The Third and Final Continent – Jhumpa Lahiri

About the Author

Jhumpa Lahiri was born in London to Bengali parents but when she was three, she moved with them to America. Jhumpa Lahiri writes about the conflict of identity that immigrants, in her case Bengalis, face in America. She has written both novels and short stories. Though her stories were initially rejected by publishers she went on to be a hugely popular writer winning the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2000. Most of the characters in her stories are Indian American who has trouble adjusting to the differences in culture and environment.

The story weaves between the three continents of Asia, Europe and America. The protagonist is an Indian who was educated in Kolkata but moves to England looking for better prospects. Like most Indians who go abroad, for a while he shares accommodation with other Indians in order to save money. He plans to move to America but before that he comes back to India to get married. His initial days in America before his wife joins him form the backdrop of this story. It draws upon her father’s experiences as an early immigrant.

The Protagonist
He is a poor young Bengali man who at the age of 31 migrates to England seeking better fortunes abroad. At the age of 36, he marries a girl chosen by his family. It does not occur to him that he should have a say in the matter but goes with the tradition of agreeing to arranged marriages. When he moves to America, he has more cultural adjustments to make. He knows no one there and lives in a noisy room in the YMCA in order to conserve money. He meets Mrs. Croft when he moves into the room the old lady rented out. Though in no way connected to her, his innate considerate nature makes him feel concerned for the century old lady who lives alone and looks after herself. By the time his wife comes to Boston, he is used to his life in America and makes sure she has an easier time there. By the time the story ends he is a librarian in a small college and has a son who goes to Harvard. The protagonist, who is narrator too, does nothing very remarkable in life except travel to three continents but he stays in our minds for a long time.

She is the protagonist’s wife who marries him without even setting eyes on him once before marriage. She feels her five mile separation from her parents so bitterly that she cries herself to sleep. Raised in the tradition that conditioned her to believe that her responsibility in life was to get married and be a good wife so she could “cook, knit, embroider, sketch landscapes and recite poems by Tagore” all accomplishments valued in a wife. He follows her husband whom she has known briefly, across the seas to face an unknown life in a strange land. Even decades after living in America, she clings to the customs of her native land because they are a source of stability for her.

Mrs. Croft
She is over a hundred years old but is fiercely independent, talking terms with her boarders and laying down conditions. She too like Mala clings to the customs of the past in her dress and codes of behavior. She is proud of the achievements of her country and wants the narrator to acknowledge that. Her resolve never to let go of her ideals is the way she comes with the changes that have come over society during her lifetime.

Themes (major and minor)
The major theme is the struggle the immigrant goes through trying to come to terms with the change in cultures of the native country and the adopted one. The second generation has an even bigger problem trying to find an identity, pulled in two directions.

Another minor theme is distances. There is the distance in geographical terms and metaphorical ones between the India and the US and the initial emotional distance between the narrator and his wife. We can discern the distance between the attitudes of Mrs. Croft and her daughter Helen.

The narrator is a young man who goes to England seeking a better future. His mother who became mentally unstable following his father’s early death has just died. In England amidst coping with a different culture, he clings on to an Indian way of life even while he studies there. He gets a lob in US but before leaving for that country, gets married to a girl in Calcutta whom he has never met before. In America, too there is cultural disconnect made worse by strained finances. Mrs. Croft his landlady is very old but independent and the narrator is conscious of the contrast between her and his mother. His wife arrives from India and by and by the distance between them disappears.

The narrator leaves for England after her mother’s death. While studying in England, he and his friends follow an Indian lifestyle clinging to old customs. Soon he gets a job in America and has to change continents. He gets married in India but his wife has to stay back till she gets her visa. In the US, he is uncomfortable because he is not used to the culture there. But he is struck by the courage and determination with which his landlady lives though she is over hundred years old. When his wife arrives, there is still distance between them but gradually it disappears.

The story closely mirrors her father’s life. He went to England as a young man (the author was born there) later moving to America. Jhumpa Lahiri draws on the experiences of friends and family in US. All immigrants go through a painful process of adjustment and this is a recurrent theme in the author’s work. The second generation also has to grapple with the issue of dual identity.

Food is a powerful cultural symbol and “egg curry” in The Third and Final Continent is a symbol that connects the immigrants to their home. Egg curry is the dish the narrator can make and that is what he welcomes his wife with when she comes to America. In England too, the young men took turns to cook “pots of egg curry” to ward off nostalgia.

Important vocabulary and expression
Mrs. Crofts insistence that the narrator repeat after her, “Splendid!” while referring to the first landing of Americans on the Moon stands out in the whole story. It points to the old lady’s patriotism; it also shows that is in touch with the outside world though she hardly moves out.

Literary devices used with examples
The story weaves in and out of the narrator’s life in India and abroad, both England and America. Most of the time an incident in America set off a stream of recollections of his earlier life. When he hears that the fiercely independent Mrs. Croft is old and widowed it makes him remember his own mother who could not cope with the loss of her husband and gradually loses touch with reality.

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