A Feminist Look at GOST: The Power of Female Characters

I recently read this paper about feminism within GOST and thought this sentence summed up my thoughts perfectly: “The God of Small Things portrays the truthful picture of the plight of Indian women, their great suffering, cares and anxieties, their humble submission, persecution and undeserved humiliation in male dominating society.” (article here!) As a reader we get to see the unique experiences of being a woman in 20th century India, a time when women had little autonomy and faced the prospect of arranged marriages and were essentially barred from receiving education. We also get this window into severely abusive relationships. Some of the most powerful moments I’ve read so far have been about Ammu’s and Mammachi’s experiences with abusive and controlling husbands.

I specifically like that Roy gives female characters a sense of agency even in a deeply patriarchal society; Ammu chooses who to marry, when to leave the marriage, and reclaims her life, and Mammachi runs a successful company on her own. Even after reading these last few chapters, my favorite passage is still when Ammu’s background is described. To me, this remains one of the most powerful scenes and is laced with a lot of great feminist discourse. In describing Ammu’s wedding, Roy writes:

“Ammu had an elaborate Calcutta wedding. Later, looking back on the day, Ammu realized that the slightly feverish glitter in her bridegroom’s eyes had not been love, or even excitement at the prospect of carnal bliss, but approximately eight large pegs of whiskey. Straight. Neat”.

(39)

In class we talked about how these lines are the kind that stay with you for the entirety of the book. This is an especially powerful moment because Roy builds up the excitement of a wedding and young love, and then completely subverts expectations all in two sentences. A page before Roy wrote, “…in the pit of her stomach she carried the cold knowledge that, for her, life had been lived. She had one chance. She made a mistake. She married the wrong man” (38). This entire scene functions to emphasize Ammu’s struggle for independence. In what she thought was an act of independence- running away to marry a man her parents disapproved of- was instead an entry-way into an abusive marriage. Ammu’s realization is even more hard-hitting because of Roy’s syntax. She employs many stand-alone paragraphs and one-word sentences like “Straight” and “Neat”. Her writing style emulates how heavy and tragic Ammu’s past was, making this scene even more powerful.

As I touched on earlier though, what I appreciate with the story is that Roy gives these female characters autonomy. After bearing the brunt of male domination-from her father denying her education, to marrying an abusive husband, to raising kids alone- Ammu reclaims her body. In another powerful paragraph Roy beautifully writes: 

“Occasionally, when Ammu listened to songs that she loved on the radio, something stirred inside her. A liquid ache spread under her skin, and she walked out of the world like a witch, to a better, happier place. On days like this there was something restless and untamed about her. As though she had temporarily set aside the morality of motherhood and divoree-hood”

(43)

The phrase “liquid ache” combined with words like “witch”, “restless”, and “untamed” evoke this sense of female liberation. Ammu is further described as wearing flowers in her hair and taking midnight swims. She is also described as having this deep, almost insatiable, love for her children and having this sporadic energy that mirrors the women’s liberation movement in the 70s. Moreover, I think all of the female characters in GOST play such a pivotal role in defining the common female experience. Over four generations, we see a lot of similarities with all of these characters, but we also get to see their individual agency and yearn for happiness in a patriarchal society.  

The Child That Lives Within

From the start of the book, Arundhati Roy’s writing style intrigued me. From the innocence she portrays through Rahel and Esta’s imagination to the dynamics of the familial relationships that she exposes through dialogue and flashbacks, there are so many meanings that are embedded in each line that she writes.

I could talk about the passages that might confuse me but those passages need context that we will get later on in the book. I’d rather discuss the passages where Roy surprised me with the world she builds around the reader. The way she uses certain techniques to portray the meanings of the book are ways I’ve never seen before and ways that certainly deserve a lot of attention and praise.

To be able to capture a child’s innocence and imagination is something that I’ve seen to be very hard for authors to do yet Roy does it so well and in such a unique way. An example that really stood out to me was in chapter 2 on page 45:

“Rahel thought that boot was a lovely word. A much better word, at any rate, than sturdy. Sturdy was a terrible word. Like a dwarf’s name. Sturdy Koshy Oommen—a pleasant, middle-class, God-fearing dwarf with low knees and a side parting.”

(45)

When I read this passage I was genuinely shocked at the way she played on the world of creativity and imagination that kids live in. No adult or teenager would think so creatively about a single word yet kids do this with most new words that they learn. The way Roy had Rahel give a full name to this dwarf and even an in depth description on how it looked was refreshing. It was refreshing to dive into a world we all once lived in yet had forgotten about and no longer use. To me when I was a kid just like Rahel and Esta, words were all based on the way they sounded and they resembled magical creatures or places. When we grow up, life becomes more practical and logical. We learn the way things are and should be rather than imagining all the things they could be.

Roy presents the way our imagination and innocence fades away with age through the way it does within Rahel and Esta. Once upon a time, Rahel and Esta thought they were one person. They imagined their cousin doing cartwheels at her funeral and imagined words being mystical creatures. However, they had gone 25 years without seeing each other and aren’t the same wide-eyed kids they once were. It amazes me how Roy captures the purity of Rahel and Esta when they were young and contrasts it with their cold outlook on life 25 years later to represent the loss of innocence in the book.

Discussing God of Small Things …

To get us started, how about taking a close look at a passage that intrigues you — or one that confuses you — or one that made you bow down and admit you are not worthy of Roy’s literary skillz?

Remember, all grammar, sentence structure, and format rules apply here, but as far as the content of your post, feel free to mix in literary analysis with personal reflection or connections with the larger world.