Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 893
The story unfurls from the perspective of an unnamed narrator who, while returning to Calcutta by train from a religious pilgrimage with a kinsman, encounters an “extraordinary man” with a seemingly-endless knowledge of many subjects. One of the stories he tells the narrator consumes the narrative; although the perspective briefly switches to the stranger’s, the story remains in the narrator’s grasp. He is a skeptical man, and his pragmatism bleeds into the stranger’s fantastical tale.
Indeed, the narrator appears frustrated by the stranger man's whimsy, which kept him from sleep and irreparably marred his relationship with his traveling companion. He calls the stranger’s storytelling an “imposition” on their time and frames it as little more than “fabrication.” The narrator closes the story, and his final accusations of frivolity and falsity destroy all sense of suspense and intrigue. As the narrator reminds readers, none of it was true, so it cannot matter how it ends.
The Narrator’s Companion
Comparatively, the narrator’s companion is open-minded, almost to a fault. He is a theosophist, a form of religious spirituality that preaches brotherhood and karma, and seems susceptible to the stranger’s bizarre claims and lofty speeches. The narrator’s companion takes notes on all the stranger says and appears deeply affected by his story, so much so that the narrator’s comment on its falsity angers him and leads to an intense argument.
The Stranger on the Train
On a train to Calcutta, the narrator and his companion encounter a stranger. When they begin to converse with this strange man, they soon realize that there is more to him than meets the eye; he has an immense amount of knowledge on many subjects, and his manner is captivating. However, the narrator questions the man's credibility and slyly points out his arrogance.
After the stranger embarks on an extensive narrative about his time as a collector of cotton duties in Barich, he introduces himself as "Srijut So-and-so, the eldest son of So-and-so blessed memory." Despite the extensive insights into his life, Srijut remains a mysterious figure. Srijut slips in and out of the narrative with ease. In doing so, he leaves the narrator, his companion, and readers alike with a litany of questions and an unfinished story. His story introduces readers to the cast of ghostly and mundane characters, although whether or not they truly existed remains uncertain.
Although the cursed palace is unconventional as characters go, Srijut’s story grants it a humanized personality, almost making it a character in its own right. In the beginning, he explains that the palace “was like a living organism slowly and imperceptibly digesting me by the action of some stupefying gastric juice." The abandoned palace is a house of horrors, and it seems to be drawing Srijut into its bowels. Later in the story, it is metaphorically described as akin to a flame attracting moths:
"O fire, the poor moth that made a vain effort to fly away has come back to thee! Forgive it but this once, burn its wings and consume it in thy flame!"
He also describes the palace as "groaning day and night under the weight of its own intense solitude." It is isolated from the rest of the community as if the rest of the city purposefully cast it out. Inside this strange environment, Srijut begins to experience very peculiar waking dreams and hallucinations, and, in those dreams and hallucinations, he meets the other characters in the story.
Nightly, Srijut experiences a barrage of illusory hallucinations. Often, these visions take the form of vivid ghosts who both terrify and...
(This entire section contains 893 words.)
seduce the helpless man. One such ghost is a eunuch, who Srijut describes as "dressed in rich brocade, sitting and dozing with outstretched legs, with a naked sword in his lap."
Another such ghost is a beautiful Arab maiden who Srijut meets on the first night of his hallucinations. He imagines her as beguiling and seductive; although he can never quite see the truth of her ghostly form, he is immediately taken in by her. However, just like the luxurious trappings of the palace, the maiden soon takes an insidious turn, becoming more of a banshee than a maiden. Srijut encounters many ghosts, who act as guides and seductresses, luring the unsuspecting man deeper and deeper into the hungry bowels of the house.
Karim Khan works in Barich as an office clerk for the organization that Srujit joins. He is the first to warn the newcomer of the palace’s dangers, though the man does not heed his prescient warning. Somehow, the older man seems privy to the secrets of the palace. Even though the story remains unfinished, it appears that it is Karim's guidance that helps Sruijit escape the palace’s malevolent clutches.
A transient man who lingers on the palace’s grounds, Meher Ali is known for his recurring cry: “Stand back! All is false!” At first, Srijut does not question the man’s idiosyncratic call. Only later, when he experiences the palace’s oddities, does he consider the meaning behind the madman’s words. Later, he learns that Meher Ali once occupied the palace and, as yet, is the only man to escape its clutches after staying for three nights, though it cost him his sanity.