Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

With a gentle humor quite strange to most Western fiction, Narayan uses situation comedy and drama to tell what is fundamentally a story about the discovery of equanimity in life. It is easy to be charmed by Narayan’s surface texture into missing the underlying point of his tale. The gods and goddesses, who are usually introduced at some point in his stories, are not simply exotic emblems for decorative effect but also reminders of a moral pattern. The framed picture of the goddess Lakshmi that hangs on Jagan’s wall is an emblem of the protagonist’s wealth, but at the same time, it is a reminder of the problems that this wealth has not surmounted. The goddess to whom Jagan and his wife once prayed was a reminder of the barrenness in his marriage and of the divine intervention that solved this problem. Similarly, the unfinished stone form of Gayatri that the dye-maker is so determined to complete is the inspiration for Jagan’s acceptance of a new plane of selfhood.

Narayan’s gentle use of divine symbols is subtly coupled with unobtrusive allusions to Mohandas K. Gandhi, who, besides being a great political hero in his time, was also a spiritual example in his dedication to truth and to self-mortification. Gandhi becomes Jagan’s touchstone of spiritual purity and purpose.

The novel begins with Jagan’s proposition: “Conquer taste, and you will have conquered the self.” Although this is a maxim which he has merely learned by rote from Hindu sages without examining its ramifications, it illuminates the unfolding pattern of his search for equilibrium. Jagan does, indeed, move through various phases of self-denial, and by the end he has, in effect, conquered his dependence on purely material or sensory things. His ascetic withdrawal from the world is a conquest of self, for his commitment is no longer to ideas of business or fame or family fortune but to spiritual balance and self-purification.