Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“The Hungry Stones” has the form of a simple ghost story, but its main underlying themes are the contrasts between imagination and skepticism and between reality and fantasy and the difficulty of clearly distinguishing which is which. During Srijut’s days, the impressions he had in the palace seem like pointless flights of imagination. During his nights, however, his English clothes and his undramatic job make up a life that seems pointless and illusory. Srijut responds to the shouts of the madman Meher Ali by asking, “What is false?” He never receives an answer.

The historical fantasy of the night and the routine of the day call each other into question and draw attention to the shortcomings of each. The night world, seen from the perspective of the day, is a dangerous dream that threatens to destroy the dreamer. The day world, considered from the night, is tedious and colorless.

Both Srijut’s narration and that of the unnamed narrator end without satisfactory conclusions. This may be disturbing to many readers, but Rabindranath Tagore undoubtedly intended it to have that effect. Just as Srijut never learns what is false, neither the reader of the story nor the narrator ever learns how Srijut escaped the fate of those destroyed by the palace and the fate of Meher Ali. In addition, the author leaves it to the reader to decide whether Srijut’s story was a true account of his own experiences or a fanciful lie told to two strangers to pass the time while waiting for a train.

The story ends with a reference to a disagreement between the narrator and his kinsman that causes a lifelong break between them. The key to the cause of this break is the identification of the kinsman as a theosophist. Theosophy was a religious and philosophical movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century that blended elements of Western mysticism with esoteric Hindu and Buddhist traditions. The narrator’s rejection of the story as a lie marks him as a skeptic and a believer in day-to-day reality, and his disagreement with his kinsman represents a clash between the doubting materialist and the believer in otherworldly things, a clash that mirrors the conflict between Srijut’s days and nights.