Dr. Raman Kumar/Freudian Concept of Id, Ego and Superego: A Study of R. K. Narayan’s The Vendor of Sweets

Dr. Raman Kumar

Assistant Professor of English

Govt. College Bangana, Distt. Una (Himachal Pradesh)

 Freudian Concept of Id, Ego and Superego: A Study of R. K. Narayan’s The Vendor of Sweets

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) is one of the most thought-provoking and epoch-making psychoanalytical critics of modern age. He revolutionized the entire concept of human psychology and is rightly acclaimed as the father of psychoanalysis. The effect of his theories is widespread from the field of psychology to such remotely associated subjects as literary criticism and philosophy. With his insightful thoughts and epoch-making ideas he has gained immortality in the annals of psychology and literary criticism.

Freud refused to accept human being as a spiritual being who has something very celestial about him or her. He thought of man no more than an animal which is made of contradictory feelings and emotions. It is the web of these feelings and emotions which forms the basis of the personality of a man and decides the course of his/her life. “No individual is born with the self. The self gradually develops out of inner conflicts; in the years of trial and experience” (311), observed Wolman. To Freud, man is a biological phenomenon and creature of instincts whose “actions are motivated by psychological forces over which we have limited control” (qtd. in Guerin 127), and who lives out his life in terms of tension between his conscious and unconscious self. The real nature of man is not known by external actions but by his motives behind these actions. Freud reiterated that the “human mind is structured like the iceberg so that its weight and density lie beneath the surface (below the level of unconscious)” (qtd. in Guerin 127). He observed that man is ruled by his sub-conscious drives and desires; urges and allurements. Benjamin B. Wolman has observed about the realization of this fact, “The old-fashioned ‘faculty of will’ was finally disposed of, and human beings were seen for what they really are: torn by emotions, often perceiving reality erroneously, sometimes hallucinating, and occasionally being pushed by some irresistible impulse”(214).

According to Freud, human conscious exists at three levels- the unconscious, the sub-conscious and the super conscious. Unconscious part of one’s self is reigned by what Freud termed as Id. The subconscious part of human conscious is dominated by Ego and the Superego rules over the super conscious of human beings. These three tiers of Id, Ego and Superego are delineated by Freud in his essay entitled “The Anatomy of the Mental Personality.” Of Id Freud has said, “The id blindly obeys the pleasure principle. It knows no values, no right or wrong, no moral standards, no considerations for other people. It is a ‘cauldron of seething excitement’ [with] no organization and no unified will, only an impulsion to obtain satisfaction for the instinctual needs, in accordance with the pleasure principle” (qtd. in Wolman 244). Freud said this of Id, “Id knows no values, no good or evil, no morality” (Freud 104-105). Thus Id, in short, is the source of all our aggressions and desires. As Freud observes, “It is lawless, asocial, and amoral. Its function is to gratify our instincts for pleasure without regard for social conventions, legal ethics, or moral restraint. Unchecked, it would lead us to any lengths- to destruction and even self-destruction- to satisfy its impulses for pleasure. Safety for the self and others does not lie within the province of the id; its concern is purely for instinctual gratification, heedless of consequence” (qtd. in Guerin 130).

Of Ego Freud points out, “In popular language, we may say that the ego stands for reason and circumspection, while the id is governed solely by the pleasure principle, the ego is governed by the reality principle” (qtd. in Guerin 130). The persons who are under the influence of ego lead a life of balance where there is a perfect equilibrium of inhibitions and fulfillment. They fulfill their personal ambitions and desires, but within certain limitations which are prescribed by society. They lead a balanced life which is a blend of both desires and restrictions. It is also observed by Aldous Huxley about such a life of balance and adjustability, “Harmonious living is a matter of tact and sensitiveness, of judgement and balance and incessant adjustment, of being well bred and aristocratically moral by habit and instinct” (qtd. in Atkins 31).

Of Superego Freud believed that Superego is the representative of all moral restrictions, the advocate of the impulse toward perfection or the ‘higher’ things of life. The superego serves to repress or inhibit the drives of the Id, to block off and thrust back into the unconscious those impulses toward pleasure that the society regards unacceptable, such as overt aggression, sexual passions etc. Id is full energy and drive, but this energy is to be directed and channelized by one’s ego. Freud has compared the relationship between the superego and the id to that between a charioteer and his horses. The horses provide the energy and drive to the charioteer, while the charioteer provides direction to them. Whereas the Id is dominated by the pleasure principle and Ego by the reality principle, the Superego is dominated by the morality principle. We may say that if Id would make us devils, the Superego would make us behave like angels. But this Superego may also lead to oddities and eccentricities of character. And this happens when “the thwarted aggressiveness (of a super-egoist) becomes internalized and stored in the superego, where it may turn against one’s own person in acts of self-destructiveness” (Wolman 271). In such a situation, it leads to a split or schism in the personality of the individual and eventually to his/her odd and awkward behaviour.

Sigmund Freud’s concept of Id, Ego and Superego can be aptly used for the interpretation of characters from R. K. Narayan’s The Vendor of Sweets. Rasipuram Krishnaswami Iyer Narayanaswami (1906-2001) or R. K. Narayan is one of the most renowned Indian English novelists. He has fourteen novels to his credit and The Vendor of Sweets is one of his most artistic novels. Though the novel deals with the theme of generation gap between the people of second and third generation; between traditionalism and modernism, but its real beauty lies in its characterization. The novel revolves around two main characters named Jagan- a loving father who is a sweets seller by profession and Mali who is his spoilt motherless son. The characters of both Jagan and Mali are so unique and peculiar that they leave an indelible impression on the minds of the readers. The characters of both Jagan and Mali can be interpreted in terms of Id and Superego. The character of Mali in the novel is a fine study of Freudian Id in dominance whereas Jagan’s character can be explained in the light of Superego. As far as the question of Freudian Ego is concerned it is seen in the case of the cousin whose character is not though put under much focus in the novel.

Mali like many other characters of Narayan’s other novels becomes a deviant in the mad pursuit of his own evil ambitions and selfish motifs. He seems to be in the complete hold of Freudian id which follows only the pleasure principle and refuses to identify either the rationality principle or the morality principle. He moves out of his ordinariness and becomes a social deviant in his quest to make life more pleasurable and adventurous. He passionately clings to a life that time and again betrays and batters him, but he refuses to leave it. He, by his eerie ways and strange manners, does “an encroachment upon the foundations of faith” (M. R. Anand) which is the stronghold of his traditional and spiritualistic father. He refuses to carry the burden of old customs and traditions to which his father is so deeply attached and struggles to “extricate himself from the habitual, dreamy automation of his past” (Walsh 126). He seems to exist in the state of “ritual bondage” (Frye 168) and rebels against all social and moral constrictions which seek to thwart his freedom. By his immoral actions and selfish behaviour, he disturbs the quiet waters of Malgudi life.

Mali does not pay any heed to the sense and sensibility of his poor father. Jagan wants him to be a graduate, but Mali has different plans regarding his future. He does not pay any attention to the feelings and expectations of his father and drops out of the college without his knowledge. He makes foolish plans of becoming a writer and decides to go to America to learn the art of story-writing. He comes under the influence of western culture and tries to leap-frog into a new age of materialism and modernism without considering that no one can become modern overnight, and only by adopting the foreign traditions and culture. He steals away Jagan’s money and goes to America to fulfill his foolish dreams. He goes to America and adopts its ways and manners without getting to its roots. His stay in America consolidates his disliking for the traditional life of his country. He starts cherishing the American ideals and departs from his own traditional culture. He starts eating beef there and suggests the same to his father. He tells his father in a letter written to him, “I’ve taken to eating beef; and I don’t think I’m the worse for it. Steak is something quite tasty and juicy. Now I want to suggest why not you people start eating beef? It will solve the problem of useless cattle in our country and we won’t have to beg food from America” (42). By adopting such evil habits Mali tries to show himself and to the world to be an American, but he becomes only a pastiche being who, in his hurry to adopt the foreign culture, is uprooted from his own traditional culture. His so-called modernization is skin deep and results in his moral and social degeneration. Gordon A. Fellman has rightly observed about the process of modernization of both an individual and society, “A nation wishing to find and make a modern self must root its newer sense of self in yesterday together with today, to signify the searching, hope-filled now as continuous with the dignity of the real and legendary then. A society does not modernize at will. Like a person deliberately seeking to change, a nation must get newness from the materials of its history, not just from elements introduced from outside” (246-247).

Mali follows only his own ambitions and desires and gets utterly disrespectful to the pristine purity of his sacred traditions and openly flouts and decries them. His alienation from “the fixed classical background of India with its complex rules, institutions and customs” (Williams 62) is completely unacceptable and irreparably disgusting for a traditionally and culturally brought up person like Jagan. Later, Mali returns to India with a half-American, half-Korean girl and introduces her as his wife. Jagan feels utterly helpless and ashamed for having such a daughter-in-law. After coming back from America Mali poses himself to be an American, but actually becomes a half-American both in his dress and manners and in his thinking. His vision has become completely materialistic and selfish and all the traditionalism and spirituality of his own country looks abhorrent to him. He finds fault with everything that is Indian and hates the Indian ways and mannerism. He even feels ashamed of his father for being a sweet-seller and says, “I have better plans than to be vendor of sweetmeats” (71). He wants his father to stop selling sweets and join his business of establishing a factory of story-writing machines. But Jagan refuses to indulge in any such plan. Later it is revealed to Jagan that Mali and Grace, who are living like a married couple to all appearances, are not married actually. This is how Grace tells him of their relationship, “But we are not married. He (Mali) promised he’d marry me in the Indian way, because I liked it, and brought me here” (108). Jagan’s soul is shaken to its roots at this realization. He has never thought that Mali would bring him to such a state of degeneration. He is unable to believe in such an immorality of his own son. “‘What breed of creatures are these?’ he wondered. They had tainted his ancient home which had remained unsullied for generation” (109). Jagan feels so much shocked to know of this that he loses interest in everything. He does everything to save himself from the evil vibrations of that unmarried couple living together. But Mali still does not have any pricks of conscience and plans to send Grace back to America. He receives no restraint, but at last he is found guilty of carrying illegal liquor in his car and is subsequently sent to prison. Thus, Mali in the novel is under the complete hold of id, the darker side of one’s personality. The drives of id force him to follow his own evil ambitions and selfish desires and in this process he puts everything else, including his father’s wishes and aspirations; the traditions and customs of the society he lives in and his own existence, at stake.

The character of Jagan can be interpreted in terms of Freudian Superego. According to Freud, a super-egoist follows the morality principle and does not do anything which his morality refuses him to do. So, our super-egoist Jagan too has followed the morality principle right from the beginning of his life. He does not follow his own individual aspirations and desires and does what his society tells him to do. As narrated in the novel, he had strong desire to see his future wife, but he was strictly told to behave sensibly and “not to be too communicative, as a certain mysteriousness was invaluable in a son-in-law” (133). He married according to the wishes of the society and even later in his life he has always followed what his society has wanted him to do. But in this whole process he has suppressed his individual urges for the sake of his adjustment in the social milieu. He has thwarted his inner desires, even genuine desires in this whole process. But the unconscious suppression of these desires leads to a schism in his personality. He becomes a neurotic and out of his neurosis arises his abnormal behaviour. Because of the split in his personality, he starts believing in things but not to any deeper conviction and turns out to be an odd and eccentric character in the novel.

The oddities and eccentricities of Jagan’s character result from a certain amount of schism in his subconscious which actually comes from the suppression of his id. Jagan cherishes many angularities of his character which become a matter of great fun and laughter for Narayan’s readers. He poses to be a regular reader of Bhagavad Gita, but his reading of the sacred book is mechanical like many real people of society and it is without any of his real belief in it. He talks of conquering the self but does not know the purpose behind it. He claims that he is on the way to rise above everything by conquering his self and for this, he tells, he has lost all sense of taste: “Conquer taste, and you will have conquered the self,” said Jagan to his listener, who asked, “Why conquer the self?” Jagan said, “I do not know, but all our sages advice us so” (1). To impress others he tells that he has given up sugar and salt and that he would take only natural sugar and salt, but fails to explain the real meaning of it. He behaves in an odd and eccentric manner and keeps on beating the drum of nature cure. He has his own philosophy of life and nature. He believes that one should not use tooth-brush in life because its bristles are made of pig’s tail and “It’s unthinkable that anyone should bite a pig’s tail first thing in the morning” (12), he says. Jagan further feels that his son has grown weak because he keeps on wearing footwear all the time and his body does not come in contact with the current of the earth which, in Jagan’s view, is a life-giving element and is a source of great mental and physical energy, in the absence of which a person may suffer heart-stroke. This is how he justifies his views, “Socks should never be worn, because they are certain to heat the blood through interference with the natural radiation which occurs through one’s soles, and also because you insulate yourself against beneficial magnetic charges of the earth’s surface” (53). So, Jagan turns out to be a boundless fountain of natural health theories, but his theories do not have any practical relevance and are the results of his odd and eccentric character.

Another major eccentricity of Jagan’s character is his belief in the Gandhian ideals of non-violence and non-cooperation. He cherishes many Gandhian fads and R. K. Narayan has given an impartial description of them. Jagan claims to be a great follower of Mahatma Gandhi, but lacks any real faith. He boasts of his Gandhian ideals not because he has any real faith in them, but because he wants to cast an impression upon others by citing them. This is how he uses his Gandhian eccentricities to impress others, “Being a follower of Gandhi I do not like to think that some living creature should have its throat cut for the comfort of my feet” (3). Jagan wants to have his footwear made of the hide of an animal which has died a natural death and has not been killed intentionally by someone (butcher or cobbler). Such eccentricities of Jagan cause a great trouble to his family members and his whole household is disturbed by them.

Jagan uses the same Gandhian incongruities to hide his crime and justify his meanness. He is a selfish businessman and makes a lot of money everyday from his sweet-shop, but does not pay due taxes to the Government. He evades taxes by having two collection boxes; one kept for Government record and one which he does not show to the world. He does a theft of taxes, but ironically he does not hold himself guilty of tax evasion. This is how he justifies his theft of sale tax through Gandhian excuse, “If Gandhi had said somewhere, “Pay your tax uncomplainingly,” he would have followed his advice. But Gandhi had made no reference to sales tax anywhere, to Jagan’s knowledge” (88). Thus, Jagan’s oddities and eccentricities of character arise from his super-ego and from its thwarting of his inner genuine aspirations and individual desires.

The character of the cousin in the novel can be interpreted in terms of Freudian Ego. According to Freud, the ego follows the rationality principle. It neither seeks to make one a devil nor an angel. It seeks to make one a balanced human being who follows his or her ambitions and desires but within certain limitations. It tries to live a life of peacefulness and perfect adjustability. The cousin in the novel is such a character who too like Freud’s egoist lives a life of complete balance and equilibrium. He works as a link between the father and the son in the story because both of them do not share many things with each other because of their generation gap and because of the difference of their thoughts and beliefs, and use the cousin as a medium of their communication.

The cousin is given no name in the novel. He is everyman, the representative of rationality, of common sense. The cousin leads a life of balance and is not disturbed when Mali starts acting against the traditional norms of society and when he thwarts the aspirations of his father with his foolish plans and irrational ideas. Throughout the novel he shows great composure and balance and tries to pacify the father at every step. When Jagan feels disturbed over the decision of his son who plans to go to America for learning the art of story-writing, the cousin makes him understand the feelings of the young man and says rather mockingly, “Well, he may become a second Bharati or Tagore or Shakespeare some day. How can you judge now”(20)? Even later in the novel when Jagan feels utterly shocked on coming to know that Mali and Grace who are living like a married couple are not married actually, he tries to console him by saying, “Our young men live in a different world from ours, and we must not let ourselves be upset too much by certain things they do” (110).

The cousin plays an important role in keeping a tab on Jagan’s irrational health theories and awkward philosophy also. His voice is the voice of the readers, of rationality which comes whenever Jagan attempts to irritate others by his strange behaviour and eerie thoughts. When Jagan boasts that he has decided to simplify his life and that he would take only natural sugar and salt, the cousin punctures the balloon of his boastfulness by asking, “What is natural salt?… The salt that dries on one’s back when one has run a mile in the sun”(2)? He makes such type of comments in the novel time and again to expose the hypocritical nature of Jagan and his philosophy. When Jagan boasts that he is the most miserly man of the world and that he does not want much in life, the cousin challenges him by saying, “I cannot understand why you go on working and earning, taking all this trouble”(28). This is what he says to expose Jagan’s philosophy of simple living and high thinking as much as to criticize his selfishness and meanness, “But what I don’t understand is why you should run a trade, make money and accumulate it”(29) to which Jagan replies, “I do not accumulate, it just grows naturally… I work because it is one’s duty to work” (29). The cousin works as a constant well-wisher of both Jagan and Mali also so that both the father and the son confide all their secrets in him. He helps Jagan at every step of life and comes to his rescue even at the end of the novel when he decides to lead a life of retreat. He takes the bunch of keys from Jagan and promises to look after his business of sweets-selling in his absence. He also promises to help Mali get out of the prison with the help of some lawyer who is one of his friends.

Thus, all the characters of R. K. Narayan’s The Vendor of Sweets can be interpreted in the light of Freudian concept of Id, Ego and Superego. Whereas Mali remains in the complete hold of id, follows his vaulting ambitions and evil desires and becomes immoral and asocial in this whole process, and Jagan becomes a neurotic being because of the thwarted aggressiveness of his id and turns odd and eccentric in his ways and manners, the cousin follows the rationality principle of ego and turns out to be a perfectly balanced person of Malgudi society who both fulfills his individual desires and personal aspirations and also keeps a check on the irrational and immoral ambitions of him.

Works Cited

Anand, Mulk Raj. “Nothing Sacred to Us.” Hindustan Times 23 June 1988. Print.

Atkins, John. Aldous Huxley. London: Calder and Boyars, 1957. Print.

Fellman, Gordon A. “Process of Modernization.” The Journal of Asian Studies 24.3

(1965): 246-247. Print.

Freud, Sigmund. “The Anatomy of the Mental Personality.” New Introductory

Lectures on Psychoanalysis. New York: Norton, 1964. 100-115. Print

Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism. New Jersey: Princeton Univ. Press, 1957. Print.

Guerin, Wilfred L., et al. A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature. New

York: Oxford UP, 1999. Print.

Narayan, R. K. The Vendor of Sweets. 1967. New Delhi: Penguin Books, 2010. Print.

Walsh, William. “Sweet Mangoes and Malt Vinegar: The Novels of R. K. Narayan.” Indo-

English Literature: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. K. K. Sharma. Ghaziabad:

Vimal Prakashan, 1977. 121-140. Print.

Williams, H. M. Indo-Anglian Literature 1800-1970. New Delhi: Orient Longman, 1976. Print.

Wolman, Benjamin B. Contemporary Theories and Systems in Psychology. Delhi:

Freeman Book Company, 1979. Print.

One thought on “Dr. Raman Kumar/Freudian Concept of Id, Ego and Superego: A Study of R. K. Narayan’s The Vendor of Sweets”

  1. Thanks for publishing this article in your international journal, which will indeed prove to be a milestone for the scholars of English literature.


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