When Seeing Is Not Believing: Epiphany in Anita Desai’s Games at Twilight

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Author: Minoli Salgado
Editor: Lawrence J. Trudeau
From: Short Story Criticism(Vol. 168)
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 3,186 words

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[(essay date 1996) In the following essay, Salgado analyzes the function of epiphany in two of Desai’s short stories, “Surface Textures” and “Studies in the Park.” According to Salgado, while Desai makes the quest for spiritual fulfillment a central thematic concern in both stories, her narrative technique ultimately subverts the potential for discovering any form of lasting, transcendent meaning.]

Epiphany is a central concept in short story criticism. Defined by James Joyce as a “sudden spiritual manifestation,”1 the idea of epiphany seems to be implicitly accepted by a range of critics as one of the key elements structuring the short story. Mary Pratt, for example, claims that “the moment of truth stands as the model for the short story, the way of life stands as a model for the novel,”2 suggesting that the revelatory nature of epiphany is somehow supported by the short story form and that it serves as a principle of composition for the writer. This view is qualified by Nadine Gordimer, who argues that “a discrete moment of truth is aimed at—not the moment of truth, because the short story doesn’t deal in cumulatives.”3 Yet we may question whether the short story is indeed the vehicle of epiphanic moments or if it might instead be the instrument for its subversion. Clare Hanson’s argument that the short story is “a form which hugs the unknown to itself”4 suggests that the answer might lie somewhere between these extremes: the short story, while promoting the desire for spiritual insight, might at the same time work implicitly towards denying the possibility of religious certitudes.

This subtle negotiation is evident in the work of Anita Desai. Her short stories bring into sharp relief the difference between epiphany as an underlying structural principle in the short story—provided for by what Hanson has called the “elisions and gaps” in the short story5—and epiphany as a thematic concern. For while the stories in Games at Twilight show a common thematic concern with a moment of truth or insight, their textual construction works towards questioning the value of these insights. Therefore, in order to analyze the way in which Desai interrogates epiphany—a moment of spontaneous, sudden, and transforming spiritual insight—it is necessary to analyze her treatment of spiritual awareness as a whole. Indeed, only two of her stories, “Studies in the Park” and “Surface Textures”, describe epiphanies. Desai’s subversion of these epiphanies draws upon a broader subversion—one that questions the value of all insights—evident in nearly all of the stories in the collection. In the process, beyond the thematic and structural discontinuities in her work, Desai locates and, I would suggest, localizes epiphany, giving this socially transcendent and universalizing experience a culturally specific bearing.

Illumination is the key theme of Anita Desai’s short stories. Its real and metaphorical manifestations not only structure individual stories, but also serve to provide the collection’s overall pattern—that element of fiction which Desai has claimed is of most concern to her.7 The stories...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420110445