An Analysis of Jhumpa Lahiri's "Unaccustomed Earth"

Updated on December 18, 2017
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Winnie Khaw graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire with an English M.A. (concentration in creative writing).

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“Only Goodness” and “Hell-Heaven” from Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth

“Hell-Heaven” and “Only Goodness,” two short stories in in the collective work Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri, though separated by another short work serve the purpose of enhancing specific elements in each other (i.e. themes, central symbolic imagery) while somewhat deviating in execution. The pieces both include a young man whose actions come close to ruining the lives of those near him, and take place at least at the beginning in the New England area of the United States, spanning several years. Though similar or the same in that respect as well as others, the underlying issues confronting the characters differ: the mother in “Hell-Heaven” has romantic feelings for the family friend Pranab, who marries another woman and then is unfaithful to her, while Sudha tries to maintain the fragile sibling connection between herself and Rahul whose alcoholism transforms what could have been great to someone much lesser. In both stories the dangers present in caring for another person becomes apparent; one become vulnerable to hurt even unintentionally inflicted.

Pranab as well as Rahul make far-reaching personal decisions, seeking their own inclinations despite the potential and even probable detriment to others. Pranab has certainly a more financially independent position than Rahul, and this security allows the former to make wholly informed decisions whatever their consequences, while Rahul seems to be counteracting against his parents in his frustration with his present life and in that sense is still reliant on them. The two short stories “Only Goodness” and “Hell-Heaven” in Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri act as complements to each other, sharing similar central ideas, themes and symbols while differing in the presentation of the issues and situations.

“Only Goodness” continues the theme of movement to Unaccustomed Earth. The parents in the story like other immigrants left their native country in hopes of better circumstances in London, then the United States. Naturally they anticipate that their children, the first generation born in a new country, will flourish greater than they could; such high and rather straitened expectations of what constitutes success have disappointing outcomes for all involved. Sudha from home goes to college, then London, and alongside her list of academic and career accolades grows. Rahul relocates sporadically, but his negative attitude and alcohol addiction dog his travels and haunt the end of any undertaking with disaster. The willful blindness of the parents regarding Rahul’s delinquent behavior, the unwillingness to believe that so precocious and precious a son could so disappoint them, is also culpable for Rahul’s descent, though certainly he bears the brunt of the blame. “Only Goodness” follows the story of the competent, dedicated Sudha and her extremely gifted but alcoholic college dropout brother Rahul.

The narrative carefully establishes that Sudha as the older sister by six years feels a sense of responsibility for her brother as he disintegrates into delinquency, first by introducing him to beer, then because of the familial ties that bind them. Rahul and his family grow increasingly estranged as his behavior degenerates, and finally he up and leaves entirely. A year and a half later, he contacts the now married-with-a-child Sudha, and after assuring her of abstinence from drink she and her husband Roger trust him with their son as they go out for a movie. However, Rahul surrenders to the inescapable urge to drink, leaving baby Neel alone in the bath, and that frighteningly unreliable act forever demolishes any chance of reconciliation between the siblings, as well as destroying Roger’s trust in Sudha. .

The following scene is from the last paragraph in “Only Goodness” and illustrates in two symbolic images the main concepts and themes of the short story. It occurs the morning after Roger and Sudha go out for a movie while Rahul is supposed to watch Neel; the couple return to find Neel alone in that bathtub and Rahul passed out on the bed from drinking. The scene is particularly effective because it marks the culmination of Rahul’s destructive lifestyle, the end of his relationship with his sister Sudha, and the simultaneous clouding of her marriage with Roger. That morning Sudha mechanically goes through the motions of preparing to feed her son, but within her thoughts are terribly troubled—Lahiri in this passage especially shows her facility with showing the fineness of human interaction by describing a lone character experiencing the aftermath of relational disaster.

The paradoxical phrasing of the day as “typical and terrifying as any other” makes sense in the context of Unaccustomed Earth; on any seemingly ordinary day, tragedy can strike unexpectedly, and it is then that the worst wound is received. By a single (non)action on the part of Rahul, at the end of “Only Goodness” Sudha almost loses her son, definitely her brother, and is perhaps irreparably distanced from her husband. The tone is melancholy in the simple act of throwing away the balloon and pessimistic thoughts about Sudha and Roger’s relationship; the optimism of including Neel’s innocent love for Sudha is limited because he does not know enough to understand.

She heard Neel upstairs, stirring in his crib. In another minute he would cry out, wanting her, expecting breakfast; he was young enough so that Sudha was still only goodness to him, nothing else. She returned to the kitchen, opened a cupboard, took out a packet of Weetabix, heated milk in a pan. Something brushed against her ankles, and she saw that the balloon tied to the back of Neel’s high chair was no longer suspended on its ribbon. It had sagged to the floor, a shrunken thing incapable of bursting. She clipped the ribbon with scissors and stuffed the whole thing into the garbage, surprised at how easily it fit, thinking of the husband who no longer trusted her, of the son whose cry now interrupted her, of the fledgling family that had cracked open that morning, as typical and as terrifying as any other (173).

The ironic title refers to how, gradually and ultimately, Rahul’s alcoholism has destroyed all the relationships around him except for Neel’s innocent baby liking for everyone who is kind to him. Balloons in their prime generally indicate celebration, joy and hope due to their buoyant, floating nature. The shrunken gift from Rahul to Neel which Sudha finds on the floor and then throws in the trash parallels the state of his and Sudha’s newly sabotaged ties, the deflation of hope for Rahul’s reformation and sinking disappointment that he cannot change. Neel crying out for his mother to feed him demonstrates the easy trust babies invest in their caretakers, but cannot be indulged in by mature adults, who have problems too complex to be understand by infant minds. To Neel, Sudha is “still only goodness,” without the flaws which color more developed personalities and which grownups can perceive in each other. Roger’s trust in his wife is forever tainted by the knowledge that she did not tell him crucial information about her brother before allowing him to babysit their son. Sudha’s sisterly feelings for Rahul cannot ever erase the fact that he could have by negligence let her son drown.

The situation of the relationships in “Hell-Heaven” is quietly complex, reflecting the complicated natures of the involved actors. Pranab is apparently completely oblivious to the more-than-sisterly affection the narrator’s mother feels for him and treats her as an older sibling. The narrator’s father is coldly intellectual and does not care for his wife, thus creating a void in her already circumscribed life. The daughter senses her mother’s limitations and unmet needs and responds with the contempt of a young first generation American for her immigrant, unlearned parent. From this description of the stark circumstances it can be perceived that the mother is in a very powerless and vulnerable position, hemmed in on all sides by neglect and careless disregard for her psychological well-being. Pranab first dates and later decides to marry Deborah, a young American woman and seemingly everything that the narrator’s mother is not (e.g. independent, different from traditional wives), and then has the unintentionally but horribly cruel request to the narrator’s parents to write a letter of endorsement for the marriage: he could not have chosen a more effective method of hurting the narrator’s mother. This is the situation described in the below quote from “Hell-Heaven.”

He had told his parents all about us, and at one point my parents had received a letter from them, expressing appreciation for taking such good care of their son and for giving him a proper home in America. “It needn’t be long,” Pranab Kaku said. “Just a few lines. They’ll accept it more easily if it comes from you.” My father thought neither ill nor well of Deborah, never commenting or criticizing as my mother did, but he assured Pranab Kaku that a letter of endorsement would be on its way to Calcutta by the end of the week. My mother nodded her assent, but the following day I saw the teacup Pranab Kaku had used all this time as an ashtray in the kitchen garbage can, in pieces, and three Band-Aids taped to my mother’s hand. (71)

“The teacup Pranab Kaku had used … as an ashtray” (71) is an object personal to Pranab and obviously dear to the mother of the narrator because of that fact. That she deliberately destroys it in analogy to her dashed hopes for a relationship with him beyond what they had is clear. The band-aids prove that “picking up the pieces,” so to speak, leaves the person hurting even if she moves on. After destroying it in a moment of probable emotional catharsis and venting of frustrated love, the mother throws the shattered cup away; now that Pranab is married, he has betrayed her and things can never go back to the idyllic way they were before when she still possessed girlish, hopeless fantasies of being with him.

Similarly, Sudha in “Only Goodness” first “clipped the ribbon with scissors” (173) before throwing it in the trash in a prominently significant symbolic connection between the two stories. Still, although numerous latitudes can be drawn, a variety of divergences exist. Despite her age, the mother has not matured in such a way as to positively cope with the devastating truth, possibly the fault of a culture which confined the experiences of its women, whereas Sudha was forced to grow up quickly as she had to act as a role model and caretaker for Rahul.

Lahiri, at least in the short stories assigned for reading, tends to write about highly intelligent Bengali immigrants to the United States who succeed, if not in their personal relationships, then in elite intellectual and academic pursuits. In fact, critics have decried this propensity as unrepresentative of the Indian immigrant experience as a whole. According to that unifying type, Sudha and Rahul fit with the other pieces. Sudha, while not quite as innately gifted as her younger brother, works assiduously and through dedication as well as intelligence prospers. In contrast, Rahul is careless with his inherent abilities and squanders his opportunities.

“Only Goodness” addresses the problematic issue of alcohol addiction while the other short stories read for class focused mainly on relational misunderstandings and mis-interactions, without easily providing answers for either. Guilt and personal responsibility both feature in the delicately handled sibling relationship between Rahul and Sudha. Several critics have felt that “Only Goodness” is the strongest piece in the collection. Rahul’s self-created downfall is for many more accessible than the relatively small-scale (though real and well-written) problems of the elite intellectual group which Lahiri narrates in her other stories. In “Only Goodness” Lahiri realistically draws each actor as blemished though not evil-intentioned; the consequences occur because of several factors and individuals, not a single epic event or fiendish mastermind—this depictions fits precisely with what she accomplishes to varying degrees of success in other stories.

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