Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things is a story of one particular family and the ways in which the conflicting desires of those in this family are resolved within the larger scheme of Indian society. Roy is intent on exploring the concept of freedom, of the ways in which we are each both desirous of and limited in our ability to negotiate the path that we would take finding our way in the world. In this novel, Roy uses the caste system of India both as metaphor and as historical reality: The characters are metaphorically predestined to walk along certain paths because of their own personalities, their own inclinations, their own family dynamics. These same constraints apply to each one of us, no matter where in the world we have been born and raised and under what form of social system. However, the novelist’s characters are also literally bound to certain paths by their position in the caste system, one of the most closed social systems that exist in large-scale societies.
The world to which Roy introduces us to this novel is one that is entirely alien to most of us. It is not that we have not heard of the caste system of India. But rather, Roy presents us with a sense of what it is like actually to live within such a system. She provides us with what Rao (1989) emphasizes is key to understanding the way in which the conditions of one’s birth as an Indian affect every aspect of one’s life. Those of us outside of such a system are likely to understand it in its broad outlines, as a series of hierarchical levels in society that are set off by borders that cannot be crossed – that predetermine the major decisions that one can make in one’s life such as which profession one can and will follow and which people one can marry.
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