An Astrologer's Day

by R. K. Narayan

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Style and Technique

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 215

“An Astrologer’s Day” is the title story of a collection by Narayan published in 1947 (in Great Britain but not in the United States); it is also the first story in Malgudi Days (1982), a retrospective volume that includes stories from several decades. It is typical of Narayan’s work not only in its themes but also in its style and structure.

The distinctive appeal of Narayan’s stories derives in part from tension between their strong emphasis on plot and their extreme brevity. “An Astrologer’s Day,” like most of Narayan’s stories, is very short, less than five pages long. Most modern short stories of its length are sketches, tending toward the plotless; in contrast, Narayan’s stories almost always have a clear dramatic action in which (in Narayan’s words) “the central character faces some kind of crisis and either resolves it or lives with it.”

“An Astrologer’s Day” features a plot twist worthy of O. Henry, but the brevity and conciseness of the tale and its low-key ending save it from the air of contrivance to which O. Henry was prone. Also notable is the irony that can be appreciated only in reading—particularly the exchange in which the astrologer assures Guru Nayak that his enemy met the fate he desired.

Historical Context

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Another aspect of Narayan's work that has been consistently pointed out in criticism is the author's refusal to engage with the historical and political events of the time. The author does not completely disregard politics, but that is always less important than the ordinary lives of the people who live in Malgudi.

The collection itself was published in 1947, the year that India gained its independence. It was a time of considerable excitement and turmoil in the country as the British made preparations to leave, and the country was on the brink of a civil war. The conflict between the Hindus and the Muslims was becoming increasingly difficult to control and there was large-scale violence perpetrated by both sides. It was also the time when the nonviolent struggle against the British had achieved international recognition and Gandhi was seen as a major figure. The story does not provide any sense of such events.

Reading the story after five decades is a useful exercise largely because the story has not lost any of its appeal. The timeless quality of the story is also its strength, and as a result the story continues to be relevant. Despite the fact that India has made huge strides in technology and is considered highly advanced in many areas, the pace of Indian life continues to be the same. Street vendors are still a common sight, and the migration from villages to cities continues to be a typical occurrence. In that sense, no aspect of the story appears to be archaic or outdated.

Literary Style

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Point of View The story adopts the traditional mode of third-person omniscience. In other words, the author/narrator relates the entire story to the reader, but since the entire plot is dependent on the revelation taking place at the end, the narrator does not reveal all the aspects of character at the beginning. While the narrator is forthcoming about all the peripheral goings-on in the story, s/he is careful not to reveal to the reader anything more than would be evident to any passerby. The reader sees the plot as it is being enacted, despite the presence of the omniscient narrator. The use of dialogue throughout the story serves the function of providing multiple points of view without altering the overall authority of the narrator.

Style One aspect of...

(This entire section contains 1030 words.)

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Narayan's writing that has been noted time and again is the remarkably simple style he consistently adopts. For those who are familiar with the South Indian Tamil language, his style would come across as a curious mixture of English and Tamil. While the syntax and grammar conform to English conventions, several of the idioms are clearly influenced by Tamil. Particularly in dialogue, as in the exchange between the astrologer and Guru Nayak, the language moves between standard English and dialect. Sometimes, it is evident that what he is providing is a literal translation of expressions in Tamil. The un-selfconscious skill with which he combines the traditions of two languages is yet another reason for his success.

Irony If there is one aspect of Narayan's writing that has been remarked on by all critics, it is the quality of irony that is always present. Whether it is the narrator informing the reader about the past or the characters interacting with each other, the note of irony is consistent and occurs as a result of the distance between what people profess and, what they do. No one, usually, is free from the ironic perspective of the author. But the irony is never malicious or particularly harsh. The dualities that the author perceives in the characters are subsumed in a larger acceptance of human weakness.

Narayan's irony has a quality of acceptance that prevents it from becoming satire or cynicism. In fact the central irony of the story is that Nayak spends so much time looking for the man who had harmed him and, when he eventually meets him, does not recognize him. By the same token, the astrologer had spent years living in virtual hiding only to discover that he had not committed a crime. These instances of irony operate at the level of structure, while the more obvious use of irony becomes evident when characters speak to each other.

Structure What gives this story its compelling power is the manner in which the story is constructed. The appearance of artlessness is really a result of a careful structure in which all the details fit together. The initial description of the astrologer gives the impression of a traditional method of introducing a character by describing his appearance. In this particular instance, the astrologer's appearance is a form of disguise, not because he is a fugitive, but because his profession demands that he should give the impression of being in possession of mystical powers. As a result, he hardly looks like the simple villager who left the village years ago. Hence it is no surprise that Nayak fails to identify him. By the same token, it is necessary to provide a context for the astrologer's initial failure to identify Nayak. That is achieved by the simple expedient of having Nayak appear when there is very little light and the astrologer is ready to close shop for the day. Significantly, the astrologer identifies Nayak when the latter lights a cigar and his face is illuminated for a brief moment.

Similarly, casual observations take on a particular significance later in the story. The astrologer's decision to leave the village is mentioned almost as an aside in the story. The strategy here is one of foreshadowing, where the author mentions a detail that appears trivial at that moment but becomes crucial in retrospect. Its relevance is evident at the end when he confesses that he is in some ways a fugitive.

One of the striking aspects of Narayan's writing is that, for the most part, he locates his work in the fictional town of Malgudi. While it is possible to speculate on a precise location for this city, the fact remains that Narayan intended Malgudi to be a microcosm of India. From the landscape to the characters who inhabit this world, there is a strong sense of allegory. The mountains, rivers, houses, city offices, places of religious worship, and shops are all constructed in a manner that would suggest that Malgudi is a typical city whose citizens may be found anywhere in India. It is the insistence with which Narayan does this that gives his work a quality of timelessness.

Literary Heritage R.K. Narayan was born in Madras, South India, in 1907. A Brahmin by birth (a Hindu priest caste), Narayan was trained in both Sanskrit (as part of his training in Hinduism) and English, although his mother tongue was Tamil, a language spoken by over sixty million people in India. Narayan published his first novel (in English) in 1935, during the turbulent division of India. His writing ranges from retellings of classical Hindu myths and stories to essays, short stories, and novels.

Unlike some other Indian authors of the twentieth century, Narayan did not actively avoid writing about the immense political or economic strife of his time and culture, although his primary focus was the day-to-day lives of ordinary Indian people. These depictions of Indian life lend Narayan's work a sense of timelessness, while still recording the forces of change throughout India. Narayan's work has gained an international audience and many critics have praised his work for its ability to impart a sense of Indian life as a native, calling his work a blend of Hindu mysticism and English form. Narayan's work, though in English, is characterized by a Hindu sensibility and a conviction that human lives and problems are part of a larger cosmic harmony.

Compare and Contrast

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1940s: India is still under colonial rule, gaining independence in 1947.

1970s: India has resolved many of its internal and external disputes and taken an active part in the creation of Bangladesh.

1990s: India emerges as a major industrial nation.

1940s: India is predominantly rural with relatively few urban centers.

1970s: India is still a controlled economy, but major advances are occurring in the shift to urban life.

1990s: India has become technologically advanced and very urban in its structure.

1940s: In terms of gender relations, Indian society is very patriarchal in its outlook.

1970s: India sees a number of changes with women joining the work force in large numbers. Indira Gandhi becomes prime minister.

1990s: Women's movements are very active in the country and major changes have occurred in gender equity. While the country is still patriarchal in many ways, women play a far more active and significant role in the life of the nation.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Further Reading Holstrom, Lakshmi, The Novels of R. K. Narayan, Calcutta: Writers Workshop, 1973. Analysis of individual novels in relation to themes, plots, and style. Attempts to place Narayan in the tradition of Indian writing, and maintains that his novels express a Hindu vision of the universe.

Kain, Geoffrey, ed., R. K. Narayan: Contemporary Critical Essays, Michigan State University Press, 1993. A broad-ranging collection of essays by some of the major critics in the field. Includes essays on individual novels and more general comparative essays. Provides a very good overview of different points of view. The bibliography of both primary and secondary material is likely to be very useful.

Vanden Driesen, Cynthia, "The Achievement of R. K. Narayan," in Literature East and West, Vol. 21, Nos. 1-4, 1977, pp. 51-64. A very perceptive and well-written article that deals with the whole corpus of Narayan's writing. Looks closely at the major preoccupations of Narayan's work. It is also one of the first works to suggest that Narayan is a fabulist.

Walsh, William, R. K. Narayan, Longmans, 1971. An early work, but very perceptive in its treatment of Narayan's major themes. Walsh offers a close reading of many texts and his comparative approach provides a valuable overview to Narayan's work.




Critical Essays