Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The Serpent and the Rope is a vehicle for examining Raja Rao’s complex spiritual and philosophical ideas. While it is superficially the story of a failed marriage, the marriage itself really serves as a device on which to anchor the main themes of the book.

First of all, the marriage of Rama and Madeleine represents a clash of Eastern and Western cultural values. For Rama, India is as much a state of mind as a country, which is one reason that Madeleine can never completely assimilate: She can never “become” Indian. Because of the spiritual nature of Rama’s search for fulfillment, religion—Catholic and Buddhist—becomes a primary symbol of this cultural rift. Madeleine, a former Catholic, studies Buddhism. Rama, researching an early heresy of the Catholic Church, attempts to find Buddhist origins for certain aspects of it. Somehow, in these separate pursuits, husband and wife cross paths and separate. Rama senses unhappily, at one point, that he is leaning toward a Christian “becoming,” but finally neither culture can genuinely approach the other.

The nature and roles of man and woman are also examined in the novel, with conclusions perhaps not wholly palatable to a Western mind. Rama’s trip to India at the time of his father’s death, bringing him into contact with Indian women for the first time in years, deepens his dissatisfaction with his own experience of marriage and intensifies his questioning of its meaning...

(The entire section is 500 words.)