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Last Updated on December 9, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 331

Introduction

Raja Rao's The Serpent and the Rope is an autobiographically-based novel that follows a man's journey to seek truth. The book was critically acclaimed and was honored with the Sahitya Akademi Award for Literature in 1964. Its narrator, Rama, is a native of India; throughout the book, he analyzes traditions and life in his birth country and brings to light the similarities and differences between Eastern and Western cultures.

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Plot Summary

While living abroad in France for his education, Rama marries a French woman, Madeline, and plans to return to India once his thesis is completed. The two have a son, but he dies just seven months after he is born. Rama himself is not in the best shape: he has had tuberculosis and is in frail health. With little time to recover after his loss of his son, Rama has to return to India to attend to his father, who is on his deathbed. Along with his stepmother, Rama embarks on a pilgrimage of holy sites in India prior to returning to France to be with his wife. Influenced by his travels, he begins to question his existence and the lack of fulfillment in his life. He meets another woman, Savithri, who is engaged to his friend, and realizes that he can't forget about her.

The tensions in his marriage to Madeleine rise as Rama continues to think about Savithri, who travels to France to visit him. Together, they go to London, where Rama can work on his thesis research. He realizes he loves Savithri more than his own wife. Rama returns to France and learns that Madeleine is once again pregnant. But she has a premature birth, and their second son dies. In the meantime, Savithri gets married.

Rama and Savithri meet one final time in London and acknowledge that they have to part ways and be happy for one another. Rama divorces Madeleine because there is no love in their marriage—and he desires to seek out his own path.

Summary

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 620

Every incident or conversation that Rama describes in this semi-autobiographical story is presented as it furthers or hampers his search for “Truth” and self-knowledge—a quest which is the very heart of the book. “I was born a Brahmin,” says Rama, “that is, devoted to Truth and all that.” Rama is a gentle young student, somewhat frail because of tubercular lungs, who has been living in France for some years. Married to a Frenchwoman, Madeleine, Rama plans, after finishing his thesis on the Albigensian heresy, to accept a teaching post in India and then move there with Madeleine. Yet from Rama’s first reference to his wife, there is a sense that something is not right with the marriage.

Their first child, a son, has died when only seven months old. It is after this tragedy that Rama must return to India, for his father is dying. After presiding over his father’s cremation at Benares, Rama accompanies his stepmother—“Little Mother”—on a pilgrimage to the city’s holy places before returning home. For Rama, this is a trip which intensifies his sense of searching and incompleteness. It is also during this visit home that Rama meets Savithri, a Cambridge student who is betrothed to a friend of his, though she is not in love with the young man she is to marry. At first Rama does not care for Savithri—she is too “modern” for him. Nevertheless, something about her has struck a responsive chord deep within Rama, and he returns to France feeling even more estranged from Madeleine. At their first dinner together, Madeleine, sensing the change, asks Rama if she has failed his gods. “No,” he answers, “You’ve failed me.” Little Mother gave Rama a gift of toe-rings, to be presented to Madeleine as a gift, but Rama cannot bring himself to give them to her. They remain in his case.

Rama and Madeleine manage a temporary renewal of intimacy, but Savithri reenters Rama’s life, first as a guest in France, and then in England, where Rama accompanies her in order to continue his research for his thesis. While in London, Rama sees Savithri frequently, and he becomes aware of his deep love for her, more profound than his feelings for Madeleine. It is a discovery which brings him closer to that Truth he seeks for himself, and in a climactic symbolic marriage ritual, Rama gives Little Mother’s toe-rings to Savithri.

Rama returns for a time to France and to Madeleine, who is pregnant, before traveling back to India for his sister’s marriage. Later, while in Bangalore for his health, he learns of the premature delivery and death of his second son. Soon after that, he receives word of Savithri’s marriage. Rama then returns to France to find that Madeleine, who began studying Buddhism in an effort to be closer to her husband, has now begun withdrawing into Buddhist ritual and asceticism. After a stay of some months, Rama is once again back in London, in time for the new queen’s coronation. While in a hospital for lung surgery, he is visited by Savithri, in London with her father. In a moving farewell, both Rama and Savithri accept the inevitability of their physical separation as well as the spiritual transcendence of their love. As Rama says, “Love is the rejoicing in the rejoicing of the other.”

A year later, in France and divorced from Madeleine, Rama gradually moves toward joy as he realizes that the final answer to his search for inner Truth lies in going to Travancore and seeking out his Guru. It is to this that his other paths—his studies and his loves—have finally led him.

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Themes