A Horse and Two Goats

by R. K. Narayan

Start Free Trial

What are the themes of "A Horse and Two Goats"?

Quick answer:

One of the themes of "A Horse and Two Goats" is the inability of different cultures to communicate with one another. Both the American man in the story and the poor Indian herdsman Muni think they understand each other, that they've come to some mutually beneficial arrangement. But in actual fact, both end up with considerably more than they bargained for.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Communication problems between different cultures are much to the fore in "A Horse and Two Goats." The poor Indian goatherd Muni and the wealthy American tourist occupy not so much different worlds as different planets. Though able to strike up a friendly conversation—even though neither man can speak the other's language—Muni and the American tourist are at cross-purposes.

It's not just that the two men are unable to speak each other's languages; their respective value systems are also mutually incompatible. The wealthy American tourist, who used to work on the fortieth floor of the Empire State Building, is in a completely different line of work—and income bracket—than the poor Indian goatherd Muni, who's fallen on hard times of late.

This massive disparity of income places an additional barrier between the two men. In fact, one gets the impression that this is an even bigger barrier to mutual understanding than their inability to speak one another's languages. The American has certain cultural assumptions about India, which don't seem to correspond to the realities of Indian life. Even if he could speak the language like a native, then, or even if Muni could speak English, it's highly unlikely that any kind of mutual understanding could emerge.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Culture clash is the central theme of “A Horse and Two Goats.” Two men from different cultural backgrounds meet and are unable to understand each other’s way of life. Muni is uneducated, rural, and Indian, while the American is affluent, urban, and learned. The gentlemen get along with one other even though they don’t speak the same tongue. Unlike in many stories with culture clash as a theme, “A Horse and Two Goats” does not portray any real harm. However, confusion emanating from the culture clash in this text is quite apparent. For instance, each man speaks about his personal life without any idea that their counterpart is unaware of what they are saying.

Another significant theme in Narayan’s work is wealth and poverty. From the beginning of the story, Muni is depicted as a poor ordinary Indian citizen. Muni was progressive during his heydays, but his wealth was still nothing compared to that of most Americans. In the story, the American offers a cigarette to Muni, a man who has never set eyes on one. He also talks about how he enjoys manual work on Sundays with no idea that Muni grew up working in fields. The author does not purport to condemn the American’s wealth. Rather, Narayan intention is to make the relationship between affluence and worth clear to the reader.

Further, knowledge versus ignorance is an essential theme in “A Horse and Two Goats.” There is a clear discrepancy between the Indian (Muni) and the American regarding exposure. Muni has neither received formal education nor gone beyond the villages. In contrast, the American has been privileged enough to receive education and greatly values it. He has a room full of reading materials (as he illustrates when he says, “you know I love books and am a member of five book clubs, and the choice and bonus volumes mount up to a pile in our living room”). The American has also traveled around the world, unlike Muni.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Let's expand on some of the themes in this story.

A major theme is the obvious clash of cultures as exhibited by the wealthy, white American and the poor Hindu, Muni. The two men do not speak the same language, are not of the same economic status, and do not have the same outlooks on life. Their religions are different; their marriage customs are different. There appear to be almost no similarities here. However, they are, as if by fate, put together in one location for comparison. Thus the story and what the reader learns through this juxtaposition can be illuminated.

The story obviously punctuates the economic differences between not just men, but entire cultures. By watching them both together, the reader can see that the American typifies the life of ease and entitlement that contrasts with the hard work, acceptance and loss that characterizes Muni's life. However, the story does not turn into a judgmental piece but rather shows that Muni's acceptance of his life is more peaceful than the American's attitude. After all, the American cannot stop complaining about the lack of air-conditioning and is irritated that Muni cannot speak English, even though he, himself, can only speak English. The American is not, and probably will not ever be, satisfied.

The story also expresses the theme of knowledge versus wisdom. The American is highly educated but does not seem to truly understand the vastness of the world he lives in. Muni is not educated, but truly understands his own culture, history, religion and humanity in terms of the culmination of experiences in his life. In this manner, the American is seen as not unintelligent, but merely ignorant of the world, while Muni, not necessarily educated in a formal manner, is vastly intelligent.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial