You are on page 1of 6

Jonathan
Durden


Ms.
Chambers


English
2400


10‐27‐09



Jasmine

Identity and the concept of 'self' is fluid throughout an individual’s lifetime, where a

person’s experiences shape who they are. In Bharti Mukherjee's novel Jasmine, the main

character undergoes several changes in identity which are marked by changes in her name.

Through transformations in identity, I examine the effects immigration and culture have on the

'self'. By doing so a better understanding can be had of how a person begins to define who they

are.

Jyoti is the protagonist’s original name. It is the name her parents gave her and it is the

name she grew up with. The first significant shift occurs when Prakash calls her Jasmine. This

shift is significant because it characterizes her break from tradition, her separation from India in

the sense that she no longer obeys the traditional belief that women are of lesser status than men.

Prakash tries to modernize her, and help her see what is wrong with the tradition she is familiar

with. The change was not immediate; Jasmine still had thoughts that reflected the traditional

Indian beliefs she grew up with. This is made evident when she narrates “I didn't dare confess

that I felt eclipsed by the Mazbi maid's daughter, who had been married off at eleven, just after

me, and already had a miscarriage” (78). The confusion of identities is also marked by her

statement “Jyoti, Jasmine: I shuttled between identities” (77). The culture she grew up in was so

ingrained in her she could not help but cling to it even as Prakash showed her its flaws.

Jasmine grew up in India with an identity pushed on her by India’s culture. Traditionally,

women take on a lesser status than men, this is considered normal. For example, her own mother

2


said “God’s cruel… to waste brains on a girl” (40). The force of culture is so strong that the

women themselves assume that it is simply a fact that they can never be equal to men, so

Jasmine’s sense of self at a young age is that of a lower class member of society. According to

Bhogle, “Gender stereotypes start to form at a very early age and even children make statements

such as women are not as smart as men, women are too emotional and submissive to make good

managers” (283). Being taught these things at such a young age makes it difficult to break away

from what is expected from society.

The second major transition that occurs in the novel is when Jasmine is given the name

Kali by Half-Face. Her initial reaction to the encounter is to take her own life, “Until the moment

that I held its short, sharp blade to my throat I had not thought of any conclusion but the obvious

one: to balance my defilement with my death.” She still wishes to obey the values of Indian

society; however she ultimately decides to only cut her tongue. This is revealing, because it

shows that she has taken a large step away from India’s culture and has started to think like an

American. Her decision to stand up for herself and take the life of Half-Face opened up the

dormant, passionate side of her personality and helped define her perception of ‘self’ as a woman

who is not to be trifled with and pushed around any longer.

This new aspect of her ‘self’, Kali, is not completely integrated within Jasmine’s

character. This identity is not seen all that frequently throughout the rest of the novel, it is almost

an animalistic identity which relies solely on survival instincts. It is a part of her that isn’t bound

by rules and customs, instead it operates outside the realms of normal human action and exists as

a part of that helps her to break free from the mold of her native culture. However, Ferguson

quotes Mead as saying “The self is something which has a development; it is not initially there,

at birth, but arises in the process of social experience and activity, that is, develops in the given

3


individual as a result of his relations to that process as a whole and to other individuals within

that process” (39). So, while her behavior may have been an innate characteristic, without the

encounter with Half-Face this aspect of herself may have never been shown.

Following the incident with Half Face, Jasmine is rescued by Lillian Gordon, who gives

her the name Jazzy and teaches her how to survive in America. The identity shift here is from a

beaten, used immigrant to a sharp dressed American who “walked like one of those Trinidad

Indian girls, all thrust and cheekiness” (133). This scene describes Jasmine’s new found

confidence, she is no longer scared and alone in America, and she has a mentor, in some sense a

family now to look after her. She does not perceive herself as an American yet, but it is clear that

steps are being taken in that direction. Jasmine has already defined herself as an independent

woman, and now the culture of the United States is beginning to influence her.

After Jasmine becomes settled in with Taylor and Wylie, she receives a new name, Jase,

which is given to her by Taylor. This shift is a big one, because now more than ever Jasmine is

beginning to see herself as an American. Part of the reason for this change has to do with the

nature of the concept of ‘self’. For example, Ferguson describes in this way: “human beings are

born into groups… they learn about themselves within the context of these groups… without this

social context, there would be no vehicle for the development of the human self” (24). With

Jasmine now living with an American family, the culture of the U.S begins rubbing off on her

even more.

Another interesting distinction is made in this section. Jasmine reveals that she is not

merely transforming her self-image, but she is also retaining different concepts of self: “For

every Jasmine who is a caregiver, there is a Jase who is a prowling adventurer” (176). Jase is a

4


part of herself that is restless, who enjoys the new found freedom of the United States and does

not want to be tied down. This is made very clear towards the end of the novel, where she

chooses to leave Bud and travel with Taylor: “I am not choosing between men. I am caught

between the promise of America and old-world dutifulness” (240). This scene shows the extent

of her change in identity. She is caught between the culture she grew up with and the culture she

recently learned.

Much of Jasmine’s foreign nature is finally driven out when she moves to Iowa and Bud

gives her the name Jane. Iowa takes her away from New York, a traditional hub for immigrants,

and brings her deeper into the United States. In this particular concept of self, she says “Plain

Jane is all I want to be. Plain Jane is a role, like any other” (26). Her role now can be better

described as that of a mentor. She cares for Du, and relates to him as she realizes what he must

be going through since he is an immigrant like herself. For example, in reference to Mr. Skola

“trying a little Vietnamese on him,” Jasmine thinks “I suppressed my shock, my disgust. This

country has so many ways of humiliating, of disappointing” (29). This is a classic example of

someone simplifying another’s culture, reducing it to a few hastily chosen words a language they

are unfamiliar with. Jasmine is now so thoroughly entrenched in American culture; she

recognizes the tendencies Americans have to be dismissive of other cultures.

Another aspect of Jasmine’s personality as Jane is the similarity it has to her other

identities. While it is very much Americanized, it offers and interesting flashback to her past.

This similarity is made most noticeable by the end of the novel, where Jasmine is required to

choose between two different lifestyles. In the previous paragraph it was mentioned that these

5


two lifestyles conflicted, but it is interesting to note that even when she identifies herself as being

most American, she still finds herself in a traditional role from her own culture.

Throughout the novel, Jasmine’s concept of ‘self’ varies greatly. There are also occasions

where she possesses more than one identity at once, and the two conflicts with one another.

These perspective shifts are in many ways due in part to the culture shift which occur due to

immigration to the United States. By examining these shifts, we are allowed a closer glimpse

into the inner workings of how we as a people develop our concept of self.

Works Cited

Ferguson, Kathy. Self, Society, and Womankind. Westport, Connecticut:

Greenwood Press, 1980. Print.

Mukherjee, Bharati. Jasmine. New York:



6


Grove Press. 1989. Print.

Saraswathi, T.S. Culture, Socialization and Human Development. New Delhi:

Sage Publications India Pvt Ldt. 1999. Print.