Study Guide

Interpreter of Maladies Themes

By Jhumpa Lahiri

  • Language and Communication

    Interpreter of Maladies is all about gaps in communication, even between people who speak the same language. But that doesn't mean characters don't communicate in Lahiri's stories; they just often struggle to do it. That's because these characters are all balancing huge cultural differences from their Bengali/Indian and American backgrounds. For them, there's no such thing as "regular" speech.

    Questions About Language and Communication

    1. How do props help some of the characters in these stories communicate?
    2. How is silence used to communicate important information in the book?
    3. Why do some of the native English speaking characters have such a tough time communicating with each other?

    Chew on This

    The biggest communication gap isn't between white Americans and Bengali or Indian immigrants in this book: it's between the second-generation Bengali/Indian-American married couples.

    Too much talking leads to greater misunderstandings between people.

  • Marriage

    If you're looking for stories of marital bliss, you might want to move on. There are few successful marriages in the collection. The most troubled marriages in Interpreter of Maladies tend to look from the outside like they've got it all, and by "all," we mean a house in the suburbs and financial security. These stories force you to consider the American dream as a misguided aim of marriage. (Well, except the last story. That one's special.)

    Questions About Marriage

    1. Why is the marriage in the final story more successful than the other (failed) marriages in the book? Why might an arranged marriage be better than a marriage by choice?
    2. Does a healthy marriage require good communication between spouses?
    3. Does it help to have the same cultural background in a marriage?

    Chew on This

    Arranged marriages are based on a more mature set of reasons than marriages by choice.

    It's not racial or cultural differences that make marriage challenging; it's the differences in personality between spouses that can turn marriage into a war zone.

  • Family

    "Family first": that's what motivates and breaks the characters in Interpreter of Maladies. Why? Because "family" is all about responsibilities and (failed) expectations—what a son should do for his mother; what a husband should do for his wife; what a parent should do for a child. In fact, when you think of "family" in this book, your code word is "should." No fun-filled family outings to Six Flags here.

    Questions About Family

    1. How do the cultural backgrounds of the characters affect how they view their families?
    2. Who counts as "family"? Does "family" have to be based on blood?
    3. What does it mean to put family first anyway? Should the family always come before the individual?

    Chew on This

    Families can break apart because the expectations of family members are too high and demanding.

    If you don't have a secure financial background, you can't expect to have a happy family.

  • Dreams, Hopes and Plans

    Dreams, hopes and plans don't just get "deferred" in Interpreter of Maladies. They disappear, fracture, even change midway through a character's story. What's the point? Dreams, hopes and plans are all about the future, and in Interpreter of Maladies, the future is inherently unstable and unknown, especially for the characters based in India. That's because life—in politics, economics, and society—get in the way of these characters' individual goals.

    Questions About Dreams, Hopes and Plans

    1. How do the characters based in India approach their future differently than the characters based in America?
    2. How does the American Dream help determine the story arcs of the characters?
    3. Why is it so difficult for some of the characters in the book to be happy once they've achieved their goals?

    Chew on This

    America's economic and political stability make Lahiri's America-based characters more successful at realizing their dreams than her India-based characters.

    Lahiri's India-based characters are more flexible about their plans for the future than her American-based characters.

  • Society and Class

    All you need to know about society and class in Interpreter of Maladies are these two things: the American Dream and the Indian caste system. Think of the American Dream and the caste system as ideas that control the values, philosophies and class outcomes of Lahiri's different characters. Their influences are everywhere and, and those influences aren't really beneficial in most of our stories.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. How do the caste system and the American Dream work together to defeat some characters and support other characters?
    2. Are class hierarchy and division necessary for Lahiri's characters to function?
    3. How does a character's race affect a character's class status in the stories set in America?

    Chew on This

    The caste system and the American Dream produce a lot of class division and strife.

    Having divisions in class (and knowing one's place in society) can actually help maintain social harmony.

  • Dissatisfaction

    Sometimes getting what you want isn't such a great thing. That's the situation for some of the characters in Interpreter of Maladies; they seem to fulfill their dreams and then—lo and behold—they find out that they're unhappy. That's because reality tends to turn these characters' dreams into less than they expected. Kind of like buying a Louis Vuitton bag and finding out that it's a fake.

    Questions About Dissatisfaction

    1. Is it impossible to be truly satisfied in a capitalist system?
    2. Is a dissatisfied character necessary for a good story?
    3. How does a character's level of satisfaction determine a character's ability to achieve his or her dream?

    Chew on This

    Dissatisfied characters make for more interesting stories.

    Materialism is the root cause for dissatisfaction in Lahiri's characters.

  • Memory and the Past

    Generally speaking, the past isn't exactly a happy place for most of the characters in these stories. In fact, it's usually a portal to some pretty traumatic memories. What triggers these memories? For most of our characters, it's leaving their home country. The experience of immigration creates all sorts of difficult memories in Interpreter of Maladies.

    Questions About Memory and the Past

    1. Is immigration always a traumatic process?
    2. Does a good story need characters with traumatic memories and pasts?
    3. How does the final story's narrator handle his past differently than the main characters in the preceding stories?

    Chew on This

    To be a successful immigrant, you have to treat your homeland as something that's fully in the past.

    To be a successful immigrant, you have to integrate memories of your homeland with your present life.

  • Contrasting Regions and Cultural Identity

    In Interpreter of Maladies, there aren't just two regions to think about. There are (at least) three to compare to each other: America, India and Pakistan. Why is the theme so complex? Because in this book, most of the key characters have made at least one or two major moves, usually across nations, due to war, politics, and economic need. One thread that runs through many of these stories is the forging of an identity when a person has left their native culture to live in another. All immigrant cultures in the U.S. have experienced the challenges of becoming American while maintaining ties to their heritage by their language, dress, cuisine, or religious customs.

    Questions About Contrasting Regions and Cultural Identity

    1. How and why are Bengalis different from Indians?
    2. How does a region's geography determine the region's culture?
    3. Why is the final story called "The Third and Final Continent"? Why the emphasis on "final"?

    Chew on This

    Being from several different places means you're more socially and culturally adaptable.

    Traumatic moves across countries can actually make you less socially and culturally adaptable

  • Foreignness and the "Other"

    You know how sometimes you're just really curious about that other person who's different from you? In the world of Interpreter of Maladies, everyone ends up appearing "foreign" or "other" and, in fact, being an "other" is just an invitation to get to know that person more (and sometimes intimately). So if you're expecting this theme to be about how Bengali-Indian immigrants have it rough as the "Other," Lahiri makes it more complex than that.

    Questions About Foreignness and the "Other"

    1. How does "Othering" work in the book when a character (like Boori Ma or Bibi Haldar) is Bengali/Indian, living in India?
    2. Are people who seem foreign to you more attractive and appealing?
    3. How do the Bengali immigrants in the stories view Americans as "foreign" and "Other"?

    Chew on This

    Anyone can appear "foreign"; it just depends on your perspective.

    Only the Bengali/Indian characters truly experience that feeling of being "Other" in this book.

  • Community

    Who exactly makes up a community anyway? It turns out that, in Interpreter of Maladies, the answer changes depending on where you are in the world. If you're in India, there's a good chance that the answer is your large group of neighbors. And if you're in America, you're either a singleton or your community is limited to your family. (Here's an interesting take on that.) That doesn't mean that Americans are lonelier than the Bengalis/Indians in this book, though. In fact, being in a community doesn't seem to affect a character's ability to feel lost and alone; it might even make the feeling worse.

    Questions About Community

    1. How can being alone and being in a community feel the same?
    2. Why does a community need a scapegoat?
    3. How do communities change as the stories move from country to country?

    Chew on This

    In Lahiri's India, you can't escape your community because people are everywhere.

    The idea of needing "personal space" would make no sense in some cultures.