Monday, September 20, 2021

The Notion of selfhood in Bharati Mukherjee’s ‘Wife’ and ‘Jasmine’ : A Comparative Study – Reetika Jamwal, Himachal Pradesh


Bharati Mukherjee, an Indian- American immigrant author, and a professor of English at the University of California represents in her novels the contemporary woman’s struggle to define herself and attain an autonomous selfhood, esp. in cross- cultural crisis, a subject which has assumed a great significance in the present world of globalization. She endeavored to dive deep into the distorted psyche of those immigrants who have been surviving in the conflict of traditional Indian values; inherent in their personality and their fascination for western mode of living that they have chosen out of their professional compulsions or for their urge to achieve a greater freedom in liberal and dynamic society of America. Framed with the didactics of immigrants and emigrant, the thematic difference of which centers much of Bharati Mukherjee’s fiction, her focus remains the predicament of migrant entities and the possibilities for absorption and rejection in the new world. This is a comparative study of her two novels Wife and Jasmine. The paper explores the myriad of variegated experiences that the protagonists undergo to transmutate. It is constantly the question of self/ other, that is to say the mutation outside triggers a chain reaction within the soul of each character and they are busy fathoming each given situation.

‘Self’1, in this paper, is being appreciated in the sense that the protagonist not only proximate the hiatus between their little ‘self’ and the vast ‘world’ and while transcending the banalities of their life situations, also reach an entelechy. It does not impute, however that the protagonists experience the absolute and the numinous but that in the matrix of their being, they identify the personal ‘I’ with the generalized ‘other’ and thus alter, broaden and refine their consciousness. Self-perception, an act integral to human identity formation, is in fact learned during the first few years of life. In perceiving oneself, there is an inherent duality, for one is able to distinguish between oneself and one’s duplicated reflection, or in Lacanian terminology, “one must differentiate between ‘I’ and Not-‘l’ at the core of self-definition. This sense of duality also extends to one’s surrounding environment, manifested in the fact that the reflected self (Not-I) exists in what appears to be a separate (albeit similar) space. The role of environment is further complicated if one examines its effects upon the individual, for one’s spatial and temporal locations not only influence one’s self-perception, but also have the power to entirely transform one’s very identity.

As the protagonist of Bharati Mukherjee live in between the push and pull of opposing cultural forces, the result is the creation of a ‘self’ that is as multiple as the different components that helped to compromise it.

In case of Dimple, the protagonist of the novel, Wife, (1975) it is constant fight within the- bonded and enchained Dimple who wants freedom and love .Brought up in an upper middle class conservative environment, she leads a protected life throughout and as expected from a girl of Hindu traditional family is shy, docile and submissive. For Dimple, the agency for ‘freedom’ is after marriage as imbibed in her psyche. So she starts awaiting marriage with all her fantasies fed by magazines and films. “Marriage would bring her freedom . . . Marriage would bring her love” (3). On the other hand Jyoti the protagonist of Jasmine being the seventh daughter who was literally strangled to death by her grandmother is a survivor and fighter from the beginning. She despite the feudal set up asserts that she wants to go to school and get educated. For her “to study English is to know the world” (Jasmine 68). She never wanted to be “dumb driven cattle”(69). Both Dimple and Jasmine get married but Dimple gets married to a guy of her father’s choice and Jasmine chooses Prakash though she gets a support of her brothers (an external agency). Now the role of ‘other’ the husband as mentor in the development of self- perception comes. Amit is caring but takes Dimple for granted the day they get married. Prakash on the other hand sees Jyoti as an individual and wants her to grow and blossom and helps in grooming her. He names her Jasmine. Jasmine has no complex regarding her looks whereas Dimple is always conscious of her physical attributes esp. her small bust size. She craves attention from Amit but to no avail. The passion and fulfillment that Dimple thought “would become magically lucid on her wedding day” (9) eludes her once she is married, as Amit her husband fails Dimple on all grounds mental, emotional and physical. She attempts at being the ideal wife, her ideal being the archetype ‘Sita’ (dutiful and docile) and also like the archetype Rambha, the celestial angel tries all sorts of gimmicks to entice her husband but her physical attributes go unnoticed. She was just learning to compromise with fate but the news of their going to U.S brings a ray of hope to her sullen life. She again starts having hopes of freedom from the ‘other’ agency that is America which defines a new concept of freedom which is alluring to her senses. But again faces disillusionment as, instead of interacting with the ‘real’ America she takes shelter in the ‘reel’ America. Amit wants her to interact with people but is apprehensive about her becoming too American. She is doomed to her world of fantasies hiding her yearnings from her husband. Lack of communication between the two stifles and chokes Dimple’s voice and disintegrates her sensibility. She has nightmares of violence, of suicide and of death. She feels attracted towards Milt Glaser ‘the exotic other’, who makes her feel good but she does not have the grit to find a foothold for herself because her strings are in her husband’s hands who lets them loose according to his own ego. Naturally the husband becomes an adversary when he is not as per her fantasies. Torn between the struggle of self to go out and to adapt, her struggle is limited to her fantasies, a symbolic struggle to adaptation. Continuously living a forced identity causes a lacerated self. Her insecurities due to indisposition of character take refuge into subterfuging her real emotions from everyone. “Her continuous dream about her having been murdered is rebirthing of a new sensual Dimple who craves attention” (Singh 68). The fight to control ‘self’ to refrain and restrain the natural instincts of sensuality, dreams and expectations from marriage would not have been so difficult for Dimple, if she had remained in India. But when faced with the ‘other’ that is to say America and its open society expedites the hunger in Dimple to refashion her ‘self’ and the amalgamation is not easy. Disillusioned, disoriented and unable to grapple with the conflict she turns into a psychopath and stabs Amit seven times thus setting her free from him for the so called ‘Saat Janam’ concept. The point of suppressing feelings and how adversely it affects one’s behaviour eventually resulting in “conflict” is corroborated by eminent psychologists, Calvin S. Hall and Gardner Lindzey in their book Theories of Personality:

The denial does not mean that the feelings cease to exist; they will still influence his behavior in various ways even though they are not conscious. A conflict will, then, exist between the interjected and spurious conscious values and the genuine unconscious ones. (Hall and Lindzey 289)

“Her act in killing Amit is more like relinquishing of her ‘self’, says Vandna Singh (Singh 69). The long drawn subjugating factor in Dimples life is now banished because instead of finishing herself, she in order to resurrect herself, has finished the distress in her life. The question arises; couldn’t Dimple have taken divorce or left Amit? But again, does she have the strength? The decision to kill is in a frenzied state of mind which is momentous. It is not planned. The self consciousness is an intricate part of Dimple’s personality which proves to be self destructive. The forced self- abnegation is not sustained for a very long time.

Unlike Dimple, Jyoti was fortunate to get the ‘other’ (the external agency in the shape of her brothers and husband) who support her and nurture her spirits instead of suppressing them but the same fate snatches the agency that is her husband from her when she had just started her life, leaving her shattered and heartbroken at the age of seventeen. But instead of succumbing to fate and leading a life of widowhood she sets for America, of course with the help of her brothers. “Prakash had taken Jyoti and created Jasmine, and Jasmine would complete the mission of Prakash” (63).Upon her arrival in Florida, Half-Face, the captain of the ship, reveals his true intentions and rapes her. Unlike Prakash, Half-Face sees her as a whore, “one prime little piece” whom he has but “one use” for. Suddenly, Jasmine is recognized for nothing else save her existence as a sexual being, and after the rape, she becomes filled with shame and fear of her sexuality due to the manner in which Half-Face sees her. “I determined to clean my body as it had never been cleaned, with the small wrapped bar of soap, and to purify my soul with all the prayers I could remember” (69).Yet Jasmine finds that she cannot escape her new perception of sex, and thus turns to violence in order to express the conflict she is experiencing between the sexual identity she had with Prakash and that which she has with Half-Face. Jasmine then stabs Half-Face to death and in this act finds the strength to continue living instead of committing “Sati” over the burned clothing of her husband (her original intent in coming to America). C.Sengupta delineates quite emphatically, “ and as she does it she becomes Kali personified, the deity of avenging fury- death incarnate and the killing becomes so easy”( Sengupta 157).

Interestingly, Jasmine expresses more of a transformation of ‘Self’ after this incident. “And she enacts a kind of death for her too: the death of her old self (through the symbolic burning of her dishonored clothes) and out of the ashes rises phoenix- like a new self” (Sengupta 157). For Jasmine, the trauma of her rape results in the greatest change in her identity; the experience that breaks her down the most is also the one that builds her up and allows her to come into her own. Thus, Jasmine’s identity is paradoxically formed not through constructions alone, but also destructions of her existing self. As the novel progresses, this paradox will become a pattern, for Jasmine almost needs disruption in her life in order to grow as a person. She undergoes number of changes from Jasmine to Jase and from Jase to Jane. The same Jasmine who was apprehensive about the women’s sexuality in America has a male for every identity of hers. When Jasmine becomes Jase with Taylor, she emphasizes her agency in the creation of this new self: “Taylor didn’t want to change me…I changed because I wanted to” (185). Finally, when she is with Bud, Jasmine describes the creation of Jane as a product of her desire to change: “Plain Jane is all I want to be. In Baden, I am Jane almost” (26).

While Jane appears to have gained agency throughout the course of her transformations, the word “almost” suggests that there still is (and always will be) an element of herself that she does not have the power to change, and perhaps never will. Jasmine will always be disrupted, for destruction is the manner in which she ultimately transforms and recreates herself. Thus, in this text, agency is not equated with the individual’s total power to transform herself, but rather it is the ability to develop an identity that is based upon the perceptions and desires of others as well as the destruction of the existing aspects of one’s identity. Jasmine’s surrounding environments influence her formation of her identities, and as she navigates between temporal and spatial locations, her perception of herself changes, thereby resulting in a multiplicity of consciousnesses.

And it is to be noted that this new ‘self’ does not require the relinquishing of one culture for the appropriation of another; but instead, it allows the possibility of processing modified aspects of both cultures at one time. Jasmine achieves a new identity every time by not negating her cultural past but by merging it with her present. “She brings death to Half –face as goddess Kali, she brings happiness to Duff and Taylor as a traditional, self sacrificing Indian lover and she is offering love to Du as a loving Indian mother who exults in her motherhood.”(Dimri 75)

F. A. Inamdar puts it emphatically, “Dimple in wife symbolized the predicament of a voice without articulation and without a vision. Such characters are visionless because they are voiceless; they are rootless because they are shoot less” (Inamdar 39). The basic flaw in Dimple is that she wanted to be loved by others but she does not love herself and the person who does not love oneself can never love anyone. She always expected freedom and happiness from others without making effort herself. The self-efficiency which comes from within oneself is lacking in Dimple while Jasmine’s self- sustenance and self-persistence leads to the tendency of self-actualization2 i.e. “the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming” (Maslow 7). In her paper, “From Marriage to Murder: A Comparative Study of Wife and Jasmine”, Jaiwanti Dimri observes, “Dimple is a taker, whereas Jasmine is both a giver and a taker” (Dimri 75).

Bharati Mukherjee in her writings reflects that the basic idea is self- empowerment, which is essential for any human being and one can equipoise between the characteristics and the blending can produce characters like Jasmine and the imbalance in personality leads to someone like Dimple. Jasmine is a mixture of characteristics of both ‘Sita’ and ‘Kali’, flaunting and balancing the inculcated ideologies. She is an epitome of feminism who does not annihilate her ideas and culture to live a new life; she adapts to new life with ease while retaining her old culture. Balance between the two makes her a whole person .She is not indecisive and fickle mined like Dimple. Mukherjee adheres the reader’s attention through her characters and emphasizes, “The survivor is the one who improvises, not one who plays by the rules”. (Interview with Crab)

No doubt socio- cultural conditioning prevents women from achieving a sense of themselves as persons and external factors can make or mar one’s life but the channelizing of energy in the right direction is the individuals potential. “Identity is not so much the act of choosing between cultures, but rather it is having the power to redefine the terms of cultural practices and customs to fit one’s own experience”.(Khandelwal 93) Bharati Mukherjee consequently authenticates the theory of re-inventing selves by rebirth and therefore presents in her novels the people who are “ continually remaking their culture, and in so doing redefining the past , reconstituting the present and reconceptualising what they desire from the future”.(Long 202). Thus in Bharati Mukherjee’s novels the creation of identity emerges as a continuous process. In place of a “double consciousness”3 as termed by Du Bois the women of the texts develop multiple consciousnesses, resulting in a ‘self’ that is neither unified nor hybrid, but rather fluid, forever transforming, evolving and never truly complete.

As the women perceive both their race and sexuality through new and different lenses throughout the course of the texts, they come to realize that the notion of a singular identity is a fallacy, and that the reality of the South Asian diasporic experience is the indeterminacy of multiplicity. “Unlike other Indian writers such as Kamala Markandaya and Anita Desai who treated the Indian immigrant situation as one of conflict and adjustment with a little understanding and love, Bharati Mukherjee gives it a new, challenging perspective enabling the immigrants to emerge out of their cocoons of defence into the openness of assertion and say that they do belong” (Indira 169). She believes in adaptation and assimilation not by negating ones cultural values but by merging them. The narratives of B.M. mark each phase of her own evolution also. The earlier novels depict the emotional upheaval that she goes through. The evolving is distinctly clear with the narrative in Jasmine. Christine Gomez delineates effectively that “in Mukherjee’s writing, there is a discernable movement from the theme of expatriation to immigration”. (Ed. Dhawan 27)


1The concept of self is also understood as the idea of an integrated individual who has actualized his potentialities. C. G. Jung considers “self” as one of the archetypes of the collective unconsciousness. The archetype of “self” is symbolic of wholeness, totality of being, and also analogous to the archetypes of “meaning” and “wholeness.” It is actualized upon completing the individuation process (comprising four stages of catharsis, elucidation, education and transformation). Jung observes: “I use the term ‘individuation’ to denote the process by which a person becomes a psychological ‘individual,’ that is a separate, indivisible unity or whole” (Jung 275). Individuation is a psychological “growing up” the process of discovering those aspects of one’s self that make one an individual different from other members of his species. It is essentially a process of recognition that is, as he matures, the individual must consciously recognize the various aspects, unfavorable as well as favorable, of his total self. The self recognition requires extraordinary courage and honesty but is absolutely essential if one is to become a well-balanced individual. (Guerin, et al 137)

2As Jacques Lacan postulates, “The human offspring, at an age when he is for a time, however short, outdone by a chimpanzee in instrumental intelligence, can nevertheless already recognize as such his own image in a mirror.. .This act… immediately rebounds in a series of gestures in which he playfully experiences the relations of the assumed movements of the image to the reflected environment and of this virtual complex to the reality it reduplicates. (Lacan 7)

3 A neo-Freudian and a leading American exponent of humanistic psychology, Abraham Harold Maslow postulates that people have an intrinsic tendency towards self-actualization which is innately ingrained in human organism. His concept of “self-actualization” implies a tendency, need to fully developing one’s potential and also “a desire for self-fulfillment.” This tendency might be phrased as “the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming” (Maslow 7). It creates a sense of integration within the person and may be attained after fulfilling the other four needs spiraling upwards from physiological to safety to belongingness to self esteem.

4 The notion of an altered consciousness in response to minority status has been expounded upon most famously by W.E.B. Du Bois. In The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois writes of the “double consciousness” that plagues the minds of African- Americans living in the southern United States. “It is a strange thing, this double consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others…One ever feels his twoness-an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled striving; two warring ideals in one dark body.. .”4 This tension between two seemingly disparate identities is one that has been experienced by minority communities throughout post-colonial societies all over the world, and it is an especially salient issue in the multi-cultural environment of the United States.

Works Cited

Carb, B.Alison, “Interview with Bharati Mukherjee, “The Massachusetts Review, Winter

1988-89 .Print.

Bois, Du W.E.B. Against Racism: Unpublished Essays, Papers, Addresses, 1887-


–“The Souls of Black Folk.” The Oxford W.E.B. Du Bois Reader.

Dhawan, R, K. The Fiction of Bharati Mukherjee: A critical Symposium. New Delhi:

Prestige, 1996. Print.

Dimri, Jaiwanti. “From Marriage to Murder: A comparative Study of Wife and

Jasmine”.The Fiction of Bharati Mukherjee; A Critical Symposium. Ed.R.K


Long, Elizabeth. The American Dream and the Popular Novel (London: Routledge and

Kegan Paul, 1985) Print.

Inamdar, F.A. Immigrants Lives: “Protagonists in The Tiger’s Daughter and Wife”: The

Fiction of Bharati Mukherjee; A Critical Symposium. Ed.R.K Dhawan 1996.Print.

Gomez, Christine. “The On- Going Quest of Bharati Mukherjee from Expatriation to

Immigration.” The Fiction of Bharati Mukherjee; A Critical Symposium. Ed.R.K Dhawan. 1996. Print.

Khandelwal, Madhulika S. Becoming American, Being Indian. Ithaca: Cornell University

Press, 2002.Print.

Lacan, Jacques. The Mirror-phase as Formative of the Function of the I.

Mapping Ideolom. Ed. Slavoj Zizek. New York: Verso, 1994.Print.

Mukherjee, Bharati. Wife .New York: Hyperion, 1976.Print.

——————-. Jasmine. New York: Grover Press, Inc., 1989.Print.

Sengupta, C. Feminine Mystique in Jasmine. The Fiction of Bharati

Mukherjee: A Critical Symposium. Ed.R.K Dhawan 1996.Print.

Editorial Team of Indian Ruminations.


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