Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 415

This comic masterpiece, which first appeared in The New Yorker, has the dimensions of an updated fairy tale: A childless old couple find their cupboard empty, but the old man goes out and meets a stranger who buys his last two goats for a small fortune. The tale is updated in that the poverty shown, with each day a new search for food, is only too real. Also real are the related conditions of village life in South India—the close-knit community with its malicious gossip and concern for status, the credit system exemplified by the village store, the bickering of husband and wife, the occasional violence and rough justice, the pervasive influence of religion.

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However, the story’s main updating is the clash of this village culture with American culture, represented by the American tourist. The stereotyped American tourist with his monoglot outlook and moneybags is perhaps less real than the story’s other characters, but he is individualized somewhat by his New York background: Here the typical suburbanite of The New Yorker goes east. As usual, he is an object of gentle satire. He moves about on the floating world with ease thanks to his financial means, but otherwise he is a total nincompoop. He reduces existence to getting and spending, buying an avatar of the just god to install in his living room. His cocktail guests had better stay on their best behavior.

However, even the American tourist is not entirely oblivious to the existential void: His experience of a New York City power failure—a technological version of the Caves of Malabar—moves him to visit other civilizations. Although dimly understood, his basic instinct to bring the god back home is correct. The clash of cultures is symbolized by the different languages that the tourist and Muni speak, but, amazingly, in the long run they do communicate. Their misunderstandings are hilarious, but they share an understanding beyond language—that is, the human condition. In their little drama of the absurd, they serve as each other’s sympathetic listener, and their cooperation enables each man to cope with his particular need. The two men, like their two cultures, complement each other, but they are more alike than different: Muni is simply a village counterpart of the New York commuter. As they face the universe, society, and their wives, each man no doubt wants to resemble the fierce warrior standing beside the horse, but in actuality they are more like the two goats.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 826

Culture Clash
The most important theme in ‘‘A Horse and Two Goats,’’ and in fact the central theme of Narayan’s work, is the clash of cultures, specifically the clash of Indian and Western cultures. Using humor instead of anger, Narayan demonstrates just how far apart the two worlds are: the two cultures exist in the same time and space, but literally and metaphorically speak different languages. The two main characters in this story couldn’t be more different: Muni is poor, rural, uneducated, Hindu, brown; the American is wealthy, urban, educated, probably Judeo-Christian, white. As a good Hindu, Muni calmly accepts the hand that fate has dealt him, while the American is willing and able to take drastic and sudden action to change his life (for example, flying off to India, or throwing away his return plane ticket to transport a horse statue home on a ship). Each man is quite ignorant of the other’s way of life.

Unlike many stories about culture clash, the inability to communicate in this story leads only to confusion, not to any real harm. In fact, although each feels vaguely dissatisfied with the conversation, the men do not realize that they are not communicating. Each speaks at length about his own life and local calamities, with no awareness that the other hears nothing. At the end of their encounter each man has what he wants or needs, and neither man has lost anything of value. As an Indian who writes only in English, Narayan himself has experienced the ways in which Indian and Western cultures conflict. While this conflict may be painful at times, here he finds it merely amusing.

Wealth and Poverty
Although they have little in common, the most important way in which Muni and the American differ is in their respective level of wealth. Narayan takes great pains in the opening of the story to show how desperately poor Muni is, and to emphasize that even in his time of ‘‘prosperity’’ his standard of living was still greatly below that of most Americans. The American takes for granted his relative wealth and seems unaware of the difference between Muni and himself. He casually offers cigarettes to a man who has never seen one, complains about four hours without air conditioning to a man who has never had electricity, brags about enjoying manual labor as a Sunday hobby to a man who grew up working in the fields from morning until night, and without a thought gives Muni enough money to open a business. He is not trying to show off; he simply accepts his wealth as his right. His very casualness emphasizes the gap between them. Narayan in no way condemns the man for being wealthy, or for not stepping in to aid the poor Muni, but he wants the two men and their relative wealth to be clear, so the reader can evaluate the relationship between wealth and worth.

Knowledge and Ignorance
In a small way, ‘‘A Horse and Two Goats’’ explores the different ways that a person can be educated. Muni, who grew up a member of a lower caste at a time when only the Brahmin, the highest caste, could attend school, has had no formal education. He has not traveled beyond his village, and he likes to watch trucks and buses go by on the highway a few miles away so that he can have ‘‘a sense of belonging to a larger world.’’ He does not even know his own age. He does, however, have an impressive amount of knowledge of the two major texts of his literary heritage, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, which he has learned by acting in plays and by listening to speakers at the temple. He knows the stories, and he is able to mine them for truth and wisdom when he needs them.

The American, on the other hand, has had the full benefits of an American education. He has a roomful of books that he values as objects (‘‘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’’), but there is no evidence that he understands or values what is inside them. On one level, he is familiar with the larger world around him in a way that Muni never will be. However, even on this trip to India ‘‘to look at other civilizations,’’ he does not seem to be looking at India for what it is, but only for a reflection of—and ornaments for—his own life. The uneducated Muni tries to tell him the significance of the horse statue, but the American sees it only as a living room decoration. Of course, the language barrier prevents him from receiving Muni’s interpretation, but it never even crosses his mind to ask. In this story, there are at least two ways to be ignorant.

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