When it comes to discussing how a particular theme is being explored in two formally unrelated works of literature, it represents the matter of a crucial importance to be able to identify the concerned theme’s main qualitative aspects.
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The reason for this is that the deployment of the proposed approach would allow us to define the element of a perceptual biasness, within the context of how both authors went about landing their views on the theme in question. Once, we are being in the possession of the empirically obtained insights, in this respect, this will enable us to come up with the logically legitimate interpretation, as to what accounts for theme’s discursive significance.
One of the main themes, explored throughout the novels The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri and Dogeaters by Jessica Hagedorn, appears to be women’s strive to achieve the state of self-actualization, despite the fact that the very realities of living in the male-dominated society often prevents them from being able to succeed in this.
Even though the plots of the mentioned novels unravel in the foreground of the geographically remote settings (The U.S./India and Philippines), there are a number of discursive similarities between the main female-characters, featured in The Namesake and Dogeaters. These similarities can be outlined as follows:
- The specifics of these characters’ ethno-cultural affiliation presuppose that, throughout their lives, they continued to be affected by the traditional (patriarchal) conventions of what accounts for a ‘woman’s worth’.
- While addressing life-challenges, the featured characters appear to have mainly relied on their clearly ‘feminine’ ability to think intuitively, rather than rationally.
- Despite being ethnically-unique (in the sense of being non-White), the main female-characters in both novels nevertheless seem to be ‘westernized’ to an extent, which strongly influenced their stance in life.
Thus, it will only be logical, on our part, to approach the task of comparing and contrasting the novels by Lahiri and Hagedorn within the conceptual framework of Hommi Bhabha’s theory of a ‘hybrid identity’, which aims to explain the discursive peculiarities of a ‘post-colonial’ living, concerned with the process of the representatives of racial minorities growing progressively empowered.
According to Bhabha, the very course of history naturally predetermines the formerly oppressed people of color to strive to adopt the identity of their oppressors, which in turn results in these people becoming equally affiliated with the traditional (often religious) values, on one hand, and with the secular (westernized) lifestyles, on the other.
The author considers one’s mental ‘hybridity’ to be something necessarily positive, as the mentioned psychological trait is being fully consistent with the ongoing process of decolonization: “(Psychological) hybridity is the sign of productivity… Hybridity is the revaluation of the assumption of colonial identity through the repetition of discriminatory identity effects (Bhabha 159).
From the analytical point of view, it will indeed make much of a sense to confirm/disconfirm the legitimacy of Bhabha’s idea, in regards to the novels’ female-characters, as such that do formally qualify to be endowed with the ‘hybrid’ mentality.
While continuing to make analytical inquiries into how the authors of both novels tend to perceive what accounts for the actual significance of the notion of womanhood, we will also refer to the behaviorist conceptualization of what causes women to be different from men, in the psychological sense of this word. In this respect, the commonly assumed ‘misogynist’ theory of gender by Otto Weininger (1906) should come in particularly handy.
The reason for this is that, as it will be shown later in this paper, the behavioral patterns of many of the female-characters, featured in The Namesake and Dogeaters, appear to reflect the concerned women’s tendency to tackle the hardships of life in the emotionally-charged manner.
In its turn this implies that there is nothing phenomenological about the fact that, when compared to men, women seem to be differently ‘brain-wired’ – this is nothing but yet additional indication that, in full accordance with the behaviorist outlook on gender, women react to the externally induced stimuli exactly in the manner that their bodies have ‘prescribed’ them to.
We expect that, while referring to this particular Weininger’s insight, as such that exposes the unconscious motivations behind the female-characters’ act in The Namesake and Dogeaters, we will be able to define the qualitative aspects of how Bhabha’s concept of ‘mental hybridity’ can be discussed, in conjunction with the stereotypical notion of ‘female mentality’.
The main questions of interest that we will aim to address, while conducting an inquiry into the concerned subject matter, can be formulated as follows: Is there any evidence to be found in The Namesake and Dogeaters, as to the legitimacy of the suggestion that there is a link between how the main female-characters in both novels act and what happened to be the specifics of their ethno-cultural background?
What account for the qualitative particulars of how Filipino and Indian-American women used to suffer from the patriarchal oppression? Can Bhabha’s concept of ‘mental hybridity’ be considered universally applicable to the people of color, regardless of what happened to be the particulars of their gender-affiliation?
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One of the most notable aspects of how a feminine identity is being discussed in The Namesake, is that, while presenting readers with the character of Ashima (Ashoke’s wife), Lahiri made a deliberate point in referring to this notion, as something that implies the sheer naturalness of the idea that women are supposed to act as men’s servants. For example, as it is being mentioned in the novel: “When she (Ashima) calls out to Ashoke, she doesn’t say his name.
Ashima never thinks of her husband’s name when she thinks of her husband, even though she knows perfectly well what it is” (Lahiri 7). The reason for this is that, throughout the course of her life, Ashima never ceased being encouraged to think that there is a ‘sacredness’ to the very word manliness. This is the reason why, throughout the course of her marital relationship with Ashoke, Ashima tried her best not to evoke the husband’s name in vain, as if he was a God of some sort.
It is understood, of course, that this can be formally explained by making reference to the character’s Indian background, which in turn would imply that Ashima’s subservient attitude towards Ashoke has a phenomenological quality to it. There is, however, a behaviorist explanation to Ashima’s seeming oddness, in this respect.
Despite having grown in the city, Ashima nevertheless could not help experiencing the sensation of being affiliated with the patriarchic values of a rural-living, which can be partially explained by the fact that India has only recently been set on the path of the urbanization-inducing industrialization (Robinson 291).
Therefore, there is nothing truly odd about the fact that Ashima used to revere her husband as a superior being – she simply could not help experiencing the sensation of a subliminal admiration, in regards to Ashoke’s possession of the ‘life-giving tool’ – penis. This, of course, suggests that there is indeed a link between Ashima’s ‘female subservientness’, on one hand, and what happened to be the specifics of her ethno-cultural affiliation, on the other.
The uniqueness of the latter, however, is not something ‘given’, but rather something, that has been predetermined dialectically. What it means is that, had Ashima been born and raised in the U.S., where even the rurally-based citizens pursue with the essentially urban mode of living, she would not be tempted to revere men in the strongly irrational manner.
The validity of this suggestion can be explored, in regards to the novel’s another female-character – Moushumi. Even though Moushumi was born in the family of Indian immigrants, she never adhered to the values of a ‘traditional’ (patriarchal) living. As Caesar noted: “Moushumi loves the sense of herself which she created while she was living in France, of herself as brilliant, sensual, exotic, and cosmopolitan. But this self seems primarily material” (115).
Quite on the contrary – as the novel’s plot unravels, we get to realize that, deep inside, Moushumi continued to experience a certain cognitive dissonance, on the account of having been Indian on the outside, and a secularly minded American, on the inside.
This brings us back to Bhabha’s idea that, while living in the West, those people whose ancestors used to be kept in the colonial submission, feel unconsciously attracted to specifically the ‘malicious’ psychological qualities of Whites, while often trying to mimic them as their own (Bhabha 129). One of these traits has traditionally been considered the sheer ego-centrism of White people.
Therefore, it does make sense that, while pursuing the marital relationship with Nikhil, Moushumi could never bring herself to act as her husband’s ‘loyal subject’, which in turn explains the innate motivation behind Moushumi’s decision to have an affair with Dimitri Desjardins: “They begin seeing each other Mondays and Wednesdays, after she teaches her class.
She takes the train uptown and they meet at his apartment, where lunch is waiting” (Lahiri 183). As the novel implies, the character’s decision, in this respect, was not dictated by the fact that she did fall in love with Dimitri, but rather by the fact that Moushumi felt an innate urge to act in the intellectually liberated manner, so that she would be able to realize her existential potential to the fullest.
By doing it, Moushumi strived to mimic the behavior of the professionally successful White women, many of which make a deliberate point in adopting the lifestyle of a bachelorette, as the result of their resentment of the patriarchal idea that it is only through marriage that a woman is able to make her life count. The character of Maxine (an intellectually advanced White woman) exemplifies this lifestyle perfectly well.
Although, she used to derive pleasure out having sex with men, Maxine never felt like trying to achieve the psychological state of ‘oneness’ with a particular man: “She (Maxine) has the gift of accepting her life; as he comes to know her… She has never wished she were anyone other than herself, raised in any other place, in any other way” (Lahiri 98).
In its turn, this can be explained by the fact that this character was much too ‘three-dimensional’, in order to contemplate the idea that, for as long as she remains martially uncommitted, the part of her individuality will be missing – something that women who belong to the first generation of ethnic immigrants tend to do.
Therefore, it will be only logical to conclude this part of the paper by suggesting that, as it can be seen in her novel, Lahiri’s conceptualization of a female identity implies that, even though there are many solely physiological aspects to how women go about trying to attain self-actualization, the concerned process is thoroughly objective.
In light of what appear to be the gender-related themes and motifs, contained in Hagedorn’s novel Dogeaters, it is highly unlikely that the mentioned author would agree with the previous sub-chapter’s concluding remark. The reason for this is that, even though many of the novel’s female-characters do appear to be endowed with the ‘hybrid mentality’ (heavily westernized Filipinos); this does not seem to benefit them in any practical way.
After all, the fact that ever since the years of their early childhood, many of these characters used to be encouraged to revere the West, on the account of its presumed ‘superiority’, seems to be exactly the reason why they have grown mentally unstable later in life. Throughout the novel, the mentioned mental abnormality, on these characters’ part, manifests itself in their tendency to either refrain from exploring their individuality altogether, or to proceed with doing it in the socially inappropriate manner.
As Chang pointed out: “Dogeaters highlights two types of ambivalent femininity: masquerade and hysteria. Masquerade… a performance of femininity that masks feminine claims to power. Hysteria… (is) simultaneously revealing and concealing the antagonisms at the heart of patriarchy (638). The validity of this statement can be shown, in regards to the character of Isabel Alacran – a wife of Severo Alacran, to whom the novel refers as one of the most powerful men in the Philippines.
Having been attracted to the Western ‘glamour’ ever since she was a little girl, Isabel did succeed in becoming the embodiment of a ‘proper womanhood’: “She is a hostess at a nightclub… She wins a beauty contest… She is a starlet on contract at Mabuhay Studios…
She is an asset to her husband at any social function. She is manicured and oiled, massaged and exercised, pampered like some high-strung, inbred animal” (Hagedorn 20). Nevertheless, the very fact that Isabel ended up enjoying the reputation of probably the most progressive woman in the Philippines, was exactly the reason why she used to experience a great deal of an emotional distress, on the account of being forced to wear the mask of a ‘female docility’ at all time.
Apparently, this was the price that Isabella had to pay, in exchange for having been placed high on the ladder of the country’s social hierarchy. The irony of this situation is quite apparent – Isabella’s empowerment, in the social sense of this word, resulted in the character’s detachment from what she always sensed represented her true self-identity, which in turn rendered Isabel quite powerless, as an individual.
There is another female-character in Dogeaters, which suggests that after having adopted the ‘hybrid identity’ of post-colonial subjects, Filipino women did not become especially empowered, in the social sense of this word – Leonor Ledesma. After all, it is not only that she is shown completely devoted to her husband, but also that this devotion, on the concerned character’s part, appears to have adopted the subtleties of a quasi-religious fetish: “The General’s wife (Leonor)… once asked her husband to send over from one of the barracks.
The General found her request perfectly understandable, in light of her devotion to an austere, forbidding God and her earnest struggles to earn sainthood through denial” (Hagedorn 67). As this quotation implies, there is a clear link between the sheer intensity of Leonor’s religious commitment, on one hand, and her willingness to please the General, by the mean of adopting a self-sacrificial stance in life, on the other.
Apparently, Leonor’s strongly defined sense of religiosity was nothing but the sublimation of her resolution to remain fully observant of the cultural discourse of the post-colonial Philippines. In its turn, this discourse was concerned with bashing the country’s colonial legacy – the process that was meant to pave the way for Filipinos to actualize themselves, as a nation.
Nevertheless, because it were namely the country’s traditionally minded nationalists, who played a leading role within the mentioned process, there is nothing surprising about the fact that, contrary to what it should have been the case, the liberation of the Philippines, as a nation, did not bring about the liberation of Filipino women, as individuals.
After all, the notion of ‘nationalism’ is essentially synonymous with the notion of ‘tradition’. The latter, however, is nothing but a euphemism for the notion of ‘male-chauvinism’. Therefore, it is fully explainable why Leonor’s existential identity appears to have been deeply subliminal of her tendency to act hysterically – even while maintaining the posture of a respectful woman
Nevertheless, as it can be seen in the novel, even those of the featured female-characters, who were open-minded enough to actively strive to adopt an active stance in life, never enjoyed much of a success at such of their undertaking. The character of Baby Alacran exemplifies the validity of this suggestion perfectly well. After all, being a daughter of Severo Alacran, she never had to suppress her individuality, as the main precondition to be accepted socially.
Yet, there can be only a few doubts that Baby did suffer from having not been able to live up to what she considered her life’s ‘true calling’ – being a woman who inspires the sensation of love in men. For this, however, Baby did not have to ‘thank’ the society’s patriarchal oppressiveness. The character’s inability to be what she wanted to be, was nothing but the consequence of her parents having failed to consult with physicians, prior to deciding to conceive a child: “Her (Baby’s) complexion is marred by tiny patches of acne.
Her breasts are flat, her waist narrow, her hips much too wide and out of proportion to the rest of her. Her legs are thick and muscular – ‘peasant legs’, her mother calls them” (Hagedorn 25). The fact that Baby did enjoy a certain social prominence did not help her much, in this respect. Quite on the contrary – it was namely due to Baby’s ‘westernized’ ways, that she used to feel being a ‘nuisance’ to herself and to others.
What it means is that it indeed does not make much of a sense believing (as feminists do) that a woman’s ability to realize its full existential potential, is something that cannot possibly be concerned with the conventional (patriarchal) outlook on the significance of marriage.
The provided earlier line of argumentation, as to what can be considered the main qualitative aspects of how Lahiri and Hagedorn tackled the issue of a female identity in their novels, allows us to define the main similarity/difference between the discussed works of literature, in respect of the subject matter in question.
Probably the foremost similarity between The Namesake and Dogeaters is concerned with the fact that both of these novels tackle the issue of how women’s endowment with the ‘hybrid mentality’ affects the manner, in which they address the challenges of life. In The Namesake, most of the featured female-characters struggle with trying to integrate into the American society.
What it means is that the mentioned endeavor, on these characters’ part, can be best discussed within the context of what accounts for the qualitative aspects of one’s identity, as an immigrant. In this respect, the situation with Dogeaters, is slightly different. The reason for this is that most of the female-characters, mentioned in this novel, are ‘immigrants’ not in the format but in the discursive sense of this word.
That is, throughout the novel’s entirety, they are shown on the path of trying to grow emotionally comfortable with the socially imposed requirement to act in the manner that would suggest them having been progressively minded (westernized), on one hand, and thoroughly committed to the values of a traditional (patriarchal) living. This appears to be the main reason why there are clearly defined pathological overtones to how the novel’s female-characters position themselves in life.
In light of the above-stated, we can well define the main difference between both novels. This difference can be formulated as follows: Whereas, Lahiri refers to the process of women growing increasingly ‘hybridized’ (in the psychological sense of this word), as something necessarily positive, Hagedorn appears rather skeptical in her view on what accounts for the actual effects of the process in question.
We can well interpret it, as the implicit indication that, contrary to how Bhabha viewed it, the process of a particular individual becoming ever more comfortable with the adopted ‘hybrid’ identity, cannot be discussed outside of that happened to be his or her gender-related cognitive predispositions. The reason why the mentioned female-characters in Lahiri’s novel appear to have grown emotionally adjusted with their identity-related ‘hybridity’ is that deep inside, they never ceased being attracted to the masculine existential values.
The same, however, cannot be said about the female-characters in Dogeaters – despite the fact that they believed themselves to be the ‘women of substance’, which in turn implied that they were masculine enough to succeed in the male-dominated world, this was not the actual case – hence, their ‘masquerade’ and ‘hysteria’.
We believe that this conclusion is fully consistent with the paper’s initially proposed hypothesis. After all, as it was shown throughout the paper’s analytical part, it is indeed possible to expound on the mentioned female-characters in both novels, as having been simultaneously affected by their anxiety of a ‘mental hybridity’, on one hand, and their deep-seated desire to attain self-actualization through marriage/sex, on the other.
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