Bildungsroman is a special kind of novel that focuses on the psychological and moral growth of its main character from his or her youth to adulthood. A Bildungsroman relates the growing up or "coming of age" of a sensitive person who goes in search of answers to life's questions with the expectation that these will result from gaining experience of the world. The genre often features a main conflict between the main character and society. Typically, the values of society are gradually accepted by the protagonist and he/she is ultimately accepted into society — the protagonist's mistakes and disappointments are over. In some works, the protagonist is able to reach out and help others after having achieved maturity. R. K. Narayan’s The Guide has the elements and structures of a Bildungsroman.
The Guide is in form of an autobiography. Raju, the hero of the novel, was in turn a rail road station food vendor, a tourist guide, a sentimental adulterer, a dancing girl’s manager, a swindler, a jail-bird and a martyred mystic. The story followed Raju along a curiously braided time sequence. After describing the early life and education of Raju, Narayan showed how Malgudi became a railway station and how Raju became the owner of a railway stall and then came to be a tourist guide. Trying to help a rich visitor, Marco, the archeologist, in his researches, Raju was involved in a tangle of new relationships. Rosie, Marco’s wife, became Raju’s lover. Abandoned by Marco, Rosie realized, with Raju’s help, her ambition of becoming a dancer. But Raju’s possessive instinct finally betrayed him into a criminal action, and he was charged and convicted for forgery. Coming out of the jail, he cut off all connection with the past. As he was mistaken as an ascetic he was compelled to lead a sanyasi life. Once again he was caught in the coils of his own self-deception, and he was obliged to undertake a twelve-day fast to end a drought that threatened the district with a famine. In vain he told his chief ‘disciple’ Velan the whole truth about himself and Rosie, and about the crash and imprisonment. But nobody believed that he was anyone other than a saint. He had made his bed, and he had to lie on it. The reader is free to infer that, on the last day of the fast, he died opportunely, a martyr. Did it really rain, or was that only Raju’s optical delusion? Did he really die, or merely sank down in exhaustion? Had the lie really become the truth, or had that been merely exposed? The reader is free to conclude as he likes.
The story of The Guide develops along a bewildering succession of time shifts. Since Narayan was in touch with South Indian film industry he could apply cinematic techniques of jump out, flash back, flash forward and montage in his plot construction. Thus the novel has an episodic structure rather than the linear plot of the more usual kind of novel, where the story moves in a singly cohesive curve from the beginning through the middle to the end. The unconventional plot of The Guide circles freely in time and space, both within and between chapters, moving from the past to the present and back again, and from Malgudi to the Mempi Hills to Mangal in a seemingly random way. Modern European and American novels influenced the novelists of Indian Writing in English and Narayan was no exception. Thus the Western fictional paradigms of bildungsroman and picaresque narrative are evident in The Guide.
Though Raju was a fake guru, on whom gurudom had been thrust, he seemed to grow in stature to fit its mantle. He was willing to sacrifice his life. Raju’s penance and his ultimate sacrifice were real no matter how painfully flawed his motives might have been earlier or how ineffectual their outcome. With Raju’s single-minded quest for his authentic self and the right values as the novel’s thematic centre, bildungsroman is a suitable rubric of the novel. In fact The Guide is a bildungsroman of a rogue.