The Reluctant Fundamentalist

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Themes and Colors
Patriotism & Post-9/11 United States Theme Icon
Coming of Age Theme Icon
Racism & Fundamentalism Theme Icon
Human Connection Theme Icon
American Imperialism Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Coming of Age Theme Icon

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a good example of a Bildungsroman, or coming of age novel. In the early chapters, Changez, the protagonist (his name clues us in to the character development he’ll undergo) is an uncertain, passive young man. He travels all over the world (to Princeton University, to Greece, to New York City) without ever voicing a particularly strong reason for choosing to go to these places. In reality, he doesn’t “choose” to go to Princeton or New York at all – he obeys what others tell him, or does what he thinks he’s supposed to do. Because of his passivity in most of the first half of the book, Changez encounters many different models for how he should come of age. One important model is Princeton University, where he absorbs the unstated but accepted idea that a valuable life is one in which he uses his intelligence and knowledge to help a capitalist American company, which in his case is Underwood Samson. It’s only when he looks back on his life later that Changez realizes that this was the hidden message of his Princeton education and that he has allowed others to control his own development.

In the aftermath of September 11, Changez encounters new hostility from Americans: an aggressive airport security guard detains him, and pedestrians harass him. He begins to realize that the ideal of growing up he’s been fed at Princeton and Underwood Samson makes him useful to Americans, but doesn’t actually make him a part of America. Despite his contributions, he’s still seen as an outsider in the United States. Naturally angry at having been used and rejected in this way, he begins to rebel against America and Underwood Samson in small ways, such as growing out his beard – an expression of his desire to take control of his own life and a symbol of his coming of age. Changez’s ultimate choice to leave the United States for Pakistan contrasts markedly with his early, passive traveling.

But even if The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a book about growing up, it’s not completely clear what Changez grows up to be. He returns to Pakistan to become a university lecturer, but the novel never reveals whether or not he has become a supporter of terrorist groups, or simply a peaceful critic of American foreign policy. Changez’s identity is unclear to us; it may also be unclear to Changez himself. The ambiguity of the ending, in which it is unclear whether he is about to befriend or attack the Stranger, may be read as a sign that Changez is still growing and still has choices to make, choices that will define who he will become.

Coming of Age ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Coming of Age appears in each chapter of The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Coming of Age Quotes in The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Below you will find the important quotes in The Reluctant Fundamentalist related to the theme of Coming of Age.
Chapter 5 Quotes

… I did something in Manila I had never done before: I attempted to act and speak, as much as my dignity would permit, more like an American.

Related Characters: Changez (speaker)
Page Number: 65
Explanation and Analysis:

During his early days working for Underwood Samson, Changez travels to Manila to work with a wealthy client. Changez's trip to Manila shows how far he's come since graduating college. While still in college, Changez was disgusted with his friends' entitlement and obliviousness to the dignity of other people. Now, as an employee of Underwood Samson, Changez seems to be trying to act equally oblivious to other people—to act like a confident, spoiled American.

In the simplest terms, Changez is "moving up" in the world. He finally feels that he has a home and a community in the United States: in New York City, he's surrounded by like-minded, ambitious young men and women. But the unpleasant side-effect of Changez's upward social mobility is that he's become the thing he hated. Changez knows that he's acting like an obnoxious, arrogant American, but he also wants to fit in and feel confident about his identity.

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Chapter 7 Quotes

I wonder now, sir, whether I believed at all in the firmness of the foundations of the new life I was attempting to construct for myself in New York. Certainly I wanted to believe; at least I wanted not to disbelieve with such intensity that I prevented myself as much as was possible from making the obvious connection between the crumbling of the world around me and the impending destruction of my personal American dream.

Related Characters: Changez (speaker), The Stranger
Page Number: 93
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quotation, Changez speaks eloquently about a familiar problem for immigrants and minorities in their new country. Changez wants to be an American—i.e., a privileged, entitled member of a large and powerful community. It's because of his desire for acceptance that Changez joins Underwood Samson, dates Erica, etc. And yet there's a part of Changez that knows that he'll never really succeed in becoming part of his adopted country: because of his heritage and skin color, he'll always be "different"—an exotic other at best, a dangerous criminal at worst.

In a broader sense, the passage is important for understanding how Changez comes to "grow up" over the course of the book. Changez is still very naive at this point. Although he recognizes that the new War on Terror, precipitated by 9/11, will make the lives of Middle Easterners in the U.S. very difficult, he still thinks of himself as an exception to the rule: he thinks he's so wealthy and well-educated that he won't be persecuted for his race. In short, Changez is smart enough to see through his American peers' racism and narrow-minded view of the world, but he's not yet smart enough to see that he is still an outsider, and not a full member of his new American community.

“Are you missing Chris?” She nodded, and I saw tears begin to force themselves between her lashes. “Then pretend,” I said, “pretend I am him.” I do not know why I said it; I felt overcome and it seemed, suddenly, a possible way forward.

Related Characters: Changez (speaker), Erica, Chris
Page Number: 105
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Hamid offers us a striking metaphor for the way minorities try to adapt to their new homes. Changez—by this point in love with Erica—tries to understand Erica's obsessive love for her dead boyfriend, Chris. Erica grew up with Chris, and still thinks about him all the time. It's been suggested that Erica's love for Chris is meant as a metaphor for the Western world's love for its own vanished past: in other words, the decaying legacy of Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman values (or AmErica's love for Christianity). By the same token, Changez's desire to "become" Chris suggests one of the coping mechanisms that minorities have adopted to survive in America: they've tried to become more American than Americans. (If this idea sounds weird, consider the fact that many of the classic "patriotic" American songs were written by first-generation immigrants.)

Changez is conscious of being an outsider in America: everybody thinks of him as dangerous and threatening because he's from Pakistan, a country where the U.S. is currently fighting a War on Terror. Frustrated with his tormentors, Changez tries to "hide" by becoming perfectly American: first by getting a great American job, then by dating an American, and finally by literally asking someone to imagine him as a white American man.

Chapter 9 Quotes

I had changed; I was looking about me with the eyes of a foreigner, and not just any foreigner, but that particular type of entitled and unsympathetic American who so annoyed me when I encountered him in the classrooms and workplaces of your country’s elite … I resolved to exorcise the unwelcome sensibility by which I had become possessed.

Related Characters: Changez (speaker)
Page Number: 124
Explanation and Analysis:

Changez flies back to his childhood home in Lahore. There, he's shocked to find that he reflexively thinks of the city as run-down and ugly. In other words, Changez's time in the United States has trained him to think of the rest of the world like a "true American": he thinks of non-American cities and countries as inferior. In the quotation, Changez seems to remember the school trip he and his Princeton friends took to Greece years before, and he remembers how obnoxious he found his classmates when they looked down on Greece. Now, Changez is looking down on Pakistan in exactly the same snobbish, entitled way.

For a long time now, Changez has been aware that he's becoming an obnoxious American. But up until this point, Changez was willing to turn a blind eye to his own entitlement, because he was desperate to fit in with his new American peers. When he returns to his childhood home, Changez guiltily realizes how much he's changed. Confronted with his own family and home, Changez decides that he's not going to pretend to be American any longer.

I know only that I did not wish to blend in with the army of clean-shaven youngsters who were my coworkers, and that inside me, or multiple reasons, I was deeply angry.

Related Characters: Changez (speaker)
Related Symbols: Underwood Samson
Page Number: 130
Explanation and Analysis:

When Changez returns to New York from his trip to Pakistan, he decides to grow out his beard—making it crystal-clear that he's a foreigner, not an American. Moreover, Changez has begun to feel a deep, inexpressible anger with America and his American friends.

Changez lists "multiple reasons" for his anger. To begin with, he's angry with American culture for seducing him. During his time in Pakistan, Changez has come to realize how entitled and arrogant he's become: America has shaped him into the very thing he hates. Furthermore, the atmosphere of the United States after 9/11 has convinced Changez that he's still an outsider in America. In spite of his first-class education and excellent job, Changez is still viewed as a dangerous Middle Easterner. Changez has done everything he can to fit in with Americans, and yet he's still being punished for the color of his skin. Furious, Changez decides that he doesn't want to fit in anymore. Instead of trying to hide his outsiderness, Changez decides to celebrate his Pakistani heritage, to flaunt it in the face of a racist nation—hence his beard.

Chapter 10 Quotes

I too had previously derived comfort from my firm’s exhortations to focus intensely on work, but now I saw that in this constant striving to realize a financial future, no thought was given to the critical personal and political issues that affect one’s emotional present. In other words, my blinders were coming off, and I was dazzled and rendered immobile by the sudden broadening of my arc of vision.

Related Characters: Changez (speaker)
Related Symbols: Underwood Samson
Page Number: 145
Explanation and Analysis:

During his time working with Underwood Samson in South America, Changez comes to realize how "blind" he's been to the realities of his situation. Working for the firm, Changez is instructed to "focus on the fundamentals." As Changez has interpreted these words, he's supposed to focus on the dollars and cents of his assignments, rather than the human beings he's putting out of business in the process. In other words, "focus on the fundamentals" is a form of corporate propaganda, designed to repress employees' natural sympathy—which is, apparently, the enemy of good business. Furthermore, the emphasis on fundamentals parallels the way that Changez has tried to conceal his Pakistani heritage while in the United States. By concentrating on work and his career ambitions, Changez has hoped to move beyond his race and heritage and prove himself a "true American."

As Changez's blinders come off, he realizes how foolish and narrow-minded Underwood Samson—and the U.S.—can be. Instead of concealing his heritage and looking down on other people less fortunate than he, Changez decides to celebrate his Pakistani roots and express sympathy for the poor and suffering—in other words, he is reluctant to focus on the fundamentals (hence the title of the book). Changez's epiphany represents a key step in his coming of age: the moment when he stops obeying a master (Underwood Samson and U.S. culture) and begins to make his own choices.

There really could be no doubt; I was a modern-day janissary, a servant of the American empire at a time when it was invading a country with kinship to mine and was perhaps even colluding to ensure that my own country faced the threat of war. Of course I was struggling! Of course I felt torn!

Related Characters: Changez (speaker)
Page Number: 152
Explanation and Analysis:

Changez analogizes his situation to that of the janissaries. The janissaries were warriors, kidnapped from their Muslim homeland as children and trained to fight for Christian nations—sometimes fighting against the very countries where they were born. As Changez sees it, he's like a janissary: he was born in Pakistan, but now he's working for the U.S. to keep America's economy strong and the economy of countries like Pakistan weak.

The analogy Changez is making might seem melodramatic (Changez isn't literally a warrior, after all). And yet he has a point: one could argue that America's War on Terror was largely a financial decision, designed to increase America's hold on oil reserves and eliminate the foreign powers who'd attacked the World Trade Center, its very name a symbol of America's economic supremacy. In other words, by working for an American business, Changez is a warrior against Pakistan, in the same sense that a literal soldier would be.

The quotation shows Changez coming to terms with his place in America. By thinking of himself in such broad, historical terms, he arrives at some important truths about his career. Above all, he realizes that he doesn't belong in Pakistan or America: he's an outsider in both countries, "torn" between two cultures.

Chapter 12 Quotes

Not, of course, that I actually believe I am having a relationship, in the normal sense of the term, with Erica at this moment, or that she will one day appear, smiling and bent against the weight of her backpack, to surprise me on my doorstep. But I am still young and see no need to marry another, and for now I am content to wait.

Related Characters: Changez (speaker), Erica
Page Number: 176
Explanation and Analysis:

The irony of Changez's relationship with Erica is that, while he's exasperated with Erica for carrying on a long, tormented love affair with a dead man (Chris), Changez is now doing essentially the same thing. Even if Changez insists that he knows he's not in a "true" relationship with Erica, it's clear that for all intents and purposes, he's still devoted to her—despite the fact that she might not even be alive anymore. Instead of looking ahead to the future, Changez is lost in his own past: he still imagines Erica as he first saw her, cheerful and energetic, wearing her backpack, etc. Once again, Changez has become the thing he hates: a nostalgic "shell" of a man.

While Changez's continued love for Erica might seem tragic or ironic to readers, it's also touching. Given that Hamid has paralleled Erica with America throughout his novel, Changez's love for Erica suggests that he still loves his adopted country, in spite of the hardships he's experienced there following 9/11. By the same token, it's possible that Changez—in spite of his apparent hostility toward the Stranger, an American—might still have some respect and admiration for his new acquaintance after all.