The central theme to Bharati Mukherjee’s fictional story “The Management of Grief”, based on real-life events, is that of being both a part of something tangible and in an ethereal and cultural sense apart from it. There are several binary focus points of this piece and all put the work into the context of opposing sides. There is life versus death, new versus old world, Hindu versus Sikh. There is, also, a broader theme of bringing multiculturalism to the forefront of the complications of grief. In this way, it cannot be said that there are stages of grief, as the social worker suggests, but various moving parts that cannot be connected to any group of people, those similar in culture or otherwise.
Essentially, grief is unique in its individual personification and can be seen affected by culture, but understood by all, if only by different ways. But, in this it can be said that there is a culture of grief and that everyone becomes a member of this community, regardless of iconic culture. So instead of stages of grief and binary opposites in its aftermath, there is a tone in this piece of the necessity of shared sadness, but, also, the secret, solitary acceptance of it.
This piece is interesting in transmitting the confusing and impossible undertaking of conveying individual grief. The detachment displayed by the main character points to this detachment from others in both a ethereal and real sense. Denial is a stage of grief, but this piece points to a larger component and that is the detachment from the grief of others in a shared tragic event. Though, the value of friendship is notable in this work, the eventual letting go of friendship, as it formerly was into a new dimension, is introduced. At the beginning of the stage of accepting the reality of the tragedy of the destroyed plane, the friends and neighbors of the protagonist, Shaila, are depicted with humor and detachment. Shaila uses the metaphor of the connection she attempts to keep with her lost family, “I hear their voices all around me. I hear my boys and Vikram cry,
‘Mommy!, Shaila!’ and their voices insulate me, like headphones” (1505).
A concerned doctor’s wife, also, adds to the writer’s usage of the binary opposites of the life and death central to the theme. She is visibly pregnant and accompanied by her living children, as she tries to help Shaila.
A visit to the site of the plane crash, which also remained a mystery for some time and later revealed to be a bombing by Sikh fundamentalists, adds imagery and impact to the suffering and shared sadness of others. Over a bay in Ireland, the protagonist and friend look over the endless water, imagining an island there. Shaila has not had her family’s remains identified and holds on to the hope that they are out in this vast body of water on an island. This is a useful metaphor for her own position of aloneness, an island unto herself. The flowers given to the mourners by the Irish point to the attempt to share in this grief, but it is not flowers that Shaila wishes to place there in her family’s memory. “But I have other things to float; Vinod’s pocket calculator; a half-painted model B-52 for my Mithum. They’d want them on their island. And for my husband? For him I’d let fall into the calm, glassy waters a poem I wrote I the hospital yesterday. Finally he’ll know my feelings for him” (1510). Related Article: “a solitary child, neglected by his friends, is left here still”
When Shaila arrives in India, she is struck by the pull of old versus new world ideas. Her parents shun the idea of Vedic rituals and she becomes as she says “I am trapped between two modes of knowledge…like my husband’s spirit, I flutter between two worlds” (1511). Shaila does find her refuge in the old world ideas that her parents disapprove of and believes that she sees her husband in an abandoned temple and he urges her to return home, to the life they began together. When she returns to Canada, she has dreams of her family. Many of the other families have moved away and what is left is explained as, “We’ve melted down and been recast as a new tribe” (1513). This idea of being “melted down” can be viewed as a multicultural metaphor, a group that has assimilated into their new country, but not assimilated fully into their acceptance of grief.
The character tries to help others with their grief and a climatic moment occurs when she attempts to help a Sikh family with their financial crisis. She realizes that there are barriers to culture and the expectations of the outcomes the social worker has for all of the relatives of the lost. Putting grief in a simple package for all is impossible. This formulates the profound ending with an allusion to this package of grief that is only held by the individual experiencing it.
“Then as I stood on the path looking north to Queen’s Park and went to the university, I heard the voices of my family one last time your time has come, they said. Go be brave. I do not know where this voyage I have begun will end. I do not know what direction I will take. I dropped the package on the park bench and starting walking” (1516). This use of symbolism of this package sums up the complexities of individual grief and the mystery of what is inside the package, as it is never stated. But, leaving the package behind and walking on reveals to the reader that the protagonist has reached their individual acceptance.
Bharati Mukherjee. “The Management of Grief” in The Middleman and Other Stories. (1988).
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