Study Guide

Black Narcissus

by Rumer Godden

Black Narcissus Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

In October, a band of Anglo-Catholic nuns from the Order of the Servants of Mary set out by pony from Darjeeling for the rural highlands of India. There, they intend to found a school and clinic for women and children at Mopu Palace, which rests on land claimed by the British under colonial rule. By offering the palace rent-free, wealthy Indian general Toda Rai hopes to atone for the excesses of his late father, an impetuous ruler who kept courtesans on the remote estate. Clodagh, the youngest sister superior in the order, heads the mission. Father Roberts and the Reverend Mother Dorothea advise her by letter.

Upon arrival, the nuns suffer altitude sickness, the chill of the incessant wind, and skepticism from those on whom they must depend. Mr. Dean, the English emissary who delivers supplies, servants, and advice, cautions that Mopu is no place for a nunnery, and he predicts that the nuns will take their leave by the next rainy season. Longtime Mopu caretaker Angu Ayah expects failure, too; earlier, the brothers of St. Peter abruptly abandoned their own St. Saviour’s School at the palace.

Anxious for success, General Toda Rai pays otherwise indifferent villagers to attend the convent school and hospital before the nuns have unpacked. Mr. Dean foists Kanchi, a voluptuous orphan, into convent care. Later, Dilip Rai, the general’s bejeweled nephew who is aiming to secure an English education at Cambridge University, requests lessons at the convent school. The nuns quickly assume their designated roles in the classrooms, dispensary, garden, kitchen, and chapel of the newly named Convent of St. Faith. Sister Ruth, however, resents being assigned minor duties.

By Christmas, the nuns, students, household workers, and an intoxicated Mr. Dean—by then, the object of Sister Ruth’s untoward affections, although he...

(The entire section is 755 words.)

Black Narcissus Bibliography (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Further Reading

Chisholm, Anne. Rumer Godden: A Storyteller’s Life. New York: Greenwillow Books, 1999. A sympathetic biography attempting to explain how Godden shaped her own life circumstances, especially an idyllic childhood in India, into fictional tales.

Lassner, Phyllis. Colonial Strangers: Women Writing at the End of the British Empire. Piscataway, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2004. Lassner, who argues that “no place has been found” for Godden “in the postcolonial canon,” makes a place beside Muriel Spark, Elspeth Huxley, and others, who wrote from and about outposts of the British Empire. Focuses on novels such as Black Narcissus to show Godden’s Anglo-India as an “oppressively walled garden” for her female protagonists.

Lassner, Phyllis, and Lucy Le-Guilcher, eds. Rumer Godden: International and Intermodern Storyteller. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2009. Scholarly essays explore Godden’s work. Includes a chapter on Black Narcissus looking at the novel in the context of “1930’s mountain writing.” Another essay addresses Godden’s incorporation of India as a literary landscape.

Macmillan, Margaret. Women of the Raj: The Mothers, Wives, and Daughters of the British Empire in India. New York: Random House, 2007. Draws on interviews, letters, and memoirs to describe life for women amid two cultures in India during the British colonial period.

Miller, Edmund. “Submission and Freedom: Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy.” Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature 54, no. 4 (Summer, 2002): 258-268. Miller points out the rarity of studies of Godden’s works. He chooses one of her lesser known novels, one about religious life, to illustrate her narrative skill and her insight into the human psyche.

Rosenthal, Lynne M. Rumer Godden Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1996. Part of a reference series on English authors, this volume discusses Godden’s scholarly contributions. Includes an annotated bibliography.