Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

13 Jan 2012

(Short Story) The Third and Final Continent by: Jhumpa Lahiri

(Reaction) Splendid! by: Antonio Conejos

The Third and Final Continent is about distance. There is the physical distance, as emphasized by the unnamed narrator's voyage from Calcutta to London to finally Boston. (All the principal women characters - Mala, Mrs. Croft, Helen - are named; none of the men have names.) There is also emotional distance; the narrator reminisces when he first began to view Mala as a partner, the distance between Mala and me began to lessen. Finally, the short story culminates in the bridging of distance.

Mrs. Croft is the narrator's bridge between his life in India (and by extension his education in England where he is surrounded by his countrymen) and his new life in America. The centenarian serves as a sort of mother figure to the narrator, enabling him to make the transition from his old culture to that of his new home's. Indeed, it is upon hearing that Mrs. Croft is over a hundred years old that the narrator first begins to relate memories of his mother, It was widowhood that had driven my mother insane.

It is Mrs. Croft who forces the narrator to see the magnificence of distance. She does this graphically and unequivocally in pushing her polite tenant to regularly yelp out splendid, A flag on the moon, boy! I heard it on the radio! Isn't that splendid?... Say 'splendid'!

The narrator had not thought very much about the moon shot. It is Mrs. Croft who impresses on the narrator the wonder of men travelling farther than anyone in the history of civilization.

Mrs. Croft not only illustrates to the narrator the splendor of distance in space but also distance in time. She is after all over a hundred, and there is something splendid in a woman who has lived so long, still in awe of how many years she had spend on this earth.

Yet distance need not be great to be splendid. The narrator only stayed with Mrs. Croft for a few weeks, Compared to a century, it was not time at all. But when the narrator learns of her death, he all but weeps, Mrs. Croft was the first death I mourned in America, for hers was the first life I had admired; she had left this world at last, ancient and alone, never to return.

Thus can a short distance of time be as meaningful as the great distance between continents, between the earth and the moon.

In the end, it is the meaningfulness of the bridging of distance, both near and far, of space and time, that is Mrs. Croft's legacy to the narrator. This is captured pitch perfectly in the story's final, graceful lines:

While the astronauts, heroes forever, spent mere hours on the moon, I have remained in this new world for nearly thirty years. I know that my achievement is quite ordinary. I am not the only man to seek his fortune far from home, and certainly I am not the first. Still, there are times I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination.

Review:

One of my favorite short stories. It's such a quiet tale, nothing dramatic happens and the language is humble and unvarnished. But it's in those quiet moments that the reader feels the meekness of the narrator, his tentativeness to his new wife and life. It takes someone who is the opposite of meek, the indefatigable Mrs. Croft, to smack the narrator (figuratively and quite unintentionally) on the head and make him appreciate how far he has come and who he has to appreciate it with.

I love the final lines, quoted above. They end everything so well, with notes of wonder, amazement and thanks.

In a word: splendid!

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