Seminar Paper, 2010
10 Pages, Grade: 1,0
1 Jasmine and the Notion of Identity
1.2 Transformational Processes Exemplified in Jasmine
1.3 Jasmine’s Transformation as a Metaphor for the Real World
The importance of finding one’s identity is given by nature for we as human beings have to know who and what we are in order to survive in society. If we all were only dull rep- resentations of a cumulative mass, we would not be as successful as a species as we are. In this way the human identity resembles a concept of human society that plays a major and indispensable role in everyday interaction among people. This very interaction is interesting to observe with respect to a relatively narrow society in terms of ethnic dis- tribution; but it is of even greater interest (and importance) if one takes different ethnic backgrounds and hence the gathering of different cultures into consideration, forming one mutual society. One has to admit, however, that it is by no means easy to actually uncover one’s identity among all the other individuals and contrast with these. In order to see how identity can be altered due to certain circumstances, we will focus on Bharati Mukherjee’s Jasmine and deal with the transformational process of the main character’s identity. The novel nicely demonstrates how finding one’s identity and maintaining it gives rise to a process of transformation during the phase of finding one’s self.
When we think of identity we inadvertently think of names as a way to point to and characterize a person. But what is actually in a name that makes it so important? The answer is given by the the world’s leading expert on language and the mind, Steven Pinker:
In theory a forename is an arbitrary label with no inherent meaning, and people interpret it as simply pointing to the individual who was dubbed with it. But in practice names take on a meaning by association with the generation and class of people who bear them.
Even more so, we can utterly see that by using names other people refer to the name bearer in highly subjective terms, and hence model their reality upon the one they are naming:
Names are, [...], closer to indexicals like this or you than to descriptions like ”the first president of the United States” [...]. When we know a name, we are implicitly pointing to someone, regardless of what we, or anyone else, know about that person.
As we can see, the act of naming (and renaming) indicates a shift of perspective as well as a shift in perceiving reality and other people’s identity. Thus we can conclude that naming and renaming imposes new identities upon a person. Mukherjee’s Jasmine takes this issue and uses features of names to create a character who calls into question her ethnic root as well as current identity.
Jasmine is confronted with being named and renamed throughout her entire life. We not only get to know Jyoti, the name given to her by her grandmother (p. 40). We also get to know Jasmine, the name given by her husband when they were living in India. It is important to see that Prakash not only renamed her for the mere sake of giving her a different name but for the sake of providing Jasmine with a new identity and hence actively changing what she had used to be before. Prakash calls her Jasmine for ”[he] wanted to break down the Jyoti [she]’d been in Hasnapur and make [her] a new kind of city woman.” (p. 77). This is the first instance where renaming gives rise to a transformational process altering Jasmine’s identity to some extent by leaving her old ”label” behind. Her identity basically shifts, in a sense, from an ordinary Indian girl to ”a new kind of city woman”, triggered off by her husband’s relation to more, say, urban, cosmopolitan, and westernized influences. Thus we can conclude that Jasmine not only changes with respect to her name but also in terms of her ethnic identity, for she has to somewhat redefine herself owing to different cultural values.
When Jasmine arrives in Florida and escapes her rapist by killing him, she is taken care of by Lillian—who is an impetus for another change. She provides Jasmine with new clothes and names her Jazzy. At that very point, one can see that she not only went to a different continent, but also has her identity changed into an americanized personality. However, at first her transformation seems to be foreign to her, as foreign as she is in the new country:
I checked myself in the mirror, shocked at the transformation. Jazzy in a T-shirt, tight cords, and running shoes. I could’t tell if with the Hasnapuri sidle I’d also abandoned by Hasnapuri modesty. [...] Time to try out my American talk and walk. (p. 133)
Let us consider her name for a moment. Jazzy is interesting for it might allude to the homophone and adjective of something being jazzy, with respect to music. Jazz as a kind of music is quite colorful in terms its arrangement. It further can be characterized as purposefully irregular and thus ”difficult to tame”; it has some notion of being wild and moving and non-static. But it is also concerned with improvised parts. That means that by referring to her as Jazzy (or jazzy) we can conclude that this name indicates that she is a vivid character, not very fixed and subtle but always moving and ”irregular”; and so is her identity, or, taking this thought a step further, any identity there is.
Living in Manhattan, then, Taylor, Willy, and Duffy refer to her as Jase. And again, she finds herself in a new situation with a new family in a new city. Her new environment causes a further transformation of her identity, which can be seen in her new extravagant and extroverted lifestyle:
Jase. Jase was a woman who bought herself spangled heels and silk chartreuse pants. On my day off I took my week’s salary ([...]) and blew too much of it in stores along Broadway and even in the big department stores. (p. 176)
Simultaneously however, Jasmine reflects on her old identities and consciously agrees to her new lifestyle:
Jyoti would have saved [money]. But Jyoti was now a sati -goddess; she had burned herself in a trash-can-funeral pyre behind a boarded-up motel in Florida. Jasmine lived for the future, for Vijh & Wife. Jase went to movies and lived for today. In my closet hung satin blouses with vampish necklines, in my dresser lingerie I was too shy to wear in a room I shared with Duff. (p. 176)
When she is ”forced” to leave New York City another transformational process starts and her new live-in lover Bud calls her Jane. Jane, then, is a typical American name and resembles the mediocrity she finds herself in. Interestingly, she never really settled in Baden for she only stayed out of dignity. The identity of the good ”soon-to-be wife” and mother of a ”typical” American family never really suited her and so , when Taylor eventually finds her, she leaves this dull identity too. Even more interestingly is the fact that she ”switches back” to an old identity on purpose, although she, throughout her journey, had always moved on, leaving certain traits behind. This might a changing moment in her entire life for she intended to return to a previously abandoned identity for, as she says, ”I like everything he [Taylor] said or did. I like the name he gave me.” (p. 176). It seems as though for once in her life she found an identity she consciously is able to stick to.
We now have to ask ourselves whether we can take Jasmine further and look if there are certain implications for our real world. Why and how do people actually change their identity? And if they change, who or what is responsible for the very transformation? Can one actually tell whether people have a fixed or stable identity? Or is everything concerned with a character that is subject to change? Where does one identity start and where do other people’s interpretation of certain characteristics end? One answer to these questions of identity is how people refer to each other and how it is referred to Jasmine throughout the novel.
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