Monica Ali's Novel "Brick Lane". A Critical Reflection of Post-Colonialism

Term Paper, 2005
16 Pages, Grade: 3.0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Brick Lane: A Bengali Community in London – The Discrepancy of Two Worlds
2.1. Plot, Structure and Style
2.2. Characterization
2.3. Theme
2.4. Symbolism

3. Brick Lane: A Guide to Post-Colonial Literature?

4. Conclusion


1. Introduction

This research paper deals with Monica Ali´s first novel Brick Lane, an epic saga about a Bangladeshi family living in London, which explores the British immigration experience. The novel is highly disputed with its most important aspects of identity, belonging and community problems. People who actually live in the estate of Brick Lane feel being patronized by Ali´s novel the more or the less. Just to show how critics reacted to Ali´s masterpiece, I will give two examples briefly.

Ian Jack, the editor of the Granta Magazine said: “Monica Ali is not from Sylhet [which lies in the far north-east of the country next to the Indian state of Assam and was, until the partition of India, part of Assam and not Bengal] and nor are her novel´s principal characters. Sylhettis, however, are the people her characters (though not their author) live among. I spent a week […] in Sylhet […]. […] When I got back to Calcutta, I got into a shouting match with a taxi-driver about The Satanic Verses. ‘But it´s only a novel,’ I said. ‘You know, personal, made-up, invented – fiction.’ ‘Exactly’, he said. ‘Fiction. Lies.’ Brick Lane is a fine first novel, but nobody should be surprised if it raises similar arguments. In a way, they are a compliment to it an to an ambitious idea of what fiction can still do.”[1]

Matthew Taylor, The Guardian, said: “Community Leaders from the neighbourhood in the East End of London that inspired Monica Ali´s Booker-nominated first novel, Brick Lane, have branded her work a ‘despicable insult’ to Bangladeshis living in the area. The Greater Sylhet Welfare and Development Council, which represents many of Britain´s 500,000 Bangladeshis, has written an 18-page letter to the author outlining their objections to the ‘shameful’ way the book depicts the community. They feel the book portrays Bangladeshis in Brick Lane as backward, uneducated and unsophisticated.”[2]

In addition, the treatment of language and time in the book is of just the same importance. It makes Ali´s novel somewhat unique and different. While Brick Lane is meant to be satirical, it can be read as a drama, for in terms of living the novel focusses on the buddhist aspect that its characters have been put on earth just to suffer.

This research paper will consist of two main parts. In the first one, I will give an exact analysis and interpretation of the novel attending to the most important aspects like characterization, the structure and the theme of the novel, for example. The second main part will deal with the question if Brick Lane suits the values of postcolonialism with close regard to postcolonial theory.

To have a short overview of the author, I will give a brief biography of Ali. “Monica Ali was born [as the child of English and Bangladeshi parents] in Dhaka in former East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) in 1967 and left with her family [to England] during the civil war in 1971. She grew up in Bolton, [Greater Manchester], and studied politics, philosophy and economics at [Oxford University]. She worked in publishing, design and branding before having children, [a son and a daughter, and starting to write].[3] Her first novel Brick Lane, which was first published by Doubleday in the UK in 2003, has been shortlisted for the 2003 Man Booker Ficiton. Later on, it was also published by Black Swan in 2004. “[ Brick Lane ] has been translated into 26 languages.”[4] Ali lives as a writer with her family in London and “was named in 2003 by Granta one of the ‘Best of Young British Novelists’.”[5] Among contemporary authors Ali definitely counts to the newcomers.

2.Brick Lane : A Bengali Community in London – The Discrepancy of Two Worlds

In Brick Lane, the eighteen years old Nazneen moves from the familiarity of rural Bangladesh to a new life in Tower Hamlets after an arranged marriage in 1985. She can barely speak English and is dependent on her self-obsessed husband Chanu, aged fourty, who has lived in England for fifteen years. Nazneen is submissive and runs the household. Chanu who is well-educated and talks about his professional plans and promotion all the time is selfish and patronizing. After their first baby dies due to disregard to the importance of fate they have two daughters. Nazneen stays in touch with her sister Hasina, who lives in Bangladesh, via letter exchange all over the time. By 2001, the daugthers are almost teenagers, Chanu has a driving job and Nazneen gets to know Karim, a young radical and gang leader of the Bengal Tigers, for whom she sews clothes. Nazneen has improved her English and explored the neighbourhood of Brick Lane. She has an affair with Karim and is full of doubts about everything concerning her life and future. Many incidents like gang meetings, street fights, drug confrontations and uncomfortable meetings with Chanu´s friend Dr. Azad and the obtrusive Mrs. Islam occur. Nazneen decides to end her affair with Karim. When Chanu goes back to Bangladesh, Nazneen stays in England with Shahana and Bibi. The future and all its events are uncertain with a glimpse of hope.

2.1. Plot, Structure and Style

The action takes place in the period of time from 1967 to 2002. 1967 is the date of Ali´s and Nazneen´s birth. I would subdivide the novel into two main parts. The year 1967 can be read as an introduction or a kind of preface to tell the reader the importance of fate. Page fifteen and sixteen in a way already tell the reader the most important facts that are going to happen to Nazneen until she will be thirtyfour (p.16). The years from 1985 to 1988 tell Nazneen´s first years of her London experience and make up the first main part of the novel. The main event is the loss of the first child. Then the time period from 1988 to 2001 is told through letters from Hasina to Nazneen. This can be considered as fast motion. “[…] In Ali´s book, a distinctive feature that runs through the novel is Nazneen´s resilient bond with her sister and with other women in her community.”[6] The second main part of the novel takes place from February 2001 to March 2002. All the development and change in Nazneen´s life comes to the surface. However, the ending remains uncertain. According to the value of time, it is most affecting and moving how much Nazneen and her husband achieved in this long period of time with regard to all their aims in life. Indeed, they have not reached much.

Another important and much more occuring aspect here is the treatment of language in the novel. “[…] The book is at first something of an anti-climax – slow, claustrophobic and wordy a good 300 pages.”[7] Nazneen is passive while later on after about the first 300 pages Nazneen behaves in an active way rather and the action gets more tense and vivid. First of all, the novel is read in English. “[It is] written in one language but supposed to be taking place in another. Brick Lane comes to [the reader] as if it were a work of translation. [The reader has] to imagine that most of its characters are talking in Bengali, even though dialogue is presented to [the reader] in clear English.”[8] The use of modern English to represent another language works smoothly if the reader can forget about it. Ali constantly reminds the reader of English being a foreign tongue to the central character. “The reader is made most aware of this at the borders between the languages, where Bengali and English bump against each other. […] Listening to [Dr. Azad´s] […] anglicised daughter demanding something, ‘Nazneen [catches] the words pub and money’. The novel [reveals] the oddness of English phrases, suddenly entering another language. […] There are also disturbing collisions. […] Shahana speaks English at home against [Chanu´s will] […]. Nazneen´s first conversation with Karim […] takes place in clumsy alternations of Bengali and English. […] [Hasina´s letters] are phrased in a broken, often incorrect English (‘Good good place and house too good also’) that is intended to give the impression of Hasina´s semi-literate written Bengali. As Nazneen learns more English, [the reader] takes in things around her that were inaccessible before.”[9]

Another eminent instrument of language in the novel are similes. They belong to its central character defining Nazneen´s moments of perception. “When she wanders from her council estate, the similes are what she clutches. Crossing the […] main road is almost impossible. ‘To get to the other side of the street without being hit by a car was like walking out in the monsoon and hoping to dodge the raindrops.’ […] The similes are both nostalgic and reassuringly comical. […] Comparisons recall the lost life in rural East Bengal. [Nazneen] sees schoolchildren ‘pale as rice’.”[10] Likenesses are connecting Nazneen´s married life in Whitechapel with the Bengal village where she grew up. The similes function as her triumphs over confusion. “Similes have traditionally fulfilled this role in narrative, linking the strange events of a story with the more familiar […] experience of the narrator or character. The effect lies as much on the difference as on the similarity between the two things compared.”[11] I would say that similes make the narration more poetic because the language appears to be more picturesque.

2.2. Characterization

The protagonist of the novel is Nazneen. Minor characters are Chanu, Dr. Azad, Razia, Mrs. Islam, Hasina, Karim, Shahana and Bibi as well as Tariq and many more, for example. Though some of the minor characters like Dr. Azad, Karim and Razia, for instance, but especially Chanu who could even be treated as another protagonist, seem to be almost as important as Nazneen. I disagree with the critics of this novel that Nazneen is “the least dynamic character in the novel”.[12] Nazneen and Chanu, if at all, seem to be the most dynamic characters in Brick Lane. While a dynamic character undergoes a change and development, a static one remains the same.

The protagonist is “not beautiful, but not so ugly either. The face is broad, big forehead. Eyes are a bit too close together”. (p.22-23). “Nazneen could say two things in English: sorry and thank you.” (p.19) and is dependent on Chanu. If Chanu demands something, Nazneen obeys saying “If you say so”. She is young, unexperienced and submissive. (“Nazneen: a woman uneducated but perceptive, whose intelligence is in danger of being smothered by her own ignorance and sense of propriety. One of the questions of the novel is how much of her subtlety will ever be allowed a voice.”) Her feelings towards Chanu are unclear: “Was she beginning to love Chanu, or just getting used to him?” (p.40). Her main task is to run the household. The protagonist feels lonely: “What she missed most was people. Not any people in particular […] but just people. […] In all her 18 years, she could scarcely remember a moment that she had spent alone. Until she married. And came to London […].” (p.24). Fate is important to Nazneen: “As Nazneen grew she heard many times this story of How You Were Left To Your Fate. It was because of her mother´s wise decision that Nazneen lived to become the wide-faced, watchful girl that she was, Fighting against one´s Fate can weaken the blood.” (p.15). As a baby Nazneen was left to her fate to her mother´s decision. Religion is also very important to Chanu´s wife. She prays and reads the Qur´an a lot. In the course of the novel, Nazneen undergoes a change. She starts to work and explores London. Furthermore, she learns English. In addition, Nazneen makes own decisions and does not always do what Chanu wants. She develops her own personality well and has an own opinion which she defends. “[Although] much of her life is an object lesson in passivity, her character is honed by experience, grows less soft around the edges and turns out to be full of courage.”[13] The elder mother has a strong nature and gains acceptance with herself and others. In the end, she even decides to stay in England against Chanu´s will. Although she betrays her husband having an affair with Karim and her life is full of doubts, she is in fact a caring and loving mother who knows what she wants. In the course of the novel, Nazneen has developed from a shy, introverted and submissive personality into a character that has achieved total freedom and finally does what she wants to do in life at the end. She goes ice skating and even dances and sings: “She waved her arms, threw back her head and danced around the table […] letting it all go loose.” (p.489). For the first time since she has come to London, she has started to live properly. Nazneen embodies the theory that you are exposed to your fate.





[4] Ali: Brick Lane 2003: foreword.



[7] internet source: guardian unlimited © guardian newspaper limited 2004





[12] Ali´s Brick Lane 2003: foreword.


Excerpt out of 16 pages


Monica Ali's Novel "Brick Lane". A Critical Reflection of Post-Colonialism
University of Marburg  (Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
10008 PS: London in Contemporary Post-Colonial Literature
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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post-colonialism, colonialism
Quote paper
Oliver Baum (Author), 2005, Monica Ali's Novel "Brick Lane". A Critical Reflection of Post-Colonialism, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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