The Painter of Signs

by R. K. Narayan

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What is the theme in The Painter of Signs?  

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The primary theme of this novel by R. K. Narayan is the clash between tradition and modernity. As The Painter of Signs is set in small-town India, this conflict plays out in terms of traditional Indian culture and modern Western culture. Through the various characters, however, Narayan shows that this is not a total dichotomy. While youth largely represents the attachment to modernity, some of the younger characters retain or even rediscover the importance of traditions. These contradictions are symbolized by Raman’s sign-painting, in which the traditional artistry seems at odds with the modern message.

Daisy most fully embodies the younger India’s embrace of modern, foreign ideas. These include independence, shown by her refusal to marry, and individualism, as evidenced by her work in family planning. Although educated by missionaries, she has rejected not only Hinduism but religion altogether, becoming an atheist. Her intense attraction to the highly traditional Raman is another contradiction.

Raman displays the contradictions of Indian versus Western influences. He has a Western education that stresses rationality and logic, but he is drawn to traditional Indian lifestyles. However, his tendency to romanticize the rural existence reveals a disconnect from the harsh realities that characterize rural society. In addition, his decision to marry a very modern girl is undermined by his wishes for obedience to family custom. For him, these contradictions come to a head after his aunt passes away and he must make the pilgrimage to the Ganges.

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