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Interpreter of Maladies

Jhumpa Lahiri

Analysis of Major Characters

Character List

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Mr. Kapasi

Mr. Kapasi believes that his life is a failure and longs for something more. In his efforts to lift his existence out of the daily, monotonous grind it has become, Mr. Kapasi develops a far-fetched fantasy about the possibility of a deep friendship between himself and Mrs. Das. This fantasy reveals just how lonely Mr. Kapasi’s life and marriage have become. His arranged marriage is struggling because his wife cannot recover from her grief over the loss of their young son or forgive him for working for the doctor who failed to save their son’s life. His career is far less than what he dreamed it might be. He uses his knowledge of English in only the most peripheral way, in high contrast to the dreams of scholarly and diplomatic greatness he once had. In his isolation, he sees Mrs. Das as a potential kindred spirit because she also languishes in a loveless marriage. He imagines similarities between them that do not exist, yearning to find a friend in this American woman. Not surprisingly, the encounter ends in disappointment. When Mrs. Das does confide in him, he feels only disgust. The intimacy he thought he wanted revolts him when he learns more about Mrs. Das’s nature.

In both of Mr. Kapasi’s jobs, as a tour guide and an interpreter for a doctor, he acts as a cultural broker. As a tour guide, he shows mostly English-speaking Europeans and Americans the sights of India, and in his work as an interpreter, he helps the ailing from another region to communicate with their physician. Although neither occupation attains the aspirations of diplomacy he once had, Mrs. Das helps him view both as important vocations. However, Mr. Kapasi is ultimately unable to bridge the cultural gap between himself and Mrs. Das, whether it stems from strictly national differences or more personal ones. Mr. Kapasi’s brief transformation from ordinary tour guide to “romantic” interpreter ends poorly, with his return to the ordinary drudgery of his days.

Mrs. Mina Das

Mrs. Das’s fundamental failing is that she is profoundly selfish and self-absorbed. She does not see anyone else as they are but rather as a means to fulfilling her own needs and wishes. Her romanticized view of Mr. Kapasi’s day job leads her to confide in him, and she is oblivious to the fact that he would rather she did not. She persists in confiding even when it is clear that Mr. Kapasi has no advice to offer her. Mrs. Das is selfish, declining to share her food with her children, reluctantly taking her daughter to the bathroom, and refusing to paint her daughter’s fingernails. She openly derides her husband and mocks his enthusiasm for tourism, using the fact that they are no longer in love as an excuse for her bad behavior. Although Mrs. Das has been unfaithful, she feels the strain in her marriage only as her own pain. She fails to recognize the toll her affair takes on her husband and children. Rather than face the misery she has caused, Mrs. Das hides behind her sunglasses and disengages from her family. Likewise, when her attempt at confiding in Mr. Kapasi fails, she leaves the car rather than confront the guilt that Mr. Kapasi has suggested is the source of her pain.

Mrs. Das embodies stereotypically American flaws, including disrespect for other countries and cultures, poorly behaved children, and a self-involvement so extensive that she blames others for her feelings of guilt about her infidelity. She is messy, lazy, and a bad parent. She has no concern for the environment or her effect on it and drops her rice snacks all over the ground, riling the local wildlife. She represents what is often called the “ugly American,” a traveler who stands out in every situation because of her expansive sense of self-importance and entitlement.