The Painter of Signs

by R. K. Narayan

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The Painter of Signs

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2107

This latest novel by R. K. Narayan narrates a moving tale of young lovers in a changing society. The social forces include not only traditional Indian customs and beliefs but also the European intellectual traditions and ideas which have been disseminated throughout India. In addition, the impact of Western civilization in its technological innovations and its zeal for efficiency is a force of major concern in the progress of the tale. But this is not primarily a social novel. It is rather the revelation of the impact that these multifarious forces have upon the psyches of the principal characters, a condition which gives a richness and depth to the characterizations and to the levels of meaning implied in the events of the story.

The major premise underlying The Painter of Signs must be the conviction that people are products of their training, and that they cannot disengage themselves from their past lessons so that they might think and act independently, even though such conditioned behavior leads to heartache and loneliness. The dispersal of Raman, Daisy, and Laxmi at the conclusion, each to go their separate ways to fulfill their roles as they have been taught, despite the deep love Laxmi feels for Raman, and the ardent attraction which Daisy and Raman feel for each other, surely represents the total triumph of behavioral psychology. Minor characters in the novel are similarly entrapped by the activities and viewpoints they espouse. A sense of rich, teeming, vigorous liveliness results from the interaction of these people with Raman, and, through him, with one another.

Daisy, Raman, his aunt, and indeed all the characters in this novel seem less to be decisive, dynamic persons than hapless victims of the social turmoil of India today. The elderly aunt, who has devoted her life to caring for the orphaned Raman, is the very embodiment of ancient, traditional values and practices. Her entire existence, an unvarying routine, consists of caring for Raman and the house, preparing traditional foods, and attending the evening services at the temple. So circumscribed a world cannot admit the totally Westernized Daisy, whom Raman wishes to bring into the household as his bride. The aunt’s departure on her pilgrimage to find death beside the Ganges represents on the surface the sulking pettiness of an old woman angered at the prospect of giving place to a beautiful young bride. But viewing the act apart from the momentary provocation, it represents the tenacious hold of traditional ritual and religious belief in determining the course of life and death in India today, even as in the bygone centuries.

Daisy’s atheism and indulgent indifference to religion (so long as religious traditions do not impinge upon her family-planning activities) represents the “liberated” viewpoint, one which the author plainly depicts as a minority opinion in his fictional Indian microcosm of Malgudi. Her militant espousal of social change, her rejection of traditional customs and values, her ascetic self-denial of any personal comforts, and her almost fanatic zeal in pursuing her family-planning goals, all reveal her as the thoroughly conditioned product of her early training by a missionary whom she quotes whenever Raman or others try to suggest to her that other values might have merit. Daisy’s rejection of marriage to Raman in favor of family-planning work is entirely consistent with her training, and her strength of character is finally a kind of mindless automated behavior for which she has been programmed. She remains a very human and touching person in her lapses from her own behavioral goals. Her weeping, her seeking out of Raman after their first quarrel, her admission of her love for him, and her sexual responsiveness are all evidences of an underlying warmth and emotional nature that she cannot entirely suppress.

Raman, reared in a traditional Hindu household by his devout aunt, educated in a college stressing the emancipated beliefs of the age of enlightenment, and committed by his occupation to communication of information, is at the center of the vortex of the winds of change. Forced to communicate through painting the signs, he is troubled by his lack of conviction about what he communicates.

His lack of commitment is underscored by his longing to retire from his work to a farm, by his ascetic attempt to expunge sexual desires, by his troubled cynicism about producing signs in which he does not believe. Raman’s training in Western logic and ideas of the enlightenment will not let him truly believe in the ancient Hindu gods, but neither will his emotional ties to his past and to his aunt let him totally reject the traditions of India and the Hindu religion. In his contacts with customers for his signs, he is similarly disturbed by the conflict between his need to satisfy his clients and his need to paint signs which aesthetically and intellectually satisfy him.

Raman’s abandonment of his zeal for rationalism in any practical situation when insistence upon rational thought would alienate clients, townspeople, friends, or especially Daisy or Laxmi, reveals an ambivalence within him. He idealizes rational thought, but willingly foregoes his ideal in order to satisfy his deep emotional need to be accepted and loved by others. He reproaches himself for his timidity, but is in fact choosing an emotional value which is stronger within him than the intellectual one. Because of these conflicts, Raman is at the mercy of the decisions of others, including all the minor characters in the story.

A pragmatic, unexamined solution to the conflicts involved in the clash of cultures is embodied in the neighbors, who manage to couple sincere belief and reverence for tradition with a practical adaptation to modern conveniences and creature comforts.

It is this spectrum of attitudes and beliefs—and the clashes, compromises, and changes which inevitably must come about—which are the central theme of Narayan’s novel. The tragedy of the romance is not only that Daisy and Raman must part, and that Laxmi and Raman will never see each other again, but it is also that the crucial human values of love, tenderness, tolerance, and sexual fulfillment are rejected in favor of commitment to a social goal on Daisy’s part, and to a religious commitment on Laxmi’s part.

The attitudes and convictions of Raman, Daisy, Laxmi and the neighbor with whom Laxmi is to travel represent a cross-section of those prevailing in India today. The conflicts of the characters are the conflicts of these apparently irreconcilable differences. If this were all, the novel would be an interesting fictional study of social changes. But the author establishes within each of his principal characters a conflict between the character’s own values and his emotional needs. The conflict is particularly acute in Raman, who does not even have the intense polarization of beliefs which sustain Daisy and Laxmi in their decisions.

The love of Raman and Daisy is a strong physical attraction. Both resist it intellectually because it does not logically fit into their plans or their lifestyles. But both must finally succumb to its strength, and the impending intimacy of marriage forces a confrontation of the value systems Raman and Daisy represent. Daisy’s coldness to traditional values and her commitment to social reform in the form of family planning are her dominant characteristics; she has been shaped by a missionary into a totally dedicated advocate of Western technology, propaganda, and values. She devotes her life to preventing life; not only is she a tireless propagandist and dispenser of devices for contraception, but she insists that she would reject any child which might by accident be born to her and Raman. Daisy is likewise unmoved by Raman’s anguish over his aunt’s departure and pilgrimage to death beside the Ganges. Daisy has rejected her Indian identity altogether. Even the name she has adopted is foreign. She represents the clinical, objective, efficient Western world—seeing India through Western eyes—determined to impose Western values, methodology, and efficiency upon a bemused and generally tolerant populace of Malgudi, and upon the love-stricken Raman as their lives become entwined.

But Raman, the central figure, through whose point of view the story unfolds, is a figure of lesser strength and lesser commitment because he is a creature of vastly greater complexity than either Laxmi or Daisy. Emotionally, he espouses things which are intellectually incompatible. As a self-proclaimed rationalist he is uncomfortable with his emotional involvements. He can act neither upon his convictions nor upon his reservations about the convictions of others which involve him.

Raman is the painter of signs. Hired by Daisy, his propaganda signs for family planning are by far his largest commercial contract. With Daisy, as with all his clients, he serves their needs in his work but lacks conviction about the messages he paints and posts. Signs are necessary, he feels, to communication. And yet he is troubled that he paints signs only to earn money, rather than to communicate the truth to people. And so he justifies his work by a fiercely stubborn commitment to the artistry of the lettering and the appropriate choice of colors. He can espouse no cause with conviction, and so he lacks the forcefulness and assurance of either his aunt or Daisy. His abortive attempt to rape Daisy—an attempt to assert his mastery over the situation through physical dominance—comes to naught because Daisy slips away while he hesitates in order to convince himself that he is doing the right thing. Daisy and the aunt, by contrast, pursue and fulfill their convictions unhesitatingly, even though this act means abandoning Raman and their home with him. Through them, East and West still contend for the allegiance of India. But Raman, a hybrid product of both cultures, cannot commit himself fully to either, and when he is left alone, he turns to that refuge of no commitment, The Boardless—so called because it is an inn where there is no sign to communicate any message at all.

In loading the characters with such strong symbolism that they come to border on caricature, Narayan diminishes the reader’s sympathy for them. Raman is not ultimately tragic, but rather pitiful, and his retreat to anonymity represents the assertion of the author that the future of India—culturally, intellectually, and technologically—is most uncertain. The painter of signs, the young Indian intellectual, is not giving unequivocal direction to his nation because he cannot espouse any cause unequivocally himself.

Against the social, religious, and political conflicts which preoccupy the thoughts and interior monologues of the protagonist, the author juxtaposes the adamant facts of nature in its workings. Raman would be a completely controlled rationalist, but he is unable to suppress or even control his own sexual urges; Daisy, who would be the totally efficient supressor of births in India, continually receives statistics showing large population increases. Both are at the mercy of the weather, events, and their own impulses. Raman, realizing his own hypocrisy in aiding Daisy’s family-planning work, finally is willing to abandon his intellectual idealism in order to establish a marriage with Daisy. He wants to keep his childhood home by the river, and to make his life with Daisy part of the traditional and accustomed community life. Daisy too is attracted to the river, a symbol of the placid working of nature throughout India. But Daisy is willing to reject this when her duty to work calls.

Narayan brings to the reader through Raman’s encounters with minor characters a vivid sense of the lives and the variety within a city in India today. His vignettes of minor personages in the situations of their daily routines are sharp, believable, and compassionate. The minor characters might well have become interesting major figures had the novel taken a different turn, or had a subplot been developed. The fictional city itself achieves an authenticity of its own through Narayan’s deft pen. He conveys a sense of life and reality to Malgudi so that one may well accept it as a typical Indian city bustling with the daily life of real people.

Narayan writes with knowledge of the human soul. His characters, both male and female, have depth and complexity which give them strength and life. Though he writes with a constant compassion and fine benevolence toward his characters, he maintains an ironic distance which enables him to reveal absurdities and ironies at every turn of events. The tone is finally more pessimistic than tragic, more ironic than outraged, at the sadness of the outcome of the affair. It is a book which should outlast this season. Its characters live: their problems will also.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 32

Book World. July 11, 1976, p. E8.

Christian Science Monitor. LXVIII, July 14, 1976, p. 22.

National Observer. XV, August 14, 1976, p. 17.

New York Times Book Review. June 20, 1976, p. 6.

New Yorker. LII, July 5, 1976, p. 81.

Newsweek. LXXXVIII, July 4, 1976, p. 99.

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