Black Narcissus

by Rumer Godden

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 755

In October, a band of Anglo-Catholic nuns from the Order of the Servants of Mary set out by pony from Darjeeling for the rural highlands of India. There, they intend to found a school and clinic for women and children at Mopu Palace, which rests on land claimed by the British under colonial rule. By offering the palace rent-free, wealthy Indian general Toda Rai hopes to atone for the excesses of his late father, an impetuous ruler who kept courtesans on the remote estate. Clodagh, the youngest sister superior in the order, heads the mission. Father Roberts and the Reverend Mother Dorothea advise her by letter.

Upon arrival, the nuns suffer altitude sickness, the chill of the incessant wind, and skepticism from those on whom they must depend. Mr. Dean, the English emissary who delivers supplies, servants, and advice, cautions that Mopu is no place for a nunnery, and he predicts that the nuns will take their leave by the next rainy season. Longtime Mopu caretaker Angu Ayah expects failure, too; earlier, the brothers of St. Peter abruptly abandoned their own St. Saviour’s School at the palace.

Anxious for success, General Toda Rai pays otherwise indifferent villagers to attend the convent school and hospital before the nuns have unpacked. Mr. Dean foists Kanchi, a voluptuous orphan, into convent care. Later, Dilip Rai, the general’s bejeweled nephew who is aiming to secure an English education at Cambridge University, requests lessons at the convent school. The nuns quickly assume their designated roles in the classrooms, dispensary, garden, kitchen, and chapel of the newly named Convent of St. Faith. Sister Ruth, however, resents being assigned minor duties.

By Christmas, the nuns, students, household workers, and an intoxicated Mr. Dean—by then, the object of Sister Ruth’s untoward affections, although he is careful to avoid her—join St. Faith’s holiday service and carol singing. After much discussion, the nuns decide to accept Mr. Dean’s holiday gift of fleece-lined Tibetan boots for each of them; seemingly too personal and too unconventional an addition to their traditional garb, the boots are nevertheless practical in the frigid winter weather.

After the holiday, Sister Clodagh meets privately with Sister Ruth to discuss the latter’s ailing health, erratic behavior, and obvious attraction to Mr. Dean. Ruth distrusts the sister superior, accuses her of bullying, and then weeps silently. Clodagh proposes that Ruth air her troubles in sealed correspondence to Mother Dorothea.

Later, Father Roberts pays a rare visit and finds the school well organized, but he finds the nuns curiously distracted. He worries about their isolation.

Gradually, convent routines and boundaries erode. Enraptured with the beauty of the mountains, Sister Phillippa neglects the prayer bell and the laundry. Sister Clodagh daydreams about Con, the Irish love she had expected to marry. Sister Ruth lapses into jealous outbursts. To safeguard her faith, Sister Phillippa transfers elsewhere. Her replacement, Sister Adela, objects to intrusions by Mr. Dean, Dilip Rau, and the Sunnyasi, a silent holy man living on convent grounds, ever staring at the Himalayas.

Spring at Mopu is marked by obsessive love, fatal mistakes, and exits. After Ayah beats Kanchi for stealing a vase, the girl disappears with Dilip Rai. Against advice, Sister Blanche gives medicine to a dying Indian baby; furious locals blame her for his death, and they shun St. Faith’s.

Sister Ruth sneaks away from the convent to throw herself at Mr. Dean, who rejects her advances but fails to escort the madwoman home. While others search the river, tea fields, and factory for the missing nun, Ruth emerges from convent shadows to attack Clodagh. The two struggle on...

(This entire section contains 755 words.)

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the terrace; Sister Ruth loses her footing and plunges over the railings. In the gulf below, her lifeless body is impaled on cut bamboo, speared through the chest.

Clodagh details all in a letter to Mother Dorothea, who recalls the nuns from their mission. Grieving and anxious to leave Mopu before the onset of the summer rains, they await General Toda Rai’s farewell visit. Meanwhile, Dilip Rai avows his plan to keep, but never marry, Kanchi. Mr. Dean agrees to tend Sister Ruth’s grave. Clodagh admits that she will be sent to another convent and given less responsibility. Finally, by late June, a disappointed Toda Rai manages to say good-bye.

As the nuns depart, a clap of thunder signals rain. Clodagh regrets that the oncoming deluge will wash away traces of their ill-fated time at Mopu, except for what may remain as village legend.


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