Critical Analysis and Appreciation of The Novel The Guide

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A Popular Work

      The Guide is one of the most popular novels of R.K. Narayan. It is also a flash of Indo-Anglian fiction. It first appeared in 1958 and was recognized and discovered by America. Since then it has gone into more than fifteen reprints, and about one lakh copies of it have been sold so far. It has been translated into French, Dutch, German, Polish, Swedish, Russian and Hebrew and in several Indian languages. The novel fetched for its writer Sahitya Akademi Award in 1961. Furthermore, it has been filmed successfully and has been a hit.

      According to S.C. Harrex, The Guide is “one of Narayan’s best and best-known works. It is also the first novel in English to have won the Sahitya Akademi Award, and a popular but deplorable film version of it has been made. Moreover, The Guide amply demonstrates that Narayan’s comedy is both profoundly Indian, because it is firmly focused on the social and cultural tradition.”

The Story

      The Guide is the life story of Raju, who is in turn a rail road station food vendor, a tourists’ guide, a sentimental adulterer, a dancing girl’s manager, a swindler, a jail-bird and a martyred mystic. It follows Raju along a curiously braided time sequence. After describing the early life and education of Raju, the author shows how Malgudi became a railway station and how Raju became the owner of a railway stall and came to be known as “Railway Raju.” He also became a successful tourist guide. Trying to help a rich visitor, Marco, in his researches, Raju is involved in a tangle of new relationships. Rosie, Marco’s wife, becomes Raju’s lover. Abandoned by Marco, Rosie realizes, with Raju’s help, her ambition of becoming a dancer. But Raju’s possessive instinct finally betrays him into a criminal action, and he is charged and convicted of forgery. Coming out of the jail, he cuts off all connection with the past and sets up as a sort of ascetic or Mahatma. Once again he is caught in the coils of his own self-deception, and he is obliged to undertake a twelve-day fast to end a drought that threatens the district with a famine. In vain he tells his chief ‘disciple’ Velan the whole truth about himself and Rosie, and about the crash and the incarceration. But nobody believes that he is anyone other than a saint. He has made his bed, and he must perforce lie on it. We are free to infer that, on the last day of the fast, he dies opportunely, a martyr. Does it really rain, or it is only Raju’s optical delusion? Does he really die, or merely sinks down in exhaustion? Has the lie really become the truth, or has it been merely exposed? We are free to conclude as we like. Narayan simply suggests: “Please choose what you like.”

The Plot and Technique

      The plot has been split into three episodes or phases: (1) Raju as a Railway man or tourist guide; (2) Raju as an impresario; and (3) Raju as a pseudo saint. In the second episode he is swept away by a hurricane of passions and in the second ‘all passions spent calm of mind.’ All the episodes contain drama. But the split in the plot has been unified by the present-past method and the hero’s interest in the events. As mentioned by Prof. Iyenger, technically, The Guide is an advance on the earlier novels: the present and the past are cunningly jumbled to produce an impression of suspense and anticipation. We begin with Raju’s release from prison, and Velan’s recognition of ‘Swami’ in him. The earlier history of Raju is supposed to be related by him to Velan much later, when the fast is in progress. This zig-zag narration gives a piquancy to the novel without quite confusing the reader. We are enabled to see the action as Raju sees it, and as the later Raju Sober sees the earlier Raju Drunk...” Amidst all this the novelist cleverly brings Rosie into the focus who is an enchantress of beauty and charm. After all the alarums and excursions, all the excitement and suspense, all the regrets and recriminations, Raju realizes that neither Marco nor he himself had any place in her life.

      The technique of the craftsman is praiseworthy. The novelist’s technique is successful in unifying different episodes. This has been so successful because of his yoking together the past and the present. lt is a hybrid technique. It is not purely a dramatic form, nor even a purely film form. It is the mixture of the fiction, the drama and the film. Fate has also been exploited to play its own role in promoting the action. The form of the novel is largely dramatic except the exposition of the career of the hero from the childhood to maturity. The concept of tragedy however is weak; purgation does not reach its requisite point; readers have no sympathy for the hero, they have rather wonder and astonishment. The novel in the last estimate remains to be a ‘pensive comedy’ instead of being a tragedy. The presence of Rosie further keeps the novel warm.

      There is in The Guide a simple narrative, told in present past manner. The technique is simple but the setting of the episodes is not so simple. The back stage life of Raju has a dramatic effect. There is a technical control over the material of the novel. Narayan executes things with the sense of a high technique. Various scenes and events and people have been well managed. The novel is free from big explosions and extremes of emotions. The death sentence awarded to the hero is the most interesting part of the story. It has been arranged very nicely, and keeps suspense intact.

The Most Representative Work of Narayan

      “The Guide is the most representative of the novels of R.K. Narayan. Here also is followed the same pattern as in other novels — rise of the hero from the average to the most exalted position and subsequent reversion to the original position. But this novel records not only the defeat of the hero, but also the ironical second rise, thus adding a new dimension to Narayan technique. Raju, lost his place in the eyes of his beloved Rosie after forging her signature on the documents sent by her husband. For lack of faith in Rosie, and also his moral degradation, he was sentenced to rigorous imprisonment. But in the second part of the novel, although a total fraud, he was raised into a martyr for sacrificing his life for famine-stricken people. Romantic, mischievous and sociable, Raju, is a likeable character.”

Indianness in the Novel

      ‘Although written in a foreign language, Vie Guide is a truly Indian novel: images, symbols, manners, habits, attitudes and sentiments, all combine to reinforce the feeling that R.K. Narayan is a true son of the Indian soil. He is a pride of Indian literature, popular enough among lovers of fiction to be compared favourably with the world’s best contemporary novelists like Faulkner and Graham Greene.” The novel also brings out before its readers the contemporary social and economic scene of rural as well as urban India with accuracy and realism. Not only the manners and habits of people are portrayed but also their modes of living and their changing fashions are shown.

The Social Spirit

      The novel is neither a social chronicle nor a piece of social criticism. Narayan is neither a society critic nor a social reformer. In this respect, he is different from Dickens, Anand or Premchand. His novels are free from propaganda. He touches upon the social spirit in The Guide in order to be realistic in his background and locale of the novel. It is in this sense that there are references to contemporary social problems of poverty, cheating, greed, marriage and sex. The novelist keeps on scrutinising the social temper of the time while working as an artist. The behaviour of the community receives his full attention. There are smaller issues of the social nature in the novel as well. For instance, the corporal punishment by the teachers, the inefficiency of the pedagogues, the superficial glory of the bureaucrats, the lack of teachers in the villages, the problem of maladjustment in marriage, the problem of parental authority and the rebellion of the young, etc. The changing social life of the time is a sort of historical document in the novel. The traditions are in the flux. The life of lawyers has been presented in a satirical manner. Even the life of jail has been depicted by the novelist. The novelist is for a social integration and not for romantic disorder; hence he favours morally upright life. The social spirit is present in the novel, but it does not bob up on the surface, it remains subordinate to the art spirit.


      The characterization in the novel is of a fine order. There are very few characters in the novel. The hero is present throughout the novel, but the heroine is present only up to the half of the novel, and is absent during the hero’s last phase of life. There are only three women in the novel: Rosie, Raju’s mother, and a girl from Mangala village who does not wish to marry but later on agrees to marry the boy chosen by her father after the miraculous effect of Raju, the Swami. Rosie’s character in the novel is not only very lively but also very fascinating and charming. The novelist describes her sometimes very minutely:

      “She was not very glamorous, if that is what we expect, but she did have a figure, a slight and slender one, beautifully fashioned, eyes that sparkled, a complexion, not white but dusky, which made her only half visible as if you saw her through a film of tender coconut juice.”

      All the major characters are composed of tragic element. But the novelist has tremendous control over his characters. The principles of ‘karma’ permeate the life of the characters. The destiny of the hero has been shaped in accordance with the principle of poetic justice. A wrong doer must meet the punishment it deserves. The novelist does not ded with the inner lives of his characters, he is free from the psychological moorings of the modern novelists. It is only in the case of Rosie that he touches upon the psychological depths. Rosie remains a maze even to Raju who says: “In other way too I found it difficult to understand the girl. I found as I went on that she was gradually losing the free and easy manner of her former days. She allowed me to make love to her, of course, but she was also beginning midst of my caresses she would suddenly free herself and say, “Tell Gaffur to bring the car. I want to go and see him.” This is how Narayan paints the psychological nuances.

The Motif

      The Motif of the novel is artistic. A novel must delight, so The Guide delights first and foremost. But at the same time there is little teaching too. The crumbling of tradition and the changing social values form the background of the novel. The individual characters are seen adapting to the new ideas. The old ones (the mother of the hero and the maternal uncle) do not like the new fangled views of the sprouting young generation. The simple morality is changing, but not in the rural areas. The novelist seems to be upholding the old values, the changing times in the novel are seething with new troubles. The present-day permissiveness does not appeal to the author. He, however, wants the superstition of the villagers to go. He wants them to be fairly educated. People should be wary of the hypocritical saints deceiving the people. The superior culture of Marco is no answer to the problems. It is only a contrast to the general living of the people. The pseudo religious values too must go. A little thinking on the part of the people will not be amiss. Social morality has its value and as such it must be maintained; tampering with its equilibrium is dangerous. Raju is the living example of the same. The personal failure of the character of the hero symbolises the social maladjustment of a person in society. The sanctity of marriage must remain intact because when infringed it creates the problems of social immorality and maladjustment. Rosie’s folly in surrendering to the desire of hero is treated as an act of passion which is not rewarded. It disturbs the social order as well as disturbs the mind of the hero. But the social, moral and psychological interests are relegated to the background; on the forefront the novel remains a very delightful piece of art. Nevertheless, the Indian tradition and thought of ‘karma’ is maintained.

Treatment of Love and Sex

      The novel does not treat love and sex as is done in the novels of Maugham or Lawrence. We do not come across any Lolita or Lady Chatterly. There is no pornography or obscenity in The Guide. Love in the novel has been relegated to the sensual gratification. The passion recedes into the background giving place to a mere companionship which is guilty of social crime. The Platonic love, or the love of the sentimental type has been consciously eschewed by him. Money and sex are exploited as the agents of man’s downfall. They are the greatest corruptors and seducers. Physical exhibition is encouraged only in the beginning of the love episode of Raju and Rosie, and thereafter we get least of it. The vital flow of the psychical intercourse of the two involved in it is also denied to us. The novelist has maintained social decency and decorum in the treatment of love and sex. Illicit love is not rewarded, the wages of sin are always death: this principle has been upheld.

      The novel revolts against the traditional form of marriage which views the problem from the social angle alone. If love is not the basis of marriage, it gets disintegrated. But then the irresponsible type of love has problems peculiar to it. We lose both ways, because on the one hand the social climate is not favourable for irresponsible love, and on the other the traditional form of marriage is not a proper solution for human nature as it is. However, aimless love meant only for sexual gratification tosses on the high seas and wrecks itself against a rock with its flotsam and jetsam scattering on the dark waters of life.

The Comic Element in the Novel

      The Guide is a ‘pensive comedy’. In it laughter and tears, humour and pathos go together. The total image of the novel is neither white nor black but grey. There is a tragic element in the lives of Raju, Rosie and, Marco, none of them gets permanent peace or happiness. However, the comic element in the novel has been edged with the sharpness of a tragedy. It exists in the second phase of the life of the hero. The way Velan behaves with the hero, raising him to the heights of a Mahatma, has the concealed comic touch about him. The Raju-Rosie episode, on the other hand, is of the sober temperament. There is also verbal humour occasionally. The comic element is quite subdued.

Blend of Romance and Realism

      The novel is a tragic blend of romance and realism. On the one hand there is in the novel warm Rosie and Raju’s romance with her, on the other hand there is sordid realism of the poor people who are drought and famine-striken. The romance is perfect in the spirit of its irresponsibility. Action does not disturb thought, imagination soars high but soon it comes on the surface of earth.

Aestheticism of the Novel

      The aestheticism shown in The Guide is not of the standard and stature as found in the novels of Mrs. Woolf. But Narayan is a lover of beauty. His aestheticism is visible in the images which he draws vividly. He creates beauty in the form of the object. There is immense beauty in the way the hero (Raju) meets the heroine (Rosie) on the railway platform. The way the heroine lives with the hero has its own charm. The romantic element gets mixed up with the other things of life. The form and the design of the novel also is a source of beauty. The end of the novel and the total effect of the novel are also beautiful. The didactic purpose does not etch over the canvas. Primarily he comes before us as an aesthete.

In the Opinion of Reviewers

      The following citations from the Reviews of the novel will bring out the real ilk and worth of the novel:

1. The Guide floats as gently as a lily pad on the surface of Indian life and yet suggests the depths beneath. It manages to describe a saint who is neither born nor made but simply happens, almost like the weather.” - Time

2. “The latest of R.K. Narayan’s pensive comedies is a brilliant accomplishment....In the first pages of The Guide we recognize the charity, the unstartled comprehension, and we settle down to a gracious but knowledgeable evening.” — The New York Times Book-Review.

3. “R.K. Narayan has written a remarkable novel.” — The Courant Magazine.

4. “A masterpiece finely spun. It bears the Narayan trademarks—unhurried pace, unfailing good humour, kindliness, gentle satire. Narayan is the story-teller par excellency — Christian Science Monitor

5. The Guide is the latest, and the best, of R. K. Narayan’s enchanting novels about Malgudi and its people....Narayan has written under the surface of the flashing light comedy that is his signature, a story that has the grandeur of the Indian scene and is a tragedy worthy of it.” — Anthony West in The New Yorker.

6. “Altogether a delicious book. Its satire is wrapped in a leisurely meditativeness.” — Oxford Mail.

7. “The Guide is at once a lively tale of teeming modern India and a thought-provoking fable.” — The Lady.

8. “R. K. Narayan’s new novel is once again set in and around Malgudi. Raju, formerly a guide to tourists, has just been released from prison and has taken refuge in an old temple by the river. While sitting on the steps one evening, a peasant takes him for a priest and asks his advice on a domestic problem. By uttering a few platitudes, Raju helps him to find a solution and soon acquires a reputation as a holy man. When a drought comes to the district the peasants turn to him for help and he reluctantly undertakes a fourteen-day fast to propitiate the rain gods. It is at this point that he confesses to one of his followers that he is an impostor and tells the story of his previous life — the tragi-comedy of his love for Rosie the dancer, and the rise and fall of his fortunes as guide, lover and impresario.” - (From the flap of the novel)

      In the eyes of Raju, Marco is a monster. He tells Velan: “Oh, what a man: I have not met a more grotesque creature in my life. Instead of calling herself Rosie, she could not logically have called him Marco Polo. He dressed like a man about to undertake an expedition with his thick coloured glasses, thick jacket, and a thick helmet over which was perpetually stretched a green, sheeny, water proof cover, giving him the appearance of a space-traveller.” He treats him as a life-long customer.

      Marco is seen absorbed completely in his studies. He has no time even for looking to the physical needs of his wife. For him the essence of the married life is a misnomer, which is the main cause of his tragic married life. He is however a disintegrated personality. There is a streak of cynical idiosyncrasy in him. “He would not yield an anna without a voucher, whereas if you have given him a slip of paper, you could probably get him to write off his entire fortune.”

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