The Themes of Irony and Cosmic Harmony in An Astrologer's Day

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1629

Among Indian writers in English, R. K. Narayan is probably one of the most prolific, and he has the distinction of having written fiction for more than sixty years. His first novel, Swami and Friends, appeared in 1935, and since then he has written novels, short stories, and essays, totaling more than thirty books in all. Although known predominantly as a novelist in India and the West, his short stories are no less significant than his longer works, and the story "An Astrologer's Day" continues to be a heavily anthologized piece. It is of considerable significance that a story which first appeared in 1947 should retain its appeal after more than fifty years.

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The deceptive simplicity of "An Astrologer's Day" is one aspect of the story that continues to baffle critics. Typically, Narayan's fiction does not depend extensively on the plot to sustain itself. Not much happens in the narrative, and the storyline is relatively straightforward and quite often linear. Sometimes the forward movement of time is arrested, as in this story, but the disruption is such that the reader perceives no real discontinuity in the overall movement of the plot. The shift from the present to the past is necessitated by the plot itself, and as soon as some aspect of the past that needs elaboration is mentioned, the story moves to the present. The spatial element too is kept relatively simple. Despite references to other settings—such as the village— all the action of this story happens in two places which are logically connected to each other. The first is the street where the astrologer runs his "shop" and the second is the astrologer's home to which he returns after work. Thus the spatial and temporal aspects of the story are traditional and uncomplicated.

Nonetheless, the story is far from simple. Every facet of the story is crucial to the overall thematic preoccupations of the author. For instance, the astrologer leaves for home when the groundnut vendor closes shop, simply because he is dependent on the groundnut seller for lighting. When this story occurs, the reader is told that after the neighbor closes shop there is still a sliver of light that strays in from somewhere. Although it is a trivial detail in itself, it is this light that enables the astrologer to read Guru Nayak's palm. This incident becomes necessary as a realistic detail and significant as a symbol of mental illumination.

One aspect of the story that requires careful study is the use of the imagery of light and darkness. The setting of the story is such that it needs to begin when there is light and end when it is dark. But it is hard to miss the irony of the title which insists on "Day" when the plot really unfolds when it is dark. From another perspective, the issue of light and darkness has an economic angle to it. It reinforces the fact that municipal lighting does not extend to this particular street. And it also points out that, depending on the relative prosperity of the vendors, some of them have their own sources of lighting while others tend to rely on "borrowed" light to conduct their business. More importantly, however, the duality of light and dark are obviously symbolic. When there is light, the astrologer conceals his past and the lack of any real expertise in the field of astrology. In that sense, light is associated with the inability to "see." By the same token it is when there is no light that the truth begins to unfold and both the astrologer and his client "see" aspects of themselves that had remained hidden. The astrologer realizes that he is no longer a fugitive and that he has paid for his sins. Nayak recognizes that his quest is, in the final analysis, a pointless one, and that he should return home and be at peace with himself.

The curious...

(The entire section contains 6412 words.)

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