Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 580
The English Teacher was republished in 1953 under the title Grateful to Life and Death. Gratitude for an understanding of life and death is exactly what the main character, Krishna, gains in the course of the narrative. The fact that he teaches English in an Indian college, while important to the story, is not the novel’s central concern, as the new title suggests.
The story is based on Narayan’s own loss of his wife to typhoid in 1939. Like Narayan, the bereaved Krishna is left with a young daughter. The author and character also share a thorough knowledge and appreciation of English literature, as well as a distaste for teaching it to uninterested Indian students. It is only a matter of speculation, however, whether or not Krishna’s struggle to overcome grief and his handling of his distraught state follow the author’s own experience.
As the novel opens, Krishna’s wife Susila and baby daughter Leela finally join him after an extended stay with her parents, and Krishna somewhat reluctantly gives up his free life in the faculty quarters. Soon, though, he relishes his role as a householder, but this happy state comes to an abrupt close a few years later when Susila dies. The major portion of the novel recounts the aftermath of Susila’s death, which leaves Krishna devastated. At the same time, the event forces him to examine his own life.
He admits that he hates his teaching career. He has always been questioning why Indian students should be studying English literature at all. As Krishna puts it: “This education had reduced us to a nation of morons; we were strangers to our own culture and camp followers of another culture, feeding on leavings and garbage.” The conflict between East and West, as expressed in this observation, is a recurrent theme in Narayan’s work. Further, Krishna once fancied himself a promising poet, but finally realizes the absurdity of this ambition. Such dissatisfaction with work and the discarding of false hopes lead to the central question in Narayan’s fiction: What value do worldly gain and success have in relation to the spiritual side of life?
Once Krishna is forced to contemplate this universal riddle, the novel moves from a realistic mode into a mythical one, then continues to shift from one mode to the other. As time passes and his life falls “into ruts of routine, one day following another,” Krishna fails to overcome his grief and finds himself turning into a bitter, hateful, and purposeless man. His salvation comes when he begins to communicate with his dead wife, first through a medium, then by himself. These passages Narayan presents in a matter-of-fact way, as though such contact was not in the least extraordinary. This is a typical handling of such phenomena by Narayan. Krishna finally achieves peace by accepting his wife’s presence, not in the physical sense but in the spiritual. This awareness leads him to resign his hated job and become a teacher in an experimental school. The school is run by a mystic; many appear in Narayan’s novels.
Solidly set in the altogether authentic city of Malgudi, The English Teacher typifies Narayan’s fictional world. The major character finds himself torn between the rigors of reality and the temptation to escape into the spiritual realm. He manages to blend the two courses, so that he may be a productive member of the community while quietly seeking his own inner peace.