The Satanic Verses

The Satanic Verses Essay Questions

  1. 1

    Discuss the narrator of The Satanic Verses. Could he be called a character? How does his narrative style affect the novel?

    The raucous, articulate narrator of The Satanic Verses lends the novel a humorous, playful tone that it might otherwise lack. He often editorializes on the events of the novel, and even suggests that he speaks to Gibreel – thus directly influencing the plot in the same way that Gibreel influences the plot of his own dreams. In this sense, he can be a considered a character. Perhaps most importantly, the narrator continually calls attention to the fact that The Satanic Verses is a fictional text, never letting the reader forget that he or she is reading a story. This serves a thematic purpose as well, by suggesting that the many forces of our lives - politics, history, culture, religion - all exert a control over us whether we are aware of it or not.

  2. 2

    After the plane accident, Gibreel becomes an angel and Saladin a devil. Do you think these characterizations are fair? Why or why not?

    Based on what we learn about the characters' lives before the accident, it can be argued that their transformations make little sense. Gibreel treats the people around him callously, and in fact becomes an atheist shortly before the explosion. While Saladin is no angel himself, he is certainly portrayed more sympathetically than Gibreel, and though some of his choices are questionable, he seems to be a victim more than an evil-doer. After the transformation, each man begins to take on characteristics that fit their new identities. However, the novel's ultimate purpose is to suggest that our outward shape matters only a bit. The truth is that we are all capable of angelic or satanic potential, and that one's attempt to understand himself as a simple personality only obfuscates this truth.

  3. 3

    Analyze the role of women in The Satanic Verses.

    The wide variety of female personalities in the novel makes it extremely difficult to generalize about their role. Gibreel and Saladin's partners, Alleluia and Pamela, serve to reinforce the men's new identities - Alleluia is pure and charitable, whereas Pamela is unfaithful and subversive. The Jahilia and Titlipur plots feature many women in positions of power, including the prophetess Ayesha and Abu Simbel's wife Hind, who controls Jahilia as her husband's health fails. Rushdie certainly emphasizes how religion and politics create problems for women - for example, he points out that women are repressed under Mahound's regime, and offers a feminist retelling of the story of Ibrahim and Hagar. But his own understanding of women is as complicated as his understanding of men is. The novel constantly rejects binary constructions - male/female, good/bad, Indian/not Indian - to suggest that every personality is influenced by a myriad of forces. Therefore, a person's gender in Rushdie's world is only one of many factors that define his or her contradictions and personality.

  4. 4

    What does this novel say about Indian identity?

    Early in The Satanic Verses, Zeeny Vakil puts forward the idea that India has a culture of pastiche and amalgamation – it draws on its many different internal cultures, as well as the traditions of other countries that have invaded or influenced it. Although he portrays Indian culture in all its diversity and beauty, Rushdie also suggests that Indian identity can sometimes feel like a burden. The London plot's South Asian immigrants never stop feeling like outsiders, and Saladin is only able to embrace his Indian identity as an adult, after having eschewing his country and its troubled history for most of his youth. Ultimately, Rushdie seems drawn to this idea that Indian culture is a complicated amalgamation, since it serves as a metaphor for his basic idea that every personality is an amalgamation of powerful forces like religion, politics, and history.

  5. 5

    Some critics argue that The Satanic Verses is a realist story about Gibreel becoming schizophrenic. Do you agree with this interpretation? Why or why not?

    The chief evidence for this interpretation is that Gibreel is treated for schizophrenia, and that the novel ends when he dies – suggesting that the entire story has been told from his perspective. Considering the novel's theme that every person is capable of good and evil, it is possible that Saladin is an expression of his satanic impulses. The Jahilia and Titlipur plotlines are explained as Gibreel's elaborate dreams, which also suggests that this is primarily a story about the inner workings of Gibreel's mind. However, the flaws in this argument are that much of the London plot is told from Saladin's perspective, and that the novel's most dramatic instance of fantasy – the men's transformations – cannot entirely be explained as a product of Gibreel's imagination, since other characters see it happen as well.

  6. 6

    Charles Dickens’s novel Our Mutual Friend is featured prominently in one scene in Part VII. Why do you think Rushdie might have done this?

    The Satanic Verses and Our Mutual Friend share several themes, so it makes sense that Rushdie would pay homage to Dickens by featuring his novel so prominently. Both novels are concerned with rebirth; Eugene Wrayburn and John Harmon are two adversaries whose personalities change after an accident, similar to what happens to Gibreel and Saladin. Podsnap's bourgeois patriotism is also an early example of the attitudes that Rushdie suggests lead to anti-immigrant prejudice. Perhaps most of all, Rushide's evocation of Dickens serves as a commentary on his own style. Dickens is renowned for engendering a complicated world of myriad characters that cross paths in seemingly serendipitous coincidence. All of these qualities are ones Rushdie giddily employs.

  7. 7

    Many of the characters in this novel are actors or models. How is this significant to the novel's themes?

    The most obvious way in which acting ties into the novel's themes is by suggesting that one's personality is never fixed. Rushide suggests through the novel that our personalities are always amalgamations of several complicated forces - like politics, history, or religion - and that we are therefore always drawn to change. An actor's job is to constantly take on new personalities, which makes the profession an apt metaphor for that idea.

    Show business also plays into the novel's investigation of the immigrant experience. When Saladin returns to Bombay and embraces his Indian identity once and for all, Zeeny congratulates him because “now you can stop acting at last” (549). This implies that cultural expression – especially in a culture that is not one's own – also requires a form of acting. Actors, then, are an ideal vehicle for Rushdie to explore the mechanics of cultural performance.

  8. 8

    In The Satanic Verses, many characters have the same name – a stylistic choice that makes the novel challenging for some readers. Why do you think Rushdie did this?

    Since the name repetition primarily occurs in Gibreel's dreams, one might see it as a hint about Gibreel's psyche. Some characters, such as Hind in the Jahilia plot, appear to take their names from characters Gibreel meets in the London plot – in that case, Hind Sufyan. In these cases, the name repetition might reflect Gibreel's opinion of the people he knows in real life. There is also name repetition within Gibreel's dreams; for example, the empress Ayesha shares a name with the Titlipur prophetess. In this case, the name repetition emphasizes the parallels between two seemingly dissimilar characters. Even in cases where one cannot find explicit parallels to explain the repetition, the device reinforces the concept that our histories are complicated and self-referential, and that our personalities and names are never given as simply as we might believe.

  9. 9

    Analyze the end of the novel. What does Rushdie accomplish by having Saladin reconcile with his father and his home country?

    The final section of The Satanic Verses ends this otherwise tragic story on a note of hope and optimism. Saladin, who descends into evil after his transformation, endures his ordeal to emerge a more compassionate and mature person than he was before. Saladin's growth suggests that although people are manipulated by forces greater than themselves, they can nevertheless makes choices to improve themselves. His acceptance of his father as a gentler man than he believed reinforces the point that people are always more complicated than we expect. His return to India also marks his acceptance of a part of himself that he spent his life pretending did not exist. Rushdie implicitly suggests here that the greatest sin is self-denial, the refusal to acknowledge immutable parts of ourselves. We are all controlled by forces greater than us, but the first step towards peace comes in recognizing that.

  10. 10

    What do you make of the end of the Titlipur plotline? Does the narrator endorse Ayesha's pilgrimage? Why or why not?

    The atrocities Ayesha commits on the pilgrimage – from leaving corpses by the side of the road to ordering an infant to be stoned – are so dramatic that it seems the narrator considers her a cruel tyrant. However, there is ample evidence that Ayesha's claims about the supernatural have some validity. This includes the flock of butterflies that follows the villagers, and the four separate witness accounts of the sea parting underwater for the drowning pilgrims. The narrator seems to suggest that supernatural forces exist, but humans have the power to harness them for good or evil. Ayesha is unfortunately corrupted by her power, but even that corruption does not necessarily mean that her cause is evil. As with everything else in the novel, Ayesha and her pilgrimage contain with them contradictions.