Reveal: An Exploration of “the Secret” as a Literary Device
A word that shapes an incredible amount of parallel speculation, in literature and in life, is the word “secret.” It’s a word that stimulates excitement among readers, presenting information that the characters may not be privy to, allowing the audience to be “in the know,” before the plot unravels. Secrets can drive the plot, form connection, and even reveal hidden things about the author. Definitions and synonyms for this word are numerous, and it should be noted that the true meaning of “secret,” can be found by looking no further than the two actions synonymous with it: keeping or telling. When a secret is bestowed upon trusting ears or eyes, a certain obligation is placed in probable confidence of the keeper. This “knowing,” which will be further speculated in the analysis of “the secret,” creates either a problem or an opportunity for the secret’s keeper. Particular influence and strain come in equal measure not only for women who keep secrets, but also men. This is perfectly illustrated in Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, a collection of short stories full of many kinds of secrets.
It is unofficially, socially presumed that in the very DNA of a woman lies gossip, the temptation to divulge secrets that don’t belong to you, and the choice to either keep safe or exploit your hidden truth. From a writer’s standpoint, there perhaps is nothing stronger than choosing to create an avenue for telling a secret; either one specific to the character, or one of your own. Secrets somehow create a sense of purpose for the writer and the character, a device that provides a nudge or push over the edge the development of the story may need. The conclusive purpose of this paper is to prove the validity of the secret as a literary device as demonstrated through Interpreter of maladies.
Lahiri is the Indian American author responsible for Maladies, a text that provides abundant speculation on how secrets are written, interpreted and received. Lahiri made the choice before penning any of these stories that it would start or end with a secret, an action that is held on to, regardless if the information has been leaked, or assumed. Just the simple, thoughtless idea of a secret is one that requires a certain kind of commitment, one that rests on the shoulders of the author and her character. This is a critical move as the entire idea centering around a secret is the inevitable interpretation and aftermath. The “knowing,” mentioned before is the recognition of sacred or treasured information, the moment that comes before the literal interpretation of the matter at hand, whatever it may be.
Why is “secret,” a phase literary declarations have to go through? If it is inherently good news, progresses the plot, is something to be celebrated, why can’t secrets just bypass the silent stage and transcend immediately in to celebration? Or if it’s tragic, validated news, or news worth sharing, or words that may keep your fellow man out of harm – either physically or emotionally – why is it necessary to enclose our thoughts? Because we’re wired to be judgmental, and writers have the tools to control what their readers think. By making the secret that of the character, the author seemingly escapes investigation. Writers have control of harmatia, an Aristotelian device for imparting a sense of pity and fear on to the audience. Grace Tiffany, of Western Michigan University reflects on an article commenting on Shakespeare’s use of harmatia in King Lear:
“Brown’s discussion of how suffering leads to the softening of Gloucester and Lear goes over mostly familiar ground, but he provides some novel commentary on Gloucester’s response to Edgar’s argument that men are meant to bear their sufferings, “And that’s true, too.” Many (well, I) have thought this line simple evidence of Gloucester’s vague listlessness after his failed suicide attempt. But Brown argues cogently that the line “embodies a key piece of hard-won wisdom”: the insight, learned through suffering, “that the world is not a simple place … that truth is a complicated and multifaceted thing.” (Tiffany, 91)
If this can be established, the reader will begin to make their own assumptions about where the story is headed, silently deal with what an underlying secret will do to the characters, and predict how the characters will make their choices, thus making the outcome ironic regardless of what’s written.
In the case of Shoba, from Lahiri’s A Temporary Matter in Interpreter of Maladies, the secret is unknown until nearly the end of the short story, a perfect way to build up the intensity of the secret, regardless if the notion of a secret had been detected or blindly missed. Shoba’s intention to leave isn’t technically made clear until she plainly says, “ ‘I want you to see my face when I tell you this,’ she said gently…’I’ve been looking for an apartment and I’ve found one.’” (Lahiri, 21) Though this is as barefaced as it gets, it can absolutely be speculated in earlier parts of the text that Shoba is seeking other avenues to find fulfillment in life, though the thought can’t be truly be supported with what Lahiri leaves out.
This moment is a prime example of the acknowledgment that something is being left untold; deliberate, layered, well hidden secrets that will only weave together in the end. Throughout the story, we get bits and pieces of Shoba: her methodical ways of preparing food, grading papers; her seemingly rigid routine of work, gym, eat, sleep, repeat. The reader is so focused on the observations provided by Shoba’s husband, Shukumar, that maybe those distant descriptions are a silent whisper that perhaps, Shoba does indeed have other plans. Intimate details are missed in the mundanely unhappy, so much so that it is impossible to see what’s layered there until it is revealed. Shoba’s secret was blatant unhappiness after her marriage became too broken to fix. Too much space existed between the secrets – belonging to both Shoba and Shukumar- and the strength it would take to part the lips and speak the words was too great. Though, once the words were said, the moment of knowing passed and the action of interpretation was quick.
“Shukumar stood up and stacked his plate on top of hers. He carried the plates to the sink, but instead of running the tap, he looked out the window. Outside the evening was still warm, and the Bradfords were walking arm in arm. As he watched the couple the room went dark, and he spun around. Shoba had turned the lights off.”
This particular frame of secret-keeping raises the question: What social constructs force women to defy their truth and oblige social obedience? Shoba did not come to her decision to leave quickly. Throughout the story we’re told about the loss of the child, the endless grading and work, the constant preparation of fresh meals, which only served the purpose of becoming leftovers: keys to unlocking the secret of Shoba’s unhappiness. Until the last few lines of the story, the reader can only speculate what will unfold. A common presumption, it seems, is that the two finish their dinner in silence, in the dark, and continue about their strange, strained, married life. That the utterance of the secret evaporated the heaviness in to thin air, taking the distance between Shoba and Shukumar with it. That prediction is not only the reason why society forces women to believe in the fairy-tale, it misses the feminist mark completely. Shoba’s choice for darkness was pointed, she was raising her voice at the only volume she knew Shukumar could hear. The revelation, that was her secret, was the key to her freedom.
“In a patriarchal society, a woman’s fear and helplessness when faced with freedom may be a result of long-term oppression. But in depicting such feelings, it is unlikely that the author would direct irony at “freedom” itself, certainly not to the point of depicting freedom as an invading monster-like ghost that comes to “possess” the woman against her will.” (Shen, 121)
No, Lahiri bypasses Kate Chopin’s reinvention of Mr. Mallard and leaves Shukumar to deal with his own secrets in the text. A strategic, ironic, contrasting move considering the audience has been bated to dislike Shukumar based on lackadaisical descriptions that indicate he’s not invested in his marriage.
The brilliant choice Lahiri makes to give Shukumar a heart wrenching secret of his own is truly an exceptional one and overwhelming for the reader; a double-whammy that illustrates secrets are often heavier because of the amazing weight of guilt.
“He had held his son, who had known life only within her, against his chest in a darkened room in an unknown wing of the hospital. He had held him until a nurse knocked and took him away, and he promised himself that day that he would never tell Shoba, because he still loved her then, and it was the one thing in her life that she had wanted to be a surprise.” (Lahiri, 22)
The secrets seem to be on slightly less than equal playing ground here, though it was slightly underhanded for Shukumar overwrite Shoba’s news with his own. Once secrets are out, there’s no returning from the other side of the veil; you cannot reverse knowledge. The couple has established longevity in the grieving of their secrets, the letting go of conversations in the dark, and acknowledgment of the uncertainty of what comes next. Lahiri clearly answers the question of, “yeah, but did they stay together?” by ending the story in the dark. That’s where secrets begin and end.
An additional story that should be noted is Lahiri’s When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine. Mr. Pirzada himself is a mystery to everyone in his life, but particularly to Lilia, he is a walking secret of sorts. In the story, Mr. Pirzada seems to represent the unknown in the world, the universal curiosity of why things happen loudly and end without a whisper. Lahiri doesn’t disappoint with the shaping of this mysterious man with such curious habits.
“Before eating, Mr. Pirzada always did a curious thing. He took out a silver watch without a band, which he kept in his breast pocket, held it briefly to one of his tufted ears, and wound it with three swift flicks of his thumb and forefinger.” (Lahiri, 30)
Though his moment in Lilia’s life was brief, it seemed to ignite something in her, a feel of wonder that only mysterious, secretive things can deliver; a vehicle only the enigma of the unknown can supply.
Interpreter of Maladies, the short story that gives life to the name of Lahiri’s novel, is perhaps the most enlightening of them all. Mr. Kapasi has to spend a day driving a family to Konarak to see the Sun Temple. He is surprised by the distance between the family members, “They were all like siblings, Mr. Kapasi thought as they passed a row of date trees. Mr. and Mrs. Das behaved like an older brother and sister, not parents.” (Lahiri, 49) From his view, the reader gets an obstructed view of the Das family as a unit, creating more interest in Mrs. Das than she really deserves.
“He could smell a scent on her skin, like a mixture of whiskey and rosewater. He worried suddenly that she could smell his perspiration, which he knew had collected beneath the synthetic material of his shirt. He polished off his mango juice in one gulp and smoothed his silver hair with his hands. A bit of juice dripped on to his chin. He wondered if Mrs. Das had noticed.” (Lahiri, 55)
It’s clear that Mr. Kapasi is taken and mystified by Mrs. Das’ entire persona, mesmerized by the fact that she thinks his job is “romantic.” (Lahiri, 50) He secretly keeps the family out longer by extending their tour, with the hope for a stolen moment alone with Mrs. Das. This is the moment Mr. Kapasi should have seen what was being revealed to him, but that’s the beauty of dramatic irony: without an honest moment of suspense, the momentous flash is missed by closed eyes. The audience must be wide-eyed.
The focus in this short story is simple: what do others’ secrets tell us about ourselves? Things we did not know or dismiss, things we couldn’t possibly let go of now that we do. Mr. Kapasi instantly has to let go of the hope for the letters and pictures and memories to come when Mrs. Das reveals her secret:
“Together, through the windshield, Mrs. Das and Mr. Kapasi watched as Bobby and the monkey passed the stick back and forth between them.
‘A brave little boy,’ Mr. Kapasi commented.
‘It’s not so surprising,’ Mrs. Das said.
‘He’s not his.’
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘Raj’s. He’s not Raj’s son.’ Mr. Kapasi felt a prickle on his skin. He reached into his shirt pocket for the small tin of lotus-oil balm he carried with him at all times, and applied it to three spots on his forehead. He knew that Mrs, Das was watching him, but he did not turn to face her. Instead he watched as the figures of Mr. Das and the children grew smaller, climbing up the steep path, pausing every now and then for a picture, surrounded by a growing number of monkeys. ‘Are you surprised?’ The way she put it made him choose his words with care. ‘It’s not the type of thing one assumes,’ Mr. Kapasi replied slowly. He put the tin of lotus-oil balm back in his pocket. ‘No, of course not. And no one knows, of course. No one at all. I’ve kept it a secret for eight whole years.’ She looked at Mr. Kapasi, tilting her chin as if to gain a fresh perspective. ‘But now I’ve told you.’ Mr. Kapasi nodded. He felt suddenly parched, and his forehead was warm and slightly numb from the balm.” (Lahiri, 62)
In an instant Mrs. Das completely shatters the illusion that Mr. Kapasi has held in his mind, and that’s ironic. The amount of irony that exists between the space of bury something or bringing it to light is nearly comical, should the audience choose to agree to that sort of device. Lahiri’s use of irony in this story only aids to highlight what the reader is seeing from the beginning of the story: not everything is as it appears.
Irony as a literary device is often tricky and takes skill to execute. Are secrets ironic? Is it ironic to pen personal secrets in to personal writing? Does that make the characters too real, too like their creator? In a simple answer, no. The ironic connections that may or may not exist between an author and her characters is purely left to the interpretive phase of the text. Literature isn’t always simplified for its audience.
“Irony initiates (more precisely, takes place in) an infinite movement – perhaps regress, perhaps progress – that violates the supposed boundaries of every context in which it appears: it is irony that irony affirms, not just this or that single turn. Thus, irony discloses its purpose not in its individual assertions or truths but in the common manner of their rendering; in this sense, irony is an adverb, not a noun – insatiable in its appetite in a way that ‘persons, places or things,’ could not be even if they imagined or willed that state.” (Lang, 571)
What Lang is stating here is that Mrs. Das could never be those things Mr. Kapasi envisioned she was. It means that whatever attachment and dreams Lilia had for Mr. Pirzada was dazzlingly wrong. It validates that Shoba and Shukumar would find a peaceful ending only in their separation.
Lahiri blatantly reveals pieces of herself in each of these stories; she tells her audience secrets in ways that empower her. The New Yorker’s interview, “At Home with Jhumpa Lahiri,” is a brief moment with Lahiri in which she opens up about the writing process for her, revealing more secrets. She states that, “it’s a very mysterious process, at least for me. I still don’t understand how I write a story or a book.” She concisely speaks on how her loneliness during childhood influenced her, and eventually gifted her with a better understanding that she wasn’t alone in those feelings. “That’s the enormous power of literature; that you can write out of such a specific place, and yet it’s really about entering other people’s consciousness.” Is that what we do when we interpret someone’s secret? Briefly enter their consciousness and determine what makes this secret worth containing? The secret could be the most important literary device of all, and is perhaps the most dismissed because of its capability to vary in magnitude and mass. Lahiri could have taken any other path with her story lines, but each piece of Interpreter of maladies, as a whole, requires some uncovering, some patience before the big reveal.
Writers have the capability of disguising all of the ugly parts with prettier secrets and story lines than their own; the words camouflage loneliness and curiosity with mystery and wonder. However, the unraveling of a secret, in literature and life, has the power to erupt our narratives at any time, revealing our naked truth.
Lahiri, J. (1999). Interpreter of maladies. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Lang, Berel. “The Limits of Irony.” New Literary History, vol. 27, no. 3, 1996, pp. 571–588.
Shen, Dan. “Non-Ironic Turning Ironic Contextually: Multiple Context-Determined Irony In “The
Story Of An Hour”.”Journal Of Literary Semantics 38.2 (2009): 115-130. Literary Reference
Center. Web. 7 Dec. 2016.
Tiffany, Grace. “The importance of being inflexible.” Shakespeare Newsletter, Winter 2008, p. 91.
Accessed 7 Dec. 2016.
“At Home with Jhumpa Lahiri.” Interview by Sky Dylan-Robbins. YouTube. The New Yorker, 26 Sept.
2013. Web. 03 Dec. 2016.