Trying to Remember a Dream
The speakers rattle as they begin to transmit the pilot’s message — it’s a balmy 88 degrees as the plane descends over Boston around eight pm, July 20, 1969. There’s an eerie silence when he pauses his speech, like the silence heard after one’s awoken in the night by distant noise. The air thickens as the passengers begin to breathe quickly. The gravity of what could be said next — what could elicit such a stall in the momentum of the pilots words — pulls them to the edges of their seats. The flight attendants stop their chores. The speaker slowly begins to make noise, just a crackle at first, then a bit more. Then, with all the surprise a man has falling through ice to a wintery bath, the pilot resumes: “President Nixon has declared a national holiday. Two American men have landed on the moon.” A book drops to the floor in the distance and rings out a sound through the silence like a loud scream on a quiet night. And as if someone had flipped on the lights in a dark room, there is no more silence. There are shouts, and cheers, and patriotic affirmations spewing from the tops of lunges. Women are humbled to prayer. Men are swelled with pride. There’s a collective premonition that the whole world is, for however brief a time, of one mind. A universal esteem for the human race. There is not but one man still quiet in his seat with a plain smile on his face, watching the others in their frivolity.
When thinking of moral in a story it is vital to keep character in the forefront of the mind, for the reader is to inhabit the characters as he reads and thus feel his morality to be the same as the character. All that so he might be the wiser for taking on the eyes of another man. To make such a connection, truth and the natural are inexcusable. Sincerity of character is the aspiration of every story. Ernest Hemingway writes, “…a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature.”(Hemingway 153) Had the characters in Lahiri’s story been plastic, shimmering imitations of human experience, there would have been no moral, no punchline, no real man; only words about a skin that travelled the world having awkward conversations and eating a rancid diet; a story sure to bring a laugh, but void of any real redemption for the reader.
Lahiri, on the moral element in her stories, says, “When I sit down to write, I don’t think about writing about an idea or a given message. I just try to write a story (which is hard enough). And there’s obviously a message, or a moral, or something”(Interview with Jhumpa Lahiri). If, then, Lahiri allows her characters to represent themselves in the story without any moral guiding from her, chemist write into their essence her own values. Thus it is important to know where she came from and why she cares of the contrast between modern and classic American ideal. She is the product of classic thinking. This story, however loosely, is based off of her father, a librarian, same as the narrator. She said in an interview, “In Third and Final Continent, the story grew out of an anecdote that my father sometimes told about his arrival in the United States. I was struck by the circumstances of a man coming to a new country in the recent wake of the moon landing, and how that historical event strangely paralleled what this character was experiencing and what my father was experiencing.” (Off the Page: Jhumpa Lahiri). The basin of this story is painted brightly with the colors of her fathers journey to a new world and the ideals that carried him there.
The realness that Lahiri is so dutifully instilling in her stories is seen in a scene where the narrator yells “Splendid!” in response to a half-senile question by his one hundred and three year old land lady. The narrator’s wife laughs at his so surprising, yet warm reply. This happens in reality often. Conversations are shocking because they are so unpredictable, but all at once they are familiar and comfortable. GK Chesterton would describe such phenomena as all the thrill of discovering a new place, with all the relief of returning home. Relationships, too, are a basic facet of life. Much like water, should a man find himself in want of any relationship for too long, he would die. This story is rich with relationships just unorthodox enough to make the reader believe that he is reading nonfiction. With Mrs. Croft, the narrator is kind, and patient. He sits with her, delights in her company, and mourns her death. She allows him to be seen as a round character, a human who, like every man, is struck by both joy and pain. With his wife, he is cold, and unsympathetic at first. This is a most peculiar and very real thing. For had the reader found him to be in love with her immediately, having not even had enough time together that they should know the key facts of each other, favorite movie or favorite color, the real important tidbits of love, they would know him to be a canned mockery of their own experiences. Alas, he is proven true. It is in this constant finding the characters to unavoidably wreak of reality that allows the written embodiments of Lahiri’s values and purpose to invade the guarded recesses of the reader.
Lahiri now lounges in the mind of the reader, feet up and sweatpants on. When the audience trusts the characters, their disposition, their morality, is free to be examined, and further still, sympathized with.
It is certain that the narrator’s life is counter the idea of American acquisition of status. He begins his travels in London, where he attends classes at one of the finest economics schools in the world. Craving a job and parched to fulfill his duty as a man — caring for his wife — he does what any sensible American idealist would call insane, drops everything and moves to yet another continent to work at a library. Why would he do this? Why would anyone leave what would obviously turn into a more compensating job to be a librarian? Hence American thought. He thought not of status, nor posterity, nor familiar pride. He thought of America, and its bustling universities and spacious promises. He thought of his future family; his children, who could attend the finest universities in the world, and his wife whom “It was [his] duty to take care…” This to him, and so many immigrants before and after him, was a good life. He earned every penny, and every good thing he had. He knew not his wife but he still sacrificed for her comfort, as he says in the story: “Nevertheless I resolved to stay at the Y.M.C.A. for six weeks, until my wife’s passport and green card were ready. Once she arrived I would have to rent a proper apartment.” It is necessary to remember that Lahiri is not writing him to fit a bill. He is what she holds most dear in people, especially her father, who was a librarian as well. (Interview with Jhumpa Lahiri). He exemplifies this traditional American dream.
The narrator represents the most humble of man’s ideal in behavior, a point essential to the understanding of the stories morality. Shown in his words about Mrs. Croft,“At times I came downstairs before going to sleep, to make sure she was sitting upright on the bench, or was safe in her bedroom. On Fridays I put the rent in her hands. There was nothing I could do for her beyond these simple gestures.” he is kind, even to his own detriment. He says, “As awkward as it was, and as endless as it felt to me then, the nightly encounter lasted only about ten minutes; Had Lahiri not chosen to exploit this kindness, and show the audience how simple and good-natured the narrator is, there would be no conviction to pull them to the realization that the classic way of living, a pursuit of contentedness and familiar love, the original American dream, is something that has been lost and must be regained at all costs.
As all the smoke and dust clears from the hot welding of morality and character, Lahiri leaves the story with the only thing left to be said in the argument in favor of the traditional and simple way of life, the classic american dream, the opposition to the status focused, and monetarily driven ideals of the modern day: “I am not the only man to seek his fortune far from home, and certainly I am not the first. Still, there are times I am bewildered by each mile I have travelled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination.” This is branded on the arms of all those who sought America for its earnestness, its possibility for contentedness. Lahiri so humbly and without much regard to it, uses her brilliantly awkward and stalwartly sincere characters to find their way onto the shoulders of the audience and offer the counter, the defiant way of life. A life not dictated by pursuing status and money as if it were needed to breathe, but to live for relationship, for kindness, and for duty.
Aguiar, Interviewed Arun. “Interview with Jhumpa Lahiri.” Pif Magazine. WordPress, 1 Aug.
1999. Web. 08 Sept. 2016.
Burns, Carole. “Off the Page: Jhumpa Lahiri.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 7 Oct.
2003. Web. 08 Sept. 2016.
Chesterton, G. K. Orthodoxy. New York: Lohn Lane, 1909. Print.
Hemingway, Ernest. Death in the Afternoon. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1932. 153.