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A Reflection of Anita Desai’s Thematic Concerns in the Novel, The Village by the Sea

By: Indunil Madhusankha



Garlanded with universal appreciation, Anita Desai is one of the most distinguished Indo-English writers of the post-colonial era. Her contribution towards the contemporary Indian English novel has been well acclaimed by the far flung literary community both in and beyond the Indian subcontinent. Interestingly, Desai seems to explore new horizons in the world of fiction through her unique approach with which she effectively portrays the critical issues prevalent in both rural and urban settings of contemporary India. Also, it is of prime importance to note that Desai’s writings are featured by an essential conflict between and among her characters who are challenged with the inevitable realities of life and even more exciting is the way she describes their mentalities thus penetrating the flesh of the humans to probe their psychological complications. The purpose of this research paper is to analyse the thematic implications of Anita Desai’s novel, The Village by the Sea which is one of her award winning works of fiction. The present novel revolves round the story of a rural family in India which struggles tooth and nail to make ends meet and enjoys a delightful reunion in the end, thanks to the undaunted courage of the two children, Hari and Lila. The theme of survival and adaptation is the paramount aspect of the thematic concerns in the novel. Also, Desai focuses on several other debatable issues pertaining to the contemporary Indian society through her novel, The Village by the Sea. It is apparent that Desai’s vital thematic appeal, her strong emphasis on the complexities of the human existence and her incredible narrative style seem to have added immensely to the success of the particular novel thus signifying her excellence as one of the best writers of the twentieth century India.

Born (June 24, 1937) in Mussoorie, India, Anita Desai is a world famous Indian English novelist. Taking into account some striking testimony to her workmanship, she has thrice been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction. In 1978, she achieved a Sahitya Academy Award for her novel, Fire on the Mountain from the Sahitya Academy which is the National Academy of Letters in India. Also, for the novel, The Village by the Sea, she was awarded with the 1983 Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize which is a once-in-a-lifetime book award judged by a panel of esteemed British children’s writers. Desai considers English as the “language of books” and hence English remains her language of self-expression. Although she had been involved in a writing career from her childhood, her role became prominent in the literary scenario of India after the independence. It is in a really authentic manner that Desai uses the novel to examine the complexities of the life of especially the child and the woman at the clutches of the burning issues in the contemporary society. Also, it is intriguing that Dr. M. S. Ansari in his paper, “A Study of the Themes of Alienation, Detachment and Relationship Crisis in Anita Desai’s Major Novels”, argues that in the hands of Desai, the novel is not a tool for escaping the reality, but a microscope with which she zooms in on the untamed complications of the human life and the inner psyche of her characters. Therefore, Desai’s timely thematic concerns seem to have merged with her innovative approach and ardent sense of observation in establishing her popularity as one of the greatest writers of Indian literature in English.

This research project intends to investigate the prominent messages that Anta Desai tries to convey through her much lionised work of fiction, The Village by the Sea. The novel, mostly set in Thul which is a rural village situated in Western India, poignantly relates the story of a family struggling for survival amidst many hardships. The main characters in the story are Hari, a 12 year old boy and his eldest sister, the 13 year old Lila. They also have two younger sisters namely Bela and Kamal. Their mother is a bedridden TB patient while their father is an alcoholic who seems to have completely neglected his responsibilities as a father and a husband. This situation has forced Lila and Hari to take the family responsibility to their shoulders thus meeting the needs of their younger sisters and taking a good care of their sick mother. Seeking greener pastures, Hari, the protagonist of the novel along with his beloved sister, Lila almost like angels from heaven toil upward with unflagging courage in order to save their family from the misery they are currently undergoing.

In proceeding with the research, the novel, The Village by the Sea was read several times in order to allow for a thorough understanding of its settings, characters and episodes. Also, I went through some critical studies undertaken by several reviewers on the particular novel. Furthermore, an admirable amount of reading was done on the other writings of Anita Desai and the reviews of her novels by some well-known critics. Besides, I had some discussions with some of my colleagues and teachers where I could learn various and almost contrasting aspects relating to the thematic implications of the novel under scrutiny. In addition, I watched some Indian movies made in such languages as Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Marathi and Bengali so as to be familiar with the cultural life of India in both urban and rural areas.

It is really encouraging to note that this research study produced promising results which led to the revelation of a number of significant aspects that Desai focuses on in her thematic approach. The importance of survival and adaptation seems to have been the writer’s major thematic concern in the present novel. Desai tries to emphasize the theme of survival and adaptation mainly through the character of Hari. It is a well acknowledged fact that adaptation is part of survival. We live in a rapidly moving world and almost nothing remains the same as time passes by. Surviving in such a fast changing world is not an easy task because we should possess the necessary capacity to adjust ourselves to the changing conditions in the society. Towards the end of the story, Hari gains the ability to move ahead with the changing circle of life. The blissful reunion of the family and the stability that they attain in the end after a chaotic period of extreme difficulties, show that no matter how small you are, there is always a remedy ahead of you, if you are smart enough and persevere to achieve your goals. The use of a character of such a young boy who is only twelve to reveal her message, enhances the effectiveness of its appeal.

Another significant dimension of Desai’s thematic concerns in the present novel is the vulnerability and desperation of the people who live ghastly lives of abject poverty not just in the village but in the city as well. She also explores the detrimental impact of the neglect of parental responsibilities on the innocent child life in relation to the senseless behaviour of Hari’s father. Moreover, Desai focuses on several other critical aspects which affect the contemporary Indian society especially the plight of the ignorant village people in the context of rapid industrialization and the political intervention in the life of the common man. Through the novel concerned, she also discusses the inherent goodness of people and how such admirable characteristics can become a benediction to the society. In addition, Desai seems to be preoccupied with the cultural life of India and enticed by the beauty of nature in many instances of the novel.

Thus, the thematic appeal of the novel, The Village by the Sea sounds very vital, touching and convincing. It is clear that almost every theme conveyed through the story has a special relevance not only to the Indian society but also to the entire world at large. Desai’s acute sense of observation and her essential preoccupation with the common man become prominent in her masterly characterization, vivid descriptions of the settings and the fine organization of a vigorous plot which is highly authentic. Also, the novelist’s remarkable ability in the adoption of effective narrative techniques seems to have been immensely supportive in enhancing the richness of the thematic appeal of the novel. Hence, it is clear that the celebrated work of fiction, The Village by the Sea remains another feather in the cap of Anita Desai thus bearing ample testimony to her excellence as one of the leading Indo-English writers of the twentieth century. Therefore, I am of the belief that this research paper will be beneficial for all those who seek to analyse Anita Desai’s novel, The Village by the Sea not only for academic purposes but for intellectual recreation as well.


Desai A. (1982). “The Village by the Sea”. Allied Publishers Private Limited. New Delhi.

Vaidyanathan G. (2005). “The Village by the Sea: A Critical Study”. Rama Brothers India Private Limited. New Delhi.

Hewa S. P. (2007). “Anita Desai, The Village by the Sea: A Critical Study (A Study of Anita Desai’s The Village by the Sea)”. [Madapatha]: [Susantha P. Hewa].

Ansari M. S. (2013). “A Study of the Themes of Alienation, Detachment and Relationship Crisis in Anita Desai’s Major Novels”. Language in India. Retrieved August 7, 2015, from

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Anita Desai”. Wikipedia. The free encyclopedia. Retrieved August 10, 2015, from

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The Village by the Sea”. Wikipedia. The free encyclopedia. Retrieved August 11, 2015, from

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