Writing Catalog

Oliver Posner

Grade: 11

University High School

Instructor: Scott Boehnen

The Way We Treat Each Other

Critical Essay

The Way We Treat Each Other

The narrators in John Updike's "A&P" and Jhumpa Lahiri's "Interpreter of Maladies," are characters in the story who describe what they witness but seem to misinterpret some of the events. Their unreliability serves to develop a similar theme in both stories: that the apparent antagonists are violating the categorical imperative, what the prominent eighteenth-century philosopher Immanuel Kant defines as something that a moral person must do, no matter the circumstance. Rather than recognize the humanity of their respective interlocutors, Queenie uses Sammy and Mrs. Das uses Mr. Kapasi as a means to an end. The unreliable narrator is an important literary device in both stories because it helps the reader to understand the character's inability to create inter-class relationships.

The authors establish Sammy and Mr. Kapasi as unreliable narrators. Sammy makes several comments about the girls' bodies, and particularly fixates on the girl he calls Queenie: "She had on a kind of dirty-pink… bathing suit with little nubble all over it and, what got me, the straps were down. ... If it hadn't been there you wouldn't have known there could have been anything whiter than those shoulders" (Updike, 383). He sexually fantasizes about her. What makes his perspective untrustworthy is that the reader knows that Sammy cannot be with the girl. She comes from a different social class, and she sees him as nothing but a store clerk. In an attempt to gain their attention, he quits his job, but they don't even notice.

Mr. Kapasi also misunderstands his situation. When Mrs. Das appears to take an interest in him, he imagines a world in which Mrs. Das has separated from her husband and become his intimate correspondent. In Mr. Kapasi's mind, "[Mrs. Das] would write to him, asking about his days interpreting at the doctor's office, and he would respond eloquently, choosing only the most entertaining anecdotes, ones that would make her laugh out loud as she read them in her house in New Jersey. In time she would reveal the disappointment of her marriage, and he his. In this way their friendship would grow, and flourish. He would possess a picture of the two of them, eating fried onions under a magenta umbrella, which he would keep, he decided, safely tucked between the pages of his Russian grammar" (Lahiri, 333). Here, Mr. Kapasi is unable to perceive the socio-economic divide that means his fantasy will remain a fantasy. However, there comes a moment when he realizes that nothing will happen between him and Mrs. Das: "I was hoping you could help me feel better, say the right thing. Suggest some kind of remedy," she says, looking to him as an interpreter of maladies, someone who can provide a simple solution to her problem. "He decided to begin with the most obvious question, to get to the heart of the matter, and so he asked, 'Is it really pain you feel, Mrs. Das, or is it guilt?'" Her response is devastating: "She opened her mouth to say something, but as she glared at Mr. Kapasi some certain knowledge seemed to pass before her eyes and she stopped. It crushed him; he knew at that moment that he was not even important enough to be properly insulted" (Lahiri, 339). That is, because Mr. Kapasi belongs to a lower class, she doesn't even have to acknowledge his words. She gets up and walks away.

Why do Updike and Lahiri use unreliable narrators? The answer lies in the authors' goal of wanting to highlight the way class disrupts the chances of achieving categorical imperative. Kant argued that to be moral, humans should always be treated as an end in themselves, and not a mere means. Both authors want to establish the fact that their villains break the categorical imperative, and thus they give their narrators an imagination; an imagination to believe that something is possible, even though it isn't. Their fantasies create a stark contrast, one between the way that the narrators view their interactions, and the way that the antagonists see it.

The antagonists see and treat the narrators as simple means to an end. Queenie walks into the A&P, with a simple goal: to buy herring snacks. She views Sammy only as a store clerk who will help her obtain her goal by ringing up her purchase. She does not consider Sammy's rationality or humanity, and thus uses him as a means to an end. The only relationship that she can see with Sammy is a transactional one because he is of an inferior class than she is. This is contrasted with the relationship that Sammy imagines with her because Sammy does not realize that she is unobtainable. In this way, Queenie breaks the categorical imperative. She is not moral because she does not consider Sammy's humanity. She treats Sammy as a mere means to accomplish her goal, with no thought to his own goals and interests, which is an infringement of the categorical imperative.

Similarly, when Mrs. Das asks Mr. Kapasi for advice, she is using him as a means to an end. She thinks of Mr. Kapasi only as an interpreter, one who can prescribe a solution for her ailment. She does not even consider his humanity, because he is of a lower social class. In doing so, she violates the categorical imperative, seeing Mr. Kapasi as a way to solve her problem, without considering his point of view.

Both authors use the unreliable narrator to convey a deep pessimism about the human ability to maintain Kant's categorical imperative. Sammy's and Mr. Kapasi's imaginations allow the author to demonstrate the effect of the class divide, which is that there can be no humane relationship that crosses the divide. However, these stories are also ironic because not only do Queenie and Mrs. Das violate the categorical imperative, but Sammy and Mr. Kapasi do as well. Updike's and Lahiri's victims of the class divisions are themselves unable to treat others as Kant recommends.