Tuesday, March 31, 2009

What's in a name?

People often say that when you go away to college you have the opportunity to form a new identity.  Your new peers will have no idea what you acted like in high school, what group you hung out with, or what your hobbies were.  By the time I graduated, I had been with the same group of students for at least six years, so I can see how the promise of shedding an identity and starting fresh could be tempting to some.  I never really considered that people would change their names when they went away to school, but I guess I never considered how intwined our names are with our identities.  A name is something that is given to you at birth, you don't get to choose it, even though it sticks with you for the rest of your life.  I have a few friends who took advantage of the move to college and took new names or nicknames when they moved to their new home at school.  For example, I have a friend here at Loyola, Rob.  When I met him way back in September of freshman year, he introduced himself as Rob.  It was not until his friends came to visit him last year and only referred to him as "Bob" that we realized he had a mini identity change when he got to Loyola.  When we asked him about it, he said that everyone at home, including his entire family, calls him Bob.  He never really liked it, so when he got here he took advantage of the opportunity and introduced himself as Rob.  It sounds so simple, but also so strange.  I don't think he had any scarring opportunities that would lead him to abandon his Bob-identity, but it's pretty fascinating to think about totally leaving behind the name that you've been called for your whole life.
Rob's mini identity change isn't much compared to Jyoti/Jasmine/Jase/Jane in Mukherjee's novel, but it does shed some light on how much our names contribute to our identities, and therefore our homes.  Mukherjee does an interesting thing with Jasmine's multiple identities.  If you examine all of her names, the lives that accompany them, who gave her the names, and the name (or life) that she ultimately chooses, it seems as though Mukherjee wants us to notice how much influence others have over our identities.  At the beginning of the novel, we get a peak into Jasmine's character.  Her reaction to the astrologer is telling, "You're a crazy old man!  You don't know what my future holds!" (3).  Later, when she tells her father that no, she doesn't want to be a bank teller, she wants to be a doctor, we are again reminded of her defiance and resistance.  Her name is the one thing that she does not take charge of or enforce.  All throughout her life she allows herself to be named by other people, usually men.  She then takes on that new identity wholeheartedly, assuming that she can forget her past.  As a result, she ends up being caught between her many lives.  I think that Mukherjee might be trying to show us that Jasmine must choose her own identity in order to finally be completely happy.
In Jasmine, the main character's first name is Jyoti:  "My grandmother names me Jyoti, Light, but in surviving I was already Jane, a fighter and adapter" (40).  Her first memory of her name is that she immediately wanted to fight it off, to lose it.  She sees that Jyoti ties her to her life in Hasnapur, so she is more than willing to become Prakash's "Jasmine" when she is married.  He tells her not to "regress" to acting like "feudal Jyoti," and with her new identity she allows herself new dreams, like the dream of Vijh & Vijh (92).  She still comes into conflict with her identity: "I felt suspended between worlds" (76).  Jasmine jumps from name to name, identity to identity, and home to home.  It appears as though she is making her own decisions and getting what she wants out of life, but she is still letting others label her, so there are complications.  Naturally, when she moves to Flushing, she regresses to her Jyoti ways because she lives with a traditional family.  She is not able to really let go of Jyoti .When Taylor christens her "Jase," she adds another life and identity to her list but does not resolve any issues.  As Jase she "became American" and "lived for today" (175-76).  Of course, when her past as Jyoti catches up with her, she darts off to Iowa and is renamed again.  Jane Ripplemeyer seems perfect for her, she revels in the luxury that is the dullness of Elsa County, Iowa.  As readers, we cannot help but think that she really is not happy.  Is this really all that she wanted out of life?  It cannot be.  Jane doesn't fit.
It is not until the concluding pages of the novel that Jasmine finally chooses for herself.  She is forced to decide which identity she wants to embrace, seemingly for good.  Jyoti and Jane seem to be aligned:  a caregiver lifestyle.  Jasmine and Jase live for love.  Jasmine realizes "I have already stopped thinking of myself as Jane.  Adventure, risk, transformation: the frontier is pushing indoors through un-caulked windows.  Watch me re-position the stars, I whisper to the astrologer..." (240).  We have come full circle, back to the girl we knew at the beginning of the book.  She has chosen for herself which life she wants to live, which name she wants to take, and we are left with the impression that it is the best decision.

No comments:

Post a Comment