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New Yorker Fiction Reviews: "The Judge's Will" by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

Each week I review the short fiction from the latest issue of The New Yorker. However, since the issue comes out on Monday, and I get it any time between Wednesday and Saturday, sometimes the reviews are a bit late...

The New Yorker has been on a bit of a mini-streak lately, publishing a lot of short stories concerning far-flung locations (not always by people from those locations, however); in recent weeks we've had Afghanistan, London, and now--with the late (and I mean late; she apparently died a few days after this story was published in the NYer. God rest her soul) Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's "The Judge's Will"--we have India. Great thing about these kinds of stories is they open your eyes to a new culture while also taking you into the depths (however deep) of the characters' internal lives.

As as a reader, you're not only immersing yourself into the author's world and the character's world, but into the new and foreign place in which the story is set. Furthermore, the very act of reading about a foreign land, trying to process that setting and it's "otherness," causes you to pay closer attention and makes you a more active reader. And the best part is, unless a story is about your home town, it's always going to be somewhat foreign! Hence why it's fun to read good books...

(For writers, let this be a note of caution not to make your stories "placeless," unless you're able to map the territory of your characters' subconscious so well that you don't need to rely on setting at all. And if you can do that, you don't need to be taking my two cents worth of advice.)

Now for the review (finally!) time for synopsis. In the setting of an upper class (or at least upper middle class) Indian family whose head, The Judge, is in ill-health and close to death, the story deals with weighty and universal topics like marriage, infidelity, class, and facing ones own mortality, and not so universal ones like the relationship between a wife and her husband's long-time mistress, that same wife and her extremely, awkwardly close relationship with her 35 year old son, who still lives at home (trust me, their closeness (no incest either) would make Freud's head explode. The good doctor's name is even mentioned in the story a few times).

In this story we have a jumble of frustrated love relationships tangled and twisted around a rigid framework of class divisions and gender roles which seem to make real, openly-expressed and genuine love impossible. And so the characters show their love for one another in odd, stilted, and sometimes off-putting ways that we as Westerners probably don't understand:

*The Judge's mistress of 25 years takes on many of the duties which would normally be performed by a Wife, while his wife (much younger) and he have an icy relationship pickled by formalities and the gender expectations of their class.

*Therefore the Wife, giving no love and getting no love from her husband, puts all of her capacity for energy, doting, and attention, onto her son whom, at 35, still lives at home and has never been married. Their relationship is far more like husband and wife than the actual husband and wife of the story; they tell each other the daily details of their lives, they argue, and they need each other in a very real way.

Class seems to determine so much about these characters' lives. Though the Wife's relationship to the Judge seems perfunctory and formal, it doesn't seem too far out of line with what's expected in this culture. The Wife isn't even shocked or hurt when she learns of the Judge's mistress. She, in fact, sort of befriends the woman and uses the resources of her household to help care for the woman. The Wife, you see, is not incapable of love and caring, it's just that the conventions of her class and culture dictate that the daily, mundane, and truly defining performances of domestic love (communication, service, sex, etc.) are considered "beneath" a woman of the Wife's class. However, those are the things that tend to bring people closer together.

In many ways this is a sad story, a snapshot of lives whose emotional development gets twisted and stunted by class obligations, gender codes, and inherited modes of performance they don't truly understand and can't possibly understand, and don't especially try to understand.


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