"Clothes": Symbolism in Chitra B. Divakaruni's Short Story Term Paper

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Do Clothes Make the Woman?

Clothes, Silence, and Rebirth in Chitra B. Divakaruni's short story entitled "Clothes"

Chitra B. Divakaruni's short story entitled "Clothes" begins in India and ends in the Indian community of America. However, Divakaruni clearly hopes to impart in the readers' mind a more universal lesson than one confined to the central protagonist Sumita's immediate cultural context, despite the many details present in the tale that are particular to the Indian community Divakaruni chronicles. Rather, the main idea of "Clothes" is how clothes symbolize the status of women, and specifically how women's visual rather than verbal display defines female status in traditional and modern contexts. The author first uses the cultural symbolism of clothing in a wedding setting to demonstrate specifically how women in India are seen as visual displays, rather than thinking human beings. Secondly, the author uses the literary symbolism of Sumita biting her tongue on her wedding night to stress how women's speech is smothered in marriage by societal norms and by men. Lastly, the tale symbolically ends with Sumita's husband's death, as the author brings the reader on a journey 'full circle' of Sumita's struggle with her marriage, beginning with the Sumita's viewing and ending with her 'death' as a wife. The use of cultural and literary symbolism, combined with the circularity of the tale's narrative of a marriage, makes for an effective depiction of Sumita's attempt to articulate herself as a woman, and not simply be an object of visual display.

The rendering of
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a bride as an object of visual display in India is symbolized in the focus upon Sumita's clothing in the first scene of the short story. The story begins during the bride viewing. Significantly, the bride is viewed in this traditional ceremony, not heard. The bride in this pre-wedding ceremony does not speak in any significant fashion. Rather, the primary significance of the bride is to display her clothing, and to show herself laden with gold and dressed in an expensive red sari, the color of luck. This shows the symbolic value of culture, color, and clothing, just as Sumita's sari during her airplane journey will later be symbolically blue with a red lining. Her clothing speaks for Sumita, not Sumita herself. Sumita's new clothing symbolizes her new status in life as an object to display her family and her husband's wealth. The cultural symbolism of the viewing and the focus on the bride's appearance and her sari becomes an important introduction in the initial, Indian context of the short story to the place of women in Sumita's culture.

The silence of the bride during the initial ceremony of the viewing, and the focus upon what a woman wears rather than how a woman speaks, especially in marriage, becomes even more starkly clear when the author depicts the central female character's wedding night. Beyond the cultural symbolism of the sari she wore during the viewing and Sumita's way of dressing, Divakaruni uses the act of Sumita biting her tongue during the wedding night to indicate…

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