Study Guide

Interpreter of Maladies "The Third and Final Continent"

By Jhumpa Lahiri

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"The Third and Final Continent"

The Third and Final Continent

  • This final story gives us our very first first-person "I" narrator in the collection.
  • He's a Bengali man who left India in 1964 to go to London pursue his studies. While in London, he attended lectures and worked at the university library.
  • Yes, our main character works at a library (not that there's anything wrong with that…). But clearly this won't be an action-packed story.
  • Anyway, he ends up leaving London for Boston because he gets a job at Dewey Library at MIT.
  • By this time, he's also gotten himself a wife (his brother arranged the marriage for him). She's in the process of getting her immigration papers.
  • The hard-working, frugal immigrant that he is, he stays at the YMCA for six weeks in order to save money for a real apartment.
  • As his wife's arrival date approaches, he rents a room in an old house owned by an elderly woman named Mrs. Croft, who (1) only rents to boys from Harvard or MIT, and (2) speaks almost exclusively in exclamation points, like this!
  • The landlady confuses our narrator a little (we sympathize because she does seem a little … eccentric), but she seems nice enough.
  • She doesn't want him to have "lady visitors" (TFC 37). Tough to do considering he's married, but anyway…
  • Our guy decides to finally introduce his wife to us. Her name's Mala; she's 27; she apparently can do all sorts of wifely things. The only catch is that she has a dark complexion, which means she's had a tough time finding a suitor (until, of course, our narrator).
  • But their first days together weren't exactly married bliss. He was preparing for his move to Boston and so had no time to get to know his wife or comfort her—she was very homesick for her family.
  • Plus, all he could think about was the room next to his, how it used to house his mother (now dead). He even remembers details like the fact that she played with her poop in her final days and how he had to start the cremation process because his older brother just couldn't bear to do it.
  • Our narrator moves into Mrs. Croft's house and settles into a routine with her. When he gets home from work in the evening, she pats the seat next to her, he sits down, she says that there's an American flag on the moon and that it's splendid.
  • She asks him to say "Splendid!" too. Then they sit there, not talking, for about ten minutes until Mrs. Croft falls asleep.
  • The first time rent is due, the narrator goes into the sitting room where Mrs. Croft is, bows and thoughtfully hands her the rent in an envelope, putting it near her hands where she doesn't have struggle to grasp it.
  • Mrs. Croft notices his politeness and mentions how kind it was of him to be that thoughtful. Mrs. Croft's daughter (who's old too) confirms our thoughts when she walks into his room one day and introduces herself. She points out that her mother thinks our narrator is a "gentleman," unlike the other boarders.
  • Mrs. Croft interrupts their conversation and calls them downstairs because she thinks it's inappropriate for a woman and a man not married to each other to converse without a chaperone. Did we tell you that she was old by the way?
  • The daughter responds by saying that it's now 1969 (this is a while ago) and that women can now wear miniskirts as well as have conversations with men without chaperones. And c'mon, she's 68. It's not like anything's about to happen between her and the narrator.
  • All of that still doesn't sit well with Mrs. Croft, just like the fact that she depends on her daughter now for help preparing food. Mrs. Croft is a proud old lady, so even though years of teaching piano have ruined her hands to an arthritic mess, she wants to believe she can still do things on her own. Things like opening a can of soup (the only thing she'll eat) for her dinner.
  • Mrs. Croft's daughter mentions her mother's age—103. That seems incomprehensible to our narrator, compared to the fact that his dad died when the narrator was only 16, which drove his mother crazy with grief to the point that she died not long after.
  • Our narrator tells the daughter that he'd be happy to prepare Mrs. Croft's can of soup for dinner each night, but the daughter says that he better not since all that help might be more than Mrs. Croft can stand.
  • You get the point—the narrator is a super nice guy. He even worries about Mrs. Croft and checks on her during the night to make sure she's okay.
  • Eventually, though, he concludes that there's not much more he can do than check on her and pay rent on time. Everything else really isn't his business.
  • And there's the business of Mala, whose immigration paperwork is more or less ready and who will soon arrive in the States.
  • While walking along the street, the narrator witnesses an Indian woman pushing a stroller and running into a snarling dog who snaps at her sari. The Indian woman is petrified and stays still until the dog and owner have moved on.
  • This event gets the narrator to take Mala's arrival a little more seriously. He finally realizes that Mala will become his sole responsibility since she'll be entirely new to the country.
  • He decides to find a new, roomier place for them to live.
  • When he tells Mrs. Croft that he's moving out, he's disappointed to find out that she's kind of indifferent and distant. After all those hours sitting on the bench with her and looking after her, you might think she'd show some emotion.
  • He moves into the new apartment with Mala once she arrives. The first week, he does what he can to get to know her, but he doesn't really feel close to her.
  • That doesn't mean he stops trying, though. One Friday night, he asks to take her out. Of course, to his wife, that's code for date night, which is why she dresses up like she's going to a party—an Indian one (she's wearing a sari).
  • The narrator regrets asking her because of the way she's dressed but he takes her anyway. He's not exactly flush with cash, so they do the most romantic thing a couple can do for free—they take a walk around the neighborhood and town.
  • The narrator ends up leading her to Mrs. Croft's house, where he introduces her to Mrs. Croft herself. The daughter is there too but ends up leaving the narrator to watch Mrs. Croft so that she can go get some stuff at the market.
  • Since the narrator's move, Mrs. Croft has fallen and broken her hip.
  • But that doesn't stop her from being her usual self with the narrator. When she sees him, she pats the bench as always and tells him to sit.
  • Then she notices Mala and asks who she is, to which the narrator replies that she's his wife.
  • Mrs. Croft asks Mala if she can play piano, to which Mala says no. Mrs. Croft then orders Mala to stand up while Mrs. Croft stares at her.
  • Amazingly though, Mrs. Croft says something totally nice and sweet; she announces that Mala's a "perfect lady" (TFC 147).
  • The narrator can't help but laugh, but he does so quietly so that only Mala can hear. Mala ends up smiling at him and they share a look. You know those looks—all loaded with meaning and emotion. That is the first time the narrator and Mala feel comfortable in each other's presence.
  • The narrator thinks of that moment at Mrs. Croft's as the first time he and Mala started to fall in love with each other.
  • And they do fall in love eventually over time. They have a son together, who grows up to attend Harvard.
  • The husband and wife visit their son all the time or they get him to come home—not difficult at all since they live in Boston.
  • The narrator also shares with his son the story of how he used to live at Mrs. Croft's for about eight dollars a week. His son is surprised by how unbelievably cheap the rent was back then.
  • Now for a sentimental ending: the narrator sees a lot of himself in his son and supports his son's ambitions with encouraging words about how much he's traveled and seen and about how much the mundane can end up surprising you.
  • Looking back on his life on three continents, he sometimes still can't believe it all really happened. Simply stated by Lahiri, but we'll bet it will make you weepy. The end.

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