R. K. Narayan’s Art of Characterization in His Novels

His characters step out of the individual to the archetypal—nay universal level. They are not mere types, for if a character gets typical, he loses all humanity—and Narayan is never in a mood to try this costly experiment. Narayan’s characters represent varied facets of human nature which are neither good nor bad. The characters in Malgudi novels “seem to achieve a sort of transmigration from body to body, name to name and ultimately to blur the sharpness of distinction under the haze of the general acceptance. There are no ‘good’ and no ‘bad’ characters in Narayan’s novels. Human nature is presented veraciously and interestingly and memorably, there is no overt condemnation or praise.”

Narayan’s primary interest is in character:

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On more than one occasion Narayan has said that his primary interest is in character: “my focus is all on character. If his personality comes alive, the rest is easy for me.” Again on another occasion in an interview to William Walsh he reported have said: “My main concern is with human character—a central character from whose point of view the world is seen and who tries to get over a difficult situation or succumbs to it or fights it in his own setting.”

The mainspring of Narayan’s fictional art is the vast majority of the average and the ordinary, and in the limitless possibilities of their lives:

The mainspring of Narayan’s fictional art is abiding, humane and responsible interest in varieties of people, especially the vast majority of the average and the ordinary, and in the limitless possibilities of their lives. In fact Malgudi, which is a wholly imaginary suburban town and the locale of the bulk of his fiction, is a richly peopled world. Here indeed one find “God’s plenty.” Along with Malgudi the family provides the novelist with a convenient and manageable context, concrete and particular, to study at close quarter’s human individuals and human relationships in all their variety and intricacy. It also helps him in creating the illusion of realism, so very necessary for the success of his kind of fiction in which the fabulous figures frequently.

Narayan deliberately restricts himself to and insists on matters of everyday life, and therefore chooses ordinary men and women for his fictional contemplation:

Narayan deliberately restricts himself to and insists on matters of everyday life, and therefore chooses ordinary men and women for his fictional contemplation. His protagonists are anything but outstanding. Malgudi is peopled by average and ordinary men and women, who generally belong to the middle, and lower middle-classes of Indian society.

These he knows firsthand, in fact he himself happens to be a product of the middle-class. Therefore he can give an authentic and convincing account of them. Their world is the precise area of his creative genius. As H.M. Williams has noted, “Private life, families, the ambitions, success and frustrations of simple and Indians usually of the lower middle-class. These have provided Narayan with a plethora of subject-matter.”

Moreover as Rajeev Taranath observes, he “cherishes and explores the unnoticed, the subtle possibilities of the average and unremarkable.” It is important to note that he does not idealize or glorify them. But with remarkable truthfulness, compassion, and authorial detachment, he portrays them as they caught in a net of illusions, deceptions, self-deceptions, and achievements.

In the novels of Narayan without exception it is the man or woman of ordinary abilities rather than the extraordinary person that seeks to realise some or other ambition, fails or achieves a measure of success in society which is more traditional than modern. Against the background of changing Indian society, which is reflected in the imaginary city of Malgudi, Narayan weaves his human comedy. Over the years, Malgudi experiences some swift changes, the impact of which is reflected on the traditional Indian society with its century-old culture, customs, beliefs and superstitions.

He wrote about people in a small town in South India: small people, big talk, and small doings:

He wrote about people in a small town in South India: small people, big talk, small doings. That was where he began; that was where he was fifty years later. To some extent that reflected Narayan’s own life. He never moved far from his origins. When I met him in London in 1961—he had been traveling, and was about to go back to India—he told me he needed to do his walks (with an umbrella for the sun) and to be among his characters.

He truly possessed his world. It was complete and always there, waiting for him; and it was far enough away from the center of things for outside disturbances to die down before they could get to it. Even the independence movement, in the heated 1930s and 1940s, was far away, and the British presence was marked mainly by the names of buildings and places.

This was an India that appeared to mock the vainglorious and went on in its own way. Dynasties rose and fell. Palaces and mansions appeared and disappeared. The entire country went down under the fire and sword of the invader, and was washed clean when Sarayu [the local river] overflowed its bounds. But it always had its rebirth and growth. In this view (from one of the more mystical of Narayan’s books) the fire and sword of defeat are like abstractions. There is no true suffering, and rebirth is almost magical.

The characteristics of Narayan’s small people:

These small people of Narayan’s books, earning petty sums from petty jobs, and comforted and ruled by ritual, seem oddly insulated from history. They seem to have been breathed into being; and on examination they don’t appear to have an ancestry. They have only a father and perhaps a grandfather; they cannot reach back further into the past. They go to ancient temples; but they do not have the confidence of those ancient builders; they themselves can build nothing that will last. But the land is sacred, and it has a past.

Narayan’s world is not, after all, as rooted and complete as it appears. His small people dream simply of what they think has gone before, but they are without personal ancestry; there is a great blank in their past. Their lives are small, as they have to be: this smallness is what has been allowed to come up in the ruins, with the simple new structures of British colonial order (school, road, bank, courts).

In Narayan’s books, when the history is known, there is less the life of a wise and enduring Hindu India than a celebration of the redeeming British peace. So in India the borrowed form of the English or European novel, even when it has learned to deal well with the externals of things, can sometimes miss their terrible essence. [V.S. Naipaul]

Narayan’s Heroes are never drawn on a heroic scale:

The heroes of Narayan are never drawn on a heroic scale. Narayan is the creator of un-heroic heroes. The heroes of Narayan do not control events, the events control them. They are helpless creatures torn by desires and tossed this way and that way by the caprice of fortune. Chandran, the Bachelor of Arts, intensely in love with Malathi, at last runs away from home. Mr. Sampath, the cunning shark, also is impelled by luck and at last leaves Malgudi forever.

The English teacher, Krishnan when his wife is dead, finds solace in the world of spirits, and Raju, the guide dies a ruined man not because he wanted to die, but circumstances so conspired that the only alternate before him was to become a willing martyr. It therefore transpires that the heroes as also heroines of Narayan depend upon chance or luck for their happiness or unhappiness; and if things go contrary, they just run away and sometimes even become Sanyas is. It might appear that the best solution according to Narayan for the evils of life is: “If you are defeated, run away.”

Narayan’s Realism in his depiction of characters:

If Narayan’s heroes are not impressive figures, he compensates for this by giving us perhaps the most realistic novels in the Indo-Anglian field. The life that he describes is put before us with a wealth of details and accuracy that might do justice to a research scholar. In his novel, The Guide, he treats the life of a tourist guide with perfect realism.

He also gives all the details of the trade of a tourist guide and also analyses the attitude of guides to his customers. If his events include a film production as they do in Mr. Sampath, he gives vivid details, which are as interesting as they are realistic. If he describes the life of a professor of English as in The English Teacher, he not only describes the students, the class room, but also gives a period in which the professor discusses the most dramatic passage from King Lear’s Storm Scene.

If he describes the wave of patriotism as in Waiting for the Mahatma, he is not satisfied with the movement alone, brings Mahatma Gandhi on the scene and makes him stay in the Harijan Colony near the river. Narayan’s realism is psychologically convincing as it is accurate in detail. He makes his readers probe through the thought-currents of his characters and watches them from at a distance.

Narayan’s Characters are drawn, in their own limited sphere, with convincing psychological consistency:

Characters of Narayan bear the same stamp of intellectual analysis. They are drawn, in their own limited sphere, with convincing psychological consistency. These characters are full of life and vitality. They are thoroughly human in their likes and dislikes. Krishna, the philosophic minded lecturer in English with all his idealism stands in sharp contrast with the worldly minded Ramani, who found happiness in a mistress. Mr. Sampath, the happy-go-lucky opportunist serves as a foil to Raju, the guide, who of all his cleverness loses his head on the love of Rosie.

Savitri, the proud but staunch Hindu wife is quite different from the independent minded Rosie. Even the minor characters have a permanent imprint on the mind of the reader. Gajapathy, the Professor of English, Shanta Bai, the beautiful insurance canvasser, Rajam, the self-confident of Swami, Mari, the blacksmith-burglar—all these have been drawn with a convincing touch.

Narayan’s power of observation gives him a naturally sharp eye for symptoms of moral strength and weakness and teaches him to see them in all the shades of expression in well-brought-up girls, in men of the world, in professors and students and school boys and tourist guides. He could also distinguish between different varieties of the same characteristic; the unfaithfulness of Ramani is quite different from Mr. Sampath’s neglect of his wife and children. The native shrewdness and cunning of Margayya, the financial expert, is different from unscrupulous money hunting of Mr. Sampath or Raju, the guide.

Thoroughly bad characters and the so-called villains have no place in the novels of Naryan:

It is surprising to note that thoroughly bad characters and the so-called villains so dear to the hearts of the novelists have no place in the novels of Naryan. True, Mr. Sampath, Margayya and even Raju are not quite honest. True also that Rosie is not a very model wife. But as we see them through ups and downs of life, we that there is a lot of good in these characters, that they are more sinned against than sinning and they deserve our sympathy and pity. Grace abounding, general compassion is the key-not of Narayan’s philosophy of life. Narayan is not out to preach any moral or to plead any cause.

He suggests that everybody has his own defects and merits and it would be unfair to take a superior criticizing attitude towards the star- crossed heroes and heroines, who commit mistakes under the pressure of circumstances and who possess inherent goodness. Tossed by the buffets of fate this way and that, they are more to be pitied than despised. All the novels of Narayan have this compassionate charity and grace.

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