When Chanu and Nazneen move to London, they take up residence in Brick Lane, a multiethnic neighborhood. Nazneen meets a lot of other Bangladeshi immigrants like herself and becomes invested in the community there. Chanu, however, is exposed to the racism of the rest of the city. As an immigrant, he is often treated badly and not given the same opportunities he would have been offered as a white person. In response to the way he is treated, Chanu becomes more and more mistrustful of British society, and comes to see it as a corrupting influence.
As a Bangladeshi girl, Nazneen experiences an arranged marriage to her husband, Chanu. Chanu is a kind husband, but he subscribes to gender norms, assuming that Nazneen's priorities will be taking care of the home and children. Nazneen has no control over her important life decisions as she is the subject of her husband's will. Later on, Chanu becomes determined to move back to Bangladesh, so he allows her to work in order to help them move faster. Other female characters, such as Razia and Hasina, find themselves even more at the mercy of gendered power dynamics. However, by the end of the novel, Nazneen has shown herself to be able to contribute economically and make decisions about her own life. Noemie Pereira-Ares notes that "the main female personae are constantly struggling against patriarchal constraints, eventually succeeding in becoming independent subjects and active agents in their migrating experience" (204).
Motherhood is shown to be a source of both fulfillment and sorrow in the novel. Nazneen and Hasina's mother loves her daughters dearly, but also seems to be unhappy in her marriage. When Nazneen becomes a mother, she becomes more frustrated with her husband because she wants to give her son a better life. Nazneen's love for her son, and later her daughters, helps her to feel stronger and more self-assured. However, it also causes her profound grief because she cannot protect her son from illness and she worries about protecting her daughters who grow up torn between two cultures. For other women, such as Razia, motherhood pushes them to become more self-reliant. However, motherhood often traps women in lives and marriages they do not necessarily want because they fear hurting their children or losing them entirely.
Family is at the core of Nazneen's life and purpose. She is often unhappy because she is torn between her family of origin, and the family she creates after her marriage. Nazneen always misses her sister and continues to feel responsible for Hasina. Letters from Hasina are one of the only things that connects Nazneen to the family she grew up in. At the same time, Nazneen loves her children fiercely and gradually comes to even love Chanu because of the experiences the couple goes through together. Nazneen feels intense guilt during her affair because of how it betrays and jeopardizes her family. Family makes Nazneen who she is, but it also often makes her feel sad, guilty, and trapped.
Fate is introduced as a major theme when Nazneen's life is left to chance when she is a newborn. She grows up thinking that she should just accept whatever happens to her, and not try to assert her will. However, life forces Nazneen to have more agency. Her desire to help her family leads her to take risks like starting to work. Once she meets Karim, Nazneen also begins to experience desire, and chooses to act to follow that desire. By the end of the novel, when she chooses to remain in England with her daughters because she knows she can support them, Nazneen has learned that she can make choices and decide at least some of her own fate.
For much of the novel, Nazneen seems docile and obedient. She marries Chanu without complaint and works hard to be a dutiful wife. When Chanu denies her things she wants, such as the opportunity to go to school or to get to know the city better, she seems to accept his authority. However, simmering under the surface, Nazneen is filled with desire to make her own choices and experience more of life. She is filled with shame, but she also cannot deny that she imagines different opportunities for herself. Her affair with Karim represents all of her long repressed desires finally breaking free.
Chanu takes pride in being an educated man, and he also loves the history of his country and his people. He is discouraged to find that Bengali history does not seem to be recognized or valued in England. Chanu immerses himself in English literature and history along with learning about his native country, and therefore believes that people can know about more than one culture. As his daughters get older, Chanu fears what it will mean for them if they grow up without a sense of history or connection to the culture they came from. Chanu believes it will impact their self-esteem and how they see themselves. His desire to return to Bangladesh is rooted in his desire to give his children a sense of roots and history.
Brick Lane Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Brick Lane is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.