"The Skeleton" by Rabindranath Tagore (1892) 

Catalog & Introduction to the Literary Exhibition

Editorial team: Riley Alvarez, Kayla Koldys, Brynn Sprinkle, India Williams

(Additional editing by Heidi L. Pennington)
Please note: This catalog discusses key plot points of the narrative. To avoid spoilers, please read "The Skeleton" first, and then return to this introduction.

Rabindranath Tagore’s “The Skeletonfollows the discourse between an unnamed male interlocutor, and a female spirit who is referred to as “the voice.” The discussion that takes place between the two involves the telling of the voice’s life, in which she shares her experiences, as well as her inner thought process and personal feelings surrounding said experiences. The narrative begins by introducing the physical skeleton itself, which is described to have been used by the unnamed speaker in his childhood bedroom as he studied osteology from a student of the Campbell Medical School. However, it is revealed that for some time the man stopped interacting with the skeleton entirely, until one night he was forced to sleep in his childhood bedroom, in which the skeleton used to be stored. During the night spent in his childhood bedroom, the man becomes aware of a presence in the room, who is revealed to be the voice, and who has come looking for her skeleton. Though her spirit and her physical remains are no longer attached to one another, the spirit’s return to the site of her physical remains facilitates the conversation between herself and the man. For the rest of the night, the voice recounts the story of her life to the man, including the story of her failed romance. The skeleton shares that in life, she had fallen in love with a doctor who was a friend of her brother. Much to the voice’s disappointment however, the doctor marries a different woman, ultimately contributing to the voice’s decision to take her own life. As the voice shares her life story, she reveals the intricate relationships that are created through her interactions. The nature of the voice’s relationships with others continuously perpetuates conflicts involving her agency and autonomy in both life and death. Our exhibit includes a gallery of images intended to orient the reader to the cultural imagery used throughout the narrative, as well as a variety of annotations. The annotations featured on the text are marked by the tags “Femininity,” “Agency and Autonomy,” “Cultural,” and “Medicine.” Each category of annotation has a corresponding section featured below.


Agency and Autonomy:

In “The Skeleton,” the voice’s personal relationship with both agency and autonomy plays a pivotal role in understanding the emotional and mental processes that are revealed by the voice’s account of her life. For the purpose of this literary exhibit, agency can be defined as a character’s ability to control their own actions, and to affect events in the narrative. Throughout the narrative, the voice struggles with her control of agency as depicted through her choice of actions, such as her decision to take her own life in the end of the story. Though this action can be initially viewed as an act of agency, the act is instead a further perpetuation of her struggle with agency, as she poses herself in a specific way in order to ensure that her death elicits the desired response from those who view her after death. Similarly, autonomy can be defined as a character's sense of self, in reference to the ways in which they are able to establish their own individual identity and understanding of themselves personally. The challenges experienced by the voice regarding her relationship with autonomy are exemplified through her admittance of viewing herself through other’s perspectives, as she states that “[she] did not see [herself] with [her] own eyes.” This moment exemplifies the largest struggle between the voice and the concept of autonomy, as her interpretations of herself are based upon outside perspectives. These two examples of the voice’s struggle with agency and autonomy serve to demonstrate the fragility of the voice's relationship with both concepts, which continues into her posthumous experience. When examining the voice through the lens of agency and autonomy, it is revealed that the voice experiences many conflicts surrounding both phenomena, leading to a fragile sense of self, and a disconnect between her own individuality and the opinions of those around her. The troubled relationship between the voice and her sense of agency and autonomy throughout the entirety of the story is perpetuated by her reliance on other people to affirm her actions, beauty, and sense of self. For the voice, this continuously affects her decision making process and how she views herself as she continuously performs for those around her. Though the voice is detached from her physical remains (the skeleton), the use of her remains as an object after her death serves as an additional instance in which she is once again not in control of the way in which others view her, which affects her sense of self even as a spirit. The struggle experienced by the voice in both life and death serves to emphasize the intricate relationship between both agency and autonomy—particularly in a society structured by gendered hierarchies—as her experiences continue to demonstrate her lack of control over herself and her situation.



Femininity, as portrayed in Tagore's “The Skeleton,” emerges as a complex interplay between societal expectations, individual agency, and the struggles to obtain autonomy. The voice's focus on her physical attributes and beauty reflects traditionally stereotyped feminine qualities regarding appearance. In describing herself as a "rare and radiant beauty", this highlights the emphasis on a woman's physical allure in society. This emphasis then reinforces the idea that femininity is often confined within the boundaries of societal expectations in terms of attractiveness. The voice describes her life as being spent "[i]n the zenana...alone" and yearning for company, revealing the isolation experienced by women due to restrictions in their social roles. Emphasizing the societal norm that women are expected to desire romantic attention and approval, the idea that romantic relationships are closely woven into femininity is reinforced by her interest in the doctor who visits her. The emphasis on her "delicate wan face" discloses the societal expectations of feminine features. The voice's internalization of these expectations exposes the influence of societal norms on self-perception. However, in claiming the identity that fully represents the ideal feminine as her own, the voice attempts to reclaim her autonomy over the expectations forced on her by society. This then demonstrates the complexity of enduring society’s constraints placed on femininity. In this story, there is a playful conversation between the doctor and the voice, before she dies, about love and death that introduces an element of agency. It does this by demonstrating the voice manipulating societal norms involving marriage and relationships and highlights her attempt to exert autonomy in her own life. This happens in the ironic presentation of these societal norms and exposing the superficiality of these expectations, especially concerning the appearance of women. Furthermore, it emphasizes the struggle against the highly limited roles deemed appropriate in society for women. When the voice poisons the doctor, this challenges traditional power structures in that the voice reclaims agency by taking control in her own narrative. This subversion of societal expectations suggests that the constraints placed on women to force them into a specified decorum of femininity can be disrupted and individual agency can be asserted, even if in troubling ways. “The Skeleton explores the concept of femininity by emphasizing the social perceptions of femininity and delving into the intricacies of the difficulties faced by women in navigating societal expectations, asserting agency, and reclaiming autonomy in an overtly patriarchal culture.


Influences of Western Medicine:

Medicine has a heavy influence on the story’s content. It has a huge impact on the voice’s autonomy, and ends up being the reason for her haunting. While she was alive, the voice had exposure to doctors whenever she fell ill, leading her to fall in love with one doctor in particular, Shekar. Since she spent her time in a zenana, her interactions with other people were very limited. Shekar was the only person to visit her regularly outside of her family or any potential service staff they had. As a result, her exposure to the outside world was primarily limited to medicine. During the time “The Skeleton” took place, schools all over India were implementing western culture and ideas into their curriculum. As a result, many medical colleges taught western medicine. Given this, it is safe to say that the voice’s exposure to medicine was primarily western medicine, since it is very likely that is what Shekar studied. When the voice visits Shekar’s consulting chamber, she takes it upon herself to learn about medicine, asking him questions about the medicines he keeps there. While she does this as an attempt to flirt with him, she does nonetheless make the choice to learn about medicine. When the voice decides to take her own life as well as Shekar’s, she decides to use the medicine she had asked Shekar about to do it. However, at the end of the story, she ends up losing any measure of autonomy to the objectifying tendencies of western medicine, when her skeleton is used by a student of the Campbell Medical School to teach osteology. While before she made distinct choices regarding the role medicine played in her life, now she no longer had a choice in the role medicine played in her death.


Gallery Analysis:

The images featured in this exhibit’s gallery include things such as a zenana, sapphires, and flowers such as bela (Arabian jasmine), white jasmine, and the golden champak blossom. Each of these items holds a cultural significance to India as they are symbolic of femininity, and cultural beliefs, such as medicinal properties or spiritual beliefs. Femininity is a main theme throughout the narrative. The speaker, known as the voice, prides herself on her femininity, and the physical aspects of being a woman. Despite her affinity towards her womanhood, she experiences conflicts between her femininity and both agency and autonomy. When the voice takes her own life, all physical connections to beauty and femininity are necessarily disrupted. Though the voice took her own life, she ensured that before she did so she was posed in a way that would continuously display her femininity, as the way that others viewed her was her main concern. The voice uses both physical and culturally specific references to accentuate her femininity. By viewing this gallery, readers gain the opportunity to ground themselves within the time, place, and common imagery of parts of Indian culture in the nineteenth century. The provided images are useful to readers to ensure their full understanding of the context that is referred to in “The Skeleton.”


Published @ COVE

December 2023