The Home and the World is considered Tagore's darkest work. He sets the novel during the height of the Swadeshi movement. The Swadeshi movement is born out of the dissatisfaction of Bengalis at the unjust partition of Bengal into two administrations by the British in October 1905. The British insist that the partition is necessary to make governing a much easier task, but the real reason is much more Machiavellian: the British aim to keep Indian nationalists divided is crucial to their hold on the country. The Hindus of Bengal are furious that their country will be divided into an Eastern Muslim majority and a Western Hindu majority. The Bengalis rebel with their swadeshi movement. Gandhi was a major proponent of this movement. In a nutshell, the swadeshi principle is all about Indian villages producing all the goods necessary for their survival. He didn't believe in trade between villages solely; trade is only to be a secondary means of meeting societal needs. Gandhi and Tagore believed in self-sufficiency and self-reliance or atmasaki. This self-reliance would naturally perpetuate self-dignity and in turn national dignity. The British on the other hand believed in centralized and industrialized mass production, not production by the masses.
The Swadeshi movement was largely a boycott of British and foreign goods. The idea was to only use Indian made goods. Now, we have a context in which to discuss The Home and the World and the clashes between new/old, realism/idealism, means/the end, and good/evil.
Bimala is the traditional Indian housewife. Her name means "without blemish." She is chaste and submissive to her husband, Nikhil. However, she becomes fascinated with Sandip, the total opposite of her own husband. While Sandip is a revolutionary, Nikhil is moderate in his views. Nikhil represents the moderate wing of the Swadeshi movement, while Sandip represents the more militant wing of the Swadeshi movement. Bimala is seen as making the transition from the traditional to the modern while trying to bridge the two at the same time; Indian housewives do not typically indulge in political movements, and her emergence into the modern is juxtaposed with her desire for a more emotionally expressive masculinity in her husband. She finds the angry and turbulent Sandip attractive and is drawn to him. Yet her struggle to combine the traditional principles of marital fidelity/loyalty with the modern principles of revolution (her idealism) threatens to undermine both in her life.
Realism/Idealism and the means/end:
Bimala steals 6000 rupees from her husband, Nikhil, because she believes in Sandip's militant cause. Like many from the militant wing of the Swadeshi movement, she starts to see that some violence is necessary to combat the atrocities the British are starting to inflict on the Bengali people in a frantic attempt to maintain some semblance of control. Sandip's name is translated to "with dipa (light, fire, flame)" and indeed, he is a fiery militant who believes that the ideals of his movement (a free Bengal, unencumbered by British meddling and Muslim intrusion) is far more important to preserve than a veneer of fragile peace between all parties. So, when he encourages Bimala to steal from her husband, he is just indulging his Machiavellian belief in fulfilling his mission. He needs the money for his political cause and it doesn't matter where it comes from and who it comes from or how it manifests itself, as long as it helps him achieve his goals. He is even willing to use Bimala's attraction for him as a tool to fulfill his goals.
Sandip believes that truth is necessary, but only as an impetus to violent action; in this way, his brand of realism is at war with that of Nikhil's. He believes that one must do what is necessary to achieve what one most wants. In other words, one is to reach out and use whatever means to achieve the ideals one believes in. It then follows that how one achieves the result is less important than the result itself.
"when reality has to meet the unreal, deception is its principal weapon; for its enemies always try to shame Reality by calling it gross, and so it needs must hide itself, or else put on some disguise"
Nikhil believes living morally is far more important than living violently to achieve one's goals. He is concerned with meeting the ideals of the Divine, while Sandip is focused on meeting the ideals of his earthly Cause. Bimala must weigh both in order to decide which man she will give her true allegiance to. Even though repentant in the end, she represents the struggle of India to marry the traditional principles of Indian society with the reality of British imperialism and Muslim intrusion into Hindu territory. Each side believes the other is evil. Who decides what leads to peace if both cannot cede territory and fiercely defended rights? Tagore ends the novel with Nikhil critically injured because he gallantly runs to the defense of women mistreated by Muslim looters. Bimala realizes that Nikhil's goodness propels him to the defense of the women; he resorts to violence in order to protect, never to harm. Sandip has no such qualms. Interestingly, Nikhil is far from convinced Sandip is a better man:
Sandip certainly has attractive qualities, which had their sway also upon myself; but yet, I feel sure, he is not a greater man than I.
This is an intense work and I hope that what I have written is helpful. Thanks for the question, and you will find the relevant links below!