Volume XII, Number 2, Fall 2016

"The Archive and the Shadow: Henry James’s The Wings of the Dove and Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Unaccustomed Earth”" by Linda Raphael

Readers of Henry James’s fiction are likely to find themselves comparing other writers to James – intentionally or almost unconsciously. Perhaps the style or the subject matter reminds critics and other enthusiasts of James’s writing – for example, Alan Hollinghurst and Caleb Crain have been compared to James, while Colm Tóibín’s subject matter of Henry James himself in The Master revives Jamesian fictional and literal worlds. The writer I compare here to James, Jhumpa Lahiri, who immigrated to America as a young child with her Bengali Indian parents, writes with a development of characters’ consciousness that resembles James’s “fine” attention to the details of human thought—the sort that sometimes led his brother William to criticize his “’rum’ way” of “reversing every traditional canon of storytelling” (Skrupselis and Berkley, 220). Not only the style, but the subject matter of Lahiri’s “Unaccustomed Earth” (2008) resonates with reminders of James’s frequent representations of father/daughter relationships. In the opening of the story, a woman whose mother has recently died awaits a visit with her father, as does Kate Croy in The Wings of the Dove (1902); both daughters anticipate the visit with anxiety, largely because each one is entertaining the possibility of living with her father.

Yet each daughter’s future is determined by her past – a past the reader experiences through analeptic passages that are generally represented in the characters’ consciousness. While the stories have so many similarities that they bear comparison in terms of various events and psychological states, it is the way that memory functions in each story that makes a discussion of them together especially relevant to our understanding of each.

The problem of memory

The title of Lahiri’s story, “Unaccustomed Earth,” hints at why memory works differently in this story than in Wings. Taken from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Custom House” (the introduction to The Scarlet Letter), the term refers to the significance of change:

Human nature will not flourish any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted for too long a series of generations, in the same worn out soil. My children have had other birthplaces, and so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth. (18)

The accustomed earth inhabited by Kate Croy and her family provides a grounding that would have inspired the words of Hawthorne’s narrator, had Wings been written a century earlier. As it is, many of James’s characters have lived too long in the same “worn out soil.”

At the opening of Wings, Kate’s memory focuses on her father: “She waited, Kate Croy, for her father, and he kept her unconscionably” (21) prefigures a description of the vulgar rooms, looking out at a vulgar street that forms the place that Kate would take to be her own for a while, to avoid living with her mother’s wealthy and domineering sister, Maud, and thus to give her the freedom to further her relationship with Merton Densher, whose paltry income as a journalist makes him unacceptable to Maud. What is extraordinary in this first scene of the novel, however, is the iteration of shame in Kate’s consciousness:

She tasted the faint flat emanation of things, the failure of fortune and of honour. If she continued to wait it was really in a manner that she mightn’t add the shame of fear. (21, emphasis mine)

Lionel plays on the shame he apparently recognizes in his daughter. In speaking of her reluctance to live with her aunt and thus enjoy her fortune, and hopefully share some of it with him, he viperously declares: "Then, my dear girl, you ought simply to be ashamed of yourself. Do you know what you’re a proof of, all you hard, hollow people together?" (32, emphasis mine). Apparently Lionel moves between viciousness and deceptive charms: “His type reflect[ed] so invidiously on the woman who had found him distasteful” (102-3) express Kate’s shameful feelings about Lionel, but about her mother’s image as well.

The reader must wonder through a number of pages that refer obliquely to past events what the sources of this disgrace and dishonor might be, only to find out that the shame that defines the event is not precisely named – that the memory of it is of its existence, not its precise details. In a conversation with Merton that expresses intimacy and trust between them, Kate refers to the day on which, according to her memory, she became aware of the shame:

I don’t know—and I don’t want to. I only know that years and years ago—when I was about fifteen—something or other happened that made him impossible. I mean impossible for the world at large first, and then, little by little, for mother. We of course didn’t know it at the time," Kate explained, "but we knew it later; and it was, oddly enough, my sister who first made out that he had done something. I can hear her now—the way, one cold black Sunday morning when, on account of an extraordinary fog, we hadn’t gone to church, she broke it to me by the school-room fire. I was reading a history-book by the lamp—when we didn’t go to church we had to read history-books—and I suddenly heard her say, out of the fog, which was in the room, and apropos of nothing: ‘Papa has done something wicked.’ And the curious thing was that I believed it on the spot and have believed it ever since, though she could tell me nothing more—neither what was the wickedness, nor how she knew, nor what would happen to him, nor anything else about it. (56)

The missing material in this memorable scene exemplifies Derrida’s explication of the archive of memory; comparing the archive to the ruins of Pompeii – one visits with some expectation of experiencing the ancient Pompeii, but the ruins are what are left (Levin, 86). As Eric Savoy writes in an analysis of Hawthorne’s “The Custom House”:

Jacques Derrida conceptualizes as the event of the archive—that is, the performative ways in which subjects are reconstituted precisely as subjects, in conformity with the regulatory ideals of nation, religious tradition, and gender. (40)

The reference in Kate’s pictorial description includes religion: when she and her sister do not attend church, they must substitute for it with history books – and the schoolroom itself, situated in the home for educating girls, who would be educated at home, if they did receive any formal education, an English custom is made amply evident in Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. Although religion plays no specific part in this novel, nor in James’s oeuvre in general, the tradition of church attendance reinforces the idea that the archive of memory is filled with cultural scripts, including norms for education, religion, and gender. Kate Croy’s individual family and the English society to which they aspire to belong limit her options. The schoolroom scene is not evoked again; nevertheless, it informs the actions and attitudes—particularly the shame—the reader knows as Kate’s. The return to the past scene offers no possility for revision on Kate’s part. Rather, the elusive event figures as a determinative circumstance.

Ruma’s memories

In the opening pages of “Unaccustomed Earth,” Ruma thinks about her father’s travels to Europe, a continent he had not visited before her mother’s death. “She kept his flight information behind a magnet on the refrigerator, and on the days he was scheduled to fly, she watched the news to be sure there was no plane crash anywhere in the world” (3). Ruma’s mother’s had died suddenly – from an anphalactic reaction to anethesia during a routine surgery. She and her mother had been planning a trip to France together for her mother’s birthday, and after her mother’s death, Ruma had offered the tickets to her father. Thus began his travels:

Occasionally a postcard would arrive in Seattle where Ruma and Adam and their son Akash lived. The postcards showed the facades of churches, stone fountains, crowded piazzas, terracotta rooftops mellowed by late afternoon sun. […] But there was never a sense of her father’s presence in them. (3)

Postcards are simultaneously revealing and concealing, intimate and impersonal: they reveal their contents to all who come upon them and are therefore generally concealing intimate information. But they do say, “I am thinking of you, even or especially when I am far away.” Ruma thinks that postcards are “one-sided.” These short epistles that are the first written communication she has had from her father in her thirty-eight years. Brief and one-sided as they are, postcards, like any written communication one receives, has the potential to alter one’s reality. However, in her father’s postcards, the only personal connection Ruma finds is in the closing, “Be happy, Babu” (4).

While she anticipates her father’s approaching visit, Ruma thinks about her new life in Seattle, perhaps to some degree with a view from what she imagines might be her father’s interests and questions. Ruma had worked as an attorney in New York; after Akash was born, she managed to arrange part-time work as a litigator. She enjoyed the company of other mothers of young children where she lived in Brooklyn. Her parents’ relative proximity made it possible for her mother to develop a close relationship with Akash. When her mother died, Ruma lost interest in returning to work; soon after Adam’s new job with a hedge-fund not only required their move to Seattle, but paid well enough that she does not need to work. Her life in Seattle includes a beautiful, large home, a husband who now travels extensively, and few friends. Pregnant with a second child, she thinks often of her mother, and contemplates the idea of her father moving in with them. Adam agrees to the idea, responding to Ruma’s ambivalence with the observation that Ruma is hardly ever happy.

The reader learns as well of Ruma’s father’s attitude toward his present life before the narrative of the visit commences. As he travels toward Seattle, he thinks, “How freeing it was, these days, to travel alone, with only one suitcase to check” (7). He stares out the window at a shelf of clouds and imagines walking on them. Remembering trips to Calcutta, made to satisfy his wife’s desire to see their families and to have Ruma and her brother, Romi, know them, he remembers as well the anxiety he felt on those trips. However, his ease with the present involves complexities, both in terms of a present situation and his memories of his wife. He has been travelling with a Bengali woman whom he met on his first trip after his wife’s death. He has not told Ruma about Mrs. Bagchi, a woman who left India as a young widow, to escape her parents’ designs to arrange another marriage for her. She earned a PhD in statistics, and had been a professor of statistics at Stony Brook University until her recent retirement; she dressed and wore her hair in contemporary American styles and, living alone in Stony Brook, was an anomaly in the community. She had returned to Calcutta only to attend her parents’ funerals. Remaining single and childless, she has no “baggage,” so to speak. In every significant way, Ms. Bagchi’s life differs from the life his wife had led. The latter had come to America with her husband, had spent her time making a home for him and the two children she bore, and had continued to live as a traditional Bengali woman. When Ruma thinks of her mother’s saris, and feels guilty that she kept only three, which are stored in plastic bags, the reader is given a symbolic way to think of the differences between the two women. The obvious differences between the two women are symbolized by a reference to Ms. Bagchi wearing pants. The contemporary American dress style symbolizes a difference from Babu’s wife, who left a wardrobe of 218 saris (17).

The reader thus enters the story of Ruma and her father’s visit with knowledge of each that the other does not have. The antiphonal register of each character’s consciousness, in which memories play the primary role, continually adds to the reader’s privileged view of the relationship. As Wayne Booth long ago observed, the matter of privilege and limitation with regard to characters’ consciousness involves the degree to which the author chooses to register a character’s weaknesses and/or inconsistencies (160). In the case of “Unaccustomed Earth,” Lahiri finesses the representations of memory in a manner that is both dramatic and philosophically complex. That is, Ruma and her father are both inclined to “sideshadow,” a term coined by the philosopher Gary Saul Morson. He writes:

I like to think of events as shadowed by the other possibilities that might have been—I call these "sideshadows.” To understand an event is to grasp not only what did happen but also what else might have happened. Similarly, to understand an action involves understanding what else that actor might have done, and to understand a self is to grasp what else that self might have become. (19)

Similarly, here as elsewhere, Lahiri’s characters resist the absolutism of binaries. As Elizabeth Jackson notes in an essay on Lahiri and “cosmopolitanism,” the children in the collection of stories in Interpreter of Maladies do not make the sorts of distinctions amongst people that their parents do. For example, a girl is continually confused about differences between Indians and Pakistanis, no matter how much her Bengali mother explains what seem to the latter significant variants between the groups. “[Children do not think in cultural or geographic terms. Instead, children] respond [to people] in a simple and spontaneous way” (Jackson, 116). Akash’s presence generally enhances his mother and grandfather’s ability to sideshadow and to avoid binary interpretations of the past.

Despite the close attention Ruma pays to her father’s flight schedule to reassure herself of his safety, she greets his arrival with some disquiet. Old memories are stirred when he responds to her considerate query about his drive and the traffic: “It is exactly twenty-two miles from the airport to your house” (13). What might seem to be an insignificant observation, or even one that worked to Dadu’s disadvantage, since he lives where gasoline is less expensive, nonetheless reminds Ruma of her father’s exacting nature. Indeed, he had known the exact miles between the places he drove when she was a child. He adds,

“Gasoline is expensive here,” He said matter-of-factly, but still she felt the prick of his criticism as she had all her life, feeling at fault that gas cost more in Seattle than in Pennsylvania. (13)

Ruma feels “a prick of his criticsm” and a twinge of guilt when he makes this comparison, despite the (unstated) advantage it is for him that gas is less expensive where he lives. As she shows him the house, its vistas of the lake and bridges, and her particular source of pride, the state-of-the-art kitchen, Ruma “feels a quiet slap of rejection, gathering, from his continuing silence that none of this impressed him” (16). She not only believes that her mother would have responded differently, but her feelings are related to memories of her father’s attitudes toward her.

Thinking of her young adult years, she remembers that her failure to gain acceptance to any of the Ivy League colleges to which she had applied disappointed her father, while her brother’s graduation from Princeton University and the fellowship he was awarded for overseas study follwing graduation was a source of pride to him. This thought reminds her that she had argued with her father when he refused to insure her as a driver after she had passed her driving test. Her next thought is that he had advised her to major in biology in college, rather than history, but she had followed her own inclination. He balked at the cost of law school, but when Ruma was accepted to Northeastern Law School, he paid her tuition and supported her throughout her years there. This last thought indicacates sideshadowing, things could have gone differently: if he had not paid for law school she might not have gone, and the course of her life would not have been the same. She would not have met Adam (who also lived in Boston); she might not have gained the confidence she did as a professional.

Presently, Ruma responds anxiously to her father’s interest in her finding work in Seattle; she feels criticized. The irony, that on the one hand, she has felt discriminated against him for being a female, she now resists his thinking of her in terms he might think of a son. Her father inquires, “Have you looked for work in this new place” (36). Ruma responds defensively, with excuses about the short time Akash would be in day care, and the long drive into the city, not admitting that she has not looked into work at all. When Ruma responds to his further questions about when she would resume work, he considers her decision to wait until the second child is in kindergarten, five years from the present, to be unwise. “Her mother would have understood her decision, would have been supportive and proud,” she thinks (36). She remembers having worked fifty-hour weeks and earning six figures. In this “unaccustomed earth,” Ruma has led a life different from both her mother and Mrs. Bagchi. Unlike these immigrant women, she did not have to choose one way of life or the other as a woman, but could choose instead the (potentially harder) life that involves both signficant home and work responsibilities.

Akash’s memory construction

The visit focuses on Akash, who has no memory of her mother, Ruma thinks. He functions in some sense as a tabula rasa, untainted by the past shared by Ruma and her father. Dadu (“grandpa” in Bengali) makes his relationship with his grandson less as a nurterer, as had his wife, but more as a teacher. He encourages the four-year-old to take an interest in planting a garden in this “unaccustomed earth” of Seattle. At one point, Ruma thinks that her father refers to Akash’s preschool when he uses the term “nursery,” while he is referring to a plant nursery, emphasizing the distinctions as well as the similarities between the two places – both involve “taking care of.” Ruma and her father now share an interest in the child that Ruma thought she shared only with her mother. As Akash becomes interested in the garden, Ruma thinks intermittently about having her father move in with them. He has replaced her mother as Akash’s grandparent, and she may be thinking of him as her own replacement for not only her mother, but various aspects of her New York life. Her desire is naturalized beause of the Bengali tradition of caring for one’s elderly parent(s).

The presence of Ruma’s mother fills spaces and gaps in conversation as child and father come together. The father ruminates:

Mrs. Bagchi “had loved her husband of two years more than he had loved his wife of nearly forty. Of this he was certain. (31)

At the same time, he remembers the garden that he had planted and carefully tended where he grew the vegetables his wife used for the Indian dishes she loved to cook for him. When the children were grown, he and his wife continued the collaborative effort; he grew the vegetables, and she offering the abundant remainders to friends, either by inviting them as guests to their home or taking them to others’ homes when they were guests. Ruma’s father conjures a picture for himself of a compatible couple, but he remembers not only his discomfort on the trips to Calcutta but that he remembers that “he was impervious to his wife’s wanderlust” (19) when, after the children were grown, she expressed desires to travel to Venice, Amsterdam, and other European cities. Regarding his past in a sideshadowing manner, he recognizes the expressions of respect and mature love that characterized his feelings for his wife, while at the same time he recognizes his obstinacy or disinterest toward her desire.

The daughter’s memories coincide with the father’s on the question of his devotion to her mother:

Ruma suddenly wanted to ask her father, as she had wanted to so many times, if he missed her mother, or if he ever for her death. But she’d never asked and he’d never admitted whether he had said or done those things. (46, emphasis mine)

The verb “to admit” rather than “to say” registers the complexity of memory: Ruma may remember times when what he said or did possibly intimated that he did miss his wife; Ruma apparently wishes that he did, and her desire may lead her to under or over interpret words and actions.

The connection of these thoughts in Ruma’s mind – that her father may not have loved her mother as much as her mother or she, Ruma, would have wished, and that she could not fulfill her mother’s desires either apparently suggests that she recognizes that there are limits to what one can give to another. The reader may surmise, given her father’s attraction to an independent woman, that he, like Ruma, had ambivalent feelings about his wife’s dependence his wife’s dependence on her family.

One of Ruma’s memories concerns her mother’s vocal and adamant desire that Ruma marry an Indian. She disapproved of Ruma’s engagement to Adam, “insisting that he would divorce her, that in the end he would want an American girl” (26), although she came to love him as a son. Ruma remembers being more angry at her father’s silence in the face of her mother’s disapproval, a silence she regarded as “more cruel” than her mother’s insistence that Ruma was ashamed of being an Indian. The narrative makes palpable the silence between the daughter and father; such silence may offer more opportunities for sideshadowing than a relationship that is defined by more conversation and general expression because the time for contemplation is interrupted continuously.

Sitting on the porch one afternoon, Ruma’s father says, “’If I lived here I would sleep out here in the summers. [. . .] I would put out a cot’” (45). Ruma takes this as a signal to ask him to live with her. Through their memories rather than their conversation, the motives and decisions of the characters become clear. Ruma’s invitation to her father responds in part to traditional patterns that her father has abandoned: Her memories of living in close proximity to her parents, and her mother’s devotion to her original family and to her husband and children explain her desire to have her father move in with them. Her loneliness provided a stimulus as well; this last motivation is one that her father recognizes while she is not consciously aware of it herself.

Father’s memories

Her father’s memories and his present thinking predict that he will not accept this invitation because he is done with living with a family – with what he thinks of as “the mess, the feuds, the demands, the energy of it” (51). He has gotten rid of the house, a source of some pain to Ruma, who remembering her mother’s kitchen and visualizes her mother sitting in bed with a crossword puzzle, regrets that she will never see these places again. Memories of these years in the house play a different role for Ruma than they do for her father, who has more years of memory and less desire to dwell on them than does his daughter. Ruma’s memories and her present ambivalent situation give shape to what her father vaguely thinks of as the mess and feuds that have been intimated in the story in both characters’ contemplations. In addition, Dadu looks in on his sleeping grandson and thinks mournfully that he will not know Akash when the latter is middle-aged. It is as if he wishes to have memories of the future. He thinks as well that Ruma and Adam’s children will leave them, as his children left him and his wife.

Backshadowing and foreshadowing come together to make for melancholy moments for Ruma’s father. Contrasted with instances of sideshadowing, this moment is painful, though honest. “He wanted to protect her from [her children leaving her], as he had wanted throughout his life to protect her from so many things” (54). The sadness of the passage, including the father’s sense that “the whole enterprise of having a family, of putting children on this earth gratifying as it sometimes was, was flawed from the start” (54-5). This moment of backshadowing – absent the possible ways of considering the many years of marriage and raising children, highlights the significance of sideshadowing in the story.

These reflections on mortality concern not impending doom but the inevitability of death, or the impermanence of life. As Derrida wrote when meditating on Kierkegaard:

It is from the site of my death as the place of my irreplaceability that is, of my singularity, that I feel called to responsibility. In this sense only a mortal can be responsible.” Our fatal tissue both grounds and limits what we know and can be answerable for. (Goicoechea, 41)

Some things, like dying, no one else can do for us. This is the wisdom that Dadu has acquired, and with it the self-knowledge that he does not want to build more memories of family life, but instead desires a simplified existence. Just as the sideshadowing that gives new meaning to memories, his desire for what I am calling memories of the future indicate the desire to know another and to interpret experiences through time.

Present and past pieced together

Piecing together the present and the past in a way that represents sideshadowing memories, both Dadu and Rum focus their attention on Akash. Appropriately, the story revolves around events predictive of the future – a child, a garden that will grow, and relationships that will develop. Dadu departs for his flight home early in the morning, before Akash has awoken. The child is bereft when he discovers what he has already been told, absence being a hard concept for a four-year-old, or perhaps anyone, to fully grasp. Running to the garden that Dadu has planted, he grabs the watering can Dadu has taught him to use, and swinging it around in an angry manner, dislodges a marker that he has placed on one of the plants. Ruma picks up the marker, noticing the handwriting – it is a postcard, addressed to Mrs. Bagchi; Ruma reads the name, but she is unable read the message, written in the Bengali language. She remembers that her mother had urged her to learn Bengali and thinks that is she had done so, she would have been able to know what the postcard says.

The narrative asserts the significance of postcards – they are one-sided, as Ruma had thought – but they do convey something important about her father. Even though she cannot read the message, she remembers catching a glimpse of a woman in the video of his travels her father had shown, as well as she remembers that her father was embarrassed at the showing of the image, and moved quickly away from it. As Ruma puts together the woman and the postcard, she thinks of how she knew what the surgeon was going to say when she saw his face as he came to report her mother’s unexpected death, and she thinks of her present insights in a similar way. The sudden recognition, unlike the one she made when the surgeon approached her and her father, suggests the way that new information revises a memory, and may bring on other memories. Ruma remembers that her mother had encouraged her to learn the Bengali language; at this moment she cannot know what she may want to discover, the nature of her father’s relationship with Ms. Bagchi.

The narrative thus gives credence to the idea that one’s children ought to live in “unaccustomed earth.” The message is private, and had Ruma read it, perhaps she would have elaborated on a mistaken assumption: she interprets the letter she cannot read to indicate that her father has replaced her mother. Rather, he and Mrs. Bagchi are compatible in their mutual interest in remaining independent. Ruma has overdetermined the meaning of the postcard; she is not privy to some of the emotions that belong to another generation, emotions that make this relationship significant to Dadu in terms and with limits that Ruma does not fully grasp—for example, that Mrs. Bagchi does not want another husband, does not want to live with another man, but enjoys Dadu’s company on the limited terms that suit them both. Perhaps such intuitions come with one having one’s own memories of aging. Nonetheless, Ruma’s sideshadowing brings together the past, present, and future. The inability of parents and children to fully communicate their generational differences, expressed here in the language barrier, can be regarded as positive.

Both Wings and “Unaccustomed Earth” end with an epistolary event, with the disposition of a letter, in the former, and a postcard, in the latter. As Lacan said somewhat ironically, a letter always arrives at its destination (30). Kate Croy throws into the fire the letter from Milly; who had gone to an unaccustomed land only to find that the old world ways of Britain could be cruel to a newcomer. Kate has no reserve of precise memories or shared emotions and events with her father. In the concluding pages of the novel, Lionel is staying with Kate’s sister; when Kate tells Merton this news, she says only, “Father’s never ill. He’s a marvel. He’s only – endless” (391). There are no memories for Kate to revise – only the endless matter of shame, to which Kate has added by burning Milly’s letter.

Ruma mails the postcard to Mrs. Bagchi. The circle completed in the closing garden scene in “Unaccustomed Earth” symbolically includes Dadu, Akash, Ruma, and Mrs. Bagchi, who will surely communicate to Dadu that she has received his card. Although Ruma feels the agony of loss of her mother in this garden scene: “She still needed her to to explain so many things” (39). Just as death will take away the possibility of Dadu knowing his grandchildren when they are middle-aged, death prevented Ruma and her mother from exploring and expressing their relationship into Ruma’s middle age. At the same time, Ruma remembers that her father has planted hydrangeas, which he tells her were her mother’s favorite flower—something Ruma had not known. She will be able to remember that these were her mother’s favorites, even though she did not know that before, and she will remember her father’s planting them in memory of her mother. In this way, she may sideshadow older memories of her parents’ relationship and of her father’s thoughtfulness that was not always obvious that her father planted the stuff of memories, and has the power to effect sideshadowing of older memories. Dadu has planted the stuff of new memories and a possible revision of the old.. The relationships in this story are imperfect —but the remembering of often painful events creates tenderness and imperfect understanding. This unaccustomed earth allows for memories to be interpreted and reinterpreted—something that Henry James shows us in The Wings of the Dove does not happen in the terra firma of late nineteenth-century English accustomed earth.


Works Cited

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