The Vendor of Sweets

by R. K. Narayan

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The Vendor of Sweets Themes

The main themes in The Vendor of Sweets are tradition versus change, parenting, and wealth.

  • Tradition versus change: Both Jagan and Mali demonstrate the important role that communication plays in striking a balance between differing worldviews.
  • Parenting: Mali’s disrespect and advantageous attitude are due in part to Jagan’s inability to be more firm with his son since his wife’s passing.
  • Wealth: While Jagan claims to espouse a life free of material attachments, he cannot acknowledge the power he has allowed money to have over him.


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Tradition versus Change

The theme of tradition clashing with change manifests through the two primary characters, with Jagan representing tradition and Mali representing change. Jagan’s life is one of simplicity and ritual: he wears conventional Indian clothing consisting of a jibba and dhoti, made from material he spins himself; he reads the Bhagavad Gita daily; and he has tremendous pride in his country, coupled with a strong dislike of anything he deems “European” or “modern.” He is ambitious solely to the point of achieving comfort for himself and his son; he has a successful shop and a nice home, and he is content with these possessions. Jagan is also traditional in his beliefs: in the purity of one’s diet, which should exclude beef and alcohol; in the sanctity of marriage; and in the importance of education. In contrast, Mali embraces all the ideas that his father rejects. He quits school, looks to America and Europe as examples of progressive modernity, seeks to make his fortune through a risky business venture, and lives out of wedlock with Grace under his own father’s roof. Mali finds his father and his hometown to be provincial and quaint, tendencies that he believes limit their cultural and material potential.

While the novel highlights the benefits and evils of both tradition and change, it does not offer a happy medium between the two. Jagan, finding the modern world too overwhelming, retreats to the carver’s grove to live a life of solitude, while Mali ends the novel in jail, having broken the prohibition laws. They both are alone, without romantic partners, Jagan’s wife having died and Grace having neither the money nor a reason to stay with Mali, due to the failed business enterprise. Though Jagan has money, he has no place or reason to spend it; Mali is penniless without the financial backing of his father. Neither character manages to find a middle ground that allows both traditional beliefs and progressive ideas to coexist, exposing the difficulty of navigating two ways of life that exist in perpetual tension with each other.


Jagan’s son, Mali, is spoiled, entitled, and misguidedly ambitious. His refusal to communicate transparently with his father causes many of the book’s conflicts. Despite the fact that the many luxuries he enjoys—such as an expensive American education and a nice home—are paid for with his father’s money, he is disdainful of the reason for that money, dismissing his father’s sweets shop as a business that is “beneath” him and loudly asserting that he is meant to accomplish more impressive goals. Because he knows that Jagan is a man who respects tradition, he lies to his father and introduces Grace as his wife, fully knowing that being truthful about their unmarried status would prohibit them from being able to live in Jagan’s home. His idea for a story-writing machine is fundamentally absurd, as it is a form of industrializing art, yet he cannot see his own foolishness.

However, Mali is not the only one responsible for his flaws. Since Ambika’s death, Jagan has been excessively permissive with his son. When he learns from the cousin that Mali has stolen from Jagan to fund his passport, his new Western wardrobe, and his school tuition in America, he thinks proudly that his son is “resourceful” rather than becoming indignant about the theft. When he hears Mali’s business proposal, he is unable to flatly refuse providing the $51,000, fearing confrontation. Even when he learns that Mali and Grace have been living in his house unwed, he cannot bring himself to evict them, instead barricading himself inside his own rooms so that he doesn’t have to breathe their “tainted” air. In these ways, Jagan suffers as a result of his own permissive parenting. Not only has he inadequately prepared Mali for the realities of the world, but he has also caused his own downfall. That Mali ends the novel in jail, fully expecting that his father will appear with his bank book to bail him out, indicates the extreme dangers of sheltering a child so completely. The novel thus serves as a warning of the costs of parenting without rules or principles.


Though Jagan is a pious man, he has one crucial weakness: his desire to accumulate wealth. Every day, he pockets the last hour of the store’s sales into his own cash reserve in order to conceal the earnings from the government and thus avoid taxation. He insists that he keeps the store running in order for his employees to have jobs; however, as the cousin repeatedly points out, the store is also a source of generous revenue for Jagan, padding his coffers. Though the book insinuates that he likely has the $51,000 to give to Mali, Jagan repeatedly insists that he is a “poor” man. Even at the end of the novel when Jagan retreats to the carver’s grove, he takes his bank book with him, unable to part from it. For all of his philosophic preachings and strivings to live in the image of Gandhi, Jagan cannot escape the source of all forms of materialism: money. Though money itself may not be inherently problematic, the actions it leads to certainly are: greed, self-serving behavior to the detriment of others, and the desire for continual accumulation even when one is already wealthy. Through Jagan, Narayan illustrates the idea that even a man who strives to live a life of asceticism is susceptible to the corrupting influence of money.

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