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The Hungry Stones
By Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Setting
Characters
Structure and Point of View
Atmosphere
Plot Summary
Conflict
Climax
Theme
Foreshadowing
Vocabulary
Figures of Speech
Study Questions
Writing Topics
Biography of Tagore
Complete Free Text
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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings... 2012
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Type of Work and Publication Year

......."The Hungry Stones" is a short story centering on a seemingly supernatural experience. Macmillan published it in New York City in 1916 as the title piece in a collection of Tagore's stories. 

Setting

.......The action takes place in the late nineteenth century on a passenger train in eastern India and at a train station as the main characters await another train bound for Calcutta (now called Kolkata). 

Characters

First Narrator: Unidentified person who begins the story.
Theosophist: Traveling companion of the first narrator.
Second Narrator: Man who tells the first narrator and the theosophist a ghostly tale. He identifies himself as Srijut.
Englishman: Acquaintance of the second narrator.
Characters in the Second Narrator's Story: (1) second narrator; (2) Mehir Ali, an insane Man; (3) Karim Khan, an officer worker; (4) servants. 

Structure and Point of View

.......“The Hungry Stones” is frame tale. In such a story, there are two narrators. The first narrator presents a scene with characters. The second narrator—who is one of the characters introduced by the first narrator—then tells a story. 
.......“The Hungry Stones” begins when the first narrator says that he and a companion are returning to Calcutta on a train. One of the passengers is a strange man who intrigues the first narrator and his companion with the depth of his knowledge about the world. To complete the trip to Calcutta, the three passengers must change trains at a stop on the route. While they await the next train in a station, the strange man tells the other two men a story. He thus becomes the second narrator. After the train for Calcutta arrives, the second narrator walks off and the first narrator takes over to complete the story.
.......The story thus resembles a framed picture or painting. The first narrator is the frame, and the second narrator is the picture or painting. Both narrators present their stories in first-person point of view.

Atmosphere

.......The atmosphere of the second narrator's story is bizarre, mysterious, and otherworldly.

Plot Summary

.......While returning to Calcutta from a religious pilgrimage, the narrator and his friend meet a strange man on the train. He can converse intelligently on any subject—even the most trivial—quoting from science and poetry. So deep is his knowledge that the narrator's friend, a theosophist, thinks the man receives inspiration from the supernatural, the occult, or an astral body. The narrator's friend begins taking notes, and the man seems pleased.
.......After getting off at a junction at 10 p.m. to change trains, the travelers learn that the next train will be considerably late. The narrator prepares to take a nap, but the strange man begins to tell a story. The narrator, already under the spell of the man, decides to stay up and hear it. The story follows. (The strange man will be referred to as the second narrator; he tells his story in first-person point of view.)
.......One day, after quitting his job at Junagarh over a disagreement on administrative policy, the second narrator begins work as a collector of cotton duties at Barich, a pleasant locale. There, the Susta River "chatters over stony ways and babbles on the pebbles," flowing in from the woods below hills. One hundred fifty steps up from the river is a marble palace. There are no houses near it. The cotton market is some distance away.
.......About two hundred fifty years before, the Emperor Mahmud Shah II built the palace “for his pleasure and luxury,” the second narrator says. Its fountains spurted rose water, and in its rooms young Persian girls would sing and splash their feet in the waters of the reservoirs. Now, however, only tax collectors stay there. Karim Kahn, an old clerk in the second narrator's office, warns him never to stay at the palace.
.......“Pass the day there if you like,” the clerk says, “but never stay the night.”
.......Even thieves keep away from the place. 
.......Despite the warning, the second narrator decides to lodge there. When he returns from work at the end of the day, he finds the solitude of the place almost unbearable. After a week, he begins to feel as if the palace is alive and is “slowly and imperceptibly digesting me." He first notices this feeling one summer evening toward sunset when he is seated on the steps gazing at the scene before him. The Susta River is low, and he can see the pebbles at the bottom glistening. As the sun drops behind the hills and the landscape darkens, he hears a sound on the steps behind him. When he rises and looks around, no one is there. As he sits down again, he hears a rush of footsteps and thinks he sees maidens coming down the steps. Although he knows that no one is there but him, he clearly hears the maidens running by him on their way to the river.
.......“As they were invisible to me, so I was, as it were, invisible to them."
.......It is as if they are on the other side of a curtain. Then a strong wind ripples the waters and sweeps away the ghostly presence of the maidens. 
.......In the morning, he looks upon the experience as a “queer fantasy,” he says, and goes to work. However, when he returns, he has a feeling that the maidens are there again. As he enters, he senses a rush of beings leaving the palace through windows and doors and corridors. But he sees no one, although a faint scent of perfume seems to be in the air. Standing in a hall between rows of pillars, he then hears the splash of fountain water, the notes of a guitar, the jingling and tinkling of ornaments and chandelier pendants, the ringing of bells sounding the hours, and the singing of birds. Suddenly, this strange world becomes reality and his workday world at the cotton market an illusion. Or so it seems. 
.......After supper, he goes to bed in a small room. Through a window, he can see a star peering down and falls asleep. He awakens later as moonlight is stealing into the room. Although he sees no one, he feels a woman pushing him. She waves a hand for him to follow her, and he does her bidding, envisioning her in his mind as a girl with a veil on her face. She stops before a blue screen and points to a negro eunuch on the other side. He sits dozing with a sword on his lap. The girl lifts the screen, and the the second narrator sees part of a room with a Persian carpet. From a bed, the feet of a woman in pajamas reach to the carpet. A tray of fruit, two cups, and a decanter await the arrival of a guest. When the second narrator enters this scene and attempts to step over the eunuch's outstretched legs, the eunuch awakens and the sword falls to the floor. Then the second narrator awakens to the early-morning sun. 
.......Time passes. During the day, the second narrator goes to work, always tired from his strange experiences of the night before. But in the evening when he returns, he looks forward to these experiences. Repeatedly, he becomes a person from an earlier age who takes part in “unwritten history.” He might be wearing an English coat, breeches, and red velvet cap in anticipation of a meeting with “the beloved one.” He might also wander about the palace to see what will happen to him next.
.......Sometimes, while dressing himself as a royal prince, he would catch a glimpse of a Persian beauty in the mirror. But in a moment she would disappear. At such times, he would go to bed and fall asleep as a serpent entwined him. 
.......One evening, he decides to go for a ride on his horse. But as he is about to put on his English coat and hat, a powerful wind enters and whirls them around. He hears laughter and abandons the idea of taking a ride. The next day, he decides never again to wear the coat and hat. In the evening, he hears a woman crying out for him to rescue her by breaking through “these doors of hard illusion” and carry her away on a horse.
.......He wonders who she is, where she came from. He envisions a Bedouin kidnapping her from her mother and taking her to a slave market, where a man buys her for his master's harem. The master, a great king, worships at her feet while the eunuch with the sword stands nearby. 
.......When the second narrator awakens, he then decides that he cannot stay another night in the palace. So he packs his belongings and moves to his place of employment. In the evening, however, he ends up back at the palace and enters the dark silence. Two tear drops fall from above on his brow. The doors of the palace bang, and the hallways moan. Next to the bed he has been sleeping on, he perceives the presence of a woman lying on the carpet and tearing at her hair. She is sobbing. A storm rages through the night. The narrator wanders through the palace, wondering who it is who is sobbing with such intense grief and sorrow. When he is at work, Karim Khan tells him,

At one time countless unrequited passions and unsatisfied longings and lurid flames of wild blazing pleasure raged within that palace, and that the curse of all the heart-aches and blasted hopes had made its every stone thirsty and hungry, eager to swallow up like a famished ogress any living man who might chance to approach. Not one of those who lived there for three consecutive nights could escape these cruel jaws save Meher Ali, who had escaped at the cost of his reason.
He asks Karim whether there is anything he can do to break the spell of the palace on him. The old man says he knows a way, but first the second narrator must listen to the story of a young Persian girl who once lived in the palace. However, at the very moment that the second narrator is about to tell the first narrator and the theosophist what Karim said, the train to Calcutta arrives. While the travelers are picking up their bags, an Englishman looking out the window of a first-class car sees the second narrator approaching. He calls to him and invites him into his compartment. Because the two travelers must take a second-class car, they have no chance of hearing the rest of the story or finding out the identity of the second narrator. 
.......The first narrator tells the theosophist, "The man evidently took us for fools and imposed upon us out of fun. The story is pure fabrication from start to finish." The first narrator then tells the reader that the "discussion that followed ended in a lifelong rupture between my theosophist kinsman and myself."

Conflict

.......The main conflict in the fabricated story about the palace is the cotton dealer's desire to escape the spell of the palace while also desiring to experience its bizarre effects on him. In psychology, such a dilemma is called an approach-avoidance conflict. Everyone experiences this kind of conflict from time to time. For example, a person with an aching tooth may wish to undergo treatment that relieves his pain while also wishing to avoid treatment out of fear of a dentist's probing instruments.

Climax

.......The climax occurs when the first narrator tells the theosophist that the second narrator's story was a fabrication.

Theme

.......The human mind tends to accept the version of reality that appeals to it. In “The Hungry Stones,” Rabindranath Tagore centers on this thesis. 
.......On the one hand, the cotton dealer (second narrator) deliberately presents a fantastic but false version of reality. On the other, the theosophist readily accepts the cotton dealer's version because it supports his philosophical views. A theosophist is one who believes he can attain knowledge of the divine and the supernatural through intuitive feelings. It makes sense to the theosophist that the cotton dealer hears and sees what is intangible. 
.......When the theosophist's companion observes at the end of the story that the cotton dealer's story is “pure fabrication from start to finish,” the theosophist refuses to accept this view and ends his friendship with his companion. 
.......Historians, philosophers, theologians, scientists and others seeking to present reality sometimes act like the theosophist in that they wittingly or unwittingly allow preconceptions and biases to affect their thinking.

Foreshadowing

.......The cry of the insane man, Meher Ali, foreshadows the ending, in which the first narrator tells the theosophist that the second narrator's tale is a fabrication. Ali shouts, "Stand back! Stand back!! All is false! All is false!"

Vocabulary

Abyssinian eunuch: Ethiopian eunuch.
badshah: Title meaning great king.
cess: Tax.
chaprasi: Messenger boy in an office.
ghazal: Form of poetry used to express love
ghi (or ghee): Butter from which milk solids have been removed. It is used in cooking. 
eunuch: Castrated man who oversees a harem.
henna: Flowering plant with the smell of roses.
narghileh: Smoking device in which smoke in a tube cools while passing through water; water pipe.
nizam: Title formerly used by rulers of Hyderabad, India.
palanquin: Litter for transporting a passenger. It has a roof and usually four poles projecting horizontally, two in the front and two in the back. Using these poles, four bearers lift and carry the litter.
paijamas: Pajamas
puja: Hindu religious exercise or pilgrimage.
Rs.: Plural abbreviation for rupees. A rupee is a monetary unit used in India and other countries. The abbreviation for a single rupee is Re.
sarang: A type of Indian music for afternoon occasions.
seraglio: Harem in the palace of a Muslim. 
thousand and one Arabian Nights: Allusion to The Thousand and One Nights (also called The Arabian Nights), a collection of stories from Arabia, India, Persia, and Egypt. A legendary queen, Scheherezade, tells these entertaining stories, including "Aladdin's Lamp," "Sindbad the Sailor," and "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves."
Vedas: Sacred writings of Hinduism.

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Figures of Speech

.......Following are examples of figures of speech in "The Hungry Stones." For definitions of figures of speech, see Literary Terms.

Alliteration

No longer do snow-white feet step gracefully on the snowy marble. 

Methought I saw a bevy of joyous maidens coming down the steps to bathe in the Susta in that summer evening. 

I distinctly heard the maidens' gay and mirthful laugh, like the gurgle of a spring gushing forth in a hundred cascades

a sudden whirlwind, crested with the sands of the Susta

Anaphora
Not a sound was in the valley, in the river, or in the palace, to break the silence.

What endless dark and narrow passages, what long corridors, what silent and solemn audience-chambers and close secret cells I crossed!

many a caress and many a kiss and many a tender touch of hands

Hyperbole
a horse swift as lightning
Metaphor
As the sun sank behind the hill-tops a long dark curtain fell upon the stage of day.
Comparison of darkness to a curtain and daytime to a stage

The feet of the fair swimmers tossed the tiny waves up in showers of pearl.
Comparison of the water to showers of pearl

Onomatopoeia
the jingle of ornaments and the tinkle of anklets, the clang of bells tolling the hours

the rattle of my carriage

I could hear the gurgle of fountains 

Oxymoron
invisible mirage

voiceless laughter

Simile
At first the solitude of the deserted palace weighed upon me like a nightmare. 
Comparison of the effect of solitude to a nightmare

I felt as if the whole house was like a living organism slowly and imperceptibly digesting me. 
Comparison of the house to a living thing

Like fragrance wafted away by the wind [the maidens] were dispersed by a single breath of the spring.
Comparison of the maidens to a fragrance

Study Questions and Writing Topics
  • In what ways in "The Hungry Stones" similar to short stories by Edgar Allan Poe?
  • What causes the rupture in the friendship between the first narrator and the theosophist?
  • What do you believe is the second narrator's opinion of, or attitude toward, the first narrator and the theosophist?
  • What is the religion of the second narrator?

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