The short story “Hell-Heaven”, taken from Jhumpa Lahiri’s collection Unaccustomed Earth[ Lahiri, Jhumpa. “Hell-Heaven.” Unaccustomed Earth. New York: Vintage Books, 2008. Print.], presents contrasting images and associations in its title, and a search through the whole text renders a display of many binary oppositions consistent with the title. According to the structuralist theory, binary oppositions are two diametrically opposing ideas that are the most basic building blocks of structure in a text[ Beginning Theory, Peter Barry, Manchester University Press, 2009]. A structuralist reading of “Hell-Heaven” yields evidence of the binary opposition between healing, Heaven, and destruction, Hell, both in the characters and in textual signs which form codes for destruction and healing.
The binary opposition of healing and destruction is manifested primarily in the story’s characters, who alternately fulfill roles of healing others and destroying others. Pranab Chakraborty, after having moved from Calcutta to Boston, is welcomed into the family of Aparna, a twenty-eight year old Bengali woman and the mother of the story’s narrator, Usha. The family offers Pranab hospitality, and he soon becomes an integral component to Aparna’s own happiness. “He brought to my mother the first and, I suspect, the only pure happiness she ever felt,” our story’s narrator Usha says. “I don’t think even my birth made her as happy... Pranab Kaku was different. He was the one totally unanticipated pleasure in her life” (Lahiri 67). At this stage, Pranab has a healing effect on Aparna, bringing her fulfillment.
However, those who fulfill the role of healers become forces of destruction later in the text. Although he at first brings happiness and contentment to Aparna, Pranab eventually breaks her heart by marrying Deborah. He destroys other relationships in the story as well, including his marriage with Deborah. After twenty-three years of marriage, Pranab and Deborah divorce. “It was [Pranab] who had strayed,” writes the narrator, “falling in love with a married Bengali woman, destroying two families in the process” (Lahiri 81). Pranab also destroys his relationship with his parents, choosing to marry an American girl against his parents’ will. The healer turns into a destroyer. This pattern of a healer transforming into a destroyer is repeated and reversed throughout the story.
The text uses objects with symbolic significance as codes to indicate healing or destruction. Perhaps the most noteworthy example is the repeated use of safety pins as symbols when describing Usha’s mother, Aparna. In the very first paragraph of the story, the narrator writes that “[Pranab] noticed the two or three safety pins [Aparna] wore fastened to the thin gold bangles that were behind the red and white ones, which she would use to replace a missing hook on a blouse or to draw a string through a petticoat at moment’s notice” (Lahiri 61). The reader later learns how unhappy Aparna is with her life and her marriage, and how she is in need of some form of healing. The code of the safety pins is that of a temporary solution to a problem, much like Pranab's companionship is a temporary solution for Aparna's unhappy marriage and isolated life. The safety pin code makes a second appearance at the end of the story. A few weeks after Pranab’s wedding, Aparna plans to use safety pins to help her commit suicide, pinning her sari down tight with them so that no one would be able to pull it off her body once she lights herself on fire. This destructive use of safety pins is the diametrical opposite of the earlier use to fix clothing. At that moment, the mother’s misery is paramount. If she had been in an emotional heaven in the early stages of her friendship with Pranab, the reappearance of the safety pins in the end marks her deepest emotional hell and constitutes a form of extreme destruction. In this way, the whole story is structured around the use of safety pins as codes for the binary opposition of healing and destruction.
The binary opposition of healing and destruction in “Hell-Heaven” creates a code through the patterns of behavior of the characters and through parallels in symbols. The reader understands this code with the unfolding of the patterns and may attempt to predict the action of the story based on the patterns, but the patterns are not fully developed until the end of the plot. While the reader has seen the progression from healing to destruction throughout the story, the opposing progression from destruction to healing comes only during the final few paragraphs in the healed relationship of Usha’s parents, the salvation of the mother by the neighbor, and the developing friendship between Deborah and Usha’s family. After the pattern of movement from healing to destruction has been established, the violation of this pattern creates in the reader a sense of completion both in the story of the characters and in the structure of the binary opposition.