Mohsin Hamid’s novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a work of fiction, but its story is one that could have very realistically happened to a Pakistani individual living in New York, especially in the aftermath of the bombing of the Twin Towers on September 11. Through the memories and reflections of narrator Changez, the reader is given a unique perspective on how the relationship between Americans and foreigners living in America changed after the events of that day. Hamid’s novel also is a vivid illustration of racial and gender roles and stereotypes both in America and Pakistan. Though the novel is told after the events have occurred and Changez relates them in a friendly tone as memories of his experiences in America, it’s easy to see how his experiences could be those actually experienced by foreigners living in New York during this time. It shows how race, gender and feminism can affect the lives and attitudes of people all over the world, and how those attitudes can clash with one another in the wake of a major or life-altering event.
Erica plays a significant role in the book as Changez’s love interest and also as a character representative of gender roles and feminism in America. When Changez first meets her when they’re both traveling abroad in Greece, she seems to embody many characteristics of feminism. She’s independent, she shows that she’s comfortable with her sexuality by sunbathing topless, and even though she is pursued by many of the men around her, including Changez, she relies on none of them, takes care of herself and does what she wants. These characteristics are a big part of what attracts Changez to her. But as they get to know each other, she becomes less independent or headstrong and so Changez’s opinion of her changes too. Instead of being impressed with how much more headstrong and free spirited she is than the women of his native Pakistan, he imagines kidnapping her and taking her away so that he can take care of her because he doesn’t think she can take care of herself. She is the only female character in the novel that Changez has regular contact with, but her representation of anything resembling feminism really only occurs during their time together in Greece. After she returns to America and her memories of her deceased boyfriend she loses control of her will and even her body, unable to respond when the two of them are intimate. Since she is the most prominent female in the novel the changes in her behaviour and her eventual suicide are sad, but they are approached from mostly Changez’s outsider’s view, making it seem like even though he loved her, he still didn’t know how to respond to her emotions.
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Changez is surrounded by men in the novel, and it is clear that he’s more comfortable with men than with women. He regards his own mother as being sentimental and superstitious, describing how she waved a rupee over his head when he travelled to keep him safe. She is only mentioned when Changez also mentions his father and brother. Erica’s mother, the only other woman introduced in the book, contrasts his own mother with her behaviour the first time she meets him, sizing him up physically so openly that Erica tells her to behave. This contrast could be representative of the gender roles of women in American and Pakistani society; the fact that neither of these roles or the differences between the two indicates Changez’ ignorance to the roles and personalities of women in either culture. He seems to understand how much more prevalent women in American society are than in Pakistani society, telling the man he is narrating to, “It is remarkable, I must say, how being in Pakistan heightens one’s sensitivity to the sight of a woman’s body” (Hamid 26). He also always describes what Erica is wearing and whether it bares any skin like her legs or midriff, making him seem very aware of American sexuality versus the Pakistani view on sexuality. But at the same time, Changez still seems to view women in both countries as foreign to him and he seems to be unsure how to act around them.
Race is presented in a larger scale in the novel than either feminism or gender, especially after the events of September 11. Changez describes how attitudes towards him in America and also his attitudes towards Americans and American culture changed drastically within days of the tragedy. He describes at first how he was able to succeed at Princeton University and how, even though he recognized that he was a minority, he viewed himself as one of the lucky few and that he was blessed to have the opportunity. He also tells his guest how he tried in some ways to assimilate to American culture, saying, “I was aware of an advantage conferred upon me by my foreignness, and I tried to utilize it as much as I could” (Hamid 42). He works hard in school and holds multiple jobs to pay his tuition, believing that the goal of a college education and a prestigious job are just as well within his reach as they are in the reach of any of his white classmates. The only thing that seems to make him feel alienated is his limited supply of spending money, as he recalls when remembering his time in Greece when everyone else could buy expensive dinners and he had to eat on a budget.
Changez never really says that he felt alienated because of his race while he was attending school in America, and that positive attitude remains when he gets the job at the consulting firm of Underwood Samson. He recognizes that he is one of only two non-white members of his team, but he regards the team as diverse because it also contains two women and because he is able to become fast friends with Wainright, his African American colleague. Again, he seems to understand that he is different and that he is viewed differently because he is foreign, but he doesn’t really seem to view this as a bad thing until after September 11.
The change in behaviour towards Changez and in Changez’s attitudes towards those around him happen quickly after September 11 and they represent both changes in individual life but also a change in overall American culture. He describes how he tried to deny that he was being looked at differently at first, responding to rumours about Muslims being beaten or interrogated by saying, “…those rare cases of abuse that did regrettably transpire were unlikely ever to affect me because such things invariably happened, in America as in all countries, to the hapless poor, not to Princeton graduates earning eighty thousand dollars a year” (Hamid 95). Again, he classifies himself with the rest of his Princeton classmates making it clear that he thinks he is like them regardless of their different races. He tries to brush off the times that he has found his tires punctured in the parking garage. It is only after Erica’s death that his perspective on everything in his world changes and he begins to understand that people are looking at him with ridicule and distrust and that he is not being treated the same like he thought he was.
The one action that Changez commits that strongly alters how he is treated and that forces him to recognize that he is now being looked at as a threat or a possible terrorist is that he grows a beard. This action is significantly representative of the real attitudes in New York and all over America after September 11 because most people, whether they admit it or not, can recall hearing someone make a comment about someone looking like a terrorist just because they had a long beard and looked foreign. Unfortunately, this type of mentality was one way that Americans temporarily reacted to foreign citizens in the wake of the September 11 tragedy out of fear and sadness. The fact that this small change is the catalyst that changes the way that everyone around him treats him, and that makes him finally realize how out of place he is, is representative of some sentiments that really did exist in America at that time. Changez describes how several coworkers look at him strangely, stop talking to him, and how even Wainright warns him that keeping the beard will set him apart from his colleagues in a negative way and could damage his chances of advancing within the company. His mother even warns him to shave it off before he travels back to America, saying he shouldn’t have one because he is younger than his father and brother, but even she makes a reference to it not being safe for him to travel to America with a beard.
It is interesting that while Changez is becoming disillusioned with American culture, he is also questioning the actions of his homeland and neighbouring countries. He reads about the escalation of American military action in Afghanistan and while he expresses concern and worry for his family and friends in Pakistan he also indicates that he doesn’t necessarily agree with the violent acts that the terrorists have committed. He seems to be conflicted about how he feels, and this makes him even more disillusioned with American culture. This is an interesting perspective for American readers because it is likely that most of them never considered how someone in Changez’s position might feel about the events of September 11 and the war that started after them.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist tells the story of one man’s journey through America and home again and how racial and gender attitudes and perspectives changed his life. It is an individual story, but it represents a national one that can be related to by anyone that remembers the events of September 11 and the confusion, sadness and changes in perspective that occurred afterward. It is one man’s story, but it can also be related to on a national level because it is, at the heart, a story about humanity.
Hamid, Mohsin. The Reluctant Fundamentalist. New York: Harcourt: 2007.