Thursday, April 8, 2010

Textual Analysis: Interpreter of Maladies ("Sexy")

Lahiri, Jhumpa.  "Sexy."  Interpreter of Maladies.  New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1999.  83-110.  Print.  Google Books

This story in Jhumpa Lahiri's Pulitzer Prize winning collection of short stories features Miranda, a lonely young woman living in Boston.  She begins an affair with Dev, a Bengali man who is married.  Miranda and Dev meet in a department store, while Dev's wife is in India.  When she returns, Miranda goes shopping "to buy herself things she thought a mistress should have," including "a pair of black high heels with buckles smaller than a baby's teeth," "a satin slip with scalloped edges and a knee-length silk robe," "sheer stockings with a seem," and after "searching through piles and wandering through the racks, pressing back hanger after hanger" she finds "a cocktail dress made of slinky silvery material that matched her eyes" (92).

Miranda never gets to wear the items though.  She wears the robe the first time Dev returns to her apartment, but he ignores it.  The next time he visits, she wears jeans -- "she kept the lingerie at the back of a drawer, behind her socks and everyday underwear.  The silver cocktail dress hung in her closet, the tag dangling from the seam.  Often, in the morning, the dress would be in a heap on the floor; the chain straps always slipped off the metal hanger" (93).

I find this passage interesting because I think it registers on several different levels for most women.  The line that I bolded -- "to buy herself things she thought a mistress should have" -- particularly resonates with me, specifically Miranda's supposition that this status has a certain clothing code.  In her mind, these clothes mark her as a mistress; they are sexy, superfluous, seductive, and impractical.  Miranda is a mistress whether or not she owns the clothing, but she does not feel like one until she looks for items that she "should" have.  To play this role, Miranda must look the part.

This concept of how clothing marks us translates far beyond this story, and I think it hits on some of the issues that we explore on this blog.  Namely, it addresses the performativity of clothing, how the way we dress sends certain messages and how we manipulate our own images.  The president of a company is still the president whether she wears a sweatsuit or a Chanel suit.  But are we more likely to understand her and contextualize her as such if she wears the latter.  (This concept applies across gender lines: the same holds true for a male company president).  

  • Have you ever bought an item of clothing because you felt you "should" own that type of item?
  • How do you perform different roles with your clothing?  Do you have a different "uniform" for different functions -- teacher and/or professional?  student?  wife/girlfriend?  
  • Do you have a completely unessential but beautiful dress with the tags still on hanging in your closet like Miranda (and me)?


Scholar Style Guide said...

Now I must read this story! I've often considered the tendency to wear different items to enact different roles, but I'm really intrigued by a desire to enact "mistress"-ness. Does buying these clothes somehow help her deal with a sense of guilt she has about sleeping with another woman's husband? I'd never thought of using clothing to summon courage to participate in "deviant" behaviors, but this is an interesting idea. Or maybe she doesn't feel guilty at all, but feels like, since she is in competition with another woman, she has to be particularly "sexy" to be able to command the man's attention away from his wife? I'd have to read the story to know... but I'm definitely intrigued.

This is also timely because, at my conference this weekend, one woman described going to court to get out of a traffic ticket in her "responsible woman outfit" which she said included "a strand of pearls, a frumpy dress, and sensible shoes." She claimed she got out of the ticket while the young women in court wearing t-shirts and jeans did not fare so well. An interesting suggestion, for sure.

To answer your third question, NO! Every time I visit a friend's closet and see clothing with the tags still on it, I want to shake them. I must wear everything almost immediately after I buy it, even if it is grossly inappropriate for the circumstances. But I will admit that, last summer, when I was trying to figure out what to wear to one of the 6 weddings I attended, I found a dress in my closet that I completely forgot I owned. It was a happy discovery and made me rifle through everything else to make sure nothing else was doubled up on a single hanger!


mohit said...

Must be an enjoyable read Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri. loved the way you wrote it. I find your review very genuine and orignal, this book is going in by "to read" list.