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Feminism and the Shifting Attitudinal Spectrum of Woman in R. K. Narayan’s Novels


Feminism and the Shifting Attitudinal Spectrum of Woman in R. K. Narayan’s Novels

Dr. Divya Bala Pathak

Postdoctoral Reaseach Fellow


Delhi, India



R. K. Narayan portrays female characters in his novels with utmost sincerity and sensitivity. In his early novels the women were meek and humble on the contrary the woman became rebellious and independent in his later works. On the one hand he depicts Savitri on the other there is Daisy. A variety of characters is seen in his works like Shanti, Grace, Bharati, Shanta Bai, Bala, Rangi, Daisy, Rosie, Savitri and many others. Sometimes they are sufferers and oppressed and sometimes they are vocal to their rights, dedicated to their aim, passionate for their dreams. Most of the times, the women are homely and docile. Narayan is worried about the role and responsibility of Indian woman who has to realize her worth as a producer and preserver. Although ‘gender discrimination’ is highlighted by the author yet he believes in a balanced society of mutual understanding and love. Impact of western culture on modern Indian woman and orthodox tradition is reflected in the later works of Narayan and women are also in a dilemma to choose between the old and the new i.e., traditional or westernized values.

Keywords: feminism; modernism; patriarchal society; marriage; motherhood

Woman, in the novels of R. K. Narayan is typically Indian. Although several critics criticized Narayan for his portrayal of women as ‘insignificant beings’ yet some of his female characters represent certain elements of ‘emerging modern women’. When Narayan started writing novel it was mid twentieth century, feminism as a movement already began in European countries as a result of two century long struggle for the recognition of women’s right to equality. Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), John Stuart Mill’s The Subjugation of Women (1869), Margaret Fuller’s Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845) brought recognition of women’s social and cultural roles and achievements. Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (1929), Simon de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949) and Mary Ellman’s Thinking about Women (1968) threw light on the condition of women in ‘patriarchal’ society. The male dominated society has prevented women from visualizing their own productive and creative strength. Unlike western feminist movement, India’s feminist movement started by men and forwarded by women. In the late nineteenth century women education, equally and independence were the major issues. By the late twentieth century women obtained greater independence. Apparently, Indian feminists countenance several difficulties in Indian society that are immaterial in western countries. Therefore, Indian feminism was different in many ways from western feminist writers like Kamala Das, Bapsi Sidhwa, R. K. Narayan, Shashi Deshpande, Veena Paintal, Shobha De, Manju Kapoor, Kamala Markandaya, Anita Desai, Mulk Raj Anand, Salman Rushdie raised their voice against social inequality against women. Narayan is worried about the role and responsibilities of homely woman she has to realize her worth as a producer and preserver.

The way R. K. Narayan writes on men characters with all their merits and demerits, similar is the attitude to the portrayal of the woman characters. The world has woman as blend of vices and virtues. Occasionally, the balance is towards one side but its mixture is also found. Many woman characters have a binding of their circumstances. Often modernity is associated with the courage of woman and be active outside the boundaries. Narayan’s last novel, Grandmother's Tale projects the mythological Savitri like courage in Bala to bring her a strayed husband back home. In this novel, satire is on child marriage but this is real life narration of R K Narayan's grandmother of the life of her mother. Viswa a boy of ten years and Bala a girl of seven years is married but as per tradition the girl would not go to the house of in-laws till puberty. During this time of their estrangement Viswa goes away. Bala is unhappy and collects information from various sources and locates her husband. It's not easy to take him back so she joins as a maid the household of the wealthy woman whom Viswa has married. With the passing time conditions change and Bala brings Viswa back to their place. They live there as man and woman. Bala is an example of extreme sincerity, courage and traditions with the following of proper values.

There are Shanta Bai and Savitri in The Dark Room; The Painter of Signs has Daisy; Mr. Sampath has Shanti; Grace in The Vendor of Sweets; Bharati and rural women in Waiting for the Mahatma; and Rangi in The Man- Eater of Malgudi. The above listed women do cross the threshold but all are not successful in their endeavor. Only Bala and Bharati have positive outcomes of their adventures. The women followers of Bharati are equally sincere in their effort of participation in Quit India Movement. Law-abiding, sinless, courageous and goal- oriented achievers they come out as. Somehow, the rest of the ones going out are not so simple with virtues and selflessness.

The Dark Room has a comparative study of women characters, viz. Savitri and Shanta Bai. Savitri as per nomenclature leads a docile and domestic life. The entrance of Shanta Bai, a valueless woman in the life of Ramani proves nuisance to all inclusive of Savitri. Ultimately one day she tries to commit suicide but of no avail and she is back to pavilion. No doubt her adventure teaches her the value of domestic life. Shanta Bai and Ramani establish carnal relationship but this too is short termed. She moves out of his life. This move is again to show lack of settlement of hers. The novelist attaches purity to domestic life.

Mr. Sampath faces failure as a film producer because of immorality. R K Narayan always projects so. Mr. Sampath must have impure relations with the film heroine Shanthi and the novelist must prove human utterly ruined person. In The Vendor of Sweets Grace out of her failing live-in relationship with Mali the son of Jagan the vendor of sweets. Grace is a half-American and half-Korean girl who Mali projects as his wife. This ironical situation is a height because Jagan is a man of Gandhian values.

In The Man-Eater of Malgudi, Rangi a nautch girl supposedly immoral plays a positive role by letting out the vicious plans of her paramour, Vasu the taxidermist. The Man-Eater of Malgudi has the belief that evil is self-destructive like mythological Bhasmasura. Vasu the taxidermist is a cruel being who starts bringing Rangi a notorious nautch girl to his lodging. Much disgusted already this raises further furore over his attitude. The pressure starts arising from the neighborhood to make him shift to some other place. This task to go against the wishes of a bad character is beyond a peace-loving landlord Nataraj. While this confusion is going on time comes for a religious procession in the city. In this Kumar the temple elephant too has to move along. Rangi gets to know of that Vasu plans to shoot the elephant in the procession but Rangi comes to know of this and she informs Nataraj. He is too weak to oppose but God saves the crime. Like Bhasmasura Vasu the fear-causing taxidermist meets his end by hitting self and Kumar the much-loved animal is saved. Here the novelist adds the fervor of sincerity and religiosity to a much-defamed woman. 1930s mark a beginning of film production in the South of India. Both the novels, Mr. Sampath disapproves of blasphemous film production and The Guide alleges professional dancing as immortal. Mr. Sampath and Raju the Guide meet failures because of the respective immoral heroines-actress Shanthi and dancer Rosie.

Her immoral relationship with Rahu makes him mentally unsure of her. Grace as her name maintains grace in her attitude. The man in her life, Mali proves graceless as he has no appreciation for the virtues of Grace. Surprisingly enough she accepts the Gandhian way of life as practiced by Jagan. Much favouring multiculturalism Mali ignores father the birth giving figure and these two are like two poles apart. Grace puts in the best efforts to bridge the gap but meets an utter failure. In The Painter of Sign, Daisy a central figure works at a family planning clinic. The other central figure the painter of Signs and Daisy accept live in relationship but God forbids she is transferred to another city. Her job-oriented attitude makes her leave the Raman and go to her job.

Rosie or Nalini a central figure in The Guide moves out of her premises. The consequential panorama of her life deserves an analytical study of her person. The most gruesome step she takes is to involve illicitly with Raju--an inexperienced person with a young man's ambitions. Raju, the man without wisdom so far, creates hurdles for Marco a historian of international fame. To reach the levels he devotes himself day and night. Rosie being the daughter of a Devdasi with post-graduation still has interest in dancing career. Raju recognizes her talents and devotes himself to her promotion. All the problems in the life of Marco are because he is over occupied and rather incapacitated. Thus, this dissatisfied couple is generally quarrelling. Raju is god sent for her. She as an over enthusiast leaves husband and grips the hand of a guide.

The character of Rosie is complicated. She has qualities of an innocent wife as well an undaunted ambition for dancing. Knowing the fact that her husband would not allow this she has boldness to overcome traditional shackles thinking and breaks the shackles of male dominated society. When she chooses the path of being a dancer she emerges as a bold, modern woman who is able to govern her own life on her own conditions. Though her character undergoes several changes, she is frustrated by the maladjustment in society. In the beginning she is presented as meek and humble but as the time passes her boldness reveals as if layers are being removed from her inward beauty. She is courageous enough to determine her own path of happiness but she never lacks sympathy for others. Her internal and external nature differs. She seems to be a mature woman in the beginning and sometimes in the middle and end of the novel, on the other hand she becomes a dreaming child. According to T. Pushpanathan, “Rosie is an enigma, not much concerned with her body but with her soul. Deeply concerned with her inner self, she moves with perfect spiritual freedom. She is pathetic, for she has a bruised inward life. She is great despite being her victim to the search for inward adjustment” (1). In spite of her conflicts with Marco, she does not have malice for him in her heart. Raju’s mother the second woman character in the novel represents traditional and even orthodox mentality while Rosie represents a sharp contrast to her and becomes a symbol of revolt against traditional thinking.

In The Dark Room, Narayan portrays the character of Savitri vividly, who has three children a dominated by arrogant husband. She is a symbol of traditional Indian woman often seen in the kitchen (dark room), she is timid and self-sacrificing woman, neglected and rebuked by husband. When Shanta bai, a beautiful woman arrives after deserting her husband and joins Englandia Insurance Company. Ramani attracts towards her coquettish ways. Soon he indulges in infidelity. Knowing the fact, Savitri sinks only in self-pity and melancholy, tries to revive her charm so that she would win her husband’s love ‘as he loved her in the first week of her marriage’. Soon she loses all hopes. Her heartrending cry: “I don’t possess anything in the world. What possession can a woman call her own except her body? Everything else that she has is her father’s, her husband’s or her son’s” (2) pierce the heart of the reader. Seeing no hope of correcting her husband, she revolts against him in utter frustration and disgust, consequently she quits her husband’s house to commit suicide. Fortunately saved by Mari the blacksmith, begins her life in a village where she emerges as an independent woman, who earns her livelihood by her own work in temple. Since memory of children and homesickness compel her to come back to her husband’s house. Realizing the futility of her escape from worldly sufferings, she would again be in the ‘dark room’. The novel highlights the condition of women in rapidly changing India i.e., modern India. The reality is woman is marginalized and limited to only bedroom and kitchen so that she could serve man.

Daisy, in the novel, The Painter of Signs, a bold and ultra-modern girl believes that marriage and motherhood are unnecessary part of a woman’s life. Therefore, she decided to live free and dedicated herself to duty. Contrary to Savitri, she is educated, single and independent woman. The author keeps her free from the social roles of wife and mother. Her boldness is reflected at the age of thirteen only when a boy and his family coma to inspect her as a would-be bride, she feels it as a humiliation and speaks courageously: “I’d not allow anyone to inspect me as a bride and that I’d rather do the inspection of the groom!” (3). To break the orthodox norms of a shy girl and docile would-be bride she walks before the boy and his family like a soldier to battle. Instead of answering the questions of the boy, she wants the boy to answer her questions. Although she is only thirteen years old, yet she has her own notions of what is good for her and what should she do in life, which exposes her liberal nature. She prefers to be recognized as a skilled and modern working woman not as a charming woman who is considered as a sex object only. Simple living and unorthodox thinking is the key motto of her life. Her mission is to educate people about family planning and feels nothing awkward in explaining the methods of family planning with the help of charts and chalk. Contrary to the traditional heroine of Nararyan’s novels she is an in charge of family planning scheme, who avoids love and marriage as obstacles in her ways of social service.

R.K. Narayan has portrayed woman not only physically but also psychologically. Several aspects of feminine sensibility are touched by him while throwing sensibility are touched by him while throwing light on woman as a custom build house holder, as an ambitious person and craving for liberty. He skillfully distinguished between modern and traditional woman, while portraying woman in The Dark Room, The Guide and The Painter of Signs. When a woman is harassed or suppressed to a great extent, she becomes revolutionary and dare of her personality reveals and she becomes a courageous and bold woman who faces male dominated society confidently.

Like many other novelists like Shashi Deshpande, Anita Desai, Shashi Deshpande, Manju Kapoor, Kamala Markandaya, Mulk Raj Anand, Narayan too depicts woman in a central role. Such protagonists struggle to find their own worth and continuously try to attain liberty. Society treats woman with partiality which Narayan highlights through the character of Rosie and other protagonists of his novels, woman’s desires ambitions, agendas, struggles and triumphs. He presents a woman who wants to unburden herself from the social norms and unusual expectations of society from a woman.

Through the character of Savitri in The Dark Room Narayan deals with the discomforts experienced by woman in male dominated society. She is the embodiment of feminine sensibility, cultural values womanly devotion, dedication, faithfulness to her oppressive and tyrant husband. Considering her home and children as everything she bears everything to a certain extent but one day the limit of her patience crossed and she leaves her husband’s home, refusing to bow anymore. The docile lady comes back for the sake of her children which show her motherly tenderness. She becomes a representative of emotionally and psychologically exploited woman. Who face everything for the sake of children and family and always depend on others sometimes on father on husband or on son for livelihood? Due to their Savitri wants to educate her daughter so that she might live a better life.

On the one hand Savitri feels liberty may be obtained through education and financial independence accompanied by a lovable supportive husband, on the other, Rosie, female protagonist of the novel The Guide is well educated and financially independent even then she turns to Raju for emotional fulfillment. She uses Raju as a medium to attain her dream. Her passion for name and fame was not taken seriously by her husband Marco which becomes the root cause of her attracted by her charm. She, bold enough to break social norms, lodges into Raju’s house, leaving her husband for the sake of her dream. To be a famous dancer, this is what actually happens too. Her craze to fulfill the dream of becoming a dancer fades away her affection for husband. But in the heart of hearts she is suffering from the guilt of leaving her husband.

To some extent, it is right to say that she was suffering for her identity in male dominated society. In her search to find out the meaning of her existence, faces selfishness of man too. Finally, she according to the accepted norms of society unites with her husband presenting the image of an Indian wife. Western feminist, Germanie Greer observes: “If independence is a necessary concomitant of freedom, woman must not marry.” (4)

In the same way, female protagonists of Narayan find marriage not as a sacred knot of the two lovely souls but as a barrier in search of identity and liberty. They are adhering to culture values and eager to step forward to prove their worth to the world. Such woman charterers suffer because they are unable to decide whether Indian conventional belief or modern culture is good. Thus, they stand on the verge of modern age facing a transition period under the dilemma of choosing between the old and the new. Ideals of spiritualism and cultural values are depicted as barrier of success and a clash between myth of the past and the reality of today is treated on a larger scale.

Savitri, Rosie, Daisy are purely feminist characters who search for their own inward happiness i.e., existence and identity. Nevertheless, the author is in favour of balance of everything for the betterment of society. He gives proper space and improvement to his woman charterers for they are the half of the world. They deserve love, care, respect and support to fulfill their dreams as man does. According to Tejinder Kaur; “Undoubtedly Narayan has highlighted the cause of woman by presenting three stages of woman’s journey in her quest for identity and the changes in her attitude; assertion and firm will and he has given a voice to what was submerged in the male dominated world. But the extreme of Daisy’s kind of attitude leave before us the issue of woman’s liberation open.” (5)

In Daisy Narayan has observed the model of woman who would be prospering after the women’s liberation movement and such other hue and cry rose for the betterment of women kind all over the world. If that is so, every Raman must be cautious to call a lady his life. Kate Millet a well-known feminist, believes that marriage reduces the status of a woman to a mere object of man’s sexual gratification, a tool of decoration and a servant to man. Narayan hints at unequal power structure in marriage, which is no longer a scared knot only. Hence the author releases Daisy from the shackles of tiresome marriage.

Hence, R. K. Narayan skillfully depicts woman characters in his novels covering almost all the domains of her life including psychological, emotional and social aspects. Thus, the woman characters in Narayan’s novels have a strong desire to prove their worth. There are docile characters like Savitri in The Dark Room and radical woman characters like Daisy and Rosie in the novels like The Painter of Signs and The Guide respectively. Such characters are influenced by the situation of their lives like real beings since they are not portrayed on heroic scales. A realistic picture of domestic life and social norms is reflected in the novels like – The Vendor of Sweets, A Tiger of Malgudi and Talkative Man. Although the impact of western culture upon traditional Indian woman charterers is apparent in Narayan’s novels, yet most of his female characters adhere to the traditionally accepted roles and values. Being a keen observer of society, he presents a base truth of woman’s life without any discrimination. Woman’s rebellious mood, anger, ambition and search for identity are some of the major factors, highlighted by Narayan while portraying woman in his novels. In the beginning of his literary career his woman characters were meek, humble and sufferers but in his later works woman is presented as rebellious and bold.                                     

Works Cited

Pushpanatahan, T. “Portrayal of Women in R. K. Narayan’s The Guide.” 6th International Conference on Emerging Treads in Engineering, Technology, Science and Management, 7th Oct. 2017. www.conferenceworld.in.

Narayan, R.K. The Dark Room. Macmillan & Co., Ltd: London, 1956.

Narayan, R. K. The Painter of Sign. Indian Thought Publication: Mysore, 1998.

Greer, Germaine. The Female Eunuch. St. Albama: Paladin, 1976.

Kaur, Tejinder. “Feminist Concerns in the Three Novels of R. K. Narayan The Dark Room, The Guide and The Painter of Signs.” The Quest, vol. 8, Dec.1994.

Further Reading:

Narayan, R. K. The Guide. Indian Thought Publication: Mysore, 1958.

Iyenger, K. R. S. Indian Writing in English. Sterling Publishers: New Delhi, 2020.