The American Nightmare: Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar

Photo by Frederik Sørensen on Pexels

 

by Haylee Kopfensteiner

July 2019
(UBC Arts One LA2, Prof. Brandon Konoval)

 

“I prevented myself as much as possible from making the obvious connection between the crumbling of the world around me and the impending destruction of my personal American dream” (Hamid 93). This is a quotation from Mohsin Hamid’s novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which tells the story of Changez, a young Pakistani man who goes to America for university and then stays for a job at a valuation firm. The novel follows Changez’ life in America before, during, and after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, highlighting his love affair with an American woman and the rise and fall of his career. On the other hand, Sylvia Plath’s novel, The Bell Jar, tells the story of Esther Greenwood, an American-born woman who suffers from depression during the 1950s. Plath tells of Esther’s struggles as she begins a summer internship, suffers traumatic events that plunge her further and further into mental illness, through a suicide attempt, and into her apparent recovery.

On the surface the two novels have very little, if anything, in common: how can a white woman with depression in the 1950s have similar struggles to an immigrant living in America after 9/11? Nevertheless, the two books do have a common thread and, with a closer look, striking similarities begin to emerge: above all, both are concerned with how the American Dream adversely affects oung people. Two big factors that contribute to the American Dream are the appeal and alienation of big cities such as New York and romantic relationships: cities and romance tend to be highly idealized in the minds of many, with lots of people believing that only good connections and opportunities can come from experiencing them, yet both can cause harmful stress and alienation. Success or alienation can come about as a result of both romance and cities; thus, they are interconnected. On top of this, city life and romantic life are further connected by the perception that the American Dream is incomplete without both. By looking at the different aspects that contribute to the American Dream, and then seeing how they affect Changez and Esther, the negative, even destructive side of the American Dream becomes clear.

The American Dream could be understood as the wish for a perfect life full of great financial and personal success. New York is often seen as one of the quintessential cities in which to achieve this, as it is a place where the rich and famous convene and where seemingly everyone has the opportunity to become whoever they wish. Both Changez and Esther are given opportunities to live and work in New York, and both form complicated relationships with it. The characters get caught up in the appeal of the city, but end up losing parts of their identity and becoming disenchanted with the idea of the American Dream because of the pressures that New York places on them.

Changez begins his story by recounting how he was enamored with New York, the “city of possibility with its magical vibrancy and sense of excitement” (Hamid 157) and everything it represented. It offered him a place where he could not only rise to the top of society, but also a place where he could be accepted for who he is, despite not being born in America or looking how people expect Americans to look. He says that, “I was, in four and a half years, never an American; I was immediately a New Yorker” (Hamid 33). But Changez quickly comes to see New York, and the American Dream that it embodies, as cruel and unfeeling, a change that comes about as a result of the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center. One part of the aftermath is the growing hostility and racism that Changez faces for looking Middle Eastern and therefore ‘dangerous’: “More than once, traveling on the subway—where I had always had the feeling of seamlessly blending in—I was subjected to verbal abuse by complete strangers, and at Underwood Samson I seemed to become overnight a subject of whispers and stares” (Hamid 130). At first, Changez feels as though he belongs in New York, but after the attacks he is left feeling unwelcome and out of place.

What Changez experiences is something that many people who are, or are perceived to be of Middle-Eastern origin continually deal with in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. Although Changez is not Middle Eastern, his appearance is considered sufficiently similar to this group of people and, as a consequence, he suffers some of the same abuse that they did. Not only was he stared at with suspicion on the subway, he was also the victim of a verbal assault when someone called him an Arab followed by a “string of obscenities” (Hamid 118). As a result of being shunned and abused by those around them, Muslim immigrants in America began to revert to a way of life that closer resembled the one in their home countries. In a study conducted by Eric D. Gould and Esteban F. Klor, “The Long-Run Effect of 9/11: Terrorism, Backlash, and the Assimilation of Muslim Immigrants in the West,” this matter is explored further.

Prior to the attacks, Muslims who had immigrated to America tended to be on the wealthier and more educated side, and these factors “along with their pragmatism and drive to succeed, led to relatively fast integration into the labour market and suburban communities of the US” (Abdo, in Gould and Klor 2066). Changez is an excellent example of this, as he is from a relatively well-off family, is well educated, and defiantly shows determination to succeed. He initially fits in well with those around him in New York, as stated previously when he talks about immediately being a New Yorker if never an American. But the terrorist attacks gave rise to more anti-Muslim racism across the Western world, and in the United States hate crimes against Muslims “went from 28 to 481 reported incidents from the year 2000 to 2001” (Gould and Klor 2064). As a result of the growing animosity towards them, many Muslim immigrants in America chose to embrace their Islamic identity and similar ways of life as in their native countries. Increased rates of marriage between Muslims (as opposed to marriage between Muslims and people of a different background) and fertility, as well as lower rates of English proficiency and female labour participation, were all found in the American Muslim community after 9/11. The authors of the study say that these findings point towards the conclusion that “the 9/11 attacks induced a backlash against the Muslim community which, in turn, increased the ethnic identity and demographic strength of the Muslim immigrant community in the US” (Gould and Klor 2108). People wanted to be part of a community again after being rejected by the United States, so they embraced their heritage as a way to cope.

This study is important to The Reluctant Fundamentalist because the findings are particularly applicable to Changez: he, too, after experiencing abuse for how he looks, seeks refuge in elements of his heritage. The authors note previous research about “a growing number of young women wearing the hijab (headscarf) as an icon of Islamic pride and defiance to a hostile environment” (Haddad, in Gould and Klor 2067). These women using tradition to visually reaffirm their identity in the face of aggression is similar to what Changez does by growing a beard in the aftermath of the attacks, then refusing to shave it off even when told it wasn’t a good idea. He says that “It was, perhaps, a form of protest on my part, a symbol of my identity, or perhaps I sought to remind myself of the reality I had just left behind” (Hamid 130). Changez wants to assert his identity as a coping mechanism in a society that is not so accepting of him. All the issues and experiences that Changez has are ones that Hamid wants the reader to consider and reflect on, and the study by Gould and Klor helps further bring these issues to light. However, the racism that Changez experiences is not the only thing that contributes to his alienation: his rejection of America and attempts to reclaim parts of his old self also come from what he experiences in his job.

Changez deals with a growing resentment of his job. “Focus on the fundamentals. This was Underwood Samson’s guiding principle…. It mandated a single-minded attention to financial detail, teasing out the true nature of those drivers that determine an asset’s value” (Hamid 98). Changez sees focusing on the fundamentals as harsh and uncaring, and when he realizes that, by making valuations, he contributes to employees of the company losing their jobs, he is unable to put aside his guilt. He also comments about how what Underwood Samson does bears a resemblance to the destruction of lives by America’s military action in Afghanistan and lack of action in Pakistan, which both take place as a result of the attacks. He correspondingly becomes isolated from the American Dream and angry at America as a whole. All of this is summed up well in the quotation used at the beginning of the essay: because of the terrorist attacks, Changez begins to see America as heartless and selfish, abusing people and destroying their lives both abroad and on its own soil, in order to benefit itself. He begins to feel that the American Dream is all about this heartlessness and no longer wants to be a part of it. Changez develops apathy towards the world around him, which is seen through his attitude towards his job and the growth and maintenance of his beard. He ultimately rejects America and alienates himself from those around him, with behaviors meant to push people away from him.

On top of the disapproval Changez has for the actions he finds himself partaking in, and the way they are affecting others, he believes that they have contributed to the loss of identity he feels during his time in New York. During his trip home, Changez looks around his residence and his country with something similar to disgust: he says that, “I had changed; I was looking about me with the eyes of a foreigner, and not just any foreigner, but that particular type of entitled and unsympathetic American who so annoyed me” (Hamid 124). Disturbed by the realization that the pursuit of the American Dream has robbed him of his former identity, he then chooses to embrace more elements from his home country, such as his beard, and even goes so far as to participate in demonstrations that “the foreign press would later…come to label anti-American” (Hamid 179).

The harm that New York can do to a person is seen not only in The Reluctant Fundamentalist but also in The Bell Jar, where Esther also faces both the appeal and alienation of being in New York City. At the beginning of her story, she is in the city as part of a summer job program where she is given the opportunity to gain experience working among successful women. This opportunity, much like Changez’ time with Underwood Samson, is the pinnacle of the American Dream. This is explained by Esther when she describes what others must think of her, saying, “Look at what can happen in this country, they’d say. A girl lives in some out-of-the-way town…then she gets a scholarship to college and wins a prize here and a prize there and ends up steering New York like her own private car” (Plath 2); but, like Changez, her time in New York puts pressure on Esther to achieve a perfect life, the same way it did for Changez. She tells of the many people around her pushing her in the direction of a successful career where she could earn wealth and status: “There was the famous poet, and Philomena Guinea, and Jay Cee…and they all wanted to adopt me in some way, and, for the price of their care and influence, have me resemble them” (Plath 211). All of these women are pressing their own expectations and lifestyles onto Esther, pressuring her to work toward their own perception of the American Dream. The opportunities that she was granted in New York, although she initially appreciates them, eventually become overwhelming to Esther.

In an essay by Susan Coyle titled “Images of Madness and Retrieval: An Exploration of Metaphor in The Bell Jar,” many interesting points are made about the pressures that Esther faces throughout the book, one such point being the fig tree metaphor Esther makes about her life while in New York. Esther compares all the opportunities in her life—whether to be a professor, an editor, a wife and mother, and everything else she can imagine—to figs. But she faces the inability to choose which one she wants, as the idea of deciding becomes overwhelming:

I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet (Plath 73).

Esther sees so many possibilities and knows that she is smart enough and driven enough to have any one of the lives she imagines; but, with everyone telling her what she should do, and each of their ideas conflicting with the others, she cannot decide which would be best for her. When she examines the metaphor in her essay, Coyle says that, “Esther is ‘starving’ not simply from indecision but also from an increasing sense of alienation from self and alienation from the world and her potential goals” (Coyle 165). Since Esther cannot make a decision about which life she wishes to pursue, she is left unable to connect with others who may share her ideas and goals, or to invest in a meaningful relationship with a mentor such as her boss Jay Cee. This connects to one of Esther’s other struggles in New York, her apparent inability to form close relationships with others.

Esther struggles with a sense of alienation both while in New York, and after, as a consequence of her time there. She is unable to make meaningful connections with those around her, finding flaws in almost everyone she comes across. She does this with Doreen when she disapproves of her getting drunk with Lenny Shepard, saying that, “deep down I would have nothing to do with her” (Plath 21), and saying to a fellow patient at the mental asylum that, “I don’t like you. You make me puke, if you want to know” (Plath 211). Because she has a tendency to be judgmental of others, she can’t find people to confide in about her struggles and who could help her through them, showing how she alienates herself from the world around her. Similar to Changez, Esther feels as though she does not belong in the world around her, despite not visibly being an outsider. This goes to show that the pressure of the American Dream can be detrimental to anyone, no matter their circumstances.

On top of her unwillingness to connect with others, Esther suffers from separation from herself and her goals, just as Coyle says. Coyle points out that despite Esther’s love of reading and writing, “she becomes alienated from language itself” (Coyle 163). As a result of her time in New York, Esther faces growing doubts about her desires and abilities, manifesting itself as a mental breakdown that includes alienation from language, something that is pivotal to her identity as an aspiring writer. The American Dream has thus taken the person she was away from her. This loss of identity is seen even further during her time in the asylum when she says that, “I kept feeling the visitors measuring my fat and stringy hair against what I had been and what they wanted me to be” (Plath 195). This quotation isn’t just Esther comparing herself to what she once was, but also ties back to the pressure she feels others place on her to fulfill the American Dream. This loss of identity is, once again, a parallel between Changez and Esther: just as Changez loses touch with his former self while in New York, Esther loses touch with her former self.

A second aspect that heavily influences the American Dream is romantic relationships. It is continually believed that in order for someone’s personal American Dream to be complete, they must have a fulfilling relationship. These fulfilling relationships, the expectations of what love and family should be, have changed throughout time. Through much of American history, a traditional ideal of a man and woman getting married and then having a family, where the man is the breadwinner and the woman takes care of the house and children, was the desire and expectation of many; while in modern times there has been a shift towards relationships where each individual is equal, which allows for both people to benefit and thrive off of the other, all while supposedly being madly in love. Despite the differences between the two idealized relationships, they both remain a key part of the American Dream and its attitudes. Both Changez’ and Esther’s experiences with relationships contribute to their ultimate rejection of the American Dream.

Changez believes he has a perfect relationship with an American girl named Erica, who he meets through mutual friends from university. Erica becomes his closest companion in New York: she makes him feel at home and introduces him to an upper-class lifestyle in America, which resembles the one his family is losing in Pakistan. Changez says that, “I felt I was entering in New York the very same social class that my family was falling out of in Lahore” (Hamid 85), and furthermore, “I was presumptuous enough to think that this was how my life was meant to be, that it had in some way been inevitable that I should end up rubbing shoulders with the truly wealthy in such exalted circumstances” (Hamid 85). In turn, he offers Erica someone to confide in, especially about her deceased boyfriend, regarding which he says, “I wanted to console her, to accompany her into her mind and allow her to be less alone. So I asked her to tell me about him” (Hamid 90). In this way, it appears that Changez and Erica offer each other the ideal romance, in which they benefit from one another and allow each other to be comfortable enough in many aspects of their relationship to be able to grow into their best selves.

But the problem with their relationship is that Changez is unable to see that his romantic feelings are not fully reciprocated by Erica. She is traumatized by the death of her boyfriend and suffers a relapse of depression after the September 11th attacks. Erica’s mother tells Changez that “she’s a sick girl at the moment. She doesn’t need a boyfriend. She needs a friend” (Hamid 110). Despite this, he still tries to force a relationship. He puts pressure on himself to help her, wanting to believe that his love can cure her. Changez admits that “I had been raised in an environment too thoroughly permeated with a tradition of shared rituals of mysticism to accept that conditions of the spirit could not be influenced by the care, affection, and desire of others” (Hamid 140–141). Changez’ determination to make his relationship with Erica work makes his heartbreak all that much worse when she goes missing, likely having committed suicide. This heartbreak contributes to his rejection of America because he feels as if a huge part of his American Dream is gone, and as though the dream itself has rejected him.

Similar to Changez, Esther faces pressure from society to have an ideal relationship: people believe that she should settle down and get married, as was the expectation at the time. She has what everyone sees as the perfect situation with Buddy Willard, a handsome young doctor from a good family. But Esther does not know yet if that is what she wants. She often expresses hesitance about the idea of marriage, believing it to be something that would trap her in an unfulfilling life. This is shown through when she says things such as “I began to think maybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterwards you went around numb as a slave in some private, totalitarian state” (Plath 81). In her essay, Coyle analyses Esther’s views on marriage and brings up the insightful point that, “Her mother and Mrs. Willard are the two role models she has, and she does not want to be like either one” (Coyle 165). Her mother was unhappy in her marriage and badly stressed afterwards because of the money troubles brought on by her husband’s death, while Mrs. Willard is a deeply traditional woman who believes that “What a man is, is an arrow into the future and what a woman is, is the place the arrow shoots off from” (Plath 67). These figures lead Esther to see marriage as a dull life full of stress and wasted potential, and she says that, “The last thing I wanted was infinite security and to be the place an arrow shoots off from. I wanted change and excitement and to shoot off in all directions myself” (Plath 79). To Esther, marriage seems as if it would be no more fulfilling to her than it looks to be to any other woman she sees around her, and her seemingly perfect relationship with Buddy Willard makes no difference to that matter.

Another part of romance and sexuality as they relate to the America Dream that Esther does not agree with is the double standard for men and women. She is upset by the hypocrisy of men being able to have multiple sexual partners before marriage but women having to stay pure for their husband, and expresses this when she says that, “I couldn’t stand the idea of a woman having to have a single pure life and a man being able to have a double life” (Plath 77). Esther begins to see the American Dream as sexually confining and does not agree with having to follow all the conditions that go with it. The pressure to settle down, the thought of having to live a life she sees as unfulfilling, and the hypocrisy of those around her all contribute to Esther’s disillusionment with the American Dream, and the eventual feeling that she is trapped and the only way out is suicide. Coyle makes the point that “Esther resolves her conflicts about her sexuality and motherhood by accepting how she genuinely feels and acting on those feelings” (Coyle 172)—the feelings that she embraces her sexuality and decides to live life on her own terms instead of society’s. Once she does this, she is shown to be on the road to recovery from her mental illness. Despite the differences in their romantic lives, both Changez and Esther’s relationships are hindered by the American Dream: they struggle to find and be completely fulfilled in relationships, because of the emphasis placed on certain types of relationships that are either confining or difficult to come by.

Coyle describes Esther as “The young protagonist [who] is in search of herself, but she cannot quite fit herself into the patterns that she sees as available to her” (Coyle 161). This applies to Changez as much as it does Esther. The American Dream requires quite a bit of conformity: there is little room for those who don’t necessarily want the certain relationship or attitude towards others that is expected, and both characters are struggling to fit into the world around them because they hold these differing ideas. Another idea that Coyle has about Esther that applies to Changez as well is when she says that, “The world is making no sense to her, and she not only cannot place herself within it, she cannot even find herself” (Coyle 169). Esther cannot place herself in the changing 1950s society because she cannot figure out what she really wants, just as Changez does not feel comfortable in American society partially because he feels he has to give up a significant part of his identity to do so. Changez and Esther are two determined, hardworking individuals, who begin their stories by being enamored with the possibilities in front of them; they are given plenty of amazing opportunities that, to anyone looking in from the outside, would seem ideal, and they both have the potential to fulfill these opportunities. But the American Dream is a double-edged sword. Because Changez and Esther care so much and work so hard to achieve the American Dream, they alienate themselves and lose their identities, as they do not necessarily fit the mold that is presented to them.

Although they may not seem similar at first glance, the novels The Reluctant Fundamentalist and The Bell Jar share the same goal: to make readers aware of how the American Dream can be detrimental to young people. Both Changez and Esther begin their lives and stories by working for their own American Dream: the pressure and attitudes associated with this dream that come from romantic relationships and the allure of big cities, lead to the rejection of the American Dream in both cases. The American Dream is seen as robbing people of their identities and causing mental illnesses so severe that some people may attempt suicide or welcome the suffering of others. When these texts are looked at in conjunction with others that look at either the individual novel or the real-world circumstances that influenced the story, strong connections between the books and the societies that readers live in are seen. Both Hamid and Plath present a cautionary tale against allowing society’s ideals to dictate their lives.

 

 

Works Cited

Hamid, Mohsin. The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Anchor Canada. 2008.

Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. London. Faber and Faber Limited. 1966.

Gould, Eric D. Klor, Esteban F. “The Long-Run Effect of 9/11: Terrorism, Backlash, and the Assimilation of Muslim Immigrants in the West.” The Economic Journal, vol. 126,       no. 597, 2016, pp. 2064-2114.

Coyle, Susan. “Images of Madness and Retrieval: An Exploration of Metaphor in The Bell Jar.” Studies in American Fiction, vol. 12, no. 2, 1984, pp. 161-174.