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Siddhartha's journey takes him through India, but it is an India of an ancient era or perhaps not of any historic era. This India may never have existed except in Hesse's imagination. It is a landscape stripped down to its symbolic elements: a palace, a forest, a grove where a sage-or a magician?- rules over his followers, a pleasure garden whose mistress is a beautiful temptress, a city where fortunes are made and where men eat, drink, gamble, and indulge in all pleasures. Finally there is the river, with the ferryman's simple hut and his small rice field. Do these elements remind you of any familiar setting? Could you describe this setting in terms of the classic fairy tale?
First comes the palace of tradition, Siddhartha's father's house. Next is the forest of ordeals to be braved and conquered, the sojourn with the Samanas, and then the magician in the grove, the Buddha, pointing out a different path. After that comes the garden of sensual pleasures, and the city of material rewards and exciting entertainments. And between the palace, forest, and grove on one side, and the beautiful woman's garden and the glittering city on the other, flows the river. The river is first the dividing line between the spiritual and the material realms through which Siddhartha pursues his quest, and then it becomes the path to understanding the unity of all experience.
A second interpretation of the novel is as an allegory, one perhaps comparable to the seventeenth-century Christian classic, The Pilgrim's Progress. An allegory is a story whose characters and settings stand for moral or spiritual ideas. The meanings of the characters' names in Siddhartha are part of the book's allegorical form. The setting as well is filled with morally perilous and seductive places that the hero must negotiate in order to find its spiritual center.
The narrative stops only once for a physical description of the setting. Siddhartha is leaving the spiritual side of the river when he discovers the natural world around him, seeing it in all its beauty and diversity. Hindu teaching has instructed him to ignore the physical world as a transient and meaningless illusion. His discovery that it has meaning is a significant step in his journey toward understanding, and this is the reason it is given such detailed description.