"Tornado[s]" with the Initial "J":
The Meaning of Chaos Theory
in Mukherjee's Jasmine

 

Rie Koike

1

The primary aim of this paper is to interpret Mukherjee's Jasmine by using some concepts of Chaos Theory, that is, to show how Chaos Theory enables a new and inclusive reading of Jasmine. The novel is noted for the romantic and mythical odyssey of its titular heroine from India to America: from being an Indian to becoming an American. Jasmine, escaping an oppressive environment in an Indian village, Hasnapur, undergoes dramatic transformations during the process of her immigration to America. It has been said that the novel reflects the author's blind romance with America (Koshy 69). Jasmine's metamorphosis, however, is so complicated in nature that some of her instabilities lead almost all of the readers to an interest in the meaning of disorder and unpredictability in the novel. This is the reason why some concepts in Chaos Theory are hypothesized to be effective tools to understand not only the complexity of the novel and its heroine, but also that of immigrant culture in America. In my opinion, Mukherjee made a conscious effort to utilize Chaos Theory, which she cited in the novel's epigraph.

Although the epigraph, which is from Gleick's Chaos: Making a New Science, is the only explicit reference to Chaos Theory, it seems to hold special significance in considering the intricacy of Jasmine. Supported by this theory, seemingly erratic variations of Jasmine's transformations are revealed to have a deeply embedded order. This order creates a comprehensive approach that builds articulated connections among individual theories such as feminism and cultural studies.1 Chaos Theory surpasses fragmental approaches which focus only on limited aspects, and offers a persuasive orientation of an interdisciplinary approach.

 

2

Bharati Mukherjee has gained much respected reputation as an immigrant writer. Jasmine, written right after she became the first naturalized American citizen to win the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction for The Middleman and Other Stories, is based on a character from the award-winning book.

The novel begins with the phrase "Lifetimes ago," referring to the many "lives" that Jasmine has been through. She was born the fifth daughter of a reluctant tiller of thirty acres in a poor village in India with the Indian name, Jyoti, meaning "Light" (34). The seven-year-old Jyoti, who has not gained the name of Jasmine yet, is foretold of two "Fate[s]" by an astrologer: widowhood and exile (1). Shouting "No!" she rejects the "Fate[s]" that he assigns her. She grows up to be a bright girl, being especially good at English and arithmetic, specifically addition. After her father's death, she marries a modern, progressive man named Prakash. He gives her the name Jasmine in the hope of releasing her from her traditional way of thinking. After his assassination by a terrorist's bomb, she tries to go to America as her husband so greatly dreamed of doing. Once she lands in Florida, the ship's captain, Half-Face, rapes her, and in taking revenge by killing him, she finds herself stronger and wanting to live, instead of burning herself alive on the campus where her husband was going to study, as she had planned. She is saved by an American woman, who trains her to walk and talk like an American, and bestows the new name Jazzy on her. From Florida she goes to a stiflingly conventional Indian community in Flushing, New York, then escapes to New York City, where she works as an au pair of Taylor, a scholar who studies "weak gravity," and is given the additional names of Jase and Jassy. Knowing that the killer of her Indian husband is on his way to get her, she decides to move to Iowa, where she meets Bud, a conservative banker, whose baby she carries. He gives her another new name, Jane. His ex-wife calls Jasmine a "tornado" (182). In the final scene, Jasmine is about to go to California with Taylor, where Du, her adopted Vietnamese son, lives with his sister.

The structure of the novel is rather entangled with regard to its use of time and place. The story begins with Jasmine's past in Hasnapur, India, and jumps into the future. Between these periods, she moves to the present, returns to the past in Hasnapur, then goes to the past in Europe and Florida, back to the past in New York, and then, returns to the present again. Geographically, it starts in India and moves through Europe to America, where it also jumps back and forth from Florida through New York to Iowa, then finally moves toward California. Mukherjee intentionally makes her heroine repeatedly leap around in time and space so as to introduce a sense of instability into the novel. Because of this instability, the novel's structure somehow resembles the ball of twine that Gleick uses to explain Chaos Theory: the ball has little depth or meaning from far away, has three dimensions in taking a closer view, and great detail when examined closely. It could be said that from a great distance, Jasmine is no more than the narrative of Jasmine herself without any dimension.

The instability embedded in the core of the novel is deeply concerned with Mukherjee's idea of "immigrant." Mukherjee, born into a propertied family in Calcutta, India in 1940, the daughter of a scientist, insists upon being an American, not a hyphenated Indian-American. This insistence of hers is seen in the novel as well. Jasmine's transmigration has been "genetic," while that of Du was "hyphenated" (198). Genetically metamorphosed Jasmine finds an effective way of adaptation to the new circumstances in the U.S., which allows her to move to and fro without looking back over India, while Du keeps his life somewhere between Vietnam and America in order to maintain contact with both countries. Furthermore, Mukherjee distinguishes an immigrant writer from an expatriate, including an exiled writer, by using her own definition: an immigrant writer is one who intentionally sets roots in the new country, and does not have nostalgic memories about the old country, and an expatriate writer is suspended between the native and the new country.2 I assume that in their initial conditions, a key concept in Chaos Theory, there is some difference between an immigrant and an expatriate. It can be said, by way of a simple example, those whose initial condition is being male tend to become expatriates because they have a great deal of responsibility in their homeland. On the other hand, those whose initial condition is being female traditionally do not have significant roles in their native country, and therefore, they can assimilate easily into new surroundings. Mukherjee seems to interrogate the process of assimilation into a new culture with regard to changeable and fixed ambient factors.

 

3

There are some studies on the relationship between Chaos Theory and literature, and more inclusively, between Chaos Theory and art. For example, Hayles' Chaos and Order discusses the effectiveness of the mixture of science and literature in general, and Hawkins' Strange Attractors deals with individual works, such as The Tempest, Paradise Lost, Arcadia, and Jurassic Park. In both books, Chaos Theory is thought of as revolutionary, since it transcends the relativity theory and quantum theory, and has been applied to a wide-range of research in most academic disciplines.

As Gleick illustrates, Chaos Theory deals with the behavior of arbitrary nonlinear systems, i.e. "relationships that are not proportional" (Gleick 23). A simple model of the weather system is a good example of a nonlinear system, where atmospheric, geographical, and temporal elements relate with each other in a very complex manner. Long-term forecasts are practically useless. While forecasts may be effective in predicting short-term effects, they are unable to tell with any probability whether there will be a tornado in Iowa this day of the next year. This, in fact, is the beginning of Chaos Theory. Basically the theory states that seemingly insignificant changes in initial conditions can result in unforeseeably large changes in the future. That is, when initial conditions change, the system, if it is nonlinear, grows chaotic. This sensitive dependence of chaotic nonlinear systems on initial conditions is called the Butterfly Effect: "the notion that a butterfly stirring the air today in Peking can transform storm systems next month in New York" (Gleick 8).

Another consequential notion, which is related to the novel's epigraph, is the concept of nature's complexity that is neither random nor accidental. Gleick measures the intensity of such complexities as brokenness or irregularity, by using a concept of fractals. He explains that in the mind's eye, a fractal is a way of seeing infinity, which is a recurring transformation or a continuous loop that never intersects itself. Jasmine's life has a similar irregular and fragmented shape. When we focus on the changing locations in the novel, it actually forms a "continuous loop that never intersects itself" from chapter to chapter and from section to section. The novel's plot also has a close relationship to the fractal concept, because Jasmine is "reborn" several times with a new name. It is, therefore, useful to apply Chaos Theory and the concept of fractals to interpret the gigantic nonlinear system of the novel as symbolic of the immigrants' lives in America.

 

4

The dynamics of Jasmine's identities as well as her names can be partly clarified from the perspective of Chaos Theory. A detailed examination of her changing names would prove to reflect a deeper mutation and/or chaos in her life. She has been through various renamings, which focus the reader's eye on her instability even without employing the concepts of Chaos Theory. It is the theory that enables the reader not only to find that her various names are rich in their connotations, but also to see through to a certain order embedded in her chaotic metamorphoses. In general, renaming generates intricacy; richly organized interpretations of each name offer immense possibilities. Jasmine's naming and renaming also provide insight into her complex life.

Depending upon the circumstances, naming and renaming operate in negative and positive ways. As with a "chameleon skin," according to Mukherjee, they can function negatively to disguise one's origin and provide self-protection ("Immigrant Writing" 29). It certainly works for Jasmine who, needing to "conceal" her trail from Immigration and Naturalization Service across the U.S., attempts to blend into each of her new surroundings. At the same time, it works positively as a measure of rebirth, both in the Hindu religion, where people believe in reincarnation, and in the Christianity, where the child is additionally given a Christian name. In Jasmine's case, renaming occurs during her metamorphosis into a person newly "born."

A close study of the sundry names given to Jasmine verifies the remarks above. Before reaching her final destination of the name of Jasmine, she goes through many stages reflected in the fluid names of her metamorphoses. Jasmine's renaming occurs five times. In chronological order, she starts with Jyoti (first introduced on page 5), then becomes Jazzy (119), Jase or Jassy which can be considered as one (156), Jane (4), and finally, Jasmine. The first naming, Jyoti, occurs in India. She is born with no hope of a dowry. In India daughters are mostly considered a "curse," brought on by their own evil deeds in a previous life. Surviving infanticide, she is given by her grandmother the name Jyoti, meaning "light, brilliance, and radiance." Jyoti is first renamed Jazzy in the U.S. by an American woman while under her care after killing Half-Face and being injured. The name carries a sense of glitz, and still, as with Jyoti, brings to mind bright lights. Jazzy is trained by the American woman to walk and talk like an American in a T-shirt and running shoes. She needs the flashy name in order to abandon her Hasnapur modesty and transform herself into a dynamic American. Through the woman, she meets Taylor, who gives her the names Jase and Jassy and later accepts her as Jasmine. These names, therefore, can be presumed to be Jasmine's designations, because at the end of the story, Taylor writes a letter "addressed to Jasmine Vijh." The name of the addressee suggests that Taylor might accept her as Jasmine. It is with him that she leaves for California as a person "genetically" reborn and embracing an American and Indian persona, as the name Jasmine signifies. Before she feels a sense of true fulfillment, one more and rather essential name, Jane, is presented to her by an Iowan banker, Bud. Jane is the most American name that Jasmine has had. However, as the novel carefully underlines, Jane is not "Plain Jane," a mediocre person without a particular role, but "Calamity Jane," an actual fighter who lived in the past. Bud assigns to her the role of destroyer, or "tornado," as she is called by Bud's ex-wife whose place Jane has taken. At times, she even plays the caregiver role of another Jane, Jane Eyre, with Bud as her own Mr. Rochester. However, all she wants to be is "Plain Jane." That is why she abandons the name accompanied by several roles. To relinquish those roles of Jane and become "Plain Jane," she needs to become a "tornado," and disappear into a "cloud" which takes the form of California.

Jasmine is the most significant of her five names, as it becomes the title of the novel. The name discloses her inner self. Jasmine is a flower with climbing nature. "Climbing" connotes succeeding by taking full advantage of the power of others. Her climbing nature is introduced in the scene where she, as Jane, is called by Bud's ex-wife "a gold digger" (174; 179). In addition, jasmine, the plant, is defined in the Dictionary of Symbols and Imagery as "fragrance," symbolizing female "grace," and "love," "memory" and "separation." The heroine reveals the climbing and enchanting figure that "jasmine" has. Thus, Jasmine, throughout her life under diverse and often changing names, clings to her climbing nature.

In Jasmine's six names, an orderly system can be seen: that is, the letter "J" is used as the initial letter. The identical "J" among her changing names is interpreted to be an implicit sign that shows the heroine is a prophet of "joule," the unit of energy created by force acting through a distance in a particular direction. Here the unit can be simply defined as the energy that gives Jasmine force or power which is applied to changing her names and locations. She creates the energy by her constant movement through various events and adverse circumstances. Mukherjee in an interview emphasized "power" as her obsession, saying that there are different forms of power in her thought: acquiring, exercising and relinquishing power (Connell 21). Jasmine attains power from her renaming by others and gives energy back to her surroundings while moving through protean changes of name. The identical "J" is the sign which indicates the significance of Chaos Theory in the novel's scheme.

In this way, the letter "J" in an indirectly meaningful way indicates the locus of the hidden order in both the novel's chaotic, nonlinear system and the heroine's chaotic behavior, before it finally changes into a "tornado going somewhere." The orderly chaos used in Jasmine's multiple transformations presupposes her initial condition. In Jasmine's case, her initial condition, her negative response of "No!" in India brings on a "tornado" in the U.S., to which she is compared and which she seems to accept in the end. "No!" changes into a "tornado" through the intriguingly simple nonlinear system. This is the Butterfly Effect. In order to corroborate the assumption, the similar impact between "No!" and a "tornado" can be specified; regardless of their outward differences, they both push surroundings or conditions aside. As Gleick shows, whether something is labeled a tornado or a hurricane is just a matter of size imposed by people, when in reality "tumult in the air forms a continuum, from the gusty swirling of litter on a city street corner to the vast cyclonic systems visible from space" (Gleick 108). The function of the "tornado" (Jasmine) in the novel is to "leave a path of destruction" (182), and to reposition her fatal stars. Jasmine utilizes the power of a "tornado." "No!" and a "tornado" act not only negatively but also positively. Negatively, they work as an escape route from the present situation. Positively, they work actively to erase the present condition and restart from ground zero.

In the process of turning Jasmine into a book of "tornado," Mukherjee creates unstable chaotic courses of action through the intricacy of the complex relationships between Jasmine and other characters. She makes the surroundings around Jasmine complicated so that Chaos Theory can effectively serve to interpret the novel, in which diverse ethnic groups and races mingle as in America. Jasmine is given various names as shown above, and in the last scene, pregnant with Bud's baby, she leaves for California where her adopted son Du lives, with Taylor and his adopted daughter from New York. This complicated family relationship which is realized at the very end of the novel represents the "reality" of numerous immigrants who live in an intertwined relationship.

 

5

All of Jasmine's names maintain a pure essence, which is the energy "joule" represents. Jasmine through her climbing nature generates energy by her passage through a series of catastrophes. Her energy is used to uproot herself from place to place, and even to choose which routes she will take in "the tug of opposing forces" (157). Every time she changes her name, she makes heat inside herself and people around her which can be explained by the Joule Effect: the generation of heat by passage through resistance. She uses her accumulated energy especially when she strikes back, such as when Jyoti of Hasnapur moves away from India when her husband is killed, and Jasmine kills Half-Face when he rapes her.

As was mentioned above, Jasmine's initial condition is her negative reply, "No!" which is a cry against her "two" Fates predicted by the astrologer: widowhood and exile. If the rejection of "two" is the original condition, we are able to comprehend why Jasmine should reject various things or concepts related to "two," including "half," which is one divided by "two." In addition to rejecting her "two" Fates, at the end of chapter one, Jasmine touches a dead dog's body, which breaks into "two" with both pieces sinking into the river. This clarifies her thoughts in terms of what she does not want to become. In the next scene, the present Jasmine who lives in Iowa remembers the dead dog from the odor of a glass of water, and this reconfirms what she does not want to become. This can be also the rejection of "two." The rejection of "two" in the two events at the beginning of the novel, allows us to see some order in Jasmine's chaotic behavior.

Furthermore, Jasmine completely erases "two" and "half" twice. First, she kills Half-Face, which signifies the destruction of life's evil half and puts an end to everything related to evil in her own life so as to achieve a complete goodness. Secondly, she makes her own choice out of "two" suggestions by Karin, Bud's ex-wife, "between those who stay and those who leave" (203) with the decision to go westward at the end of the story. Jasmine redefines her determination as "going somewhere" (214), rather than as the process of leaving Bud as Du does. His reasons for leaving Bud are based on his involved desire to reconnect with his Vietnamese sister and thus return to his "Vietnamese-ness." She is acutely aware of his psychological attitude toward being Vietnamese-American. Her commiseration for him could be the main reason why she is reluctant to examine "the delicate thread of his hyphenation" (200). Therefore, she insists that her transformation should be "genetic," that is, not being both Indian and American. In part, she kills Half-Face because he becomes what symbolizes evil in the novel's powerful, intricate and schematic symbolism, for he is "half" and has a hyphenated name. Furthermore, she redefines her own choice "between the promise of America and old-world dutifulness," not as "between men" (213-214). For the first time throughout her transformations, she can afford to accept things related to "two" positively without escaping from them. Before that, she has attempted to flee things with such symbolism. She has escaped from India, slipped away from the murderous scene in Florida, and eluded capture by the terrorist in New York. First she has drawn negative inferences and then rejected them. In the course of completing her transformations, both "two" and "half" have been introduced in a negative context.

There are numerous examples of "between-ness" in the novel and they are often accompanied by a negative incident or sadness. In India, Jasmine feels suspended between the traditional and the new world offered by her Indian husband, Prakash: between controlled and independent love (69), and between the identities of Jyoti and Jasmine (70). Obviously she feels uncomfortable in her dangling situation. After moving to the United States, she often encounters things that are "in between," reflecting the concept of "two." When she leaves Taylor, he is between marriage and separation with his wife who is also between her lover and husband (175). In Iowa, she happens to hear "two" farmers talk about the difference between "horsepower" and "whorepower" (179). Bud, her lover, punches one of them, because it is in reference to her that they made such remarks. The word "whorepower" reminds her of the murder scene of her Indian husband, where the "two" words "Prostitutes! Whores!" (85) are targeted at her. Through these two incidents, it could be said that she is the cause of his death as well as Bud's fight in the bar. This kind of between-ness with "two" issues leads her into distress.

 

6

Jasmine is introduced as a child with arithmetic ability, specifically, her skill in adding (40; 133). She can add quickly in her head, but can not calculate the thirty years' difference in age between herself and Bud "even as a gap" (171). This means her "calculator" is only set for addition, not for subtraction. All her equations must be summations, as is the function of a tornado that takes in everything on its path. In fact, Bud's ex-wife labels Jasmine a "tornado," due to her impact on him, taking him away from her, and the strength and power that she perceives Jasmine to possess. A tornado can change the course of one's life as Jasmine does change the course of the wife's life.

Immigrants, in general, have negative initial conditions; they are obsessed that their origins must be obliterated from their memories in order to assimilate effectively into their new culture. The author of Jasmine treats "two" and a "half" as unfavorable, for they connote the failure of a wholly undivided identity. However, the protagonist in the novel does not have such a "negative" identity as a hyphenated Indian-American who dangles "in between," representing a split identity.

Although the author begins by preparing a "negative" initial condition, she describes the "positive" immigrant identity, which inevitably directs the novel into a dynamically chaotic fabrication. Nevertheless, the readers should not regard the novel as just chaotically broken pieces without any order. The chaotic non-linear system in the novel is designed to reject the simple and digital dichotomy of a linear system. The interconnected Chaos Theory offers us a certain order in a chaotic system. At the same time, this change in approach/way of thinking must surely enlighten us.

 

Notes

1 Most papers on Jasmine argue that the novel presents feminist issues in America, which contrast with sexist notions in India, in connection with American racist views and Indian caste system. In looking at the heroine's metamorphosis, for example, Anu Aneja discusses Jasmine by mingling Western liberal feminism and Third World feminism. Although Aneja attempts to interpret the novel as a version of Third World woman translated into a discourse available to Western liberal feminism, Mukherjee acknowledges there exists a resistance to the Western ideas of feminism throughout her work, and insists that Western liberal and Third World feminist perspectives are completely different with regard to their approach to implementing change (Connell 22).

2 Mukherjee shows examples of exile writers: "Exile's mordant bite is a great comfort of Mr. Naipaul's transportable ironies, of the India-born, Pakistan-raised Salman Rushdie's nostalgic glee, even of Milan Kundera's weary bitterness and I remember how bracing it was to cloak myself in my own Brahminical elegance" ("Immigrant Writing" 28).

 

Works Cited

Aneja, Anu. "Jasmine, the Sweet Scent of Exile." Pacific Coast Philology 28.1 (1993): 72-80.

Connell, Michael, Jessie Grearson, and Tom Grimes. "An Interview with Bharati Mukherjee." The Iowa Review 20.3 (1990): 7-32.

de Vries, Ad. Dictionary of Symbols and Imagery. Amsterdam: North-Holland Publishing Company, 1981.

Gleick, James. Chaos: Making a New Science. New York: Penguin Books, 1987.

Hawkins, Harriett. Strange Attractors. New York: Prentice Hall/Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1995.

Hayles, N. Katherine, ed. Chaos and Order: Complex Dynamics in Literature and Science. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Koshy, Susan. "The Geography of Female Subjectivity: Ethnicity, Gender, and Diaspora." Diaspora 3.1 (1994): 69-84.

Mukherjee, Bharati. "Immigrants and Novels." Newsweek Sept. (1997): 58.

---. Jasmine. New York: Fawcett Crest, 1989.

---. "Immigrant Writing: Give Us Your Maximalists!" The New York Times Book Review 28 Aug. 1988, Sect 7: 1, 28-29.