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The God of Small Things

Published in 1997, The God of Small Things won Arundhati Roy the Man Booker Prize. Set in her hometown of Kerala, the novel is a modern classic. The God of Small Things has also been controversial. The novel's themes of forbidden love and its criticism of the caste system have led to court cases for obscenity and bans. 

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The God of Small Things

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Published in 1997, The God of Small Things won Arundhati Roy the Man Booker Prize. Set in her hometown of Kerala, the novel is a modern classic. The God of Small Things has also been controversial. The novel's themes of forbidden love and its criticism of the caste system have led to court cases for obscenity and bans.

Content warning: this article contains references to potentially sensitive and taboo subjects.

The author of The God of Small Things: Arundhati Roy

Arundhati Roy's themes and multi-layered writing style are worth studying as an entry point into thinking about India's social constructs, politics, and cultural diversity, as well as any potential relevance that these may have across time and place.

The God of Small Things, Two pink lotus flowers floating in water, StudySmarterFig. 1 - The novel's cover features a lotus design

The God Of Small Things: summary

Overview: The God of Small Things
Author of The God of Small ThingsArundhati Roy
Published1997
GenrePostcolonial fiction, psychological fiction
Brief summary of The God of Small Things
  • The novel tells the story of the Kochamma family in the southern Indian state of Kerala, focusing on twins Estha and Rahel and the tragic events that befall them as children.
List of main charactersRahel, Estha, Ammu, Mammachi, Baby Kochamma, Sophie
ThemesLove, caste, family, politics, and social norms in Indian society
SettingThe Indian state of Kerala, mainly in the town of Ayemenem
Analysis
  • The novel devastating impact of social discrimination and oppression, particularly in the context of India's caste system.
  • The novel depicts the consequences of breaking societal norms and the punishment that those who dare to love outside of their designated social class must endure

The novel follows the story of one originally prosperous family in modern-day Kerala, India. The protagonists are fraternal twins, Estha and Rahel. The plot spans continents and three generations. It details the lives of each family member, other related characters, and how their current social and political realities impact their stories.

The story is told in a non-linear fashion, with events from different periods of time intermingling with each other. The narrative also jumps between different perspectives, including those of the twins, their mother Ammu, their uncle Chacko, and their cousin Sophie Mol.

The novel begins with the adult Rahel returning to Ayemenem after being away for many years. She reflects on her childhood and the tragic events that occurred when she was seven years old. The narrative then shifts to the past, when Estha and Rahel are still children.

The arrival of their young cousin, Sophie Mol, from England starts the series of events in the novel. She comes to visit her mother, Ammu, and her grandmother, Mammachi. Sophie and the twins, Rahel and Estha, quickly become friends. They spend their days exploring the town and the river, playing games and sharing secrets.

Ammu, who is a divorced single mother, falls in love with Velutha, a lower-caste Paravan man who works for Chacko. Their relationship is forbidden by society, and when they are caught by Velutha's father, Vellya, Ammu is locked in her room by Mammachi and Baby Kochamma. Estha and Rahel try to run away to the History House, their hideout, with Sophie. However, their boat tips and Sophie drowns.

Baby Kochamma goes to the police to claim that Velutha kidnapped the children and tried to rape Ammu. Velutha is brutally beaten and arrested by the police, dying in jail. Ammu is thrown out of the house, and Estha is made to live with their abusive, alcoholic father Baba.

The twins are separated for 23 years, reuniting in 1993 when Baba 're-returns' him to Ayemenem. Ammu died when the twins were 11, and Rahel has divorced an American.

In the present day, Rahel returns to Kerala to see her family and reconnect with her childhood memories. She and Estha, who has become a reclusive and damaged adult, try to piece together the events that led to Sophie's death and the subsequent tragedies that befell their family. The History House has become a five-star hotel.

The God of Small Things: main characters

The novel focuses on one extended family, the Ipe's, and the characters who surround and engage with them.

Estha

Rahel's female fraternal twin. Much of the narration is told from her perspective as a child in India and an adult woman living in America. After her divorce, she goes back to India when she hears that her twin has returned to their hometown, Ayemenem.

Rahel

Estha's male fraternal twin. After the death of their cousin, Sophie Mol, Rahel is sent to live with his father. He stopped talking as a child and has not spoken since. As children, he and Estha communicated telepathically.

Sophie Mol

The twins' cousin, whose death by drowning is a catalyst for many of the events that engulf the other characters in the novel.

Ammu

Rahel and Estha's mother is considered a secondary protagonist after her twins. She married and then left an abusive alcoholic, Babu. She has an affair with a man of a lower caste, Velutha, and is banished from her own home.

Baby Kochamma

Rahel and Estha's grandaunt. The novel's antagonist. She has a cruel, controlling personality and engineers the accusations against Velutha using Rahel as a pawn.

The God of Small Things: book analysis

Arundhati Roy's debut novel is highly original and multi-layered, making it an ideal text to begin to understand more complex ideas and concepts.

Genre

The God of Small Things features elements of a variety of genres. Often considered a family saga, the novel has political and cultural themes. These themes can be viewed as both specific to one place, Kerala, and potentially relevant to other places and times.

For instance, the creation of 'others' by social convention is a phenomenon that is widely spread beyond the scope of this setting. 'Othering' is a social construct whereby a group defines other groups or individuals as not fitting in with the accepted cultural or political norms.

Family saga: a genre of narrative that generally focuses on particular families but can also depict multiple, interrelated families over a set time frame.

Generally, the novel is broadly accepted as semi-autobiographical and fictional. The God of Small Things subverts the unspoken societal, religious and political norms referred to as 'love laws', which are 'the laws that lay down who should be loved, and how. And how much' (Chapter 8). These 'love laws' are laws dictated by society and vary between cultures. In The God of Small Things, the 'love laws' that are broken include those between different castes, religions, and families.

Movement

Arundhati Roy is considered a postmodern and postcolonial author due to her use of non-linear plots, intertextuality, irony, and focus on political themes.

Postmodernism

Often described as a postmodern novel due to its fragmented plot, multiple viewpoints, and intertextuality, The God of Small Things also makes use of black humour, metafiction, and irony.

These narrative structures and devices are considered part of the Postmodernist movement's reaction against Modernism. The novel's epigraph by John Berger introduces the premise for multiple perspectives as he writes:

Never again will a single story be told as though it's the only one.

Postmodernism: a movement that followed modernism. While modernism was all about logic and objectivity, Postmodernism is characterised by the use of randomness over reason, non-linear plots, intertextuality, and subjectivity. Famous postmodern authors that you may know include Ian McEwan and Toni Morrison.

Intertextuality: when a narrative refers to another text, either directly or indirectly.

Metafiction is self-referential fiction. This means that a text will self consciously refer to its own artificiality or its own literariness. An example of meta would be a novelist writing a novel with a plot that features a character writing a novel.

Postcolonialism

As it was written in the 1990s by an Indian author making extensive use of neologisms, The God of Small Things has also been classified as a postcolonial novel.1 Arundhati Roy challenges traditional novel structures such as linear plots, more minimalist styles, standard vocabulary and grammar, and more traditional political themes, which are characteristics associated with postmodernism.

Postcolonialism: a field that studies and highlights the multiple repercussions of colonisation on society, culture, economics, and politics.

Well-known and widely read postcolonial authors include Chinua Achebe and Salman Rushdie.

The God of Small Things: themes and narrative structure

The main themes of The God of Small Things are love, caste, family, politics, and social norms in Indian society.

Narrative structure determines how the plot, characters, and themes are presented to the reader. The author breaks many formal conventions in her use of narration and narrator.

Narrative

The God of Small Things does not have a linear narrative and adopts a non-sequential approach. The plot starts at the chronological end and jumps backwards and forwards in time from there. The novel references events as far back as the birth of Baby Kochamma's father in 1869 before documenting the twin's birth in 1962 and running up to early 1969. The main narrative is told in two parts and covers set periods in the present and the past.

Present narrative: 1992

  • References characters in India, America, and Canada.

  • Themes of divorce, death, relocation, and the separation of the family.

Past narrative: December 1969

  • References characters in England and India.

  • Themes of relocation, death, politics, caste, facets of love, and family bonds.

Narration

The style of narration used is the third person omniscient.

Although it is easy to assume that Rahel is the narrator as she takes up much of the narrative's focus, the narrator incorporates thoughts and language used by both Estha and Rahel to highlight their bond and childlike viewpoint.

In addition, the narrator makes use of free indirect discourse to get the reader to experience multiple transhistorical viewpoints from the perspective of different characters. This serves to highlight the psychological, situational, and familial links between characters.

Information unknown to other characters is shared with the reader, further indicating the use of a fluid narrator voice.

Free indirect discourse allows for a seamless blending of multiple characters' thoughts and inner dialogues with the narration.

Third-person omniscient is when the narrator assumes an all-knowing voice, dipping into the personal thoughts of the characters.

The God of Small Things: literary devices and quotes

At a narrative level, The God of Small Things uses devices like irony, black humour, parody, and intertextuality to deal with serious subjects in an almost playful way.2

Think about how Arundhati Roy uses narrative structure and intertextuality to support her view that there are many versions of stories with many connected stories. Do you think these are effective in creating a sense of many interrelated but non-linear, multi-dimensional stories?

Irony

In Arundhati Roy's text, Navomi Ipe is renamed Baby Kochamma once she is old enough to become an aunt. This nickname endures, even as she becomes more and more elderly. The double meaning in the use of the word 'baby' for an older woman has distinct elements of irony, especially considering her spiteful and controlling nature.

Another instance of irony being used to deal with heavy subjects is the incident related to the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man. Ester is deeply affected by his molestation, but Roy ironically describes the event as a small thing:

These are only the small things.

(Chapter 1)

We are never told why Navomi is referred to as Baby. In India, it is customary to refer to anyone older than you as 'Auntie' or 'Uncle'. 'Kochamma' is a respectful word for an aunt who is a mother's younger sister. These add more layers of meaning to the pun around Baby Kochamma's nickname.

Intertextuality

The God of Small Things references many other texts and cultural icons. These include The Jungle Book (1894), The Sound of Music (1965), WWF's Hulk Hogan, Julius Caesar (1599), and Ulysses (1922).

As another example of intertextuality, the following quote links the journey in Hansel and Gretel with the journey taken by the twins to the History House:

It was four in the morning, still dark when the twins, exhausted, distraught, and covered in mud, made their way through the swamp and approached the History House. Hansel and Gretel in a ghastly fairy tale in which their dreams would be captured and redreamed. They lay down in the back verandah on a grass mat with an inflatable goose and a Qantas koala bear.

(Chapter 12)

The God of Small Things: linguistic devices

In a review of The God of Small Things, the novelist John Updike comments:

A novel of real ambition must invent its own language, and this one does.

Similar to James Joyce in Finnegan's Wake (1939) and Anthony Burgess in A Clockwork Orange (1962), Arundhati Roy creates her own style and language by using a variety of unconventional formal language elements.

At a sentence level, her prose breaks the traditional rules of spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Capitalisations are added where none should exist, and neologisms are created to precisely convey a specific meaning, inference, or rhythm. The novel is also full of anagrams, puns, and palindromes.

Palindrome: words that read the same way backwards or forwards. Good examples are the words 'level' and 'civic'.

Anagram: a word made from another word with the same letters but a different meaning. A few examples are 'robed'/'bored' and 'elbow'/'below'.

Pun: a play on words using different meanings of the same word to create humour, for example: 'There's a guy in town who walks around talking to himself using only figurative language. We call him the Village Idiom.'

How do you think that the language and grammar Arundhati Roy created herself affect the novel's meaning? How does her use of unconventional formal language elements add to or detract from the novel's message?

Neologisms

Many of the words used in the text are made up, which makes them neologisms. This device is multipurpose and subverts the English language to create meaning that is specific to a particular time, place, and people. The resulting neologisms in the novel that create connotations and implications not available in existing words include the following:

Thimble-drinker.

Coffin-cartwheeler.

(Chapter 5)

Repetition

Repetition is a sound-based linguistic device used to create rhythm, intensity, and tone, and it is often used in The God of Small Things.3

Can you see and hear how the repetition of the word 'past' in the quote below creates a certain rhythm and reinforces the idea of a progressive journey?

Past floating yellow limes in brine that needed prodding from time to time.

Past green mangoes, cut and stuffed with turmeric and chilli powder and tied together with twine.

Past glass casks of vinegar with corks.

Past shelves of peetin and preservatives.

Past trays of bitter gourd, with knives and coloured finger guars.

Past gunny bags bulging with garlic and small onions.

Past mounds of fresh green peppercorns.

Past a heap of banana peels

Past the label cupboard full of labels.

Past the glue.

Past the glue-brush.

Past an iron tub of empty bottles floating in soap bubbles water.

Past the lemon squash.

The grape-crush.

And back.

(Chapter 10)

The God of Small Things - Key takeaways

  • The God of Small Things (1997) is a family saga that is considered Postmodernist and Postcolonial.
  • The novel won the Man Booker Prize in 1997, making Arundhati Roy the first female Indian author to win the award.

  • Key themes include the many facets of love, othering, politics, social constructs, and family.

  • A unique feature of the text is the author's creation of her own language and grammar.

  • Arundhati Roy wrote only one other novel, named The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.


1 Vinay Dharwadker. Great World Texts Program of the Center for the Humanities. University of Wisconsin-Madison. 2012–13.

2 A. Hariharasudan & P. Thavabalan. Narrativity in Postmodern Text: A Study of Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things. Kalasalingam Academy of Research and Education. 2018

3 G. Anburaj, Hrishikesh Bharadwaj C & Anshu Laur. Linguistic Experiment in Arundhati Roy's: The God of Small Things. VIT University. 1999.

Frequently Asked Questions about The God of Small Things

There is no Greek God of small things. In the novel, The God of Small Things (1997) it is generally accepted that the god of small things is Ammu's lover, Velutha.

The author of The God of Small Things is Arundhati Roy.

The novel is semi autobiographical and has aspects of historical truth but is not non-fiction.

The main themes include social conventions, politics and the many types of love.

Yes, it is a Booker Prize winning novel written by a female author in a non-traditional format.

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

What did Arundhati Roy study?

What movement is The God of Small Things (1997) considered to belong to?

What type of plot does The God of Small Things (1997) have?

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