[(essay date 1982) In the following overview of Desai's works, Jain focuses on what he considers her "primary preoccupation": "The absurdity of human life, with the existential search for meaning in it and the inability of men to accept a religious solution."]
The world of Anita Desai's novels is an ambivalent one; it is a world where the central harmony is aspired to but not arrived at, and the desire to love and live clashes--at times violently--with the desire to withdraw and achieve harmony. Involvement and stillness are incompatible by their nature, yet they strive to exist together. Instinct and emotion and passion seem to be strangers in the world of daily routine and scurry away into dark corners to flourish in conditions of solitude, which is presented in its varying shades and meanings. In all her novels there is a striving, on the part of the protagonists towards arriving at a more authentic way of life than the one which is, available to them. There is a need to be loved: Maya, Monisha, Sita--almost all of them--desire this above all else, but they also resist surrender and involvement. Surrender of the self, appears to her protagonists, to be a subtraction from their personal freedom and wholeness. In each successive novel the problem of involvement versus detachment, of surrender versus freedom is viewed from various angles and psychological perspectives. It becomes, in the ultimate analysis, a question of reason versus unreason and the balance is precariously held.
Maya's unhappiness in Cry, the Peacock (1963) is not related to the reality of her circumstances; it is a product of her own consciousness. Her unhappiness is in part related to the process of her growing up: she has led a protected life and has been brought up on fantasies, and now when confronted with the reality of life and its disappointment, she is unable to face it. Toto's death is but an event which triggers off a set of responses and becomes a reason for her present misery. But even while mourning his death, it is not tears which relieve her but "a fit of furious pillow-beating, kicking, everything but crying. From childhood experiences, I knew this to be sweetly exhausting". She is aware that her relationship with the adult world is tenuous. When surrounded by her husband's family she is quite aware of this, and accepts being left out of many discussions:
For they knew I would not understand a matter so involved, and I knew it myself. They spoke to me . . . only when it had to do with babies, meals, shopping, marriages, for I was their toy, their indulgence, not to be taken seriously, and the world I came from was less than that--it was a luxury they considered it a crime to suffer, and so damned it with dismissal.
With a child's desire for consolation she wants to be assured that all will be well. But this kind of assurance is not forthcoming. Her father would have...