South Asian Diaspora in Jhumpa Lahiri’s Fiction
Contemporary post-colonial fictions are dealt with the themes of migration, homelessness, loss of identity, rootlessness and exilic experiences. In a broad sense, these themes are the most common themes of Third World, post-colonial and commonwealth literature. Jhumpa Lahiri, the first Indian author to win prestigious Pulitzer Prize in the USA for her collection of short stories “Interpreter of Maladies”, is a second generation Indian writer whose caliber as a diasporic writer is excellent. She is a class herself in revealing diasporic status through her works.
Her stories are the details of immigrant lives, their disappointments, disenchantment, struggles, dreams, assimilations etc. Her characters go through the very implications of marginality and otherness in foreign lands. All the nine stories in ‘The Interpreter of Maladies’ set in America and India, are united by the motifs of exclusion, loneliness, and the search for fulfillment. ‘The Lowland’, Lahiri’s second novel, mainly tells the story of a mother in Diaspora, Gauri and her American born girl, Bela. Cultural hegemony, diasporic crisis, cross-cultural alienation etc fill the novel. In ‘The Namesake’ she describes the lives of two generations of an immigrant Bengali family, the Gangulis in America. It could also be said that in literature of Diaspora, identities of individuals are closely linked to the space that they occupy and negotiate. Jhumpa Lahiri’s fiction, in particular, explores this space-identity link. Her works also showcase international space or ‘the third space’ of Diaspora subjects as the sites of intersection of subjectivities, generations and cultures. These spaces can also be called the ‘contact zones’ – locations where cultures meet in an asymmetrical order. Such spaces not only highlight the geo-territorial reality of migration and Diaspora but also suggest the possibility of a third space that goes beyond the territorial fixity. Works of Jhumpa Lahiri also carry tropes of journey that implicate the urge of subject to go beyond the territorial boundaries to create a distinct cosmopolitan subjectivity in motion. Many characters in her fictions appear as mere tenants of space, suggesting their temporarily in occupying territorial or cultural locations.
Caught in such indeterminate spaces, her characters employ hybridization, a psycho-social strategy to feel at home in their state of homelessness. When this hybridization is examined in the context of the third space of a Diaspora subject, it becomes a device, a strategy to develop cultural contacts in terms of personal interaction, food and rituals. This theoretical paradigm is helpful in considering clothes, language, music, film and food as spatial connectors.
This paper is written to explore how diaspora has become a dominant theme to occupy space in South-Asian literature. I have tried to delineate Lahiri’s talent in handling diaspora in her fictions in the paper. The sufferings, feelings, experiences, ups and downs, weal and woes of diasporic people described in Lahiri’s fictions are intended to show in the paper.
According to the Oxford Advanced Learners’ Dictionary of Current English the word ‘diaspora’ has two meanings. Firstly it means “the movement of the Jewish people away from their own country to live and work in other countries” (Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary.6th ed. Page 347). Secondly (during the modern time) “it means the movement of people from any nation or group away from their own country” (Oxford Advanced Learners’ Dictionary. 6th ed. Page 347). Diaspora literally refers to “dispersal or scattering of a people” (Nelson IX). In that sense any expatriate community can be identified as a diaspora community as well. But one critic Nelson says: “In all its contexts, however the concept of diaspora remains problematic, for it raises complex questions about the meanings of a number of related terms, such as nationality, ethnicity and migrant”(Nelson IX). According to Nelson a “broad definition” of the term ‘diaspora’ is needed (IX). Another critic, William Safran gives a very good definition of ‘diaspora’: …concept of diaspora be applied to expatriate minority communities whose members share several of the following characteristics”: 1) they, or their ancestors have been dispersed from a specific original “center” to two or more “peripheral”, or foreign, regions; 2). They retain a collective memory, vision or myth about their original homeland-its physical location, history, and achievements; 3) they believe that they are not—-and perhaps cannot be— fully accepted by their host society and therefore feel partly alienated and insulated from it; 4) they regard their ancestral homeland as their true, ideal home and as the place to which they or their descendants would (or should) eventually return—- when conditions are appropriate; 5) they believe that they should, collectively, be committed to the maintenance or restoration of their homeland and to its safety and prosperity; and 6) they continue to relate, personally or vicariously, to that homeland in one way or another, and their ethnology communal consciousness and solidarity are importantly defined by the existence of such a relationship. (Safran 83-84) Therefore diaspora or expatriate communities feel alienated in their host country. For this reason they suffer from some kind of identity loss or identity crisis as well. It seems ‘identity’ is an important factor of post-colonial expatriate literature and Lahiri’s stories deal with identity crisis and identity losses. About identity Jhumpa Lahiri stated in an interview: The question of identity is always difficult one, but especially so far for those who are culturally displaced, as immigrants are, or those who grow up in two worlds simultaneously, as is the case for their children. The older I get, the more aware am I that I have somehow inherited a sense of exile from my parents, even though in many ways I am more American than they are. In fact it is still very hard for myself to think as American. For immigrants the challenges of exile, the loneliness, the constant sense of alienation, the knowledge and longing for a lost world, are more explicit and distressing for their children. On the other hand the problem for children of immigrants, those with strong ties to their country of origin, is that they feel neither one thing nor the other. The feeling that there was no single place where I fully belong bothered me growing up. (“A Reader’s Guide for Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies”: Houghton Mifflin Company Web Pages).
The word diaspora was originated from Greek word diaspeirein ‘disperse’, from dia ‘across’+ speirein ‘scatter’ which means the dispersion or spread of any people from their original homeland. Now it is used as an umbrella-term. However, the etymology of the word is now archaic when compared to how multiple fields currently use the term to refer to people and their movement across countries. The once literal meaning of seed dispersal has now become metaphoric, as people either flourish or wither in their new lands depending on their ability to adapt to the foreign social climates. As the world changes through processes of globalization and technology, the movement of people across geographical land becomes more common, and people more easily become the seeds that blow from land to land. By its very nature, diaspora is
a term inclined toward transience. As the physical movement and intangible connections of people across the globe shift, so does the scholarly use of the term to describe such movement. Homi Bhaba in his ‘The Location of Culture (1994)’ talks about ‘in-between’ spaces as ‘terrains for elaborating strategies of selfhood-singular or communal that initiate new signs of identity, and innovative sites of collaboration, and contestation, in the act of defining the idea of society itself….It is in the emergence of the interstices-the overlap and displacement of domains of difference that the inter subjectivity and collective experiences of nation less, community interest, or cultural value are negotiated.’ Cultural theorists and literary critics are all alike in this view:
“The study of world literature might be the study of the way in which cultures recognize themselves through their projections of ‘otherness.’ Where, once, the transmission of national traditions was the major theme of a world literature, perhaps we can now suggest that transnational histories of migrants, the colonized, or political refugees – these border and frontier conditions – may be the terrains of world literature.” (Bhabha12)
“The diasporic production of cultural meanings occurs in many areas, such as contemporary music, film, theatre and dance, but writing is one of the most interesting and strategic ways in which diaspora might disrupt the binary of local and global and problematize national, racial and ethnic formulations of identity.(Ashcroft 218) The multi-voiced migrant novel gave vivid expression to theories of the “open” indeterminate text, or of transgressed, non-authoritative reading.” (Boehmer 243)
“It may be that writers in my position, exiles or emigrants or expatriates, are haunted by some sense of loss, some urge to reclaim, to look back, even at the risk of being mutated into pillars of salt. But if we do look back, we must also do so in the knowledge – which gives rise to profound uncertainties – which our physical alienation from India almost inevitably means that we will not be capable of reclaiming precisely the thing that was lost; that we will, in short, create fictions, not actual cities or villages, but invisible ones, imaginary homelands, Indies of the mind.”
“I think that if one is an intellectual, one has to exile oneself from what has been given to you, what is customary, and to see it from a point of view that looks at it as if it were something that is provisional and foreign to oneself. That allows for independence—commitment—but independence and a certain kind of detachment.” (Said 13)
Diasporic people live and settle in foreign countries. This is why their ‘home’ culture tends to get changed. The host culture is hegemonic and dominates the ‘home’ culture. Therefore, diasporic people gradually start discarding their own culture and assimilate with the new culture living ‘in-between’ spaces. In this regard, ‘lived’ culture is different from ‘home’ culture. Raymond Williams defines this ‘lived’ culture in his ‘Culture and Society(1985) as ‘culture is a record of our reactions in thought and feeling,to the changed condition of our common life’(285). Williams’ another book ‘Marxism and Literature (1977)’ refers ‘lived’ culture as ‘eminent cultures’. He argues that these cultures are alternative or oppositional to ‘residual’ cultures that encompass ‘new meanings and values, new practices, new relationships and kinds of relationship [which] are constantly being created.’ Stuart Hall, a Trinidadian-British cultural theorist on diaspora, ethnicity and identity says, ‘Diaspora (cultural) identities are those which are constantly producing and reproducing themselves anew, through transformation and difference’ (235).
The Lowland (2013) deals with the theme of cultural assimilation ‘in-between’ spaces as well as ‘immigrant experiences’. Subhash and Udayan,two young brothers in the post-colonial era, both the brothers feel exactly the same brotherly attachment in Calcutta.Subhash Mitra from ‘modest,middle class homes’ of Tollygunge, Calcutta leaves home for the United States to pursue his Ph.D degree. Once he starts living there, his feeling for his brother, family and country is decreasing slowly. Initially, he shows his mental resistance to assimilate with American cultural ethos. He met professor Narasimhan, an economics professor from Madras who has married an American woman, Kate. This left a big impression on Subhash’s mind. He wondered that his fellow country man got married with American woman and live here.He thinks about what woman his parents would choose for him. He also dislikes his brother Udayan’s act of love-marriage before him disobeying their parents.
We see when Subhash meets Holly, a Massachusetts born French Canadian nurse his ‘home’ culture gets threatened by ‘living’ culture. Though at the beginning he hesitates to make relation with Holly, he finally comes close to her and engages in sexual relationship. Subhash does not see 10 years gap between them as a matter to think. He takes Holly as his best company. He enters into the mainstream American culture mixing with her. Once he starts to think it will be very difficult for him to go back to Calcutta without Holly. He even dreams of marrying her. The life of Narasimhan was attracting Subhash. He thought of American wife, children etc. and Holly is suitable for him. But suddenly we see Holly stops relationship with him and Subhash did not expect it. He complains her for breaking the relationship.
After Udayan’s murder, Gauri was forced to lead her ascetic like life of a Bengali widow. But from the very beginning Subhash was sympathetic to her. He was very liberal in his thoughts. He supported Gauri defying all odds and prohibitions brought against him. He gave new life to Gauri by marrying her, bringing her to America. He gave her all kinds of freedom there. Gauri too forgets all her ‘home’ culture and assimilates with American culture. She did not wait for Subhash for lunch or dinner like a traditional Indian wife. She was rather busy with her study. Lahiri shows how diaspora influences upon individual through Gauri. Gauri could have been doing like other average Indian women, if she stayed in her own country.
Benedict Anderson’s idea of ‘Imagined Communities’ is true when diasporic people try to keep alive their ‘home’ culture in foreign countries. Subhash, to some extent, tries to do so. He develops many sexual relationships with many American women. Though we see he has a little interest in making such relationships. He actually does all these out of “craving company, he had spent a few nights in a woman’s bed. But he had no interest in a relationship (223).” Subhash at his old age falls in love with Elese Silva, Bela’s history teacher. This gives him ‘homely’ feeling in America. He gets a partner to remove loneliness from his life. Subhash’s mental disconnection with Calcutta is done though he visits to his home Calcutta annually. He is no more different from Gauri as he ‘had walked away from Calcutta just as Gauri had walked away from Bela.’
Lahiri’s characters are likely to discard their ‘home’ culture and assimilate with new American culture. Moushumi Mazoomdar in “The Namesake” and Kaushik in “Unaccustomed
Earth” like Gauri Mitra assimilates with American culture. Gauri’s stubborn attitude to settle in
California has nothing to do with her irresponsibility’s. Gauri was like a thief when she leaves her 11 year old daughter and her second husband, Subhash. He did not deserve such shoch nor did Bela. Subhash was always supporting Gauri. But all she did like a betrayer to fulfill her desire ‘She had California to swallow her, she had wanted to disappear there (233).’She takes California as her only ‘home’. She at a time does not acknowledge Bela as her daughter. She learns German though she cannot change her Indian accentual pattern. She adapts western dress code, academic interests, life style etc. She shows her unconventional sex orientation. We also see her making lesbian relationship shamelessly with Lorna, a graduate student from University of California.
Bela was never forced or asked to follow her native cultural ethos by her parents. But in ‘The Namesake’ Ashima Ganguli always tries to convince her children Gogol Ganguli and Sonali Ganguli to follow their ‘home’ culture. Bela got an uninterrupted upbringing in Rhode Island. She was learning Spanish in her childhood. Her father Subhash never tried to teach her Indian culture. Bels’s private space was never influenced by her parents. She adapts her American dressing code. ‘A tattoo that was like an open cuff above her ankle. A bleached sectionof her hair. A silver hoop in her nose (222).’ She took a job at her 21 and started living alone. She did not even tell her father when she will come again. Subhash accepted all her chosen path which is ‘rootless path’. Her Americanized life helped her choose her life partner, Drew and give birth a daughter, Meghla. When Bela learns from Shubhash about her real father, she refers her father by name like other American children.
In ‘The Lowland’ though Subhash at the beginning tried to keep in mind his ‘home’ culture, he assimilates later with the dominant culture. Gauri never thought about her ‘home’ culture rather she mixes herself with California’s cosmopolitan culture. And the second generation child Bela was totally American in her thoughts and actions.
Leela Gandhi in ‘Post-colonial Theory’ opines that ‘while ‘diaspora’ is sometimes used interchangeably with ‘migration’ it is generally involved as a theoretical device for the interrogation of ethnic identity and cultural nationalism.’ Lahiri’s fictions make the statement true. Her stories include immigrants, the act of migration, the psychological-cultural issues and immigrant experiences. The immigrant experience appears in many folds in ‘The Interpreter of Maladies’. The narrator of ‘The Third and Final Continent’ shows the challenging but smooth transition to a new life. The narrator is optimistic to live in a new country. For Lilia’s parents America is land of wealth and opportunity which were not open to them in India. But, they worry about Lilia’s poor consciousness regarding Indian culture. Again, we see sad life of Mrs Sen’s. She finds no happiness living outside India. To her ‘everything’ is in India. Her willingness to remain with Indian culture, foods and life-style reveal her sense of being not accepted by America.
Born in London to Bengali parents, raised in Rhode Island, and author of several Indian-
American based publications; Jhumpa Lahiri is an obvious candidate for the study of diaspora.
Critics such as Bonnie Zare have credited Lahiri for making new contributions to South Asian
American Literature (99) and Judith Caesar commends Lahiri’s ability to construct images, metaphors, themes, and ideas [that] run both with and counter to the American grain” (American Spaces 57). While it has been pointed out that Lahiri often does not invent new metaphors for cultural identity, she is careful to avoid creating a “villain” in the role of joining a new culture. She circumvents creating characters that fill cliché archetypes such as the dominating, rich white man and the traditional Indian who won’t accept the ways of his new country by creating characters who transcend typical cultural roles. Many of her characters struggle with identity within a diasporic community, but the struggles are all unique to their individual experiences. Her narratives extend beyond the American versus Indian struggle, as evidenced by her inclusion of such short stories as “The Treatment of Bibi Haldar” and “A Real Durwan” in her collection. The Interpreter of Maladies, which do not include any overt evidence of American society. Stories such as these evidence the fact that Lahiri delves into the experiences of the oppressed and excluded, and not just in cultural, but societal terms. Most of the critical analysis of Lahiri’s stories focus either on one small sampling of a story or two or are limited to a narrow criticism or theme. For example, Madhuparna Mitra has elucidated symbolic cultural clashes in “Border Crossings in Lahiri’s ‘A Real Durwan’,” and Judith Caesar has explored metaphors of space in “American Spaces in the Fiction of Jhumpa Lahiri.”
In Lahiri’s fiction the readers are constantly being invited to cross over from India to America alongwith the characters. The Indian immigrants, their achievements, struggles and tensions, and their experiences are nicely portrayed by Lahiri in her fictions. Her third book
‘Unaccustomed Earth’ is different from other works because its characters are the children of immigrants. In general, Lahiri’s characters who rely too heavily on homeland nostalgia and the characters that look only toward progressing in diasporic space are unsuccessful in finding a space for their own identity. Lahiri is careful to emphasize the point that characters must work equally within the contexts of their diasporic space. However, this does not mean that Lahiri’s stories are simplified or too optimistic. In fact, her mixture of third and first person narrations reveal a complicated process of self-construction: it is inherently personal, yet characters cannot avoid interacting with others during the process. The majority of her stories are written in third person, with subtle shifts in perspective between characters, a tendency that empowers certain characters at crucial thematic moments. The less used first-person narratives always reveal the learning process of a character attempting to situate the self within a social context. The switching perspectives within and between Lahiri’s stories do not necessarily emphasize a clash between voices about the home and diaspora, but rather a clash within voices about home and diaspora. The multiplicity of the voices, even within singular characters, emphasizes the personal process of identity construction within a populated, diasporic space.Unaccustomed Earth is divided in two parts – the first part, holding five stories and the second one, with three. What binds the stories and the two parts together is the thematic of an alien space or the space of the host nation. The very title of the collection which is drawn from Nathaniel Hawthorn’s story,
“The Custom-House,” prefigures the troubles of migrant subjects in finding roots in an alien land. Jhumpa Lahiri amplifies the formulation of Hawthorn that human beings, like plants cannot flourish if they are replanted into unaccustomed earth. Subsequently, in all her stories the metaphors of root and plant suggest prominently the trans-located status of Diaspora subjects. The first story that yields the title for the book is a diasporic saga involving three generations –Ruma, her parents and her son, Akash. These three generations of people, though feel varying degree of comfort in the United States, share to some extent the collective trauma of dislocation. The story begins with a brief description of Ruma’s father’s routine after his retirement. This description is dense with the tropes of journey that suggest the travel obsession of the character and his diasporic unbelongingness.By presenting alternatively the relationship of Ruma and her father to geo-territorial locations, Lahiri tries to prove how differently a female subject and a male subject experience Diaspora existence. The story ‘Only Goodness’ deals with the problem of second generation in America. Rahul, bright son drops out and becomes alcoholic. He tells Sudha, his sister that ‘Baba(father) left India to get rich. ’Rahul is a victim of bullying, race and otherness in America what his papents fail to understand. ‘A Choice of Accommodation’ deals with the theme of extreme alienation between the generations.
Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies tells stories of different South Asian diaspora communities. Most of the characters of Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies have fluid (which means a substance that can flow) identities like other contemporary postcolonial literary characters. As in most cases they are citizens of two countries (their first country and their new country). So their national and cultural identities are not fixed. Their identities are more fluid. On the one hand they belong to South Asia but on the other hand they are living in the United States.
While some characters bodies are in the USA their minds are in South Asia. Some characters have been absorbed into the American society but their identities are still attached with their South Asian origin. These stories deal with people who left their homelands in the South Asian subcontinent for different reasons. After that they lived in their new home (in most stories the United States) for a considerable amount of time. Despite living in a foreign land for a considerable amount of time, their identities are connected directly or indirectly with their old homelands. The opening story “A Temporary Matter” portrays an ontological condition dealing with the conjugal crisis of a young couple –Shoba and Shukumar. The Americanized Bengali couple exhibits the trends of typical post-colonial diaspora where the characters carry different socio-geographical identities with them. The second story is set again in Boston. The readers are introduced to Mr. Pirzada. He is from Dacca. The story has the civil war in Pakistan as well as the birth of Bangaladesh as a free state (in 1971) as the backdrop. Mr. Pirzada befriends a Bengali family in Boston. He seemed to be disturbed as his family stayed in Dacca. Sexy” the fifth story of this collection depicts Miranda, a young energetic American who falls in love with Dev, a married Bengali banker. This story again highlights weak conjugal ties. Mrs. Sen, in the story named after her, has a distinctive as well as individualistic speech: “Everyone, this people, too much in their world” –her impression of America. Simple household activities in India are mentioned in this story with accuracy. This story projects the difficulties faced by Indian wives in a foreign culture. A sense of alienation pre-occupies the hearts of people culturally as well as geographically cut off from their homeland.
In Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel The Namesake the Bengali diasporic community in Boston religiously celebrate Durga puja and Saraswati puja. But for characters like Ashima such celebrations are less about religion and more about rejuvenation of the link with the old world – the home they have left behind. Ashima’s life in exile is eased by the spiritual frenzy brought about by religious festivities. On the other hand, Gogol and Sonia, who are born and brought up totally in the West, find their parents’ spiritual leanings intensifying their exilic condition. Their self-fashioning as Westerners receives a jolt each time they encounter certain aspect of their ancestry either corporal or spiritual. Sometimes the second-generation migrants revolt against their ambivalent position. The Gangulis celebrate “with progressively increasing fanfare, the birth of Christ, an event the children look forward to far more than the worship of Durga and
Saraswati” (Lahiri,Namesake 64). But once Sonia, in one of her growing-up years, refused her
Christmas gifts after taking a Hinduism class in college, “protesting that they weren’t Christians”
In Lahiri’s short story “This Blessed House”, Twinkle fervently collects the Christian paraphernalia left behind by the previous occupier of the house that is newly procured by her husband Sanjeev. For Sanjeev, his wife’s idea is outlandish. When Twinkle finds a “plaster Virgin Mary as tall as their waists, with a blue painted hood draped over her head in the manner of an Indian bride” (Lahiri, Interpreter146) she decides to put it on the lawn to the shock of her husband:
“Oh God, no. Twinkle, no.”
“But we must. It would be bad luck not to.”
“All neighbors will see. They’ll think we’re insane.”
“Why, for having a statue of the Virgin Mary on our lawn? Every other person in this neighborhood has a statue of Mary on the lawn. We’ll fit right in.”
“We’re not Christians.”
“So you keep reminding me.” (Lahiri, Interpreter146)
For Twinkle, her external exilic state suppresses her internal spiritual exile by giving her an alternative mode of belonging – to “fit right in.” Twinkle’s relic hunt in her newly possessed house provides her a mental connection with the past of the house to secure her sense of belonging. Salman Rushdie says that “the broken pots of antiquity, from which the past can sometimes, but always provisionally, be reconstructed, are exciting to discover, even if they are pieces of the most quotidian objects” (Rushdie, Imaginary12). Though in Twinkle’s case the objects discovered are not exactly common and have no relation to her past, they still bring peace to her mind. Whereas, Sanjeev’s psyche closes options for him, taking him to a spiritual isolation compounded by his external displacement. The psychological buildup of each migrant is different and hence the varied responses to a similar situation.
Jhumpa Lahiri reveals the very experiences and psychological issues of migrated people.
Her fictions are not the mere fictions rather these are the documentaries of diaspora community. She is a perfect interpreter of a cultural multiplicity. Lahiri’s stories are perceptive critique of human relationships, bonds and commitments that one has to make with homeland as well as with the migrated land. A sense of alienation pre-occupies the hearts of people culturally as well as geographically cut off from their homeland. A sense of loss runs all through her stories. Her stories establish interpersonal bond without bondage. South-Asian literature, in the field of diaspora, is undoubtedly enriched by Lahiri’s contribution. Her characters and stories are made realistically fantastic to deal the theme of diaspora. Lahiri portrays excellently the lives of people who are living in ‘in-between’ space, their alienation. Her stories can lead us to think deeply before going to assimilate with other community leaving our own homelands.
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