“The Boundary”
by Jhumpa Lahiri
translated from the Italian by the author
from the January 29, 2018 issue of The New Yorker

I am a big fan of Jhumpa Lahiri’s work, particularly her debut story collection Interpreter of Maladies (particularly the first story in that collection “A Temporary Matter”; some of my thoughts here). I was a bit sad when a few years ago she announced she was moving to Italy and would be writing in Italian from here on out. She took this seriously. In 2015, she published In altre parole, which she wrote in Italian. When the book came out in English in 2016 as In Other Words it was translated by Anne Goldstein.

While writing in Italian, though, she came to know Domenico Starnone. She fell in love with his book Ties and decided to translate it into English (Ties is a very good book, which I reviewed here). She states in her interview with Cressida Leyshon (here) that “[t]ranslating Starnone has been fundamental to my recent creative journey,” and “the first time I wanted to work again in English after barricading myself behind Italian, and this has restored a sense of equilibrium.”

We are the beneficiaries of this restored equilibrium. Lahiri is a fine writer, and it’s nice to have her delicate English sentences. Now, not only will we get more of her translating work later this year when Europa Editions publishes Starnone’s Trick, but we have this new short story, “The Boundary.” Lahiri still seems to be avoiding new work in English, and actually wrote “The Boundary” in Italian and then translated it into English herself. Lahiri explains well how the practice of translating, even her own work, has affected her; I highly recommend reading her interview with Leyshon.

I plan on reading the story over lunch today and look forward to it very much. I also look forward to hearing your thoughts, so please feel free to comment below, as always!

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By |2018-01-22T14:59:28-04:00January 22nd, 2018|Categories: Jhumpa Lahiri, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |49 Comments


  1. Archer January 22, 2018 at 6:42 pm

    In Other Words is a fascinating book. It’s essentially a memoir about Lahiri’s journey to becoming fluent, and eventually translating/writing, in Italian. I can’t think of another contemporary example of a writer reinventing herself in this way. I was mildly appreciative of Lahiri’s novels and stories (never a huge fan), but I feel like she’s become more interesting in Italian, and this story is an example of that.

    Her prose is even more pared-down, but there’s something powerful and suggestive in understatement. There’s a slight undercurrent of menace throughout (the visitors intruding on the home, the watchfulness of the teenage protagonist, the killing of the flies!), but the act of violence is actually from the past (an attack on the father). Lahiri is not precise about time or place, instead bringing her themes to the forefront: rural vs. urban spaces, privileged vs. underprivileged, and (a running theme in all her work) the concept of exile and otherness. I liked it.

  2. David January 22, 2018 at 9:48 pm

    I liked the writing in this story, but I am not convinced the story really has anything new to offer. The relationship between locals and vacationers, citizens and immigrants have been very thoroughly explored and I don’t see much new here on either of those fronts. I was reminded as I read this of the beginning of Tender Is The Night and how it uses similar contrasts. But with this short story I don’t see that it led to any place special.

  3. SM January 22, 2018 at 10:16 pm

    Is it just hypocrisy practiced and getting called out, or is there something more between the mother and the girl? That might be an interesting direction

  4. Trevor Berrett January 23, 2018 at 11:59 pm

    I’m with David on this one. The writing is very nice, with all of its simplicity. I really enjoyed the almost tangible feel of “the barrier” that Lahiri evokes throughout. However, I also didn’t sense much beyond that, though I did enjoy the image at the end, of the woman having written about the girl and her family, all while she was writing about the woman and her family.

  5. Dennis Lang January 25, 2018 at 4:31 pm

    Did this story “have anything new” to offer? I don’t have the slightest idea.
    But I found it deeply moving and evocative.

  6. Jerome Harlan January 26, 2018 at 12:50 am

    I agree with Dennis. It was an exquisite and moving story. Every story under the sun has already been written and the more time goes by ithe less “new” there will be to write or experience beside a singular voice, which Ms. Lahiri had before and still does now. These are the 2 most common responses on here: nothing new and sentimental. Thank goodness someone will openly acknowledge being moved as being part of the experience of reading a short story.

  7. David January 26, 2018 at 9:21 am

    Jerome, I acknowledge being moved when I am. With this story, I was not. You might think it is a lazy criticism to say “nothing new”, but it is a lazier defense to say “all stories have been written so nothing is ever new”. It’s also a false claim. I am excited all the time by things I read that really are new. Sure, if you only look at a story at the very most general level of abstraction you can probably find some broad category it fits into that has been “done before”, but when you look more carefully at a story, the good ones will tell you something new or tell you something in a new way. Writing isn’t just re-writing. I bet there are no serious writers who would think your claim is a good defense of their own work. They strive for more than just re-writing the familiar.
    The recent kerfuffle over the plagiarism-or-not-plagiarism of Mavis Gallant is a good example. For many people the question of whether the Shepard story was problematic hinged on the question of whether she had just copied the story structure and characters from Gallant or whether she changed / added enough that was new and different to make it a new story with merits of its own. Originality matters. Newness matters.
    When someone’s defense of a story is that “every story under the sun has already been written” so you can’t expect anything that counts as “new” in a story, they either are just admitting that this one lacks real creativity on the author’s part (and thus agreeing with the criticism they were seeming to want to refute) or else they are giving an argument for why there is no point ever reading a story you have not already read (an absurd idea). Because if every story has already been told and so there will be nothing new in any story I have not read, why not just re-read the ones I already know I like?
    If you don’t care that this story offered nothing new that’s fine. If you were moved by the story that’s great. But I did care and I wasn’t. It was well written, but left me with an “is that all there is?” reaction. That is a legitimate assessment as well.

  8. Jerome Harlan January 26, 2018 at 1:56 pm

    All generalizations are lazy and so very many are made here. What is new to me may not be new to you. I guess I just grew tired of “nothing new” as the default dismissal here. Carry on.

  9. David January 26, 2018 at 5:52 pm

    Jerome? You do know that the sentence “all generalizations are lazy” is itself a generalization, right?
    Also, you now seem to be claiming that this story *was* new to you, yet previously you claimed that every story has already been written. Sounds like a pretty clear contradiction.

  10. Avataram January 27, 2018 at 7:00 am

    I chose not to write a comment as Archer’s comment says all I wanted to say and says it better. I loved the story. I am just surprised at David’s need to browbeat people who don’t agree with him into submission. Maybe Mookse should intervene when a commenter becomes a bully.

  11. David January 27, 2018 at 8:47 am

    Avataram, Jerome’s comment both accused me of making a generic and lazy criticism and of being dishonest in not reporting my real reaction. If he misspoke, then he is free to clarify. But if that is what he meant, then my response is just that – a response to make clear that neither of those things is the case. That is not bullying. There is a world of difference.

  12. Avataram January 27, 2018 at 9:12 am

    David, everyone here is commenting on the story, not on you. I don’t see any accusations here at all, except imagined ones. I enjoy Mookse because of its wonderful posts, intelligent comments and gentle ribbing. It is a wonderful place where everyone reads, as compared to a world where no one reads at all. It is best to keep it a place where more comments are invited, diverse viewpoints encouraged, and commenters are respected. Maybe it is best to keep it that way?

  13. David January 27, 2018 at 10:22 am

    Avataram, like I said, if Jerome has been misrepresented, he is free to say so. But he hasn’t said that. In fact, if anything he has confirmed that he was saying that the criticism I gave was, in his view, a lazy one (which is a personal criticism) when he said “All generalizations are lazy and so very many are made here”. (Note that in that sentence he seems to broaden his criticism to not just me personally, but to people who make comments here generally – it seems he thinks many of us are lazy in our criticisms, like possibly Trevor, who basically agreed with my criticism of this story.)
    Also, in his original comment he wrote, “Thank goodness someone will openly acknowledge being moved as being part of the experience of reading a short story.” Why would one have to be so thankful that “someone” will “acknowledge” being moved unless one thinks that others refuse to acknowledge it? If you did not think others were not faithfully reporting their emotional responses and merely appreciated Denis doing so, you would say something more like “Thank-you for sharing your emotional response”. There would be no need to phrase it as Jerome did unless he were criticizing others. My reply to that was not an attack but to make it clear that I do acknowledge being moved when I am and this story didn’t do it. He accused me (and others) of dishonestly denying their emotional responses. I replied that this was not true.
    Here is what happened: I made a critical comment of the story. Jerome made a critical comment of me personally in disagreeing with my assessment. I replied that his criticisms were unfounded. How you see this as me being the one making personal attacks is odd.

  14. Trevor Berrett January 27, 2018 at 10:36 am

    I’ll be honest, I don’t see where David has crossed any invisible line I’ve got in mind. Then again, I’m someone who griped about the story a bit, as much as I liked aspects of it.

    I am on holiday and often without any ability to read comments this week, but when I read Dennis’s comment I wanted to thank him for pointing out that regardless of anything “new” the story still has the ability to touch someone. But for me (and I assume others, or at least one other) I finished the story and thought, okay, that was well done but it did something I’ve seen several times before, and I wish it had pushed me to consider something I hadn’t before, or to consider this situation from a different perspective. I think it’s a valid criticism.

    Jerome, of course, is allowed to criticize that reaction. I’m especially glad he expressed his gratitude that someone — Dennis and Archer — were willing to express that the story moved them. I’m glad to know that those of us who are dismissive of the story may be doing so out of habit and need to get over the “it’s not new” criticism. But, though I have been considering it, I also don’t agree with Jerome. Stories do new things all of the time. I am disappointed by “The Boundary,” in part because it is so well done in one aspect that I wanted more. I hope there is more. I hope that if there isn’t perhaps I can come around to enjoy the virtues that are there.

    I do expect a high level of respect on this site, and it’s certainly not always what I’d like, but what I don’t want is for folks to feel they cannot express 1) their genuine feelings about a story (e.g., it didn’t do anything new; or, I loved it anyway) and 2) their genuine reaction to someone else’s comment (e.g., I’m tired of the “it didn’t do anything new”). I really don’t think anyone should go to the penalty box here.

    That said, I’m ready to get back to the story!

  15. David January 27, 2018 at 10:45 am

    Thanks for your comment, Trevor. I’m ready now for a new story on Monday, when Jeffrey Eugenides returns to the pages of The New Yorker … for the first time in four years….

  16. avataram January 27, 2018 at 7:26 pm

    Thank you Trevor! Back to the story, as you say!

    What is the boundary in the story? It may be the tiny hedge a few yards from the house that separates the living quarters of the girl & her family from the house for which they are caretakers. It may be the Italian border that the thugs in the story feel that the girl’s family should have never crossed. It maybe the grate to the flower shop that the father was closing that the thugs crossed, when they wanted their bouquet.

    Physical boundaries/borders are difficult to cross, and provoke all kinds of xenophobic reactions, whether in Italy or in the US.

    But there are no boundaries in imagination. Jhumpa Lahiri, born to Bengali parents in London, who wrote mostly about Bengali expats in the US, is now free to write stories set in Italy about immigrants in Italy, in Italian. The girl, an immigrant is free to write about the family that stays over for a week, also in Italian. The mother, a writer, is free to write about the girl and her family as well.

    Why did The New Yorker publish this story now? It seems to be a continuation of the conversation started with the Sadia Shepard story. Can a Pakistani author take a story about Canadians in Geneva and make it her own? Francine Prose who wrote in favor of Lionel Shriver’s speech (where Shriver supported the idea of white authors writing about non-white characters), does not seem to be in favor of such a story. So, now, Cressida Leyshon and Deborah Treisman extend the conversation with a much better author of color writing in Italian, translating her own work to English and saying, “Writing…… is a place of total freedom”.

  17. Sally January 27, 2018 at 11:11 pm

    I like to chek in here when women of color are in The New Yorker to see how they do and sadly I am never wrong about the predictable reaction of some. I gather Jerome has taken his leave to give room to David to reign fully over this kingdom. Perhaps Jerome spoke too broadly, but I gather he was asking for the same rigor in critical thought and the same lack of repetition from David that he keeps demanding of these authors. David’s early enthusiam for Monday’s story is well…predictable. I might check in again to see his reaction. As Jerome said, carry on. A lot of the discussion here is way above par of the usual discourse. And while only a few engage I imagine that a lot more people, like myself, dip in and now and then or observe quietly and learn.

  18. pauldepstein January 28, 2018 at 8:16 am

    This is a story with no dialogue. For example “I can’t help noticing how happy and excited they are” would normally be
    indicated in dialogue, but this is a dialogue-free story. [I would bet there’s a technical literary term for “dialogue-free” but I don’t know it. Could someone please educate me?] So, does the decision to go dialogue-free work, or does it just make the story feel bland as if there’s something missing? The latter for me, so I’m with the naysayers. I accept the strengths that have been pointed out by others, so I won’t say it’s terrible, by any means.

  19. David January 28, 2018 at 10:31 am

    Sally, your comment is absolute nonsense and extremely offensive. Basically, you accuse me of not being enthusiastic about this story because the author is a woman of colour. Let’s look at how absurd that is. Firstly, if you really do check in to see how people respond to stories by women of colour, then you must be familiar with my defense of Petina Gappah’a “A Short History of Zaka the Zulu”. Others were more critical, but I quite liked it. I even commented that I was interested in getting and reading her novel (which I did and liked). You would also be aware of the many times on this site I have talked about Ottessa Moshfegh and how much I love her writing. Look up just about any page on this site about her stories and novel and you will see my praise. Last month I also read Jesmyn Ward’s novel Sing, Unburied, Sing and loved it. During the recent controversy about Sadia Shepard’s story, you will find that I was one of the few people who had no concern about the question of plagiarism and defended her against criticisms.
    My reading often includes other women, like Samanta Schweblin (I have read everything she has published in English and loved it all), Carmen Maria Machado (her collection of short stories is great), Naomi Alderman (I’ve read three of her novels in the last six months – great author). I also often read and enjoy work by non-white men, like last week’s story from The New Yorker by John Edgar Wideman (go read what I wrote – I liked it more than some others did), David Chariandy (His novel Brother is very good), Haruki Murakami (I’ve enjoyed both his short stories and novels) Mohsin Hamid (you can also find lots of praise from me for him on these pages), among others.
    And if you really looked, you would see I very highly praised the novel Ties … translated into English by … Jhumpa Lahiri.
    I’m sorry you don’t like my criticism of the story (and keep in mind I also did praise Lahari by saying the story is well written). I’m sorry you cannot accept that this just might be because of the story and not because of your assumptions about how I react to the race and gender of the author. Making accusations as you did is extremely offensive.
    One final note: Your implication that I was expressing enthusiasm for next week’s story because of who the author is is wrong. The sum total of my reading of his work is that short story in The New Yorker four years ago. I thought it was ok, but not great. It did not inspire me to seek out his other short stories or novels to read. He is not on my “authors to read” list. I prefer ALL of the authors I named above to the one story of his I have read. In fact, the book that is now top of my list of books to read and that I expect to start reading in a few days time: Any Known Blood by Lawrence Hill. That is the only work I am enthusiastically looking forward to reading right now.
    If you have any integrity at all, Sally, you will apologize for your unfounded accusation.

  20. Avataram January 28, 2018 at 10:54 am

    David, Trevor was wrong in not giving you a timeout. You crossed a boundary with your comments to Jerome, and you have done it again with your latest comment. You really need to go and sit in the thinking corner for a while. This blog is not your personal playground.

    Sally, thank you very much for your comment, and I am sorry for beating up on Sadia Shepard so much a couple of weeks earlier. I was unfair. It takes time to develop a nuanced reaction to a story. One shouldn’t comment too soon.

  21. David January 28, 2018 at 11:53 am

    Avataram, Sally has accused me of responding to this story based on the race and gender of the author, not the content of the story. I responded to show that this is an unfounded accusation. And you think *I* am the one who crossed a line? That’s an especially rich claim coming from you who now – in the same comment (!) – has to admit that your own comments about Sadia Shepard, in which you talk about her “entitlement” due to race and where you strongly rejected the idea that white critics of her story were singling here out because of her race, was wrong.
    You and Sally are the ones who seem to want to criticize the people who comment on stories based on race. I just respond to stories based on the stories.

  22. Avataram January 28, 2018 at 12:01 pm

    David, from your over-reaction to various comments on just this story, you seem to have problems far beyond what can be solved by a literary blog. A blog about literature is just that, it is not your shrink. If you put off everyone who comes here by reacting so violently, asking them to clarify, apologize etc, everyone will be put off, and only you and Trevor will comment on each story. Maybe it has already happened, it is just that you haven’t noticed.

    I am off as well.

  23. David January 28, 2018 at 12:09 pm

    Avataram, “…you seem to have problems far beyond what can be solved by a literary blog” … “not your shrink”
    I would comment about these comments, but geeze, if I object to them would *I* be the one crossing a line? I guess it’s ok for you to say I am mentally ill and I have to just accept that without response. I wouldn’t want to offend you by suggesting that your psychoanalysis of me is wrong.

  24. Arleen January 28, 2018 at 1:00 pm

    Just two things. The young woman in this story reminds me of the “Little Matchgirl” …she belongs nowhere, not in her country, not in her school and not at home. She has no sister; her father is an absent presence and her missing mother a “complaining” memory. All she can do is look in on others.
    So she observes others closely to learn about life and how to be. In this she reminds me of the poor Stasi in “The Lives of Others”. He is another creature who learns about being human by observing others; he has been denied his humanity by an oppressive regime. He learns about passion, love, grief, the beauty of music and literature, how to express feeling through art. He actually learns all this by observing others closely. The teenager in this story seems vaguely aware of this as she picks up small things left by visitors, and treasures them.

  25. Trevor Berrett January 28, 2018 at 1:34 pm

    I’m going to need some help here. Avataram, though I respect your decision not to comment further. Honestly, I don’t particularly want this thread to go further than it has, but! . . . I do not see how David’s defense is over the line. He calls Sally out, but at least he lays out a defense against her criticisms in doing so, with specific evidence that, I think, clears him at least of Sally’s claim. Perhaps I’m wrong, but rather than just tell David he is wrong and me that I must do a better job moderating, help me know where and how this has crossed a line, not just that it has.

    I’m really not trying to defend David here. I don’t always agree with his perspective on a story, and he obviously has a strong personality. I’m just not sure why it’s inappropriate for him to respond to other’s criticisms against him (doesn’t appreciate the story for what it is, over generalizes, doesn’t like stories written by minorities). Honestly, I want more from Jerome and Sally and others who like the story, but I’d like more than just a jab. I’d like to know why the story works for you, why it touched you, what is it saying to you, and how is another’s perspective limited. Just saying that it is limited doesn’t really get us anywhere. It may feel good at the time, I guess, but after a few decades on the internet I’ve never seen it go anywhere but down.

    Arleen, thank you so much for your comment about the story and its ties to “The Little Match Girl.” I need to get back out on my vacation, but I want to sit with your comment a bit more!

  26. David January 28, 2018 at 2:33 pm

    I want to echo Trevor’s comment with regard to Jerome’s further participation here. In my exchange with him was an underexplored question that deserves more attention. Here, now, is my reconstruction of a more constructive version of our exchange:
    Me: This story was disappointing because it offers nothing new.

    Jerome: Every story has already been told, so all that is really left is the voice of the writer and how a story is told.

    Me: I disagree. I see originality in story construction all the time and I think authors generally do not think they are merely retelling stories that have already been told.

    Jerome: What you count as new might be different from what I consider new.
    I think there is a reasonable question here as to how much originality we can and should expect in stories we read. I am reminded of the discussion Trevor and I had a long time ago about Tessa Hadley’s story “Dido’s Lament”. (It’s still there in the archives here for those curious). I criticized the story for not being very original. Trevor challenged my claim by asking me to provide examples of other stories I thought had covered this ground already. I provided some and then there was a little discussion of whether there was still something new left over in Hadley’s story separate from those examples. (I also challenged Lee Monks to a duel at this point, but that’s another story…. :-) I suggested an alternative idea for how the story could have gone that I thought would be better. Trevor then challenged that saying that it sounded to him more unoriginal than the story as it was written. I responded by asking him for examples of stories he thought had already covered the ground I was suggesting. I can’t remember if he came up with any or if it was just a general sense of familiarity. Either way, the point is that the issue of how much originality there is in a story and how much it matters is a question that is worth discussion. As previously mentioned, it was central to the recent debates over Sadia Shepard’s story as well.
    If nothing else, this makes me think that it is perhaps a good idea to say a little more when writing about stories to highlight just what seems new, original, or unique about it. Perhaps that might be another way to respond to the general worry that there is nothing new left to be written.

  27. Avataram January 28, 2018 at 9:05 pm

    Trevor, take a look at the comments on Edwidge Danticat’s story, “Sunrise, Sunset” published sometime last year. Thanks.

  28. Trevor Berrett January 28, 2018 at 11:36 pm

    Okay, I’ve done that Avataram (for anyone wishing to do the same, here is the link to that thread).

    Other than seeing David’s comment (where he says he thought Danticat’s “Ghosts” was great but didn’t particularly like “Sunrise, Sunset”), followed by Jerome’s positive comment, and Sally saying, “Writers of color never seem to do well here,” I don’t think I see what I think you want me to see: that David crossed a line. If I’m being dense, I want to sincerely apologize. I do want this to be a place where people are comfortable commenting, but I’m also interested in allowing folks to express their criticisms and responses to criticism. In the course of this blog, I’ve deleted only one comment and banned only one commenter (for that comment). I do try to get on here to redirect things that are straying a bit, which is why I’m commenting here, though not against:

    -David, who’s expressed his opinion and defended claims against him in a way which, at the very least, I think, demands that others reconsider those claims, and who has already tried to restate his response to Jerome in a way that goes back to the story and is open to Jerome’s complaint;

    -Sally, whose comments I do consider important because I want to consider what might be my own biases, even if I don’t think that means anyone here should feel bad for not connecting to a story or for criticizing it (I will say that I think Sally’s perspective is limited as well — just look at David’s contrary examples, and I hope that in some small way my own admiration of Jhumpa Lahiri has been stated above as well as my admiration for other women writers of color, such as Marie NDiaye, whose work I adore);

    -or Jerome, whose comment lamenting the “this is nothing new” response is also one I take seriously, especially since he’s right that what is new to me might not be new to someone else and perhaps that’s not the best way to think through a story, though, again, I think it’s a legitimate response.

    Avataram, I must ask you to stop trying to get me to put David in time out on this post. I do think you have crossed a line, particularly in the comment where you say David has psychological issues. If you would like to continue to discuss this with me, please send me an email. I promise I will read it and consider your perspective, but I’ve had enough of it here.

    On this thread, I’m totally okay with everyone responding to all of the comments and criticisms above, but do your best to think through your posts and remember that we all come from different walks of life and different levels of expectation. It’s a good thing when we have differing points of view here, and I’m okay with people getting a bit ruffled and letting us know, especially when they are willing to do so in a constructive manner.

  29. TME January 30, 2018 at 5:40 pm

    Along with some other posters, I feel that this story is well written on the whole and demonstrates a comfortable command of language (stripped down though it often is), but that I still found it to be a somewhat underwhelming read. One of my issues is that, very early in the story, I was able to guess (with considerable accuracy) how the piece would develop and conclude. To my mind, that isn’t a strength. It suggests that the piece may crutch too heavy on situational tropes without inverting any of them in a way that challenges readers’ common assumptions. (A feature of fiction that I greatly admire.) Similar things can be said about the emotional subtext. It was very familiar, and in that sense less than moving. All the same, I’ve enjoyed some of Jhumpa Lahiri’s past work, and I didn’t find the story to be a waste of time. I simply wasn’t swept away in the fashion that certain pieces of literature have affected me in the past.

    As an aside, I’m an irregular visitor to the site, so I can’t speak to the contribution history of either David and Avataram; however, from an outsider’s perspective, it seems to me that Avataram might be trolling David. If I’m wrong, apologies. But Avataram’s responses to David are from the outset more personal and antagonistic that anything David has said. It seems very much to me like there is some intentional provocation at play. Or maybe a festering grudge of some kind? I’m not certain. Just my two cents.

  30. avataram January 31, 2018 at 12:26 am

    Unfortunately, one cannot edit past comments on this blog. If I could, I would delete all my comments except the one on 01/27/18 at 726pm, and I would also like to apologize unreservedly to David. (Also to Trevor for spoiling his holiday).

  31. David January 31, 2018 at 2:37 pm

    Avataram, no worries. All is good.

  32. Trevor Berrett February 1, 2018 at 4:27 pm

    (Also to Trevor for spoiling his holiday).

    No problems here, either! I had a lovely holiday (now just trying to play catch-up!) and trust we all are in a good space!

  33. Greg February 4, 2018 at 4:54 pm

    In the end, I greatly appreciate Ava’s grace and David’s understanding…..Thank you to you both!

    And I loved the following part of the story for it gives the FULL PICTURE of living in that part of Italy:

    ‘I realize how much the guests like this rural, unchanging landscape, how much they appreciate every detail, how these things help them think, rest, dream. When the girls pick blackberries, staining the pretty dresses they’re wearing, the mother doesn’t get mad at them. Instead she laughs. She asks the father to take a picture, and then throws the dresses in the wash. At the same time I wonder what they know about the loneliness here. What do they know about the days, always the same, in our dilapidated cottage? The nights when the wind blows so hard the earth seems to shake, or when the sound of rain keeps me awake? The months we live alone among the hills, the horses, the insects, the birds that pass over the fields? Would they like the harsh quiet that reigns here all winter?”

  34. Dennis Lang February 6, 2018 at 1:22 pm

    Deeply experienced. As usual from you Greg. Beautiful passage.

  35. Greg February 6, 2018 at 11:59 pm

    I am thrilled you loved that writing too Dennis!

  36. Larry Bone February 8, 2018 at 11:39 pm

    When I first read Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story, “The Boundary,” in the New Yorker I tried to figure out what it was really about.  It’s tranquil, peaceful yet very restrained tone went on for two pages and was concerned with the caretaker daughter’s observation of the activities of a visiting family renting a vacation house.  The main focus seemed to be on family and families.

    Then a line of dialogue on the third page jumped out at me.

    It was just after the protagonist’s father had gotten badly beaten up by city thugs. “Go back to wherever you came from.”  Where did I hear or read something like that? 

    I searched the internet until I came across the following: “An Indian-born engineer was shot dead in a Kansas bar on Thursday, the authorities said, and witnesses told reporters that the gunman shouted “go back to your country” before opening fire.

    I was thinking about the protagonist’s father, who was actually present all along from the beginning of the story though it had been many years since he had been beaten-up.  Immigrants go to a country that seems peaceful but there is danger lurking in the background or it can flare up anytime anywhere.

    My takeaway from this story is how insidiously threatening latent racial hatred in a supposedly “safe” country or state or rural locale can be.  And since her father couldn’t talk or seemed mute, she was robbed of having the kind of father the visiting family had.  No wonder she notices all their activities.

    After the Indian-born engineer was killed, families all across India urged their loved ones not to go to the United States for fear that something tragic would happen.

    Some South Asian writers claimed that major media ignored the story because the engineer was from India.  And hardly anyone knew about the letter the Governor of Kansas sent to  Prime Minister Modi of India.

    In the letter he wrote in part, “Acts of hate and intolerance have no place in Kansas. Since our founding, Kansans have fought against injustice and senseless hatred. We are recommitted daily to protecting our family, our neighbors, our guests. We find wisdom and peace in the Sanskrit mantra “Satyameva Jayate” “Truth Alone Triumphs.”

    Was that what this story was about?  Maybe. The great thing about good short fiction is that it can probe a somewhat hidden “truth” in a very specific yet restrained general way in just three pages.

    There is no way to prove any of this. But thinking about it from a South Asian point of view makes its ordinariness more understandable or maybe I just don’t know and am straining to give meaning when any of this is not at all what the author intended.

  37. Greg February 9, 2018 at 11:43 pm

    Thanks Larry for waking me up to the following quote from the story….I think I have become desensitized to its hate since I have heard it so much over the years being said to minorities:

    “Go back to wherever you came from.”

    And thank you for sharing these wonderful words from the Kansas Governor. I will keep them with me:

    “We find wisdom and peace in the Sanskrit mantra “Satyameva Jayate”, “Truth Alone Triumphs.””

  38. Larry Bone February 10, 2018 at 1:49 am


    It hadn’t thought about so many minorities being told to go back to where they came from. And have probably not read or experienced as much as the people who post on this blog. And I can get desensitized to what happens to minorities.

    In “The Boundary” the father escapes to the country where he can be safe far enough away from the city and knows all about the threatening animals in the country.. The families who rent the cottage in the summer see it as a peaceful, restful and a place to relax.

    There is so much polarization with no agreement these days taking almost all of our attention. Trevor picks out such interesting thoughtful books to recommend for reading. I think he notices which books or short stories will engage us or not but he also wants to get us used to looking more closely at what we are reading.

    The usual New Yorker short stories I see don’t usually grab my attention but a gem can show up that gets me thinking. But it is good to discuss what is good and what could be made better. I save the ones I like for inspiration or as a mental note to think in more detail about some of the suggestions or thoughts expressed in comments.

    Your thoughts are prompts to more closely examine the flow of details within these short stories and other works. I like the wisdom of other cultures and how people you would think are distanced from noticing, will pick up on what is actually unfolding in any incident as a basis for what happens in a short story.

    Thanks for your thoughts.

  39. William February 17, 2018 at 9:30 pm

    I felt as Archer and Dennis did, seconded by Jerome:

    “Did this story “have anything new” to offer? I don’t have the slightest idea. But I found it deeply moving and evocative.”

    I’m also going with the intuitive response here. Surely our strong reactions signal a piece of writing that is not clichéd or merely repetitive. It carries a strong strain of humanity.

    Others have interpreted what the “boundary” is. No more need be said about that.

    Rather, I want to highlight the reversals – what I call the “mirroring” — in the story. The narrator is the girl. She observes the family, including the mother, who is in turn observing her surroundings and writing about them. But the mother is a stand-in for Lahiri, who is doing the observing, and writing about the girl, whose persona and observations she makes up or imagines. Lahiri asks herself – what must we look like to her?

    Lahiri, the vacationer, enjoys the rural surroundings, even common chores. As the girl says:

    “The mother does what I do. . . how happy this makes her.”

    Both ironic and sincere at the same time – skillful writing.

    Again, the girl thinks:

    “She studies everything I look at every day. But I wonder what she sees in it.”

    “She” of course is Lahiri.

    Essentially this story is about how different people, from differing backgrounds and circumstances, can see the “same” surroundings in opposite ways. For example:

    “How lovely, they say, being together like this, away from everyone.”

    Completely opposite to the girl’s experience of the place.


    “I realize how much the guests like this rural unchanging landscape.”

    Opposite to how the girl sees it, as she comments:

    “At the same time I wonder what they know about the loneliness here.”

    We learn why the girl and her father are there, how bitter is it for them. How they long to be back in the city running their flower shop — the same city from which the guests have “escaped” to the countryside. The city where people much like the guests have beaten her father severely because he is “other” – he has breached the boundary.

    I don’t see any of this as irony – more that Lahiri is saying, as I wrote above, that a person’s view of things depends on his/her background and circumstances and where they are coming from.

    Finally, Lahiri closes the circle, having the girl comment on the mother who observes them and writes the story that we have just been reading:

    “The faint small script that the mother used, on other sheets of paper, to write all about us.”

    What is happening here is Lahiri’s attempt to imagine herself into the life of another human being — necessarily flawed, but admirable.

    Larry – thanks for your informative contribution. It’s important to recognize when reality and imagination intersect – they are separate but equal. And not unconstitutional

    One last comment — Lahiri’s prose style has advanced greatly since her last book of stories. Stripped-down, but more powerful for that. If we owe this to her learning to speak Italian, then perhaps we should all learn to speak another language. Or, more accurately, to write in another language.

  40. Greg February 18, 2018 at 1:22 am

    Thanks William for sharing your main takeaway from the story:

    “Essentially this story is about how different people, from differing backgrounds and circumstances, can see the “same” surroundings in opposite ways.”

    As always, literature has a direct impact in my day-to-day life. What you asserted above is exactly what my HR department espouses at work for conflict resolution: We must allow for differing perceptions on disputed events. In other words, there is often not one absolute truth in a disagreement, but rather contrasting interpretations.

    Thank you William for emphasizing this theme by the author!

  41. William February 18, 2018 at 10:46 am

    Greg —

    You’re welcome. Abut the HR dept — very interesting approach. I wonder how well it works?

  42. Greg February 18, 2018 at 10:55 pm

    William, it’s still a work in progress….many people are having a hard time seeing things from another viewpoint when they think they’re right and/or a victim….Thus, HR is trying to get us to ask what are the other person’s needs, and at the same time clearly communicate our own needs.

  43. William February 19, 2018 at 12:46 pm

    Greg —

    No surprise that it takes a while. That old human ego is so powerful. Still, it’s a worthwhile goal.

  44. Sid March 7, 2018 at 3:37 am

    Did not like Boundary and I am a huge fan of Jhumpa’s. Nothing went wrong, no crisis as such..a cardinal sin in short fiction. It’s ust a narration of events, and that too in a terribly monotonous way. New Yorker wouldn’t have published it were it not from Jhumpa. Of this I am a 100% sure.

  45. Larry Bone March 7, 2018 at 1:01 pm

    Jhumpa seems to have chosen a somewhat detached third person point of view in “The Boundary. It’s almost omniscient or God-like. The country seems like a part of Italy that isn’t specifically located unless I missed something. The narrative tone is vague. There’s an indefinite wistful quality to the protagonist. What sort of feeling is going through her mind? Sid’s point is well-taken. There is no one big thing anchoring the story except the father getting beaten up so badly. And the seeming acceptance of that is chilling. I have read that evil is banal or boring which is what might describe the prejudice of the ethnic racial hatred towards foreign people. Sid is correct in that there is nothing that grabs you by the throat because the narrator seems detached from herself and what she is writing about. Why? I still like the story though I understand Sid’s point. Also if she were a real person telling me this while on a somewhat anonymous long train ride, people who have been hurt in some way never tell you the worst part of it. I guess a short story affects a reader based on what they bring to what they are reading. But for everyone, we can only go by what is actually in the story to figure it out or decide whether it was or was not the author’s best effort.

  46. Sid March 9, 2018 at 3:19 am

    In many of her stories, for example, The Third and Final Continent, the climax is subtle, implicit, and therein lies the beauty. The main things is that, the character’s yearning resonates with you. I didn’t find that in this one.

  47. William March 10, 2018 at 2:16 pm

    I’ve been waiting for someone to respond to Sid and Larry Bone, but it looks like I will have to do it myself.

    Sid —
    “Nothing went wrong, no crisis as such — a cardinal sin in short fiction. It’s just a narration of events, and that too in a terribly monotonous way.”

    Larry Bone –
    “There is no one big thing anchoring the story except the father getting beaten up so badly. And the seeming acceptance of that is chilling.”

    I couldn’t tell whether Larry Bone was being ironic – “nothing except the father getting beaten up so badly”. Personally, I thought that the severity of the father’s beating, so bad that he could no longer talk and had to leave the city and his business and become a caretaker for a vacation home, was pretty awful. To me it wasn’t the acceptance of the family’s situation by the girl that was chilling, it was the beating of the father. Which was magnified by the fact that he was beaten because he was from another country, so the guys who did it felt he was fair game.

    (BTW – Larry, the reference you are looking for is the “banality of evil”, a phrase developed by Hannah Arendt in her book “Eichmann in Jerusalem” to describe the Nazi horror. Arendt did not use it to mean what you are using it to mean.)

    It seems that Sid and Larry have confused the drama of the incident with the non-dramatic way in which it is told. Lahiri deliberately has the girl tell the story in a quiet resigned way – she has had many years to absorb it and has to make her way under these circumstances. Perhaps you guys would enjoy Dickens more, especially his description of the death of Little Nell in “The old Curiosity Shop”. In this story Lahiri is doing what another Indian writer, Akhil Sharma, did in a story in the NYer a few months ago, “You Are Happy?”, in which an Indian boy comes to the realization that his mother’s family have had her killed because she was an alcoholic. That story is also told in a restrained way. I think the controlled telling makes the events more powerful.

    We also need to recognize the skill with which Lahiri arranges the events in this story. She makes a smooth settled surface in the first few pages. We know some boundary is going to be crossed. When I stopped to think about it, I conjectured maybe the girl would cross a boundary into the family’s privacy or one of the visitors would cross a boundary and try to molest the girl. But Lahiri’s crisis/climax is much more inventive. (Congratulations to TME for figuring out what it would be. I sure didn’t.). By putting the climactic event later in the story than it happened in real life, Lahiri magnifies its effect. She breaks the narrative arc. Alice Munro also does this to good effect in her short story, “The Floating Bridge”, in which the reveal, when it comes, casts the prior events in a new light and makes us re-read, just as Lahiri’s reveal does.

  48. Sid March 20, 2018 at 1:17 am

    Thanks for your comments, William. You have mentioned two of my favorite writers. Akhil Sharma and Alice munro. I think we like the same kind of stories, but somehow as a reader I was not emotionally present in the narrative of Boundary. But many of your points make sense to me. I think I might re-read the story or certain parts of it to understand it better. Let me tell you, any seasoned reader of short stories understands the value of non-dramatic drama.
    Anyway, I am glad I have come across this wonderful site where lovers of short stories can discuss them.

  49. Greg March 21, 2018 at 4:17 am

    Sid – Your admission of, “…but somehow as a reader I was not emotionally present in the narrative…” has made me stop and think on what I expect from literature. For example, is feeling something intensely from a story more important than learning something significant from it?…I will continue contemplating this…

    And William – Thank you for this observation of yours:

    “By putting the climactic event later in the story than it happened in real life, Lahiri magnifies its effect. She breaks the narrative arc. Alice Munro also does this to good effect in her short story, “The Floating Bridge”, in which the reveal, when it comes, casts the prior events in a new light and makes us re-read, just as Lahiri’s reveal does.”

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