Houses in Rumer Godden’s novels often function like characters. In Black Narcissus, the House of Women is a tainted link to the past, thwarting landlord Toda Rai’s efforts to reform it by securing religious tenants with good intentions: “Sometimes it seemed to him that the house had a bad wild life of its own; the impression of its evil lingered.” As residents, the nuns fight inherited battles between the forces of good and evil, wildness and order, and selflessness and narcissism—often within themselves. Biblical images and metaphors in their story make the battles seem truly primal: Ruth is snakelike, stealthy, and ready to strike; her death at Easter brings rebirth, or new humility and understanding, to proud Clodagh.
Shifts in time and streams of consciousness, stylistic hallmarks of Godden’s work, arise in connection with two key characters in Black Narcissus. When Clodagh worries, the story shifts back in time. Specifically, flashbacks to romantic moments in Clodagh’s past, or to early words of counsel from Mother Dorothea, reveal lingering doubts that the young leader dares not express. In flashbacks, Clodagh revisits her “secret unworthy reason” for entering the convent, Reverend Mother’s admonitions against haughtiness, and the decision to remain at Mopu in spite of imminent danger. Time oddities in her dreams also unsettle Clodagh: Con from her Irish past and Dilip Rai from her Indian present appear together, carrying mirrors and turning their backs on her.
Living in a small religious community from which she fears expulsion, Ruth struggles to contain her anger toward Clodagh: Clodagh is a browbeating rival who wants Mr. Dean for herself, who turns the other nuns into spies, and who even poisons Ruth’s milk. As Ruth becomes more agitated, streams of consciousness in the narrative expose rampant envy and increasingly furtive urges to escape, seduce, and destroy—culminating in violence and Ruth’s eerie, vampire-style death by bamboo spike. Like Clodagh’s flashbacks, Ruth’s disturbed streams of consciousness fuel the psychological intensity of the novel....
(The entire section is 872 words.)