Midnight’s Children has strong ties with the idea that naming creates identity. The majority of names in the novel allude to the archetype that the character resembles. Saleem’s grandfather Aadam, for example, alludes to the Biblical Adam who was the first man. Saleem’s grandmother takes on the name Reverend Mother after she becomes engulfed in her religious identity. The women in the novel change their name after getting married, essentially leaving their unmarried identity behind and becoming a new person in union with their husbands. For a while, Saleem even forgets his own name during a time when he is not particularly proud of his actions. He has lost his moral compass and has therefore lost the name which gives him meaning and direction.
Before becoming an independent nation, India was under the rule of the British Empire. The British used their influence to erase the customs of India and impose their own culture and morality. The Indians, however, found it difficult to recall their own culture. Many cast aside the “old ways” of polytheistic religion and ornate ceremonies, and instead tried to veer the country to follow Western culture. Others tried to return to their customs but were caught identity crisis. The shadow of the British Empire still clouded India’s vision, making it difficult to move forward with their own identity. Characters like William Methwold and Evie Lilith Burns served as reminders of how white characters were able to make Indians feel subservient and out-of-place in their own country.
The Unreliability of Oral Storytelling
Midnight’s Children is told entirely through the voice of Saleem, who is recalling the mystical events of his life on his deathbed. He expects Padma, who represents the readers, to completely believe the series of events that comprise his life, which is difficult because his story is filled with supernatural occurrences set against a realistic world. Yet at the same time, there are moments in the novel when Saleem admits that he might have forgotten a date or mixed up a series of events due to his failing mental health. This puts the reader in a difficult position: they can either fully believe Saleem’s occultish story and forgive his slights of memory, or they can take everything Saleem says with a grain of salt. Either way, Saleem’s authority as a reliable narrator is undermined through both magical realism as well as his admission of mixing up dates and events.
Mythology and the Epic Story
Hindu, Christian, Greek, and other religious mythologies are Saleem’s props that lend credence to his elaborate tale of India’s creation. He sets his grandfather up as a progenitor by comparing him to the first man in Christian mythology, Adam. With respect to his “evil” counterpart, Shiva, he conjures the Hindu god to compare Shiva’s position as a major player in the story with the god’s own influence on people’s lives. The same goes for Parvati, who represents the caring and motherly form who has a strong control over Shiva as well as everyone else in India. Throughout his story, Saleem makes connections between himself and Scheherazade, the storyteller from One Thousand and One Nights. To set up his story as an epic adventure, he uses classic traditions from Homer’s The Odyssey as a way to draw further parallels to his own journey to find himself.
Boundaries and Borders
From the moment that England breaks ties with India, India is given autonomy and independence. In theory, this means that India should have finite, indisputable borders. Midnight’s Children takes a different approach, saying that boundaries and borders are often more blurred than one might think. This is seen in the characters time and again -- for example, the struggle for presence between Aadam and Reverend Mother. Saleem is able to surpass the boundaries of his body by telepathically shoving himself into someone else’s brain. In the national sense, the impermanence of borders is apparent even at the beginning of India’s independence when these countries decide to create new borders, separating Pakistan from India. The only problem with this is that these borders were unable to separate Hindus from Muslims as they were intended to do.
Racism and Sexism
Left over from colonialism is the idea that white skin is desirable and pure. While the Western characters exhibit these ideas more prominently, the ideas seep through to the Indian characters. Saleem’s father’s cousin relays these racist thoughts when she begins harping on other dark-skinned Indians. When Jamila Singer appears in public, she is covered in a white silk chadar to symbolize her purity. Sexism is also prevalent in the novel, with many male characters (even Saleem) ignoring women’s autonomy and identity. Both Amina and Parvati accept their new first names after becoming married, and neither Sonny nor Saleem respect Brass Monkey’s and Evelyn’s insistence that they don’t want to be in a relationship with boys who are pursuing them. Instead, the boys doggedly pursue the girls regardless of what the girls want.
Class and Social Structure
It is impossible to overlook Saleem’s journey through India’s different social structures. Saleem begins his life in an upper-middle class family, enjoying a beautiful home and having enough money to be comfortable. Their wealth is created from their capitalistic lifestyle, left over from British Imperialism. But as soon as Saleem’s parents split up, his social standing is significantly lowered to the point where he, his mother, and his sister are recognized as the needy relatives. Once India enters the war, Saleem loses all hopes of ever belonging to “respectable” society and instead lives in the slums, spreading the word about how a communist government would be more inclined to help the poor break free from their squalor. All these different parts in Saleem’s life are representative of the vast differences in class and social structures present in India.
Midnight’s Children Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Midnight’s Children is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.