Fall 1989, Volume 6.2


Literal Truth and Soul-Making Fiction in R. K. Narayan's Novel The English Teacher: Spiritualist Fantasy versus Jungian Psychology?

Years after its publication in 1944, R. K. Narayan's early novel The English Teacher, which tells the poignant story of a bereaved Hindu schoolteacher in the last years of the British Raj, can now be said to offer an unexpected instance of autobiographical material used for purposes of fiction. Autobiography, in recent discussions of the genre, has been seen as always verging on fiction; in The English Teacher, however, it is fiction that turns out to be literal, autobiographical "truth." That such "truth" may itself be open to further interpretation in the light of the anima concept in the psychology of Carl G. Jung, that it may be "soul-making" (to use a term given currency by the American Jungian, James Hillman), will be the main point of this article. But for the moment, if only in order to set ourselves up for the pleasurable deconstruction of one of our most cherished mental constructs, we need to accept the traditional sharp distinction between fiction and reality, between what we perceive as happening in the world, and what we perceive as happening in the mind. By the end of this essay this distinction will have become softened, but not, I hope, done away with completely! It is simply that, as Georges Gusdorf has said in a classic statement which defines the psychological basis for the modern critical interest in autobiography as a product of the marriage of facts (the events or situations of a life) with acts (imaginative acts on the part of the author):

. . . today's comprehensive psychology has taught us that man, far from being subject to ready-made, completed situations given from outside and without him, is the essential agent in bringing about the situations in which he finds himself placed. It is his intervention that structures the terrain where his life is lived and gives it its ultimate shape, so that the landscape is truly, in Amiel's phrase, "a state of the soul." (Olney 37)

Thirty years after the publication of The English Teacher, when R. K. Narayan revealed in his autobiography My Days (1973-74) that the extraordinary events in the novel had a factual basis, his many readers could not have been more surprised. Thus not only had his own wife died under circumstances very similar to those in which the narrator's wife contracted typhoid and died in The English Teacher, but the eerie communication with her beyond the grave—Narayan affirmed—occurred in real life as well. Thus truth turned out to be stranger than fiction—at least if we can accept as literal truth the narration in the second half of the novel of such an unusual phenomenon as conversations with the spirit of a "late espoused Saint."

In My Days R. K. Narayan presents himself as someone who, after his wife's death in June 1939 from typhoid, had "no faith in spiritualism, which seemed to oversimplify the whole problem of life and death with its trappings and lingo" (141). In a similar fashion his protagonist Krishna, in The English Teacher, shows no interest in the occult, and indeed is quite incensed when his mother-in-law arranges for an exorcist to come to her sick daughter's bedside. When the doctor appears at the door while the exorcism is in progress, Krishna relates that "I felt quite ashamed and wished I could spirit away this mystic" (93). Nevertheless, both Narayan and his fictional alter-ego accepted the offer of an attempt to communicate with the spirit of the departed through spiritualistic procedures: the medium allowed his hand to write whatever came into his mind, and these messages were interpreted as attempts on the spirit's part to communicate with her grief-stricken husband. At first the messages were from "your band of helpers":

The lady wants to assure you that she exists but in a different state, she wants you to lighten your mind too, and not to let gloom weigh you down. She says, now you are told I am here; by and by when you have attuned yourself, you will feel without proof or argument that I am at your side and that will transform your outlook. (My Days 143)

These words and others were written down at a rate of twenty-four hundred in thirty minutes; in the novel, there is no such breathless rush of words, but the thirty-minute limit on writing is observed. There is no point, however, in comparing the two narratives in detail, since Narayan is quite right in affirming in My Days that they both tell essentially the same story:

More than any other book [of mine], The English Teacher is autobiographical in content, very little part of it being fiction. The "English teacher" of the novel, Krishna, is a fictional character in the fictional city of Malgudi; but he goes through the same experience I had gone through, and he calls his wife Susila [instead of Rajam], and the child is Leela instead of Hema. (135)

But what is worth further comment is what Narayan wrote about the reactions of his readers to the supernatural, occult dimension of the second half of the novel:

That book falls into two parts—one is domestic and the other half is "spiritual." Many readers have gone through the first half with interest and the second half with bewilderment and even resentment, perhaps feeling that they have been baited with the domestic picture into tragedy, death, and nebulous, impossible speculations. The dedication of the book to the memory of my wife [Dedicated to my wife RAJAM] should to some extent give the reader a clue that the book may not be all fiction; still, most readers resist, naturally, as one always does, the transition from life to death and beyond. (135)

I must confess myself to be one of those readers—not that I am entirely skeptical, but that I find that the novel, unlike the autobiographical episode, offers more than an illustration of the cautiously presented truism that "perhaps death may not be the end of everything as it seems—personality may have other structures and other planes of existence, and the decay of the physical body through disease and senility may mean nothing more than a change of vehicle" (135). One is glad, on the purely human level, to hear that, for R. K. Narayan, "this outlook may be unscientific, but it helped me survive the death of my wife" (135); and one might well even envy someone who could espouse such a consoling philosophy of life after death. But the superiority of the novel The English Teacher over the autobiographical material presented in My Days owes much to the way in which Narayan added to the texture of the true-to-life narrative. Interpreting the second part of the novel as "soul-making fiction" will reveal that fiction can indeed be stranger than truth—if we avoid falling victim to a purely literal reading. The English Teacher may be, as Narayan asserts, "autobiographical in content"; what makes it memorable as fiction is precisely how it departs from such apparently literal truth.

"I am at your side and that will transform your outlook"—these words of the wife's spirit taken down at breakneck speed by Raghunatha Rao, a rich lawyer friend of one of Narayan's cousins, mark the theme of transformation that continues, in My Days, with the statement:

All the factual side seemed to me immaterial. Even if Rao had had his own sources of enquiry and was dashing off the information at the sitting, even if Rao caught telepathically whatever went on in my or anyone else's mind, it did not matter to me. Even if the whole thing was a grand fraud, it would not matter. What was important was the sensing of the presence in that room [the presence of his wife's spirit], which transformed my outlook. (144)

Throughout the autobiography, R. K. Narayan, even when he alludes to such "unquestionable evidence" as a reference to a box of jewelry of which his conscious mind was unaware, maintains that the value of the experience lay not in demonstrating the reality of life after death, but rather this: "what really mattered to me ultimately was the specific directions she gave step by step in order to help me attain clarity of mind and receptivity" (145). Following on this initial experience of contact with his wife through the medium's writings, sittings at a distance were able to work through thought transference alone; eventually, as in the novel, "even that amount of dependence on the medium became unnecessary . . . psychic experience seemed to have become a part of my normal life and thought" (146). After becoming adept at this type of unmediated thought communication with his wife, and after having practiced establishing psychic contacts "for some years, almost every night," "gradually," writes Narayan, "the interest diminished when I began to feel satisfied that I had attained an understanding of life and death" (147).

Narayan mentions Paul Brunton, an English friend and "mystic," on two occasions in these passages (136, 147) as someone who inspired him to write a book on the personal tragedy which had overtaken him, and who also taught procedures for abstracting oneself from the body. In The Wisdom of the Overself (published in 1943, one year before the publication of The English Teacher), Brunton, no doubt inspired to some degree by the recent psychic experiences of his friend R. K. Narayan ("when we met, we exchanged our experiences, analyzed and evaluated them"—My Days 150), evoked the possibility, "under abnormal conditions," of establishing communication with the spirit world; however, wrote Brunton, "both sitter and medium are usually ignorant of the workings of the deeper layers of their own minds, an ignorance which often leads them to ascribe to a spirit words and visions which emanate from themselves alone" (137). But Brunton is willing to admit that there are exceptions: "by the force of great love genuine communication is sometimes effected through a medium and does bring great comfort to a bereaved person" (137-38). Still, a better procedure is to do without the services of a medium altogether. Writes Brunton: "it is also the only satisfying method, because it involves one's own personal experience, not something got at second hand." Brunton's evocation of this direct communication encapsulates the experiences of R. K. Narayan in My Days as well as those of his fictional alter-ego Krishna in The English Teacher:

Truly a deep noble affection between two persons conquers the chasm set up by death and brings . . . loving thoughts from the spirit to the receptive consciousness of the living person . . . [and] a sense of its personal presence to a sensitive mind.(Brunton 138)

Yet the reader is entitled to remain incredulous. We have seen that even Narayan did not completely discount the possibility of the medium's "telepathic competence" being the source of what were presented as communications with his wife's spirit, even though he seems to interpret these messages and conversations as being cases of literal thought-communication with his dead wife. My own sense of disbelief as a reader has brought me to another possible explanation which, while it may not shed any light on what happened to the real individual R. K. Narayan in Madras and Mysore—whose private experiences are best interpreted by himself, as he has done in less than ten pages of his autobiography My Days—may never- theless be of some use in making sense out of the richer texture of his novel The English Teacher, where the whole second half of the novel, some one hundred pages or so, is oriented around these spirit conversations and their transformative effect on the narrator's life.

In an essay entitled "The Relations Between the Ego and the Unconscious" (published in Switzerland in 1945—the year after the publication of Narayan's novel—as Die Beziehungen zwischen dem Ich und dem Unbewussten), the Swiss psychologist Carl G. Jung discussed a technique for psychological development that bears much resemblance to what the discontented English teacher and grieving widower Krishna in The English Teacher attempts to do in his conversations with the spirit of his dear departed. Jung's concept of the "anima," the psychological image of a man's female side, has remained central to the study of Jungian psychology. What Jung put forward in this particular essay was the "technique" of holding actual conversations with this figure of the psychological imagination; it involved the "objectivation of the anima" (211) and the striking up of a personal relationship with her by asking her questions. Jung was aware of the fairly outlandish nature of the endeavor:

To anyone accustomed to proceed purely intellectually and rationally, this may seem altogether ridiculous. . . . Our model case [Jung's analysand, a "spotless" man of honor and public benefactor whose private tantrums and explosive moodiness had terrified his wife and children] behaves, in the world, like a modern European; but in the world of spirits he is the child of a troglodyte. He must therefore submit to living in a kind of prehistoric kindergarten until he has got the right idea of the powers and factors that rule that other world. Hence he is quite right to treat the anima as an autonomous personality and to address personal questions to her. (212)

Jung proposed this odd procedure as "an actual technique": "the art of it only consists in allowing our invisible opponent to make herself heard, in putting the mechanism of expression momentarily at her disposal." These "conversations with the anima" were thus a technique worth taking seriously: "statement and answer must follow one another until a satisfactory end to the discussion is reached" (213-14). Yet, wrote Jung, this was not a technique for all and sundry:

I would expressly point out that I am not recommending the above technique as either necessary or even useful, to any person not driven to it by necessity . . . . I can imagine someone using this technique out of a kind of holy inquisitiveness, some youth, perhaps, who would like to set wings to his feet, not because of lameness, but because he yearns for the sun. (214)

For such an exceptional young man, for such a young Dante, the anima may take the form of a dear-departed Beatrice, who can play the role of spiritual guide as well as femme inspiratrice.

And such is the role we will find the spirit of Susila playing for Krishna in The English Teacher: "At stated hours sit for psychic development, that is, to enable me to get in touch with you directly without the intervention of the medium," says the spirit of his wife in the novel (177). Since the beginning steps are quite hard for him, even for the mere ten-minute sessions she has prescribed, Krishna makes heroic efforts to concentrate his mind on her. But this leads to failure, since it is not—although, like Krishna, the modern reader is initially tempted to expect it to be so—a variety of Indian yoga or meditation that she urges him to practice, as though he were worshipping a deity in a shrine, with the image of his wife serving as the divine image his mind's eye should be focused upon. Quite the contrary: the wife's spirit is adamant in asserting that "unwaver- ing" meditative concentration on her image is the opposite of what she is asking of him:

Your mind may now be compared to the body of a yogi who sits motionless. This is not what you seek to achieve, do you? . . . What is still required is that you should be able to receive my thoughts. It can be done only if you do not make a stone image of me. I want you to behave just as you would if I were conversing with you. You would pay attention. Now it borders on worship. (182-83)

The specific points of similarity between Krishna's post mortem conversations with Susila and Jung's "conversations with the anima" can be summarized briefly under the three following headings: not mental concentration, but psychic relaxation and receptivity; actual questions as part of a systematic attempt to engage the "feminine side" in an intrapsychic dialogue; and finally (as we shall see) a transformation of the person's psychological outlook as a result of this "soul-making fiction."

As a reader with his own independent perspectives, I am thus willing and able to accept Krishna's alleged spiritualistic conver-sations with his dead wife (which Narayan later revealed to faithfully reflect his own experience) as signs of actual Jungian "conversations with the anima," although there is no evidence that at the time of writing the novel Narayan knew anything of Jung or of such a Jungian technique; nor is there any indication of such familiarity with Jungian psychology in the autobiography My Days. In the novel, to stick with what concerns us most, Narayan leaves off his description of the conversations with Susila just at the point where one begins to wonder what this figure, who was both his wife and yet more than his wife (cf. "Ever since these communications began I felt, now and then, that she showed a greater wisdom than I had known her to possess" [148]), will produce in the way of inspirational material—fortunately so, since the material presented in the novel as well as in the autobiography seems to consist of rather inflated bits of spiritualistic dogma, which are not very original, and not—at least for this reader—very inspiring. But in the novel that is of no great importance, since Narayan is far more interested in demonstrating the effect of the psychic presence of his wife's spirit on the narrator's life than in promulgating the "greater wisdom" she allegedly possessed.

But what was the effect of these conversations on Krishna? How did such conversations "transform" him? For the theme of transformation occurs in both the autobiography and the novel. By the end of the novel Krishna has quit his work as a schoolteacher in the pay of the British Empire; he has learned to take care of his little daughter, and then to take up the responsibility for a progressive school for children run along authentically Indian lines. His former students at the "Albert Mission College" now see him as a patriot working for the cause of "national regeneration" (211). (This rather vague term certainly suggests the Quit India movement; I suspect that Narayan, whose novel was published in wartime London by Eyre and Spottiswoode in 1944—see My Days 147—under the sponsorship of Graham Greene, deliberately avoided what might then have been considered seditious language by the British censors.) Krishna, on the other hand, sees himself as continuing that inner work of psychological development begun with the conversations with his wife's spirit: "I'm seeking a great inner peace" (211). We can see how his new vocation, and his decision to no longer collaborate with the British educational system, pertain more to a private than to a political quest. Working with young children, cherishing an original and creative vision of education—these have come to him through "conversations with the anima"; through such meaningful activity the feminine side of his psyche has become more "integrated," as the Jungians would put it. When the novel ends dramatically with the actual vision of his wife, we can feel that, beyond the literal meaning of the text (the description of such a psychic phenomenon), it is this integration of the feminine side, of the anima, that is symbolized by the evocation of their reunion:

We stood at the window, gazing on a slender red streak over the eastern rim of the earth. A cool breeze lapped our faces. The boundaries of our personalities suddenly dissolved. It was a moment of rare, immutable joy—a moment for which one feels grateful to Life and Death. (213)

For the author, as we have seen, the result in the world of literal truth of soul-making activity (the "psychic contacts" with his wife's spirit) was "an understanding of life and death" (My Days 147). One should only add that this understanding and new psychological orientation enabled him to continue his career as a novelist, after a break of several years, by writing that extraordinarily moving novel The English Teacher, thereby giving us, his readers, some sense of that "rare, immutable joy," for which we in turn are grateful.


Note: My thanks to Professor K. S. N. Rao (University of Wisconsin_Oshkosh) for encouragement and assistance, and to Ms. Daphne Goodier (Windsor, U.K.) for drawing my attention to Paul Brunton.


Brunton, Paul. The Wisdom of the Overself. London: Rider and Co., 1943.

Jung, C. G. Two Essays in Analytical Psychology. New York: Meridian Books, 1956.

Narayan, R. K. My Days. New York: Viking Press, 1974.

The English Teacher. East Lansing: Michigan State College P, 1953. (New Title: Grateful to Life and Death)

Olney, James, ed. Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1980.