Jhumpa Lahiri and John Steinbeck, both Pulitzer-winning American authors, explore a number of eternal themes in their works. This is the thing that clearly unites them. Living in different periods of the American history, belonging to different ethnicities and genders, the two authors’ works might seem hard to compare. Yet, the depth of their exploration of the themes of journey, the American Dream, and death unites the two authors and allows us to see obvious similarities. This paper discusses how Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story “The Third and Final Continent” (1999) compares to John Steinbeck’s novel “The Grapes of Wrath” (1939).
The first common theme to strike the reader’s eye is that of a journey. The protagonists in both literary works leave their home to search for a better life, so that the journey evolves as a central theme in both. In Lahiri’s short story, the narrator and the story’s male protagonist goes through two immigrations, which make up his physical journey in the text. First, the narrator goes from India to England and later he travels from England to the United States. It turns out that the latter transition becomes more definitive for him, since the narrator gets accustomed to the American ways to a greater extent than to the one he used to have in England. In “The Grapes of Wrath,” this is the journey of a large family of Oklahoma sharecroppers to California. The Joads are poor tenant farmers who get driven to California by the drought, lack of work, and the economic crisis, in the hope that they will find a secure future in the new land. Although the Joads travel within the geographical boundaries of one country, the United States, the differences in landscapes and lifestyles between Oklahoma and California lead to the idea that these two are, indeed, two different countries.
Both journeys can be compared to the Biblical exodus. Just as the Israelites leave Egypt following the plagues brought upon this land by God, the Joads leave their home because “this land ain’t much good” anymore (Steinbeck 50). Likewise, the main character of “The Third and Final Continent,” an unnamed Benghazi man, leaves his homeland to get something he was unable to obtain in India, first it is studies and then it is a job. In both texts, the main characters head for “a good and broad land” (Ex. 3:8). Additionally, in both works of literature, the characters travel with the ultimate goal on their minds: to reach the place where they will start building their secure futures. In Steinbeck’s novel, once the Joads leave the land and begin their journey on a red-dirt road and then on highway, none of them focuses on the land on either side of the highway. The Joads, instead, focus intently on the way in front of them. In Lahiri’s story, the narrator does not focus on the comfort of the living conditions or the hardships he has to overcome as he keeps the success – the metaphorical destination for his journey – on his mind.
A closely related theme is that of the American Dream. In both texts, the characters do not simply travel from one place to another in search of better living conditions, but they seek to fulfil their American Dream, a set of ideals belief in which keeps them afloat during hardships. In “The Third and Final Continent,” the protagonist says that he and his wife are living now “in a tree-lined street, much like Mrs. Croft’s, in a house we own” and, not without pride, shares with the reader that his son is a student at Harvard. This example shows that to own a house, become a U.S. citizen, and get successful enough to be able to provide for his family or children’s social upward mobility has always been what the narrator dreamed of. In the story Mrs. Croft emerges as an example of a strong, self-made woman, who achieved success through hard work and was able to raise her children by relying only on her piano lessons. It seems as if the narrator in Lahiri’s story has followed in her footsteps in some way. Now, in “The Grapes of Wrath,” the theme of the American Dream is pronounced, yet is presented from another perspective. Essentially, in the illusory hopes of the Joad family to resolve all their problems by coming to California, one may feel the irony of the situation, when the proclaimed values of the American nation (e.g. equality, opportunity, rights, democracy, and liberty) remain virtually unattainable. Although in both stories, the theme of American Dream is handled differently, it emerges as a goal that causes the characters to mobilize all their resources and go on.
Finally, the theme of death unites the two pieces of literature. Just as life and death have over the centuries been the questions that the humanity is most preoccupied with, the characters of both texts interpret their experiences in the context of having to meet death, this inseparable part of every man’s existence. In “The Third and Final Continent,” death serves to accumulate all best qualities and expose all most humane features in the protagonist. The narrator encounters death twice, and both times, this experience makes him suffer. First, the narrator meets death as his insane mother passes away and he has to cremate her. The audience gets acquainted with this fact of the narrator’s past though his sharing the memories of how he was cleaning the deceased mother’s nails from the remains of the excrements she used to play with. Death is presented as an imminent and meaningful part of the immigrant reality fraught with pain and suffering. Second, the narrator faces death as he came across Mrs. Croft’s obituary. He describes that although he had not thought of the old lady in several months, when he learned that Mrs. Croft passed away, he was “stricken, so much so that when Mala looked up from her knitting she found (him) staring at the wall, the newspaper neglected in (his) lap, unable to speak.” Likewise, for the characters of Steinbeck’s novel, death comes as a significant and life-changing experience, and just like in Lahiri’s story, death is coming, when first Grandpa and then Grandpa leave this world, evokes all deepest humane feelings in the family and makes everyone re-evaluate their dreams and goals. Although Steinbeck says that “death was a friend, and sleep was death’s brother,” the Joads do not perceive death peacefully, but with mourning. Casy’s death, too, becomes the point for Tom’s reevaluation of his attitude to other people and his desire to serve the community.
The three themes that intertwine in the works of Lahiri and Steinbeck are journey, the American dream, and death. They clearly illustrate how the two seemingly different texts respond to the eternal questions of the humanity.
- Lahiri, Jhumpa. The Third and Final Continent. Web. N.d. 21 Jan 2016.
- Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath. New York: Penguin, 1982.