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Choosing Identities In Jhumpa Lahiri's 'Hell-Heaven' - With A Free Essay Review

Hell-Heaven, by Jhumpa Lahiri, talks about the struggles of living in the United States with a Bengali culture. This struggle is shown in this story from the characters Usha and Pranab Kaku. Both make decisions that make them choose one culture over the other. At times, they might have felt that with their American and Bengali cultures, one of them always seemed to draw their attention more. One might also have the feeling of wanting to belong to a higher culture than we were raised with. No matter the circumstances, one’s native roots will always be there. One has to learn to appreciate the native roots that are inside one’s self, embrace and appreciate them. They are what make us who we are.

The main focus of my essay deals with Pranab Kaku and his struggles with the American and Bengali culture. He and his family came from a family of wealth in Calcutta. He came to America as a foreign student going to MIT. He was not expecting the huge culture shock he had to deal with before meeting Boudi and Usha. Pranab was, in fact, determined to return back home to Calcutta until he met Boudi and Usha, realizing they were also Bengali. Boudi and her husband did not have enough room in their house for his stay, but he was always welcome in their home.

Most importantly, he became great friends with Boudi and her husband, especially Boudi. “They had in common all the things she and my father did not: a love of music, film, and leftist politics, and poetry” (350). Boudi was pleased to meet a guy like Pranab Kaku; one that made her feel welcomed and loved. She would cook delicacies especially for him, and loved to take picnics together with Usha. Her husband did not seem to mind much, since he had felt that she was taken away from the people and things she loved most. Boudi indeed did fall in love with Pranab Kaka. Pranab, however, had different plans for his future in the United States.

Pranab was more open-minded about the United States. He decided to take in the American culture and way of living. He met Deborah, the daughter of college professors in Boston College. He would bring her over to Boudi and Usha’s house and have dinner with them. She learned a bit about Bengali culture, but introduced and influenced Pranab more in the American culture. Outings now included Deborah to places such as “…The Museum of Fine Arts and the Public Garden and the aquarium” (353). Boudi resented Deborah for taking Pranab away from them and changing him around.

When Pranab was going to propose to Deborah, he sought Boudi and her husband to persuade his parents of his engagement. His parents were furious at his choice. Their plan for Pranab was to marry his betrothed they had already chosen for him in Calcutta. His parents argued, “We thought we could trust you, and yet you have betrayed us so deeply… Is this what happens to people in America?” (354). Pranab refused to let his parents and their closed-mindedness turn him away from marrying an American woman and blending cultures together.

Boudi, however, was disappointed in Pranab for abandoning his culture. The wedding was all American, from the guest size, the attire, the location, and the food. Boudi and her family were the only Bengalis invited to the wedding. After the wedding, Pranab and Deborah distanced themselves from Bengalis. Their lives were not influenced at all by the Bengali culture. Pranab bought a luxurious house with a high-paying job. His and Deborah’s daughters only spoke English and did not appear at all Bengali. They maintained small contact with Boudi and Usha. Usually, they would receive small presents from them on occasions, and would rarely see them at a pujo. Their Thanksgiving dinner was very formal and showed the Americanized life Pranab had now adopted as his.

The last thing the story tells about Pranab is him leaving Deborah for a married Bengali woman. Ironically, the person Deborah runs to is Boudi. “You know him so well," Deborah said. “How could he do something like this?” (360). Deborah then goes on to explain that her intentions upon marrying Pranab was never to separate him from his Bengali friends, parents, and culture. She kept encouraging Pranab to reconcile with his parents and to maintain his ties with other Bengalis, yet he refused to do so.

Through Pranab’s perspective, one can see at first that he was lost into the American culture, the higher one, and forgot about his Bengali culture. Once he was engaged to Deborah, everything about him changed. He had a new life with a sense of belonging, stability, and wealth.

In the story, Usha tells two sides. One is the perspective of her mother and her love and disappointment with Pranab. The other perspective is Pranab and his life.

Usha explains the feelings her mother has for Pranab. They had many Bengali activities in common, like love for music, film, politics, and poetry. Her mother felt that she could talk to someone and relate to them since a long time. She fell in love with Pranab. Usha, in a way, also falls in love with Pranab. The three of them go to places together and have fun. She stays with Pranab when Deborah appears in the picture and sides with them more than her mother. Just like Pranab, she abandons her for the higher culture, despite the criticism. Usha also becomes influenced by Deborah. She comes to love Deborah and her persona. She envies her appearance and wishes to be like her. This pushes her away from her mother. For example, in the wedding and the Thanksgiving party, she chooses to be with Deborah and her family instead of her parents and maintain Bengali appearance.

The story talks about accepting your identity and learning to embrace one’s identity.

Pranab chose to escape from the life that was planned for him by his parents. Upon becoming engaged to Deborah, his entire life changed. He put his Bengali roots behind and adopted an all-American culture. He was happy throughout his life. When he got to the middle of his life, things might have started to change in his perspective. He missed his Bengali roots that he had been avoiding all that time. In the end, he falls in love and leaves his American culture to be with a married Bengali woman.

Many things could be said about his drastic decision. My opinion would be that he was in love with Boudi as well, but chose not to act upon his emotions since she was a married woman. Instead, he chose to marry Deborah and forget about his Bengali past. The woman he left with may have reminded him of Boudi and her personality.

In a sense, Jhumpa Lahiri is implying that a person’s roots will always follow them throughout one’s life. Cultural roots are something that a person is raised with from their infancy. No matter how much a higher culture may draw your attention, your cultural roots will always be with you and be a part of your life.



The claim that “Hell - Heaven” shows that "one's native roots will always be there" is vague because you don't specify what you mean by "native roots" or what you mean by "will always be there" (be where? and in what sense?). Actually in the next sentence, which I take to be part of the thesis, you say the native roots are "inside one's self" and that one should (according to the story?) "embrace and appreciate them." That's still a bit vague, however, because it's not clear, especially since your reader doesn't quite know what you mean by "native roots," what embracing or appreciating these strange things entails. So all of that (the thesis) needs to be clarified and specified, but let’s look at the rest of the essay before returning to the status of its argument.

The second paragraph, then, summarizes part of the story of Pranab Kaku. The third paragraph does the same, using a quotation not for the sake of developing an argument by way of analysis, but for the sake of justifying or elaborating one part of the summary. The rest of the essay does much the same. Occasionally you stop to make claims about Pranab or the story that might be regarded as interpretive, as when, for example, you say that "the story talks about accepting your identity and learning to embrace one's identity" [note the awkward switch in pronouns from "your" to the (more correct) "one's"]. But clearly those kinds of claims are not developed or justified.

What you need to do, then, is to devote less of the essay to summary and synopsis and a lot more of it to the methodical demonstration of the truth of your argument about the story. Remember that the existence of an essay is usually only justified if it tells the reader something that she would not obviously know from her own reading of the book. Obviously, from this point of view, an essay that offers a summary is not justified, whereas an essay that makes arguable interpretive claims about the book is justified. From this point of view, also, your essay really begins as an essay (you will hate me for saying this, so sorry!) only in the last paragraph. Excluding the thesis of your introduction, that's where you start making arguable claims. I think if you ask yourself whether you have demonstrated the truth of those claims, the answer will be obvious. (In case it is not obvious, the answer is "no"). There is no explicit nor even an obvious implicit connection made in the essay between the summary of the story and the claims made, in the final paragraph, about the story. Your argument is that the story implies "that a person's roots will always follow them throughout one's life." If your essay included one sentence like the following, it would be at least twice as good as it is now (assuming it is being judged as a critical essay):

"The book implies that a person's roots will always follow them etc., or the book implies that a person cannot escape from his cultural roots, because ..."

Obviously that sentence would need to be completed. In other words, you would need to offer explicit reasons that explain why you think the book implies what you think it implies.

Your essay would be twice as good again (so four times better all told!) if it elaborated the explicit reasons offered to explain why you think the book implies what you think it implies. Elaborating a reason means making explicit the precise connection between the evidence in the book that you decide is relevant (evidence you quote or refer to) and the claims that that evidence in your view supports. If you do that, and so make quotations and references part of an argument instead of part of a summary, then your essay will have real critical bite and your teacher will love you.

Best, EJ

P.S. Use the present tense to speak of events in a literary work.
Submitted by: jazzy.isabel


Thank you so much for your review on my essay! I took your advice and re-wrote my essay. My professor liked my essay, although I could've supported my thesis and my citations a bit more. Overall, I made a 91!! Thank you so much!
April,30 2012


Hi Jazzy, I would love to see your finished work and see how it came out. Would you post your second piece for us?
March,21 2013

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