Complete Summary of “The Bachelor of Arts” by R.K. Narayan

Vivien Greene, the wife of Graham Greene in a letter written to Narayan a week after the publication of the novel expressed that the clippings and advertisements relating to the book had given great pleasure to Greene and herself. She praised Swami and Friends for its ‘deeply satisfying aesthetic experience’ and rated the second novel, The Bachelor of Arts even higher: ‘even better, more sure and supple and so beautifully poised emotionally.’ In another letter that she wrote to Narayan on April 10 with advertisements and reviews on the novel, she noted ‘All reviews without exception have been enthusiastic.’

The literary scholar William Walsh finds in the second novel ‘a writer fully arrived and wholly at ease with his manner and material’:

If Swami and Friends was a critical success, The Bachelor of Arts, in a sense, its natural sequence, was even more so. The literary scholar William Walsh finds in the second novel ‘a writer fully arrived and wholly at ease with his manner and material.’ On the face of it, there was nothing very remarkable about moving from Swami’s evocation of childhood to the world of undergraduates and young adulthood. Bildungsroman is the German term for the ‘novel of formation’ which plots the impulse to maturity, but The Bachelor of Arts is no conventional novel of formation and identity-recognition. Walsh notes that the aspiration towards maturity, if wrongly handled, could easily ‘slide into formlessness or puff itself to grandiosity.

William Walsh particularly praises the second novel, The Bachelor of Arts for revealing the writer’s ability to bring together the comic and the serious ‘in an intricate, inseparable alliance’:

Right from the start, Narayan’s work would be free from pretentiousness; ‘a cool sympathy, a highly developed sense of human discrepancy, a rare feeling for the importance and the density of objects…check any straining after undue significance or any tendency to lapse into a search for large truths about life.’ Chandran, in his struggle to achieve ‘a life freed from distracting illusions and hysterics,’ is shown to share a predicament authentic in its Indian colouring but ‘belonging to a substantial human nature.’ William Walsh particularly praises the second novel, The Bachelor of Arts for revealing the writer’s ability to bring together the comic and the serious ‘in an intricate, inseparable alliance’ so that ‘a comic surface exists above deeply serious depths.’

Greene, in his 1937 introduction, praises the book for its Chekhovian delicacy:

Greene, in his 1937 introduction, praises the book for its Chekhovian delicacy and for ‘its light, vivid style, with its sense of time passing, of the unrealized beauty of human relationships.’ For the British writer, part of the achievement is the humour unfolding against a ‘sad and poetic background’.

The reviewers in England, to an impressive extent, endorsed Greene’s literary judgement:

Narayan’s second novel, The Bachelor of Arts, no doubt helped by Greene’s introduction and by the publisher’s efforts, attracted rather more critical attention than the first (Swami and Friends). The reviewers in England, to an impressive extent, endorsed Greene’s literary judgement. The running thread was the Chekhovian parallel.

There was a consensus that a writer of real literary merit had arrived. Greene’s behind-the-scenes editing involving occasional grammatical alterations so that ‘there will be nothing to distract them from the excellent style’ paid off. The critics, almost without exception, commented not merely on the writer’s felicity of style but also on his perfect English.

The novelist John Brophy, in two of his successive reviews of The Bachelor of Arts found the comparison with Chekhov and helpful in appraising Narayan’s method and prose style:

The novelist John Brophy, in two of his successive reviews of The Bachelor of Arts found the comparison with Chekhov and helpful in appraising Narayan’s method and prose style. In the first review, he found the novel ‘chapter by chapter’ to be first class entertainment for anyone with his wits about him.’ In the second, he dwelt on the ‘grimly amusing admixture’ of sadness and comedy which Narayan achieved in the novel and which marked him out as a novelist of ‘considerable distinction’. Brophy particularly savoured ‘the delightfully dispassionate and always artistically implicit irony’ in the book and ended on the note that Narayan was ‘among the select few of really distinguished younger novelists from whom now and in the future we may expect worthy to be classified as literature.’

The writer Pamela Hansford Johnson considers The Bachelor of Arts as ‘the most charming book’ testifying to Narayan’s narrative skill:

The writer Pamela Hansford Johnson had praise for Greene’s introduction to ‘this most charming book’ and higher praise for Narayan. She began by stating that ‘only a comparatively small group of English writers can hold a candle to him as a novelist’. As for The Bachelor of Arts:

There is about this book an elegance, a distinction beyond metaphor. Mr. Narayan tells his tale with incomparable sweetness and sympathy, rare humour…Those who love purity of style and clarity of thought will find both in the work of this author. For myself, I was so enchanted by The Bachelor of Arts that I am hard pressed to find anything nice enough to say about it.

It is a matter of literary interest to know that much thought and discussion had gone in before settling for the present title for Narayan’s novel, The Bachelor of Arts:

It is a matter of literary interest to know that much thought and discussion had gone in before settling for the present title for Narayan’s novel, The Bachelor of Arts. Narayan chose the title Chandran for the novel when he sent the manuscript of the novel to Graham Greene. He also suggested an alternative title Wind along the West, a line from Fitzgerald’s translation of Omar Khayyam.

But Narayan’s alternative was rejected both by Graham Greene and the Publisher Thomas Nelson & Sons Limited. Greene wrote to Narayan: ‘it seems to me’ he explained, ‘too vague and obviously poetic for so admirably concrete a book. And Omar Khayyam has been used too often over here (England).’ Graham Greene suggested Sarayu Sands for the novel. But the Publisher rejected that too and suggested the title The Bachelor of Arts. Graham Greene also liked that title and explained his reason to Narayan for backing the choice: ‘It seems to me to combine admirably the sense of something plain and concrete and the sense of poetry in the background.’

The Bachelor of Arts is a very apt and suggestive title for the novel:

The title, Bachelor of Arts chosen for R.K. Narayan’s novel is very apt and suggestive. A good title indicates what the reader should expect of the novel besides highlighting its theme. Seen from this light, The Bachelor of Arts combines admirably the sense of something plain and concrete and the sense of poetry in the background as pointed out by Graham Greene. The novel as its title indicates traces the life and career of Chandran. He is indeed The Bachelor of Arts and the protagonist of the novel.

Chandran is the hero of the novel in the full sense of the term and the novel has been justifiably named after him:

Chandran is the hero of the novel in the full sense of the term and the novel has been justifiably named after him. It relates the life and adventures of Chandran, the ‘unheroic hero’. The first part of the novel deals with Chandran’s life at Albert Mission College, Malgudi tracing his studies as a final year B.A. student of B.A. History, his participation in the college extra-curricular activities, his interaction with his professors and friends at college leading to his ultimate passing of his B.A. Examination and becoming, Chandran, B.A. The second part of the novel traces Chandran’s infatuation with a young girl Malathi frequenting the Sarayu sands with her little sister and ends with his frustration and despair when his efforts to marry her end in smoke. As his memories of Malathi torment him, he decides to quit Malgudi for a change.

The third part of the novel deals with his strange experiences at Madras, his decision to become a sanyasi, his aimless wanderings from district to district as a sanyasi till he becomes disenchanted with his fake sanyasihood, gives up ochre-clothes for good and returns to his parents at Malgudi. The fourth part of the novel deals with his efforts to reestablish himself in life by taking up the Malgudi agency of The Daily Messenger issued from Madras and improving its circulation by his excellent canvassing techniques and uncompromising dedication. He marries the girl; Susila suggested to him by his parents and becomes a loving husband of the charming young girl. The novel ends with his flying visit to see her at her parents ‘house at Talapur’ as he has not heard anything from her for the past six days.

The Bachelor of Arts is closely organized under four parts and each part presents a certain stage in the growth of the protagonist Chandran:

The novel is closely organized under four parts. Each part presents a certain stage in the growth of the protagonist Chandran as he leaves college as a graduate to face the odds of worldly life before he finally settles down as a happily married and contented man with a loving wife and a lucrative job. Part one is mainly concerned with Chandran’s college life and its comedy. It gently exposes his ambitions, vanities and snobbery.

It also shows him at home in the company of his parents and his younger brother Seenu. Parts Two and Four give a more detailed picture of his relationship with the different members of his family including his uncle, aunt and cousins at Madras. It is in these parts of the novel the family theme becomes an important strand of the narration.

The Bachelor of Arts first struck the significant note of ironic comedy in the character of Chandran:

The basic comic situation in Narayan’s novels is one of deviation from the normal and in the plots of his novels he follows the usual pattern of irony—order, disorder, order. The Bachelor of Arts presents a moment from the innocence of childhood to the recklessness and romanticism of youth. Chandran, the protagonist, sways between the innocence of the child and maturity of the adult. A student of history and later the first secretary of History Association, Chandran suggests: “Historians should be slaughtered first” as the topic for the College Union Debate.

This is highly ironical and suggests the shape of things to come. Chandran, a first rated lover, renounces the world in sheer disgust and becomes a sanyasi and then return to the conventional family fold and leads the life of a devoted husband. The Bachelor of Arts first struck the significant note of ironic comedy in the character of Chandran, and with each successive novel it became an integral element in Narayan’s comic fictional art.

Narayan straightaway takes his readers to the hustle bustle of the college where his hero, Chandran is doing his final year B.A. in History:

Narayan straightaway takes his readers to the hustle bustle of the college where his hero, Chandran is doing his final year B.A. in History. Characteristically enough, the novel opens in a humorous note with Natesan, the Secretary of the College Union asking Chandran to be the Prime Mover for the debate the following evening and move the topic that the historians should be slaughtered first. Chandran being a student of history is in a fit to move a topic debunking historians and earn the displeasure of his history professor, Ragavachar.

But Natesan, the Secretary assures him that he will not invite his professor. Chandran goes to the college Library but finds volumes and volumes of history but nothing concerned with slaughtering the historians. In his worry to prepare for the topic, he does not even pay attention to his lecture classes. Finally, he manages to muster some points and a humorous anecdote as footage for his speech. His speech is received very well. Even Principal Brown is said to have enjoyed his speech. At the end, the House with a majority of votes decides in favour of the proposal and Chandran feels quiet happy at the outcome.

The episode of the flower thief is replete with rib-tickling humour:

The episode of the flower thief is replete with rib-tickling humour. Chandran makes a decision to prepare seriously for his impending final examination by getting at four-thirty next morning. Man proposes but God disposes. His father unable to bear the smarts of his wife decides to catch the flower thief and lay him at her feet, alive or dead.

The minor tiff between Chandran’s mother and his father over preventing the theft of flowers in the garden is given a mock-epic touch by Narayan. In his ardour for catching the thief, he is like a Knight Templar fighting a dragon for the cause of his ladylove. Next morning, he gets up at four-thirty and waits at the garden armed with a stout bamboo stick followed by his son Seenu too having a similar weapon in his possession.

He asks Chandran to blow out his lamp lest the thief should become alert. Chandran also joins them and divides the force tactically and placing it in different location. But when the sun rises, it is found that the flower plants are found to be bare. So he decides that they should get up at four the next morning and nab the thief.

The next day, Chandran’s father and he succeed in nabbing the flower- thief. But he is found to be a sanyasi in his ochre-loin cloth and matted hair. He does not consider his act as a theft. Flowers are God’s creation. He has taken them for his daily Puja before sun rise. He has no idea that the lady of the house will be using them for her Puja.

If he has known about it, he will have left enough flowers for the lady’s worship of her gods. He has taken the flowers because he thinks that they are grown there for decoration as they do in many bungalows. He will have taken their permission to collect the flowers in their garden but he has to rob them of their sleep, which he does not like to do.

On seeing the ochre-cloth of the flower thief, Chandran’s father relaxes his hold on him and his mother asks them not to hand him over the police as suggested by Chandran and invoke the holy man’s curse. Chandran’s father asks him to open the gate for the sanyasi to go out.

Narayan brings out the ironic contrast in the handling of the flower thief. He is nabbed with avenging fury as a thief and dragged to the hall for enquiry but his ochre-cloth totally transforms the whole scene. Chandran’s father who cries for the blood of the fellow becomes all of a sudden weak- willed and soft. Chandran’s mother does not want to earn the curse of the holy (?) man.

So he is let off ceremoniously—with nothing short of falling at his feet. Narayan is highly ironical of the so-called fake sannyasis who try to exploit the faith of the pious people to feather their own nests. Chandran’s approach towards the whole episode is rational for he believes that the ochre-cloth and matted hair of a so-called sanyasi grant him the license to justify his stealing while that of his parents who are afraid of the curse of a sanyasi and letting him go scot-free is orthodox. The specious argument of the flower-thief is like the Devil quoting Scripture!

Narayan’s ironic vision is revealed in his depiction of Kailas and his sentimental humbug:

At about five in the evening, Kailas takes Chandran to ‘Hotel Merten’. He asks Chandran to have a glass of beer with him. Chandran tells him that he does not drink any sort of alcohol. Then Kailas orders a glass of lime juice for Chandran and a gin and soda for him. He asks Chandran to have at least a little port or something. Chandran asks Kailas to excuse him for he has made a vow to his mother never to touch alcohol in his life.

This affects Kailas deeply. He remains solemn for a moment and says that Chandran should not drink alcohol if he had promised to his mother not to touch it. One must respect the word given to one’s mother. Kailas too was a good son to his mother. The moment she died, he has changed. Where she alive, Kailas would have studied in college and become a respectable person. Chandran could not have found him there. Kailas goes on a drinking spree with gin following whisky and whisky following gin till about eight-thirty in the evening.

Narayan is highly ironical about Kailas’s mother-sentiment. He says that he was a good son as long as his mother was alive. But after his death, he fell into evil ways. If she had been alive, he would have been to a college and become a very responsible person and Chandran could not have met him in a hotel like that.

Narayan does not miss to point out how the taxi driver befools the drunken Kailas by landing him in the house of some other prostitute in Mint Street instead of the house of Kokilam. Again Narayan is highly ironical about the middle-aged prostitute who asks Kailas ‘what is there in a name?’ when he asks her if it is Kokilam’s house.

Narayan provides a humorous account of Chandran’s embarrassment as a sanyasi at Koopal Village:

After wandering for about eight months, Chandran reaches Koopal village in Sainad District. It is a small village at the foot of the range of mountains that connect the Eastern and the Western Ghats. It is a hot afternoon. He drinks water in the channel feeding the paddy fields. He is very tired as he has been walking since dawn. He reclines on the root of the banyan tree and slept. When he wakes up, he notices that a crowd of innocent and credulous villagers standing around him.

They begin asking all sorts of questions like where his worshipful master has come from and so on. As Chandran wants to avoid a conversation with them, he answers in them by signs. They construe that he is under a vow of silence. As the news that a holy man has come to their village spreads, more people begin to gather round him. So Chandran closes his eyes to avoid their stare.

This is taken by the others for meditation. An important man of the village requests Chandran to stay his poor abode and bless him. Chandran by signs declines the offer. Soon the villagers feel pleased at the presence of a holy man having chosen to stay with them. They worship him and give him fruits and milk.

Narayan’s humour is part and parcel of the fabric of his novel:

We have given here only a few samples revealing the various shades of Narayan’s rich humour. Pages after pages of the novel keep the reader entertained with a rich fare of Narayan’s humour. And another thing, the best way to enjoy the humour will be to enjoy in the context where it occurs. To isolate them out of the text may be an interesting academic exercise but not real enjoyment. This is because Narayan’s humour in its widest application is part and parcel of the fabric of the novel enriching its liveliness and sparkle.

Narayan gives a realistic and humorous account of college election through the Secretary, Natesan:

When he returns home with the Secretary, Natesan we learn that he bought the votes during the election by bribing the voters with tiffin and coffee. This is both a realistic and humorous touch of Narayan about college elections. Chandran runs down Natesan and others for making much of Professor Brown’s sense of humour. Chandran hopes that Natesan will make some observation about his speech that evening. As he does not do it, Chandran asks Natesan about it.

When Chandran learns that it was very good and appreciated even by Professor Brown, he is happy about it. He quickly withdraws his harsh comments on both Natesan and Professor Brown and says that he meant nothing serious about his personal remarks about him and observes that Professor Brown is a great scholar with a nice sense of humour.

Chandran wants to celebrate his success in the Union Debate:

As is natural with the young lads of his age, Chandran wants to celebrate his success in the Union Debate by going to the night show with his friend Ramu and manages to secure his father’s permission for that. Chandran’s visit to the picture house is not a routine and mundane affair.

It is a sheer aesthetic experience. Visit to the picture house is preceded by going to the hotel, having tiffin followed by a ritual betel chewing and cigarette smoking. Chandran never likes to go to a film without the company of Ramu, his dear friend, neighbour and classmate. His visits to the film in the company of Ramu are fun-filled moments for Chandran.

Narayan gives a realistic description of the visit of Chandran and Ramu to the cinema hall:

Narayan describes their visit to the cinema hall, while the film is on, pushing through the knees of those who have already occupied their seats to look up for the vacant seats through the light of the projector on the screen very realistically. He also describes the title of the two-reel comic- trailer the part of which they missed because of their late entry.

He also describes the title of the main film, its lead-cast and its gist for the readers to follow it. And then there is Ramu’s observation about Professor Brown with a girl in the first class row followed by Chandran’s flippant remarks about the Europeans’ way enjoying life. After making a damaging remark about Professor Brown and the Europeans in general, Chandran asks Ramu to sit down as is bad manners to stare at others in the hall!

Narayan’s The Bachelor of Arts has a galaxy of memorable characters:

Though The Bachelor of Arts is a small novel running to 166 pages, it has a crowded canvas. Chandran, the protagonist of the novel is the central figure and round him are gathered a number of other characters of varying importance. First we have Chandran’s parents. Narayan’s depiction of Chandran’s father with his undemonstrative affection for Chandran and his concern for him are drawn in a very memorable manner. Chandran’s mother is a typical Indian housewife who is tradition bound but concerned about the welfare of her husband and sons. Narayan’s portrayal of Chandran’s parents is highly realistic.

Then we have a glimpse of Chandran’s younger brother Seenu studying in Third Class in Albert Mission School. Then we have Chandran’s friends, Ramu, Mohan, Natesan and Veerasami. Of the four, Ramu and Mohan play a significant role in the life of Chandran. We also have the Professors of Chandran’s college, Principal Brown, Professor Ragavachar and Professor Gajapathi. We have Malathi and Susila who play a significant role in the life of Chandran.

We also have minor characters like Ganapathi Sastrigal and the Srouthigal who study and compare the horoscope of Chandran and try to help him marry Malathi but in vain. Narayan’s depiction of these astrological experts is mingled with realism and irony. At Madras, we have Chandran’s uncle, aunt and cousins of whom we get a smattering acquaintance.

Then we have a very interesting of picture of the middle-aged stranger Kailas who forces his friendship on Chandran. Then there is the barber Ragavan who helps Chandran become a sanyasi. Then there is Murugesam, the General Manager of Engladia Limited the influential friend of Chandran’s uncle at Madras who helps Chandran secure the Malgudi agency of The Daily Messenger. All these characters fit in the novel perfectly and provide structural cohesion and episodic interest.