A Horse and Two Goats

by R. K. Narayan

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Critical Overview

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Over a prolific career spanning more than fifty years, Narayan has published fourteen novels, thirteen collections of short stories, and eleven other volumes of essays, translations and memoirs. He is known primarily for his many novels and short stories set in the fictional, small Southern Indian town of Malgudi, and most critics and reviewers focus on these stories. Critics appreciate Narayan for the clarity of his vision for the town, for the way the town has grown and changed over the years as a ‘‘real’’ town would, and they compare his use of the town through many works to William Faulkner’s creation of Yoknapatawpha County or Thomas Hardy’s Wessex novels, yet they find that his details about everyday Indian life and his warmth and sympathy toward his characters create stories that are universal. Reaction to Narayan’s work has always been quite positive, but his reputation among literary scholars seems to be fading as the twentieth century draws to a close. While general readers continue to value Narayan’s work for its simplicity of language, straightforward plotting and action, gentle humor and sweet disposition, recent commentators have found it perhaps a touch too unsophisticated and nonpolitical to warrant serious study.

‘‘A Horse and Two Goats’’ is one of the few Narayan stories not set in Malgudi, and it has received very little critical attention of its own. It was one of many stories Narayan wrote quickly, at a rate of two per week, as a contributor to the Madras newspaper The Hindu. The story came to the attention of the international reading community when it appeared in the collection A Horse and Two Goats and Other Stories in 1970, and most criticism refers to this collection. Typical is R. K. Narayan: A Critical Appreciation, in which William Walsh relegates his discussion of the story to a chapter entitled ‘‘Other Work.’’ His analysis, like most writing about this story, consists primarily of a plot summary and the observation that ‘‘Narayan is himself fascinated by the gap which exists between supposed and real understanding, by the element of incomprehension in human relationships.’’ P. S. Ramana, in a short section of his Message in Design: A Study of R. K. Narayan’s Fiction, focuses on ‘‘how, by manipulating the narratorial position, focus, tone, attitude and commentary, the author is able to almost overlook the darker side of the experience to produce a highly humorous and ironic tale.’’ In an article in Perspectives on R. K. Narayan, H. C. Trivedi and N. C. Soni find the chief importance of the story is as ‘‘a subtle and real entertainment.’’

When the story appeared again in 1985, in the collection Under the Banyan Tree and Other Stories, a new generation of readers discovered it. This collection has received no formal criticism, but was reviewed in major American newspapers and magazines. Many reviewers of this volume single out ‘‘A Horse and Two Goats’’ because it is one of the longest stories in the collection, and because it is a fine example of Narayan’s humor. In a review in Washington Post Book World, Frances Taliaferro calls the story ‘‘a classic of cross purposes.’’ Neville Shack, writing for [London] Times Literary Supplement, finds ‘‘a flourish of banality, exasperating but quite moving at the same time, infused with human drollery.’’ Although the market for short story collections has declined steadily, and critical attention to Narayan’s work has also declined, ‘‘A Horse and Two Goats’’ continues to appear in high school and college textbook anthologies, where students and teachers give it high marks for its insight into another culture in the form of a humorous tale.

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Essays and Criticism