The God of Small Things Themes
by Arundati Roy
Small ThingsIn a society concerned with "Big Things" such as the caste system, political affiliations, and marriage, Roy directs the reader to the "Small Things." These can be small creatures and their activities-the "whisper and scurry of small lives"-as well as secrets, promises, sins, and other emotional 'creatures' that people do not want to acknowledge. All of these things seem to have no place in the lives of characters like Baby Kochamma and Comrade Pillai. They want to strive for culturally significant ideals such as an honorable family and a noble political life. Because "Small Things" are shunned, they must find refuge in dark, secret places like the river and the History House, or the hearts of those willing to nurture and protect them. It can be a good or bad thing to keep watch over "Small Things." Velutha, "The God of Small Things," slips from place to place undetected, enjoying life's small pleasures without paying attention to the "Big" fact that he is an Untouchable and should not be playing with the twins or sleeping with their mother. Velutha is also called "The God of Loss," a sad title that references the loneliness that accompanies living amongst the "Small Things." At the same time, recognizing the powerful presence of "Small Things" means knowing that we are never alone; there is always someone watching, even if it is a flea or even a microbe. Estha and Rahel are the the disciples of "The God of Small Things." They explore the world of the river and History House, where no one else dares go. Because they are children, they are not as tied to the world of "Big Things" as the adults. Yet they also bear the brunt of the weight of the sad and dangerous "Small Things" that go on in their family's life: Estha's molestation, Rahel's fear that Ammu loves her a little less, the secret of what really happened to Sophie Mol, and the beating of Velutha, which they see with their own eyes. When Rahel and Estha make love as adults, they are finally letting go of their grief through action--they set themselves free from the burden of their "Small Things."
The GrotesqueThe grotesque permeates the story of The God of Small Things from the very beginning, when Rahel imagines the ceiling-painter dying on the floor, "blood spilling from his skull like a secret." We learn later that this is Velutha, dying alone and wrongfully accused in the police station. The grotesque takes precedence throughout the story precisely because it is not allowed to do so by the characters. That is, it is the manifestation of the ugly secrets that the family refuses to acknowledge, and since they are forbidden from being acknowledged openly, they are forced to seep into the world of "Small Things" through language, dreams, and daydreams. Two repeating grotesque images are of Velutha's broken body and Sophie Mol's drowned corpse. They are the proverbial skeletons in the family's closet, willed to be nonexistent but unable to be forgotten. Therefore they become macabre images that haunt the characters, especially Rahel and Estha. Also, sex and violence are connected in a grotesque way in the novel. The first instance of this combination is in Estha's molestation; his first sexual experience is a terrifying violation. And when it is safe on the riverbank, Ammu's and Velutha's affair is crystallized and beautiful, but once it is discovered, it quickly becomes associated with violent death. Finally, when Estha and Rahel make love, their incest is grotesque. Roy portrays the act of lovemaking as beautiful, but it is made bizarre by the fact that Rahel and Estha are siblings--twins, no less--and that they are doing so out of "hideous grief." It is as though in order to overcome all their grotesque secrets, Rahel and Estha must perform a grotesque act.
HomecomingThe family members' lives revolve around Ayemenem even though practically all of them journey away from it and then make a homecoming journey. The most prominent homecomings are those of Estha and Rahel. Estha comes home because he has nowhere else to go, and Rahel comes home to be with him. They come home to the place of their childhood and their deepest fears and pains, as well as to one another--they have not seen each other in thirty-one years. Throughout the story, we find the adult Rahel and Estha sharing space but not bridging the gap in their communication. When they finally break the rules and make love, they can finally feel as though they are back home, even as they violate a community norm. For them, the location of Ayemenem is not home so much as the safe haven within Ayemenem that they represent for one another. Other characters such as Baby Kochamma and Chacko leave India to study, but they too always end up back in Ayemenem. When Sophie and Margaret Kochamma arrive in Ayemenem, they are treated as though they are returning home. A cake is festooned with "Welcome Home, Our Sophie Mol," and a matching song is sung. The family sees Sophie's homecoming as a part of the clan making a rightful return. Roy uses the theme of homecoming to explain that we cannot escape history and our roots. We can ignore it and relegate it to forbidden places like the History House and the pickle factory, but we will always "come home" to the reality of wo we are and what we have done in our lives. Nevertheless, two characters who do not get to come home before their deaths are Ammu and Velutha. They die outside their own worlds in foreign rooms. The fact that they do not make a homecoming journey is a testament to the fact that although they pay for their actions with their lives (or in Ammu's case, her life as she knows it), they do escape the bounds of their roots, namely their castes.
ScandalAlthough they do their utmost to hide it, the family members' lives are filled with scandals. The foremost of these is Sophie Mol's death. Somehow the scandal of the incident is intensified by the fact that Sophie is not native to Ayemenem, so her death there is far out of the ordinary. Connected immediately to Sophie's death is Ammu's and Velutha's affair. From the moment it is discovered, the affair goes from a clandestine experience of pleasure to an act punishable by death. Even before the police all but kill Velutha, Vellya Paapen offers to kill him with his bare hands, and Mammachi banishes him from her property on pain of death. Estha's molestation by the Orangedrink Lemondrink man is a scandal acknowledged only by Rahel and Estha. There are also smaller scandals peppering the story, such as Velutha's affiliation with the Communist Party and the question of whether Sophie Mol is Chacko's legitimate child. The characters almost rely on scandal to make their lives interesting, but they continually banish scandals to the world of "Small Things" to the extent that they reemerge in unexpected, often grotesque ways.
MutabilityOne of the refrains Roy uses in The God of Small Things is, "Things can change in a day." This phrase encapsulates the tumultuousness of the characters' lives; when change happens to them, it is usually on a large and enduring scale. Specifially, the story's three major deaths-Sophie's, Velutha's, and Ammu's-mark major points of change for all the characters. These deaths are focal points for the story-they are bizarre, sudden occurrences that suggest the randomness of life in general and the notion that things as we know them are always in transition. Although the family would like to think that their individual secrets and desires can be preserved just as easily as pickles and jams, in fact life goes on developing whether it is acknowledged or not. Other major points of change in the novel are Estha's leaving Ayemenem to live with Babu, Estha's molestation by the Orangedrink Lemondrink man, the first time that Ammu realizes her attraction to Velutha, and the first time they meet by the river and make love.
PreservationIn contrast to her assertion that "Things can change in a day," Roy also uses The God of Small Things to focus on the way that events and ideas are preserved. The world of "Small Things" is a quiet repository for those things that the world of "Big Things" finds unacceptable. These include small secrets and pains, like Ammu's knowledge that Ammu loves her a little less, bigger things like Estha's molestation by the Orangedrink Lemondrink man, or things so enormous that they are barely containable, like Ammu's and Velutha's affair and the story's three major deaths. Small things can change, but to look at the flip side of mutability, they also can be preserved. Instead of being acknowledged and worked through, these types of socially-uncomfortable topics are relegated to the safe, sacred, "untouchable" world of the riverbank and History House, thereby being bottled up. The family's business, Paradise Pickles & Preserves, embodies the family's desire to keep the secrets and scandals out of sight. As long as these things are kept under glass as the preserves and pickles literally are, they pose no threat. It is worth noting that the family does not own a cleaning or cremation operation-their business is not in tidying or eliminating things, but in carefully locking them away to be enjoyed later. Scandal can make them miserable, but it also keeps their lives interesting. We see this especially with Baby Kochamma, who revels in stirring up scandal under the false pretense of trying to eliminate it. Of course, when a fruit or vegetable is pickled or preserved, its nature changes permanently; one would be as hard-pressed to reverse any of the family's scandals as turn a pickle back into a cucumber or illegal jam back into a banana. Once time has passed and a secret or scandal has been preserved, there is no way to go back and be sure of what exactly happened. Therefore the pickled secrets allow the characters' lives to be intriguing but not wholly incriminating, painful, or understood. Unlike pickles, though, pickled scandals have a way of gaining in pressure until they burst out from their containers.
Cultural LoyaltyRoy has said that one of the things that brought her back to her childhood home of Ayemenem as the setting for her novel was the cultural diversity she remembers thriving amidst in her own life. When religions, cultures, and castes clash in Ayemenem, the results can range from minor disturbances to major acts of violence, as with Velutha's death. But there is also a certain beauty to such a kaleidoscopic range of people, which Roy suggests is worth the struggle for overall cultural cohesion. To a certain extent, all of the family members are anglophiles; Chacko, Baby Kochamma, and Rahel all get their educations in the Western tradition. Yet none of them renounces their own culture; they all return to Ayemenem. When Sophie Mol and Margaret Kochamma arrive in India, the family goes to lengths to anticipate what Western things might make them feel at home. The twins are encouraged to sing English songs, and a cake says "Welcome Home, Our Sophie Mol" in English. In the same way, Comrade Pillai tries to impress Chacko by having his children recite English poetry. Another cultural element in Ayemenem is Communist activity, which involves Comrade Pillai, Chacko, and Velutha. Even though they are politically affiliated, the caste system trumps any sense of brotherhood that Comrade Pillai would have with Velutha. He refuses to help him on the grounds that he is an Untouchable, although later he is happy to use Velutha's death as an excuse to agitate the workers of Paradise Pickles & Preserves. In her descriptions of the Cochin hotel and Kathakali dancers in the temple, Roy seems to mourn a certain cultural purity that is lost in Kerala's becoming a tourist location, "God's Own Country." Historical buildings are turned into lounges and dining halls, and the beautiful and drawn-out art of Kathakali is abridged to suit tourists' taste and patience. Luckily, cultural authenticity is one of the "Small Things" preserved in havens of Ayemenem such as the History House and the river.
The God of Small Things Essays and Related Content
- The God of Small Things: Major Themes
- The God of Small Things: Essays
- The God of Small Things: Questions
- The God of Small Things: Purchase the Novel and Related Material
- Arundati Roy: Biography
- The God of Small Things Summary
- About The God of Small Things
- Character List
- Glossary of Terms
- Major Themes
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 1-3
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 4-6
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 7-9
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 10-12
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 13-15
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 16-18
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 19-21
- Kerala, India
- Related Links on The God of Small Things
- Suggested Essay Questions
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 1
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