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Symbolism as the Main Literary Tool in “The Other Family” by Bannerji Essay

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Updated: Aug 17th, 2022

The Other Family by Himani Bannerji focuses on a dramatic episode from the life of a migrant family in Canada and brings up such important topics as acceptance, self-identity, tolerance, and the difficulty of adaptation. At the center of the short story is a conflict between mother and daughter that mirrors more profound questions about cultural identity and diversity in Canadian society. The critical literary element of this short story is symbolism. This fact is reflected in the very title: The word “Other” indicates the alienation and otherness of the migrant community. This essay discusses the literary characteristics and elements of the short story by Bannerji and explores how the symbols convey the deeper issues and concerns hidden in work.

Symbolism, a standard device in literature for carrying more deep or hidden meanings beyond literal use, is one of the leading literary tools in the story. The story begins with a description of nature and the season. The cold and darkness outside the window reflect the mother’s inner condition: “The winter twilight had transformed the sheer sky of the day into the color of steel” (Bannerji 141). Next, the mother mentally reproaches herself for taking her daughter away from her native country and making her different and other in Canadian society. The mother sees the child as a solitary figure who has to wander alone in a foreign country. However, this is again a reflection of her fears since the daughter’s perspective remains unknown upon returning home.

Feelings of guilt, loneliness, and insecurity permeate the scene when the mother and daughter meet. The genuine emotions and feelings of these people remain hidden behind surface-level words and details. While having dinner together, mother and daughter do not listen to each other and are present in their inner thoughts. “So, what did he do when you gave him dried food?” — asked daughter (Bannerji 141-142). This discussion of the food for their cat can be viewed as the representation of the alienation and solitude of two family members.

The story’s central conflict revolves around a seemingly insignificant event: The daughter shows her mother a portrait of their family that the teacher at school asked to draw. The mother’s shock when she sees a white family in a picture reflects her conflict with a society that imposes white normativity. Mother’s greater fear is associated with the idea that her child is unable to embrace and recognize her identity and presents her family as the average white family: “[A]ll our books have this same picture of the family.” The mother gave vent to her hidden fears and anxiety to the little girl who was lost in the questions: “Don’t you want us anymore? You want to be a mem-sahib, a white girl?” (Bannerji 142). It can be assumed that the drawing triggered her understanding of the contradictions between the privileged white culture and the migrant community.

The drawing itself is undoubtedly striking but not the only symbol in this scene. The most illustrative contrast between the dominant and migrant cultures is highlighted in the discussion of language and vocabulary. For example, the mother points out the difference between “them” — educational institutions and teachers as representatives of the dominant discourse — and the “family.” The mother concludes that the pronoun “they” signal and stand for the authority and dominance of Canadian culture. In describing the central conflict, the drawing itself and the schoolbooks are represented as symbols of the imaginative world of a privileged culture that seeks to impose an ideal vision of the family.

Further, Bannerji depicts the story of the girl’s gradual transformation and moral maturation. Left alone with herself, the child recognizes and embraces her identity and realizes the meaning of “otherness”: “She saw the brownness of her skin, the wide, staring, dark eyes, the black hair now tousled from the pillows.” (Bannerji 144-145). Perhaps, another symbol of “picking up” an identity is how the daughter picked up the cat and took it to her room. Thus, the reader is immersed in the child’s inner world, who, being alone with herself, understood and shared her mother’s feelings.

A new drawing made at school the next day represents the child’s renewed vision of her family and society. The drawing depicts a group of people of color standing next to white people. They are “the other family” within Canadian society. However, now they all live next to each other and must learn to accept diversity. In summary, it can be argued that symbolism plays a unique role in the short story by Bannerji. Here, the weather represents the mother’s feelings, while the dialogues between her and the daughter reflect solitude and alienation. The old and new versions of the daughter’s drawing depict the contradictions of Canadian society and the problems of acceptance and self-identity. Nevertheless, the final episode of the story provides some hope for a future of multiculturalism and tolerance.

Work Cited

Bannerji, Himani. “The Other Family.” Other Solitudes: Canadian Multicultural Fictions, edited by Linda Hutcheon and Marion Richmond. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1990, pp. 141-145.

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