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
Coming of Age Quotes in The Reluctant Fundamentalist
… 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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.