Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

American Spaces in the Fiction of Jhumpa Lahiri

Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

American Spaces in the Fiction of Jhumpa Lahiri

Article excerpt

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces Between Stars-on stars where no human race is. I have it in me so much nearer home To scare myself with my own desert places.

Robert Frost

IN EDWARD HOPPERS PAINTING NIGHTHAWKS, three people sit at the counter of a diner, neither speaking nor looking at each other. The waiter busies himself behind the counter. It is a "clean, well-lighted place," but not a space that keeps out the loneliness and nothingness of the outside world. The four people in the painting have brought that world of isolation in with them and made it a part of their own emotional space. What the painting suggests about the anonymity, loneliness, and emptiness of American interiors, physical and emotional, is a theme that runs through twentieth-century American literature as obviously and undeniably as the Mississippi runs through the middle of America. The names of the writers, from the beginning of the century to its close, are like ports along the way: Sherwood Anderson, Thomas Wolfe, Carson McCullers, Tennessee Williams, Raymond Carver, Marilynne Robinson. In the works of all these writers, characters look for ways out of the rooms and houses that enclose their loneliness: Elizabeth Willard waiting for death to take her out of the inherited hotel that has become her prison; the unnamed narrator of "Cathedral" exclaiming with confused joy at a moment of transcendence that he no longer felt enclosed within anything; Emily Grierson looking out the windows of a decaying mansion that has literally become a tomb. Bachelard has written, "If asked to name the benefit of a house, I should say: the house shelters daydreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace" (6). But to American writers, the walls that surround the inner spaces of houses are more often a metaphor for confinement within one's own ego, or confinement within a set of conventions that deny intimacy and individuality.

For the characters who live in these spaces, life is outside, not within, as in Bachelard. Doors shut out the world, and the protagonist in American fiction must step outside that door to understand himself and make meaningful contact with others. To be shut in does not mean to be safe but to be trapped. This metaphor may originate, as Hemingway said all American fiction did, with Huck Finn, who runs away from his abusive father and the conventional household of the Widow Douglas and into a violent and dangerous world which at least allows him some independence. It may begin with Poe's House of Usher and the Gothic tradition. It certainly pervades the fiction of Faulkner, with his claustrophobic and decaying southern mansions, as William Ruzicka notes. We also see this metaphor in such contemporary classics as Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping, in which Ruth and Sylvie burn down the house that has become a symbol of the stifling conventions of small town life, conventions which interfere with individual autonomy without providing kindness, understanding, or help. And it appears again and again in the mid-life crisis novels of Percy, Malamud, Price, and Bellow. Walls form a prison, and those caught within those walls are in a kind of solitary confinement; the only answer is escape. The solution to one's loneliness is outside.

D. H. Lawrence once wrote of the original settlers in America:

   They came largely to get away--that most simple of motives.
   To get away. Away from what? Away from everything. That's
   why most people have come to America, and still do. To get
   away from everything they are and have been. "Henceforth be
   masterless" Which is all very well, but it isn't freedom. Rather
   the reverse--a hopeless sort of constraint. It is never freedom
   until you find something you positively want to be. (9)

To the extent to which this is true, it isn't surprising that many of the protagonists of American fiction should keep on running, running away from houses that are both empty of meaning and stifling in their constraints. …

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