Book review: The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri, and musings on feminist attitudes toward motherhood

Last month I finished The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri, as it was recommended by a friend some time ago.

This was a very good book; I think it’s well deserving to be categorized as a modern classic and studied in literature classes. It’s a sober book, tragic in its realism, and I’m grateful that each plotline and theme didn’t end on a horribly depressing note to make a brooding point about life’s existentialism.

The Lowland dealt with a number of subjects that resonated with me, both things I’ve long had an interest in (Indian culture) and subjects that have weighed heavier on my mind in the last year or two (family, death, love, estrangement — forced and optional — and long-term relationships of any sort). Like Subhash, I’ve also lost my only sibling to a gunshot (though in my brother’s case, it was self-inflicted).

Lahiri’s prose was deceptively simple — straightforward through most of the book, then dipping into eloquent, stirring language at pivotal scenes. One of my frustrations with audiobooks is that it’s harder for me to capture quotes to share examples of this. Here’s a line that made me flinch, though: “She had started sleeping with him because it was more effort not to.”

Gauri was a fascinating character. My sympathy was with her at the start, even through her early struggles with motherhood. I’m keen on depictions of women who are not naturally maternal — it’s incredibly important when, even in today’s world, that’s considered the measure of a woman’s character and a failsafe token for redemption. I’ll point to the movie Maleficent, even though I haven’t seen it, but I’ve read enough detailed reviews and summaries to know how they made Maleficent a sympathetic character (spoilers ahead): by making her genuinely care about Aurora, take a large role in raising her, and actually giving her kiss the “true love” quality to wake Aurora from her sleep.

Frankly, that sounds a little nauseating to me. It’s not that I have any attachment to the original, animated Sleeping Beauty film — I don’t, I didn’t even see the film until college, and then only in part. But for me as a feminist, the notion of sprinkling a villainess with a large heaping of ~Maternity~ in order to humanize her is tiresomely old-fashioned and harmfully gender-role restrictive.

So Gauri is quite the opposite study. First she lives the nightmare that many women hoping to be mothers fear (myself included, even though motherhood anytime soon is the very last thing I want): that after her child is born, she does not feel the overpowering, all-encompassing love that mothers are supposed to feel. That is not a sin, of course. It’s not something she can help at all.

But, twelve years after the birth of her daughter, she chooses to act on it — and it is, as she admits later in her narration, the worst thing she could possibly do. While her daughter and husband are on a trip to India, she packs up for California, only leaving a letter behind to her husband. Nothing to her daughter. No communication between them for the next twenty-five years.

Now, I’m a feminist. I’ve read and appreciated Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. I am very firmly pro-choice for reproductive rights. And as I listened to The Lowland (always in my car, so there were long breaks between driving in which I pondered its themes and dilemmas), I struggled with the moral transgression of Gauri’s action, trying to reconcile it with the instinctive horror and recoil I felt. Because unlike with The Awakening and A Doll’s House, the story does not end with the mother’s departure (one to an unknown life, one to suicide).

Unlike in those two older texts, in The Lowland there’s no nanny installed who already fulfills most of a mother’s daily duties. Here, we see the effect on Bela up close and gritty, over all the years to come. And I can imagine few things worse happening to a child than your mother abandoning you, without a goodbye or even a note, because she does not love you. That is an awful, awful weight to carry for the rest of your life.

The perceived irony is that Gauri has a doctorate in philosophy and that’s what she goes on to teach for decades. I only had one philosophy class in college, and I don’t think that qualifies me to say whether Gauri was a hypocrite or fraud to make a career of teaching philosophy after abandoning her child. I know that many people would say yes, but my instinct is to say no. Understanding and teaching a range of philosophies (including, I’m sure, many that support her decision) has nothing to do with personal decisions. Hannibal Lecter could have been a perfectly adequate philosophy professor instead of a psychiatrist.

But I’m not suggesting that Gauri is any type of sociopath. The scene that decisively settles that question is after her meeting with Bela later in life, when Bela tells her that Gauri is dead to her, and Gauri returns to India for the first time in decades to contemplate suicide from a balcony. It’s an understated but effective scene that recovers a little of the reader’s sympathy for her. Gauri lacked maternalism, but hearing those words from her daughter’s lips is enough to devastate her, to make her literally want to die. Even as a feminist, I approve of this; that seems to me the way it should be, at least in order to assure me that Gauri is not a sociopath. And yes, by that point my sympathy is firmly with Bela and her lifetime of suffering — of feeling inadequate and unloved; of pushing away every type of long-term relationship because of Gauri’s selfish decision. So I was relieved when Bela did not forgive her, even after that meeting. The letter she later wrote Gauri, for Megna’s sake, was just right in my mind with its lack of salutation, but for Bela’s own peace and closure, I was glad she felt able to suggest one day holding a truce, for her daughter’s sake.

Back to placing a moral judgment on Gauri’s action, including from a feminist perspective — I will, after all, briefly refer to something I learned in that one college philosophy class. It was an overview class, of course, a general education requiement, but it did spend some time focusing on Utilitarianism and Kantianism. Utilitarianism appealed to me, and I’ll apply it here now: “the proper course of action is the one that maximizes utility, usually defined as maximizing total benefit and reducing suffering or the negatives.” As its founders Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill elaborated, it is “a hedonistic approach only if the results of an action do not directly cause a negative impact on others.”

From that view, I cannot condone Gauri’s actions, even if her marriage was loveless and she had no attachment to her child. The harm her actions incurred on another human being — even if it had been someone not biologically related to her — outweighed the benefits to herself. If I ever found myself in a similar situation — well, even if seeking a divorce, even if the best start for me seemed to be thousands of miles away, I’d want to take into consideration my child’s well-being. I’d consider that I have a maternal obligation, at least until they’re eighteen. And if I must move away, I’d sit down and talk to them before going.

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