The Symbols of the Smile and the River in Siddhartha
An important symbol in Siddhartha is the smile. Each of the three characters in the story who attain a final state of complete serenity is characterized by a beautiful smile which reflects their peaceful, harmonious state. In each case this smile is a completely natural phenomenon; it cannot be created at will by people who have not attained the prerequisite state of harmony with life.
The first character who is described as possessing this smile is Gotama, the Buddha. When Siddhartha first sees him, he recognizes him immediately, largely on account of this mysterious smile. Gotama is imperturbable and he retains his smile - and his equanimity - even when Siddhartha engages in debate with him. As Gotama turns to leave, it is his smile which most deeply impresses Siddhartha, for in it the peace and saintliness of the Buddha is epitomized. The narrator comments that Siddhartha was to remember this smile for the rest of his life.
Vesudeva also possesses the mystical smile of peace and harmony. A man of very few words, the ferryman often allows his smile to speak for him, and it is a more effective agent of expression than any words could possibly have been. Like the Buddha, Vasudeva is satisfied that he is at peace with the world, and with existence.
Siddhartha does not possess this radiant smile at first. He sees it in Gotama and Vasudeva and recognizes its significance, but is too engrossed in physical things to be able to smile serenely himself. First, with the Samanas, he concentrates on mastering his bodily needs. Then, through Kamala and Kamaswami, he learns to enjoy sensual pleasures and soon masters this aspect of life. Finally his love of his son and then his sense of pain over losing the boy keep him from attaining serenity. Only when the ferryman takes his final leave, and Siddhartha gazes into his face and listens to the message of the river, does he finally acquire a radiant smile like that of his friend, signifying his own attainment of a state of Unity.
The smile, like the river, suggests perfection and unity, and it is Siddhartha's smile that makes such a strong impression on Govinda at the close of the story. Just as Siddhartha perceived unity and perfection by listening to and gazing into the river, Govinda comes to feel at least an intimation of the Unity of all things by looking into Siddhartha's face and experiencing a genuine emotional response to the saintless revealed in his smile.
The smile and one aspect of the much more complicated river are closely related. Each suggests unity and harmony, and each is associated with Siddhartha at key junctures in his life. Although Gotama possesses the smile, the absence of the river as a significant factor in his life suggests that the smile is symbolic of one aspect of existence, whereas the river must also signify the World of the Mother, a world with which the Buddha has...