Themes

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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 342

The High Cost of Success

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One of the principal themes of R. K. Narayan’s novel is the high cost of success. The irony of Margayya’s situation is brought home by his rising and falling fortunes in terms of monetary wealth and social status, as well as the impact on his family. Having a knack for numbers enables Margayya to parlay his modest earnings into a veritable empire—at least in terms of his community—but he pays dearly for that spectacular rise.

The Relationship Between Free Will and Divine Will

The relationship between free will and divine will is another significant theme. Margayya attributes his success to his own endeavors more than he shows gratitude to the gods. When the caprices of fortune take him and those close to him down, he realizes that he had been short-sighted. Closely related is the idea that humility should temper pride. Not only in his business dealings but also in his treatment of his wife, Margayya puts himself first, even when he convinces himself that success will benefit the family; he is impervious to Meena’s wishes.

The Importance of Family

The importance of family is another key theme, which is developed by the sufferings that Balu inflicts on his parents and later his wife. Balu, allowed to think of his own wants and desires, gravitates away from his family and falls under Pal’s influence. His egotistical behavior mars what should have been the ideal marriage—so much so that is wife actually takes steps to correct the situation. Brinda must think not only of her role as wife but also as a mother.

Gender Relationships Within Families

The theme of gender relations is largely subsumed under family in this novel. Both Brinda and Meena take initiative primarily out of motivation by maternal concern. This perspective on female priorities enforces the theme of patriarchy as the dominant social system in India and the subversive steps that wives must take to achieve their own goals when they differ from those of their husbands.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 368

At the conclusion of the novel, Margayya calmly alludes to Balu’s earlier request for his inheritance upon attaining the age of eighteen and directs him to the old tin box that served as office under the banyan tree opposite the Bank: Seemingly unremarkable, this gesture and counsel can be seen as the essence of Indian life—and of the novel. Though many and great events have taken place, and though riches have come and gone, life will continue as determined by forces beyond the comprehension of mere mortals. One proceeds at the whims of the deities in one’s progress toward Nirvana. Performing puja is necessary in order to placate the gods, but their goodwill and favors cannot be taken for granted or assumed to be permanent. Lakshmi, the goddess of riches, is capricious, and she must perpetually be courted. In like manner, Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva must be appeased if one is to lead a life of reasonable comfort and satisfaction. Life is, after all, a mere stage between creation and destruction and the inevitable re-creation. The whole atmosphere of the novel suggests this truth, and all the characters and events have a timeless quality that approaches the ineffable. By these means, Narayan conveys this fundamental tenet of Hindu belief: The past determines the present as the present determines the future, and all things are determined by the will of the gods, whose favors must be sought.

Within this general framework, Narayan develops the theme of family relationships and responsibilities as protection against the outside world, though the frictions that arise in interpersonal relationships (even when duties are strictly observed) are not excluded. Human weaknesses—vanity, cupidity, indolence—are shown as crucial elements in the destruction of individual dreams and fortunes, in the unfolding of lives of sadness and defeat.

In the development of character, there are frequent epiphanies: As Margayya meets Arul Doss, Dr. Pal, Mr. Lal, the inspector of police, and the priest of Lakshmi, he has new insights into life that change his actions and his attitudes—all, unfortunately, temporarily only, it seems. Once again, however, Narayan develops his central thesis: that despite the vicissitudes of life, everyone is fundamentally of one essence.

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