Beautiful Terror. A Study of the Gothic Elements in Tagore's Short Story "Hungry Stones"

Essay, 2016

8 Pages



The gothic tradition of fiction that took the western literature by storm arises from Walpole’s acclaimed novel referring the attachment of same name, i.e. a gothic story. But arguably there were several instances of gothic literary elements in western literature that can be seen even in Shakespeare’s dramas quite abundantly. Tagore, whom the world took as a sage of enchanting East with all its philosophical and spiritual enactments proceeds to the western gothic technique in his famed short story Hungry Stones, along with the specific poetic charm that perhaps only he can yield so vigorously and yet so easily that lent a special niche for this story in world literature, that makes it a masterpiece of gothic romance.

Keywords: gothic, Hungry Stone, poetry, romance, Tagore.

Elizabeth MacAndrew in her ‘ The Gothic Tradition of Fiction’ (1979) defines a Gothic literature as a ‘literature of nightmare’ (MacAndrew3). Gothic tradition includes the supernatural elements which are in a way unknown and unfamiliar to some extent for its readers as a result it wakes up curiosity and suspension. But none the less it has a special and distinct appeal to the human heart. The gothic writings with its dark, somber setting, evil characters and recurring and somewhat abrupt use of elements bordering supernatural, appealed to the readers with its magic wand which is also in a way sinister in a sense of the term through the generations. The prevailing mood of terror and suspense loom large in the gothic fictions whose characters are having with them a supposed hero or the chief protagonist, who is being hunted by some mysterious forces of the universe beyond his or her control. The term gothic is nothing to do with the Goths, the Germanic tribe, creating disturbances and had a major part of the continental Europe under its sway for a considerable period of time. But rather we can term this as ‘post-medieval’ and ‘post renaissance’ phenomena, and there are several forms which are ingrained into it variously. We can have its various manifestations and glimpses in ancient writings consisting of prose and verse, in Shakespearean dramas like Richard III, Hamlet, Macbeth, Julius Caesar and many of his other plays. The first recognized and self proclaimed tale calling himself gothic was far beyond the boundaries of middle ages, Horace Walpole’s ‘ The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story ’, (1764). In the second edition, published in the following year he added a new preface which clearly asked for an artistic combination of the two kinds of romances, the modern and the ancient one, while the ancient will veritably expose and allude with all its imagination and improbabilities and the modern with its elements of probability. The tradition of gothic novel thus initiated by Walpole caused a gradual and unfinished line of fictions that is flourishing even in the modern period with its varieties of different subgenres and diversifications. During the Victorian and romantic period even the more classical writers had claimed their chunks of shares in the development of this genre, in this context we certainly name the Bronte sisters, especially Emily Bronte with fascinating Wuthering Heights (1847). The genre reemerged favorably in the nineteenth century in ghost stories, operas, and different fantastic tales, appeared in newspapers and magazines throughout the continent. In the decade of 1890s we have such writings like Oscar Wilde’s ‘ The Picture of Dorian Gray’, (1890) Charlotte Perkins Gilmon’s ‘ The Yellow Paper’, (1892). Bram Stoker’s ‘ Drakula ’ (1897), and Henry James’ ‘ The Turn of the Screw’ (1898) etc., soon afterwards in the following years it re-inhabited itself in the form of films, ghost stories and with the advent of television, it occupied a major portion in the popular media with its reincarnation in the popular television serials and soap operas. The terror and horror had an sublime appeal for the mass and it cannot be ignored either for the resurgence of the form again and again and for this, the gothic form has never gone into a permanent oblivion as several other literary forms have gone into, especially different forms of poetry. This reason equally is responsible for its changing of forms, as different writers have tried their hands in various experimentations on this genre through generations. The surreal elements of nature and world have been attached with the fine touches of imagination making a kind of poetry, has a special place in the genre of gothic fiction. Ann Howells notes that the gothic novels simultaneously project a retreat from the insoluble and surmountable problems of the time present and by distancing the readers in a fantasy, while Gillian Beers opines that the gothic novel in a sense reinvented the power of sensation that with the names of ‘wonder’ and ‘admiration’, that had always been a inseparable part of the pleasure of romance. The world of superstition, fancy, wilderness, which were rather considered the forms and projection of this genre that is considered perhaps nothing to do with a good literary piece, has taken its somewhat due place with the crutch of this genre and for the present time it remains a major study of not only in literature but also in different forms of arts including painting and visual media that has retained its popular appeal for the mass.

Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) is beyond a one word description. He was a multidisciplinary genius, the poet, philosopher, painter, musician, novelist, educationist who has a special place not only in the heart of Bengali people but also remembered throughout the world, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in the year 1913. He was undoubtedly the best product of the Bengali cultural renaissance of the age. The cultural civilization into which he was born and the surroundings of the then Bengal further imparted a specific cultural impact upon him and which was in many ways far better and advance than even many parts of continental Europe. Tagore was an artist in the literary field and was certainly more multidisciplinary in his own accord than many of his famous contemporaries in the world over. John Bayley says in this context that like Tolstoy he was an aristocrat, with all an aristocrat’s instinctive confidence and self assurance, fetched from generations of position and authority that make the figure he was. That factor is rather inconceivable in today’s sense of the term of aristocracy but the situations of the age old generations with its culture, literature, religion and the family which showed almost all excellence in every sphere of human arts is certainly imparting a huge influence on Tagore as a child. On the other hand he was a natural great man, one whom nature imparted every bit of sense and taste that she could impart with all its abundant glory.

Tagore’s short stories are in a sense the first specimens of the perfect art of short stories that Bengali literature could boast of, depicting the little delights, fantasies, and sobs of Bengali household and its people. Many has accused him of writing only the urban sounds of Calcutta and its refined people in a sense of the term and his novels especially are in reality the typical expositions of this urban and humanscape, where the common rural mass had little to do. But in this sense his short stories are slightly different as they are earnest and real in depicting the rural people and their little worlds and words with their desires, longings, hopes and despairs. His experience of the Bengal’s rural countryside during his stay at Selaidah, now at Bangladesh, positively lends specific minute details of common people that he was rather deprived of in the urban Calcutta. No doubt his short stories still continue to attract attention even after so many years of his death. The noted Bengali critic and literary historian Sukumar Sen opined that Tagore was the first writer of the short story of Bengal in its today’s form; it is true in all possible extent. The people, who had tried their hands in this genre before Tagore, like Bankimchandra and even Iswarchandra Vidyasagar and many others could not succeed as perfectly as Tagore. Moreover the infancy of the premature Bengali prose language perhaps impacted in their failure. Because there were actually scanty of prose literature in Bengali before Vidyasagar, and whatever there was that was mostly a sort of religious prose literature. However, of all the more than one hundred and fifty short stories that he had written, some fifty or more are translated into English by different translators like Surendranath Tagore, Amiya Chakraborty, C. F. Andrews, W. W. Pearson etc.

Edward Thompson in his book ‘ Rabindranath Tagore: Poet and Dramatist’ said that when Tagore’s first work was published in English, it was seen to be mystical and religious, the concept that the westerners are happy to associate with the East. Yeats was somewhat responsible for that also in a sense, in his introduction of Tagore’s ‘ Songs Offerings’ (1913), he rather equated these poems with the ancient Vedic hymns. We cannot say that this is totally untrue, but only with this concept Tagore’s deep rooted versatility is being overlooked and Europeans formed a ingrained habit to see Tagore’s work as a kind of spiritual discourse and monologue that utterly negated this versatile genius and tagged all his work in the same mould. However in our present essay our main task will be to show his graphic renderings of the gothic technique that the westerners could possibly recognize as their own.

Tagore’s ‘ Hungry Stones’ despite its rather cold dismissal by the western critics because of its lack of plausibility is a gothic romance par excellence. The story begins on a train, where the first narrator, supposedly the author meets a Mohamedan gentleman who was a fellow passenger in the same train. The narrator admits of being puzzled when he heard the gentleman talking about diverse matters that he was unaware of. Thus the narration prepares us from the very opening like a Shakespearean drama of our coming future engagements with a world that could equally puzzle us though its equally baffling enactments. The narrator also admits, “Hitherto we had been perfectly happy, as we did not know that secret and unheard of forces were at work, that the Russians had advanced close to us, that the English had deep and secret policies, that confusion among the native chiefs had come to a head.” (Tagore 3) But his newly acquired friend said with a sly smile: “There happen more things in heaven and earth, Horatio than are reported in your newspaper.” (Tagore 3) The analogy is at once perfect, puzzling and full of connotation. It simultaneously dropped us into the actual undisciplined chaos of apprehending terror from the Hamlet’s world into this setting and prepares us for the second narrator’s Hamlet like quest after the administration of the unknown and perhaps unknowable but inviting world as if in a unbreakable spell.

The narrative structure of the story also perfectly adds and like a thread stitches the magic enchantment and its seeming weirdness, lurking in the story. As Tagore’s technique of narration makes direct leaps from the first narrator into the second narrator, the protagonist of the story and then again rather abruptly to the first narrator in the very last section of the story lends a kind of abruption and puzzlement where the gothic structure of the story is happy to be couched into and making the way for the reader’s unfinished apprehension of gloom and terror. The man who was working as a collector of cotton duties at Barich under the Nizam of Hyderabad chose to live in a solitary marble palace abandoned for generations. One of the principal charms of the story lies in its poetic spell that also in a way adds to its invigorating grace of the gothic atmosphere abundantly. Different western critics though have strongly objected this perforating of intense poetry into the structure of the story and they opined that it made it a poem rather than a story. But we could also opine that this poetry which is thoroughly charged with romanticism cannot be slighted because the gothic writing is after all only a cousin sister of romanticism and both spring from that unbounded imagination that touches the story with its golden and magic wand is also a form of romanticism. Thus the susta ‘chatters over stony ways and babbles on the pebbles’ and ‘tripping, like a skilful dancing girl’, and the very history of the palace, which was built by emperor Mahmud Shah II for his pleasure and luxury with “jets of rose-water spurted from its fountains, and on the cold marble floors of its spray –cooled rooms young Persian damsels would sit, their hair disheveled before bathing, and splashing their soft naked foot in the clear water of the reservoirs, would sing, to the tune of the guitar, the ghazals of their vineyard” (Tagore 5), are not at all alien to the structure of the play, but rather it is ethical in preparing the readers for its impending gloom and magic terror and it certainly makes the terror a beautiful one, a beautiful terror. The vastness of the atmosphere, with its abundance of spring recoil and recur throughout the story like a departed music, still leaving its faint broken jingling in the scene like a magic spell. The narrator was told not to pass the night by one Karim khan, an old clerk of his office. Even he readily assented to the servant’s proposal of working till dark and leaving after that. Soon after a week had passed the place began to exert a kind of ‘weird fascination’ upon the narrator. He felt as if the whole house has become a kind of living organism that slowly and imperceptibly digesting the narrator by the action of some stupefying gastric juice. It was on a summer day, a little before the sunset, when he was sitting in an arm chair near the water edge below the steps. When he was thinking for going out for a ride, he heard a footfall on the steps behind, though at first he took it as a nothing but the veritable illusion and as if to negate his affirmed views, he is made to hear , “…many footfalls, as if a large numbers of persons were rushing down the steps.” (Tagore 7) He thought that perhaps he had seen a bevy of joyous maidens coming down the steps to bath in the susta in the summer evening, the girls, laughing and playing with themselves without noticing the other world presence represented by the narrator there. This jingling of bracelets, sound of spattered water, the girls dashing in and out etc., left a thrill at his heart and he felt an irresistible desire to have a glimpse of them. It seemed as if, “…a dark curtain of 250 years was hanging before me, and I would fain lift a corner of it tremblingly and peer through, though the assembly on the other side was completely enveloped in darkness.” (Tagore 8) On another day he had almost a same kind of experience as he pushed the door open ‘ …great bustle seemed to follow within, as if a throng of people had broken in confusion, and rushed out through the doors and windows and corridors and verandas and rooms, to make its hurried escape.” (p 10) One of the chief elements in this story is that it’s enchanting poetic quality as if we are visualizing a poetic terror which certainly mellows the harshness of the traditional gothic fictions, but simultaneously lend it a specific grace no doubt. The ‘tinkling of anklets’, ‘distant note of nahabat ’, the sound of bulbuls is really a ‘strong unearthly music’ that we can hear from this story. One night the narrator awoke as if by some gently pushing and “...She said not a word but beckoned me with her five fingers bedecked with rings to follow her cautiously.” (p 13) He kept following the unseen she, through the dark and endless narrow passages with long corridor with silent and solemn chambers and close secret cellars that certainly remind us of the European gothic novels of the similar atmosphere and settings in the medieval back ground. The ‘She’ from the other world was unseen because of certain insurmountable physical boundaries but not certainly from his, the second narrator’s mind’s eyes and he can certainly see her, -“an arab girl, her arms, hard and smooth as marble, visible through her loose sleeves, a thin veil falling on her face from the fringe of her cap, and a curved dagger at her waist.” (p13) This image of the girl is something akin to prototype of the story, the disastrous combination of beautiful terror, the daggered beauty. But somewhere this romance has to be stopped and he stopped somewhere to find a terrible eunuch dressed in rich brocade with a naked sword on his lap. But suddenly this night adventure came to a stop as the fair guide lightly tripped over his legs and held up a fright of scream. The night world of the inviting beauty with bluish tray of apples pears, oranges, bunches of grapes melting into all intoxication and vaporizes as the eunuch woke up suddenly with a start and the sword fell from his lap with a sharp clang on the marble floor. The narrator finds himself on his camp-bedstead, sweating heavily. He felt, “She had maddened me.” (p 17) He heard the heart breaking sobs through the night as if coming from below his bed, below the floor, below the stony foundation of that gigantic palace, as if asking to him, “Oh! rescue me.”(p19). He felt that he can stay no longer there but some enchantment calls him back and he could distinctly felt one “…woman was lying on her face on the carpet below the bed-clasping and tearing her long disheveled hair with desperate fingers. Blood was trickling down her fair brow, and she was now laughing a hard, harsh, mirthless laugh, now bursting into violent sobs.” (p 22) The picture is perfect painting like the Pre-Raphaelites and one specimen of perfect beautiful terror and surely we cannot miss it anyway as the characters and its setting are visualized in front of our eyes like a perfect picture with the strokes of finest words having finest pictorial quality.

Soon it was learnt from that Karim Khan, that unsatisfied longings and lurid flames of wild pleasures that raged into the 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.” (p 24) Like many of Tagore’s short stories this one also ends rather abruptly as the train arrives and the old man departs and it remains an unfinished part what Karim Khan was going to tell the man, the second narrator about the young Persian girl so that the person can get out from the seeming unbreakable spell of this circling around this enchantment again and again.

Thus the story remains as one of Tagore’s masterpiece that very stylistically conjoins the gothic elements of the European traditions with the eastern magical enchantments that the westerners are very fond of associating with the Eastern tales and its cultures as propounded in Edward Said’s ‘ Orientalism’ (1978). In this part the Tagore’s natural poetry lends its hand in fulfilling the task with all its sure craft and makes the present story also a masterpiece in the world of English literature.


1. Cavaliero, Glen, The Supernatural and the English Fiction, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.
2. Ellis, Markman, The History of Gothic Fiction, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000.
3. Engell, James, The Creative Imagination, Enlightenment to Romanticism, London: Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1981.
4. Sen, Sukumar, History of Bengali Literature, New Delhi: Sahitya Academy, 1971.
5. Thompson, Edward, Rabindranath Tagore: Poet and Dramatist, London: Oxford University Press, 1948.
6. Various Writers trans. Hungry Stones and Other Stories, London: Macmillan, 1916.

Bio-note: Kousik Adhikari, PhD research scholar, NIT. He has participated and presented papers in several national and international seminars and workshops. He has some publications consisting of both creative and critical writings in reputed national and international journals and he is interested in comparative literature, folklore, culture studies, linguistics etc.

Declaration: The paper is original and nowhere published.

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Beautiful Terror. A Study of the Gothic Elements in Tagore's Short Story "Hungry Stones"
National Institute Of Technology Durgapur  (NIT Durgapur)
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Kousik Adhikari (Author), 2016, Beautiful Terror. A Study of the Gothic Elements in Tagore's Short Story "Hungry Stones", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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