations placed on her by her mother.

When Panna gets home, she finds her roommate, Charity, drinking wine on the floor. Charity, an immigrant from China, has been writing expensive checks and needs to discuss her relationship with her estranged husband, Eric.

Charity works as a hand model but spends extravagantly. She was recently involved with Phil, a musician, who seems to take advantage of her. Distressed, Charity says that her ex-husband Eric wants her back but also wants her to pay rent for his loft. 

For Panna, love is a complex matter. Her marriage was an arranged affair, as is traditional in Indian Hindu society. Nevertheless, she prepares to console her roommate late into the night.

Some hours later, Panna's husband calls from India. He says there has been a tragedy at the mill, with a firebombing resulting in the deaths of three people. Panna struggles to connect with her husband over the phone. He is devastated by the firebombing and expresses his need for her. Despite his traditional expectations of a wife, Panna admits she misses him too. Her husband plans to visit her...

(This entire section contains 1000 words.)

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in two weeks and seems to view their reunion as a romantic escape.

Panna prepares to meet her husband at the airport, putting on a sari and traditional jewelry. She acknowledges the dangers of wearing such valuables in New York.

Their reunion is bittersweet. Panna notices her husband is thinner and changed. They hold hands, but there is a sense of distance. Panna senses her husband's unease, especially when she has to take charge of the

necessities until he learns the ropes. I handle the money, buy the tickets. I don't know if this makes me unhappy.

During his visit, Panna enjoys newfound freedom and intimacy with her husband. They explore New York together, trying new foods and shopping for things they would not have considered back in India. Panna observes a playful side of her husband she never saw before, and he seems to embrace American consumer culture.

However, there are still hints of tension. Panna's husband questions the cost of things and seems suspicious of Imre's taste in movies. Panna feels some guilt about navigating between her husband and Imre.

Panna and her husband take a disappointing sightseeing tour on a crowded bus with a cheesy guide. Despite the husband's complaints, they enjoy the air conditioning and the view of the city skyline. They then take the ferry to the Statue of Liberty, an underwhelming experience, with construction scaffolding on the statue and a dirty, overpriced snack bar. 

While there, her husband makes an emotional plea for her to return to India with him. 

I've come to take you back. I have seen how men watch you.

They dance around the subject, arguing about the cost of the tour and the wasted money. While Panna tries to find a positive aspect, her husband remains focused on the corruption he has witnessed in New York and sees similarities to Bombay. Despite his words not directly accusing her of infidelity, Panna feels a sense of dread.

That night, they receive a message about a labor conflict at her husband's company. He feels obligated to return and deal with the crisis. Panna feels a mix of emotions — concern for his safety and a sense of distance as he prepares to leave. The story ends with Panna looking at her naked reflection, highlighting her newfound independence and a sense of self-discovery that may not be compatible with her traditional marriage.

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Themes