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ISSN: 0974-892X


July, 2007



Archana Trivedi

Dimple's Neurotic Behaviour in Bharati Mukerjee's Novel 'Wife'


The term neurosis has become a part of our everyday vocabulary. To say, "He is neurotic," can be anything from a complaint about someone whose behavior is consistently annoying, to a term of sympathy for someone who is frequently distressed and is somehow unable to work or relate effectively. The concept of neurosis as a type of emotional disturbance was popularized by Freud. He viewed neurosis as a pattern of behavioral and psychological disturbance produced by conflict within the personality structure. From this perspective, neurosis is a relatively specific disorder. Consequently, neurotic individuals experience acute distress, and engage in a variety of behaviors designed to avoid or reduce the distress. These behaviors of avoidance frequently interfere with everyday functioning. Thus, the neurotic might be unable to relate well to others. 

At this time Freud’s thoughts became more and more sociologically-oriented. Freud had highly qualified belief in the essential good nature of human beings. He held that people group together primarily to satisfy their needs which is not possible in isolation and common hatred can unite them in love. This view cannot be easily dismissed because there is no concrete scientific evidence to prove that human beings are either good or bad by nature. Men are, therefore, perpetually on the look out for pleasure and long for the absence of misery. The purpose of life is decided by the "programme of the pleasure principle" (Freud 163). But all the 'regulations of the universe' embodied by civilization "run counter to it". Man has to grapple with at least three important sources of suffering - from his own body, from the external world and from human relationships. The last of these is artificial and avoidable but the most painful at the same time. As a natural reaction to this, man may seek refuge in voluntary isolation (the extreme form being the annihilation of all instincts), sublimate his instincts (and get a qualified satisfaction), or create an alternate delusional world where the ugly and unpleasant features of reality find no place.

Indian English women novelists have favorably responded to the changed psychological realties of Indian life after independence, give an authentic treatment to this situation. An interesting preoccupation of these writers appear to be delving into the labyrinthine depths of the Indian psyche and showing its relation to society. And nowhere is this concern more obvious than in the novels that figure neurotic characters. The characters are shown as grappling on the one hand with the changed realities of India life and the trauma they entail and on the other hand with the psychic conflicts of personal origin. These conflicts and traumas become too pronounced at a particular point of time in their life and their ability to hold their feelings under repression gives ways. Anita Desai's Cry, the Peacock and Where shall we Go this Summer?, Kamala Markandaya's A Silence of Desire, Shashi Deshpande's That Long Silence, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala' Get Ready for Battle, Nayantara Sahgal's The Day in Shadow, Nergis Dalal's The Inner Door and Bharati Mukerjee's Wife, portray sensitive individuals in their moments of intense struggle and in their efforts to seek neurotic solutions to their problems. In the course of the ordeal called living the protagonists of these novels find themselves at odds with society and undergo various degrees of psychological transformation. Both as a physical reality outside and a psychic agent within, society which we take to mean the essence of one's relationships with others plays a very important role.

The study of these novelists, especially for the study of neurotic characters highlights another important theme that has been frequently harped upon is the cultural conflicts resulting from a character's exposure to a different culture. Again, the extent of cultural shock depends on the individual's susceptibility and the psychic conflicts he carries in his unconsciousness.

Bharati Mukherjee's Wife is often chosen to demonstrate what devastation a hostile culture can cause in a sensitive individual (Parenthetically it may be observed that neurosis is known to occur more frequently among immigrant population.).

A study of Wife shows Dimple in an entirely new light. The already existing neurotic picture in her is precipitated and aggravated by her American life. Her husband does not suffer from any of those conflicts because his psyche is structured entirely differently. What then ultimately interest us is not so much the cultural conflicts but the psychological suffering of the individual to which the cultural conflicts often contribute.

Bharati Mukherjee's novel Wife stands out as a unique fictional work by virtue of its insightful probing into its heroine's psyche. Wife is the simple story of Amit and his wife Dimple, newly married Bengali immigrants to the U.S.A. Dimple's ill-concealed compulsions are soon precipitated by the violence ridden and individualistic American life and culminate in her killing of her husband. This psychic development in Dimple has been variously but uncritically viewed as her desperate effort to "forget" her Indian roots are necessitated by the demands of American life and her assertion of independence from her overbearing husband.  In this light it can be argued that Dimple suffers from the neurotic compulsion of indulging in  abnormal acts in order to conceal her own sense of intrinsic weakness and failure.

Bharati Mukherjee's Wife falls into the category of the modern novel as it presents an intense inner world of neurotic and solipsistic individual. Instead of trying to combine the freedom of the individual with tolerance for fellow beings, Bharati Mukherjee chooses to glorify the alienated individual. Rootlessness and unreal existence are the main concerns of this expatriate novelist who has set out to make a deliberate distortion of Indian womanhood. Her women characters are tantalized by the possibility of passion, which they mistake for love and self-expression. America which appears to be a free land, a veritable dreamland is the enigma of existence for all Indian girls.

Dimple, the protagonist in Wife is an extremely immature girl who constantly dreams of marriage as she hopes that it would bring freedom and love. At the same time she is not clear about the concepts of freedom and love. This ambiguity underlying her mental make up defines the in- completeness of her very being. After a painful waiting which makes her desperate and suicidal, Dimple Das Gupta, the pliant, docile, obedient and submissive daughter of a middle class Bengali family marries Amit Basu, an ambitious engineer, chosen by her parents, about to migrate to the U.S. "She thought of pre-marital life as dress rehearsal for actual living." (3). Delay in marriage has made her very nervous and anxious so when she is married ostensibly to a worthy groom-by Indian standards of marriage, her chances of happiness ought to be very high.

But, soon after her marriage, she feels cheated as her romantic, adolescent mind cannot grasp the reality that freedom too has certain limitations. Her husband, Amit Kumar Basu is an average middle class, unimaginative, young engineer who dreams of making a fortune in America and on retiring to live a comfortable rich life in Calcutta. She begins to resent her new home, her in laws and even her husband who does not seem to be capable of feeding her fantasy. Amit fails to meet out the requirements of her imaginative world. She does not like the new name 'Nandini', given to her by her mother-in-law, she finds the apartment very small, unattractive; the sight of the wounded crow is exceedingly loathsome to her, but at this stage it is a passive resistance only: "it was this passive resistance, this withholding of niggardly affection from Amit, this burying of one's head among dusty, lace doilies that she found so degrading".(30). At this stage, when she begins to reconstruct her 'ideal' man, on the basis of the faces from magazines, and is unable to identify herself with anyone in the family, the prospect of becoming a mother enrages her. She treats it as an outrage on her body and induces an abortion, disposing of that "tyrannical and vile " thing deposited in her body. She justifies herself by arguing that she cannot afford to take any relics from her old life to America where she hopes to begin life afresh and become a more exciting person. Dimple has lived so long in a fantasy world of advertising and advice columns that she is emotionally incapable of understanding another human being, and she cannot understand Amit or his try to.

Dimple's vision of Sita's docility, sacrifice and responsibility is a flag with many messages. She wants to break through the traditional taboos of a wife. She aspires for freedom and love in marriage. This aim brings her indignation, grief, resentment, peevishness, spite and sterile anger. Dimple wants to do away with traditional taboos of a wife and hence she becomes an escapist, lost in her world of fantasy. In the U.S. she thinks of herself as some kind of non-human being like a bug. She feels as if she is instinctively drawn towards some disastrous end: "It was as if some force was impelling her towards disaster; some monster had overtaken her body, a creature with serpentine curls and heaving bosom that would erupt indiscreetly through one of Dimple's orifices, leaving her, Dimple Basu, splattered like a bug on the living room wall and rug" (156).

Once again, even after going to America, her hopes are belied. She tries hard to adjust to Amit's wishes and be dutiful wife, she is never quite unaware of the fact that he is not the man of her dreams. Life with him, both in India and America, is naturally a big disappointment for her. Marriage has not "provided all the glittery things she had imagined had not brought her cocktails under canopied skies (101). Like any traditionally brought up Indian husband, Amit does not know how to pay a compliment to his wife. He would like her to stay at home and attend to the household chores rather than go out, work and earn. In a word, he appears to be almost a personification of Ego in the Freudian sense.

Amit fails Dimple on all planes – physical, mental and emotional "on her very first day in the H.Y.V. apartment she felt like a star collapsing inwardly" (69). She tries to convey her fears and forebodings to Amit but neither does he try to understand her nor is he capable of rising above a mundane understanding. Dimple's psychological imbalances, her immoderate daytime sleeping, her nightmares, her indecisiveness – every thing remains unknown to him up to his dying day.

Dimple has to cope up with her traumatic mental condition all alone. "She had expected pain when she had come to America, had told herself that pain was part of any new beginning, and the sweet structures of that new life had allotted pain a special place" (109). She is shaken by the knowledge that America with all its outward glitter allows Indian wives only to create "little Indians" around them but does not allow them either freedom or fulfillment as evident in the case of Ina Mullick who, despite her attempts at becoming 'a total American', remains a frustrated individual. After this disturbing realization, Dimple sinks into a world of isolation, unable to welcome the bright prospect of setting up a new home even after Amit gets a job. She turns towards Ina, Leni and ultimately Milt Glasser in her moments of crises. Ina and Leni fail her as friends. After a few pathetic attempts to merge herself into the new culture by wearing the borrowed outfit of Marsha and by flirting with Milt Glasser, Dimple experiences total estrangement from herself and her surroundings as well. Torn by the conflict between her fantasy world and the reality of her situation, she allows her mind to be totally conditioned by the commercials on T.V. and magazines so much so she loses the ability to distinguish them from the world of reality. She is caught in a whirlwind of traumatic emotions - her tradition questioning her outrageous adultery and her present confused self-wishing to become American by any means. "I am terrible in crises" (204) she had told Meena and she is true to her words in the moments of her crisis. Her extra – marital affair gives rise to a growing feeling of guilt.  Given the right opportunity, she might have confided in Amit but Amit's inactiveness blocks the outlay. Torn by her psychic and emotional tensions, she takes the drastic step of murdering her husband thinking that she cannot bear this sort of life forever. In a stunningly calm and cool manner she takes out the knife from the kitchen drawer and drives it down on a spot near his hairline repeatedly hitting at the same place seven times. Thus she punishes her inattentive husband for his lapses and unceremoniously ends up her disharmonious marital life. Finally she kills Amit to suppress her guilty conscience and also to feel very American, almost like a character in a T.V. serial.

In Wife Bharati Mukherjee had portrayed the enigma of existence, the hollowness of the Indian institutionalized marriage. Bharati Mukherjee had seen the stereotypical pattern of conventional Indian marriage. Being the writer of modern time, she has depicted in her fiction the problems faced by Indian and other third-world immigrants who attempt to assimilate into North American life styles. Mukherjee focuses upon sensitive protagonists who lack a stable sense of personal and cultural identity and are victimized by racism, sexism and other forms of social oppression.

In an interview Bharati Mukherjee has clearly stated her aim in her writings. "We immigrants have fascinating tales to relate. Many of us have lived in newly independent or emerging countries. When we uproot our selves from those countries and come here, either by choice or out of necessity, we suddenly must absorb 200 years of American society. I attempt to illustrate this in my novels and stories. My aim is to expose Americans to the energetic voices of new settles in this country."(219) Infact Mukherjee had come to terms with her own identity in an alien land, caught as she was between two conflicting cultures. Also, she had to contend with racial discrimination during the years she spent in Canada, precisely between 1972 and 1980. She managed to overcome both the crises and this brought her a sense of elevation and confidence. Mukherjee's early experiences had a great bearing on her writing and outlook of life.

In Wife Dimple is trapped between two cultures, and aspires to a third, imagined world. Living in her social vacuum, Dimple is not unlike hundreds of American men and women who believe and are betrayed by the promise of fulfillment offered by the media, and who choose the solution suggested by a violent environment. Violence is her fundamental experience of New York and thus despair sets in her life. She thinks "her own body seemed curiously alien to her, filled with hate, malice an instance desire to hurt, yet weightless, almost airborne". (117). Television introduces her to love, middle-American style. Her T.V. watching stuns her by the incredible violence. It becomes a diabolical trap, a torment without hope of either release or relief. Dimple has been portrayed free and rebelling throughout the novel. She has no inhibition in expressing whatever she feels. The murder of Amit is an assertion of her American identity. The novel traces the enigma of existence, the psychic breakdown of an Indian wife in America. She is neither of India nor of America but a stunned wanderer between these two worlds, yet is trying to attain a distinct identity. Neither does she belong to the T.V. world  nor to the world of reality but keeps on shuttling between the two. She is yet to release her ‘self’ from the hallucinatory world, she is yet to get out of her schizophrenic self.  A waylaid traveler, she is yet to reach her destination and carve out a niche for herself.




Freud, Sigmund. Civilzation and its Discontents, Harmondsworth: Penguin,

Interview with  Karen Moline, Australia: Harper's Bazaar, Autumn 1990.

Mukherjee, Bharati. Wife, India: Penguin Books , 1990.