The novel Jasmine by Bharati Mukherjee, first published in 1989, is one that is primarily interested in the discussion of immigration experience in the United States. Though utilising fantasy elements in the narrative, the story tells a harrowing tale of the protagonist Jyoti and the challenges she faces in assimilating into American society.
The novel is told from the first person perspective of our protagonist Jasmine, and the narrative takes a non-linear pattern to tells its story. The beginning of the novel is set in the Midwest rural lands of Iowa in the United States. As we hear of Jasmine’s experiences in the US, at the time going by the name Jane after heroines of the same name, we also learn about her difficulties in assimilating into American society. The narrative then jumps back into her childhood in Hasnapur in India, elucidating on the growing presence of the fictional Sikh extremist group, named the Khalsa Lions, within her community and the dangers of their activity. Through desperate circumstances, she escapes India and flees to America amid perilous conditions, looking to forget the traumatic experiences she had in India and reincarnate herself in American society.
Perhaps the most pervasive theme in the novel is the superficiality of the American Dream. America has always been branded as ‘the land of opportunity’ and liberty since its founding hundreds of years ago, and this is something that fuels Jasmine’s pursuit of life in the United States. However, as the novel progresses we find that Jasmine is not given the freedom that she thinks she will be granted upon arrival into the fabled lands of the New World. An example of this is that she cannot help but be defined by her ethnicity; many characters plea for her to make food from ‘back home’, but then her husband is said to be ‘scared of her foreignness.’ This complicates the famed, and problematic, notion of the ‘melting pot’ in America; Jasmine is not allowed access into American society, and is constantly being defined by her immigrant status. Though it is not necessarily bad to be defined by one’s heritage, Jasmine is trying to flee her past and is constantly reminded by Americans of her status as ‘foreign Other’.
Connected to this theme is that of the power of the West, an idea that has always been a topic of discussion in American Literature. The West is an ideologically significant place in terms of alluding to America’s frontier era, which Jasmine is very conscious of. Apart from the fact that she is always attempting to move further and further West into America, she also changes her name with every move. In India, she is known as Jyoti; when she first comes to the States, she goes by Jasmine; and in Iowa, she goes by Jane. She becomes obsessed with both moving West and changing her identity, which ultimately brings about the main tragedy in the denouement, and puts forward an important question: is the West a destination, or a state of mind?
It’s interesting to compare Jasmine to Anuradha Roy’s Sleeping on Jupiter (2015), which I reviewed a few weeks ago, when we think about the completely different approaches to trauma in the novels. As I highlighted in the review, Roy’s novel shows the protagonist Nomi returning to the places of her trauma as a child, instead of running away from them as Jasmine does. Instead of facing her trauma, Jasmine is perpetually in a cat and mouse chase that makes her life a series of escapes and movements away from her past in India.
Overall, Jasmine is a book that is in no way light-hearted; dabbling in cultural alienation, rape and murder, the novel is a sensationalised view of American immigration experience. This sensationalism, though, is perhaps its greatest asset; the novel revels in its layers of symbolism and fantasy tropes, which add an interesting and different dimension to the contemporary immigration narrative.
James Wilkinson has just completed final year of English and American Studies at the University of Leicester. Last year, he studied in the United States near Chicago in Illinois. His interests in literature include: LGBTQ+ writing, gender studies, postcolonial writing, and 20th century American Literature. His favourite book is To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. After completing his studies, he hopes to either join the publishing industry, or pursue a career in the archiving/librarian field.