The Four Reigns (Thai สี่แผ่นดิน, Si Phaen Din), a novel by Kukrit Pramoj, shows how individuals in Thai society adjust to change in the face of historic events. The story first develops under the palace life of minor courtiers during a time of absolute monarchy and explicit observance of traditional Buddhist mores. The traditional values of the times are experienced by the main character and are enhanced by her surroundings. Throughout the evolving years the country experiences disturbances of World War I; the Palace Revolution of 1932 and World War II respectively. The book focuses primarily on the lives of the minor nobility and the necessary modes of adapting to unpreventable events that come by way of foreign and domestic conflicts.
The author of the Four Reigns, Kukrit Pramoj, explains that he was able to delve so deeply into the lives of the nobility because it was a life he observed from a personal standpoint. Similar to a character in the book, Pramoj received his education abroad and like another character, he had his days in the political arena. Although the 663 page book is portrayed in a fictional concept, the reader gets a chance to experience how the author wanted to capture the feelings of a traditional era and a bygone age in order to bring it to life for a modern society.
The Four Reigns starts out with a young girl named Phloi whose mother leaves her husband of the lower aristocratic status to be free from the restraints of being one of his minor wives. Although being one of a few minor wives to a man was the norm, Phloi's mother was not content in that domestic order. Consequently, this provoked Phloi's mother, Mae Chaem, along with Phloi to move out and make a change which involved a trip to the royal palace to offer Phloi up to a better life as a minor courtier. Mae Chaem is there to assist Phloi on her trip to the palace and often visits her there to be sure of her well-being. Mae Chaem suddenly dies and Phloi is deeply saddened by her loss and spends the rest of her time coping and adapting to the palace life.
Phloi's life, however, truly begins in the palace, where she humbly serves and befriends the royalty and their servants. Phloi lives through time periods of four reigns as the title suggests, involving four different kings. The king well-renowned in history, King Chulalongkorn, was the monarch at Phloi's birth and King Ananda Mahidol is the ruler reigning at Phloi's death. During her time at the palace Phloi lives the life of a minor courtier engaging in youthful diversions with her friend Choi and occasionally doing menial tasks as a court attendant. She really doesn't have a worry, except for selecting the correct outfit for the next leisurely excursion. On these trips everyone from the Grand Palace would attend religious ceremonies such as the Kathin festival at the end of the Buddhist Lent.
As time goes by, Phloi's life is altered, when she is compelled to marry Khun Prem, a man on a personal level, she knows very little about. This engagement is influenced by her elders' and their traditional values. They believed that it was safest to marry someone of good financial grade rather than solely for love. Although Phloi did not quite know Prem at first, they eventually did grow to love one another. He is of the minor nobility but still all the same could be ranked among the aristocratic people in Thai society with good financial standing. Khun Prem is also of military standing and well respected by his peers. This is evident as he receives promotions and is involved with the highly regarded Wild Tiger Calvory Corps. Khun Prem starts out as a tradionalist but as society changes, Khun Prem inherits military discipline and Western idealism. This is shown forth as he begins to smoke Western cigarettes and drink Western wine. His first son enters military school while his and Phloi's other two sons are sent to study abroad. Their only daughter, Praphai, stays with Phloi and is her mother's companion until she branches out on her own.
One of Phloi's sons Ot, who went to Europe to study abroad, comes back with new intellectual ideas and continually ponders with his uncle, Phloi's brother, the new fascination of politics. In the novel he states: "What else have we to talk about? The air is thick with political news. So-and-so is going to be arrested, so-and-so may have to be got out of the way, and there'll be an armed clash between such-and-such factions, and so on." (P. 483 of Four Reigns) Politics became something of more interest in Thai culture as it existed before but was more available to the general public when ideas about how the government should be run was appropriated among the people. This became the new way of life in Thailand that was capturing the minds of the evolving individual.
When Ot's brother An returns from France he breaks with tradition by bringing back a French wife. This is much to the dismay of his father and a shock to his mother. An introduces his French wife to the family circle and she displays as expected, her Western influences. These include French clothing styles; make up and personal mannerisms. An's French wife, Lucille, in her short stay, influenced Phloi's youngest daughter, Praphai with her ways as well. This is evident as Praphai unlike her mother decided to marry a man of her choosing. Praphai and her husband Khun Sewi even changed their wedding to follow a more modern format. They didn't have the chanting monks and Khun Sewi even carried Praphai inside the house the way the "farangs" (Westerners) do. Through these characters, Pramoj explores how the conflation of advancement with Westernisation was popular among the upper-class, and the consequences of this problematic ideology.
Phloi experiences World War I, and its economic impact on Thailand. Prices for imported goods begin to make a noticeable rise. This is also the time that Phloi's husband,Prem, dies in a horse riding accident. Phloi is left to fend for herself but her children by then are home and all grown up and able to offer her much needed emotional support. Sometime later, Thailand suffers an economic depression and a rebel group called the People's Party in which An allies himself with, begins to form. They eventually organize a coup that forces the king to agree to relinquish absolute authority and cede full power to a Constitutional Monarchy. World War II succeeds the first and has a stronger impact Thailand. The Japanese invade, and then occupy Bangkok until the Allied bombings force them to give in. All of Phloi's children survive the war except for one of her sons who died of malaria while in southern Thailand on a work assignment. When the war ends Phloi's house is destroyed and she returns to her ancestral home at Khlong Bang Luang where she spends the last of her days.