_The God of Small Things_ by Arundhati Roy | Study Questions and Assignment Prompts

In Fall 2020, I taught a course in Modern World Literature. Designing my curriculum around four novels by women of color, I was frustrated to find that although these are celebrated works of literature, teaching resources for them were less readily available than I would have expected. I decided to publish the reading questions and assignment prompts I developed to serve as a resource for other instructors.

One of the best resources I found to share with students was this website, which has chapter-by-chapter notes that explain some of the language and references in the the novel.

*** Note: my class met on a Monday / Wednesday schedule, so my assignment structure is set up to have longer readings and reflections due on Monday sessions, and shorter readings due on Wednesday sessions.

Reading Reflection I – Contexts

Like the other books we have read this semester, The God of Small Things engages closely with the historical context of the world in which it is set: modern India. Some knowledge of the history and culture of India is essential to understanding the novel.

Choose one of the following topics:

  • The Caste System in India
  • The British Raj 
  • The Indian Independence Movement
  • The Partition of India
  • The Religious Demographics of India
  • Saffronisation

Do some background research to learn a bit about your chosen topic; choose a source that provides useful/interesting information on your chosen topic that you think would be helpful for your classmates to learn. 

Do not choose Wikipedia or another general reference source (such as Encyclopedia Britannica). 

Post your source to your portfolio, on the page for The God of Small Things. You can upload a .pdf of your source, or you can use the “Embed” option to embed a website or video. If you find an ebook that you can’t create a .pdf of, you can also take one or more screenshots of relevant passages AND a shot of the title page. 

In class, you’ll share the information you found, explaining what you learned to the other members of your group. You’ll use what you learn from each other in a future assignment.

M: READ: The God of Small Things – Ch. 1

***If you have time, try to get a head start on the reading assignment for Wednesday — Ch. 2 is on the long side.

Consider the following questions to help you read carefully and critically; come to class prepared to discuss these questions, along with any other topics you would like to raise:

  • Why do you think Rahel believes that Sophie Mol was alive during her funeral, and only died after being buried?
  • The narrator claims that Estha and Rahel have a kind of telepathic connection, where each knows the thoughts of the other — how are we meant to understand this? Is it literally true, is it something either Estha or Rahel (or both) imagine, or does it mean something else entirely?
  • The story dwells at length on the details of Baby Kochamma’s life. What do you make of her character? Why do you think so much of her story is told at this point in the novel (especially when so many other aspects of the story are told in fragments and left unfinished)?
  • The story frequently references or briefly introduces events from the story that will come up later; these are typically cryptic and not fully explained right away. Do you see any examples of this in the opening chapter? What effect does it have on the reader when these brief, incomplete references are included in the story? Why do you think Roy uses this technique?
  • Based on the first chapter, what do you think are the “small things” referred to in the title of the novel?

W: READ: The God of Small Things – Ch. 2-3

Consider the following questions to help you read carefully and critically; come to class prepared to discuss these questions, along with any other topics you would like to raise:

  • How would you characterize Ammu? What does the narrator mean in saying that Ammu has an “Unsafe Edge”? Do you understand where this unsafe edge comes from?
  • What does the title of Chapter 2, “Papachi’s Moth” refer to? Why do you think it was used as the title for this chapter?
  • Why does Chacko say that the Ipe family is a family of anglophiles? Do you think he means this in a positive or negative way?
  • Chapter 3 interrupts the story of the trip to see The Sound of Music to return to the future storyline, narrating an encounter between Rahel and Estha after both return to Ayamenem as adults. Why do you think the novel juxtaposes these two moments? How might one inform the other?

M: READ: The God of Small Things – Ch. 4-6

Consider the following questions to help you read carefully and critically; come to class prepared to discuss these questions, along with any other topics you would like to raise:

  • Chapter 4 recounts a disturbing and traumatic experience for Estha. What reactions and emotions does Estha experience during and after this event? Knowing what you do about Estha’s future, how does this trauma affect him? How does Roy use the elements of the scene — the descriptions and imagery, the sequence of events — to embody Estha’s trauma? In other words, how do the concrete elements of the scene tie in with its emotional content?
  • As the chapter continues, the film The Sound of Music is developed into an important symbol; what is the significance of the film, and how is it intertwined with Estha’s trauma?
  • Another image that recurs and becomes symbolically very important is Pappachi’s moth — what does the moth come to represent, and why do you think Roy chose to revive this image?
  • How would you describe the twins’ feelings about Sophie Mol? How do they develop their ideas about Sophie Mol (before she even arrives)?
  • What does the scene in the airport show us about each of the characters? What does it reveal about the attitudes and values with which Ammu, Chacko, and Baby Kochamma have been raised? How are these attitudes communicated to Estha and Rahel?

Reading Reflection II

For last week’s portfolio assignment, you chose a topic relevant to the history and culture of India to research, and in class we shared what you learned about the context of the novel.

Choose at least one additional fact about the context of the story that you learned from one or more of your classmates. 

Post a paragraph to your portfolio, explaining what you learned in your class discussion, and how undestanding this context has helped you inderstand the novel. 

In your response, include specific details, and credit the classmate(s) by name who presented the info; give details from the story to support your analysis, quoting at least one passage to provide evidence for your claims. 

Don’t forget to use MLA format, citing content taken from the book with the author’s name and page number in parentheses.

200 word minimum

W: READ: The God of Small Things – Ch. 7-8

Consider the following questions to help you read carefully and critically; come to class prepared to discuss these questions, along with any other topics you would like to raise:

  • How do the old exercise books Rahel finds give us insight into Estha’s character, and Estha and Rahel’s childhood?
  • What do we learn about Ammu’s death? How does her death affect Rahel (and how does the novel demonstate this)?
  • What do Mammachi’s and Kochu Maria’s reactions to Margaret Kochamma and Sophie Mol tell us about their characters?
  • What is the “Play” referred to in Chapter 8, and why do you think it is referred to this way? Why does Rahel run away from the Play? Why does she try to keep Velutha from watching the Play and seeing Sophie Mol?

M: READ: The God of Small Things – Ch. 9-12

Consider the following questions to help you read carefully and critically; come to class prepared to discuss these questions, along with any other topics you would like to raise:

  • In Ch. 9, Estha and Rahel are described as “a pair of actors in a recondite play.” How are the twins like actors in a play, in this context? Why do you think Roy brings up the idea of a play again? How might this reference to a play be connected to the “play” the twins participate in for the arrival of Sophie Mol?
  • Velutha’s brother Kuttappen has been referenced briefly at other times in the novel, but now we are unexpectedly provided with an extended description of his thoughts and experiences. Why do you think Roy chooses to flesh out his character at this point in the story?
  • In this part of the novel, we see more of Ammu — both her interaction with her children, and her inner thoughts? How does your perspective on Ammu develop or change in this reading? What do we learn about her relationship to Estha and Rahel?
  • Why do you think Roy included the extended description of the Kathakali dancers? Why might she want us to reflect on the characters of the dancers? Why do you think she included so much discussion of the Hindu “myths” they perform? How might these stories be intertwined with the central story of the novel?

W: READ: The God of Small Things – Ch. 13

Consider the following questions to help you read carefully and critically; come to class prepared to discuss these questions, along with any other topics you would like to raise:

  • What do we learn about Margaret and Chacko? Why do you think Roy tells us the story of Margaret and Chacko’s relationship at this particular point in the novel?
  • The timeline of the story is interrupted to flash forward to Sophie Mol’s death; finally, most of the details of what happened are revealed. Is there anything that remains unexplained? If so, why do you think Roy kept those details a mystery? What effect does it have? Why do you think Roy told much of the story of that day in the middle of telling about Sophie Mol’s first day in Ayemenem, rather than just following the story of Sophie’s visit to the end? We keep circling around the incident of Sophie Mol’s drowning, looking at events which led up to it and events that followed it, slowly tightening the circle to focus in at last on what actually happened. What effect does this technique have on you?
  • What is the significance of the various things that Margaret Kochamma has taken with her and Sophie Mol to India?

M: READ: The God of Small Things – Ch. 14-18

Consider the following questions to help you read carefully and critically; come to class prepared to discuss these questions, along with any other topics you would like to raise:

  • The novel departs from its pattern at this point; instead of switching back and forth between the past and present with each new chapter, we have several short chapters in a row describing the night of the children’s flight from the Ayemenem house and the tragedy that follows. Why do you think Roy chooses to present the story in this way, and disrupt the structure the rest of the novel has followed?
  • What does it mean that Comrade Pillai “held his poverty like a gun to Chacko’s head”? How is this statement borne out by the end of this reading?
  • Why do you think the story returns to the present timeline when it does? Why does it tell us more about Baby Kochamma at this point? How does this new information about her character inform our understanding of the story?
  • The end of Velutha’s story is told twice: in retrospect, at the end of Ch. 17 and again in Ch. 18. How do the two versions of the story compare? Why do you think two different versions are told?
  • What does it mean that the policemen were “only history’s henchmen”?

W: READ: The God of Small Things – Ch. 19 – 21

Consider the following questions to help you read carefully and critically; come to class prepared to discuss these questions, along with any other topics you would like to raise:

  • How does Baby Kochamma manipulate the twins? Why does she do this? What effect does it have on them?
  • When Estha says, “Yes” to the inspector, we’re told that “”childhood tiptoed out. Silence slid in like a bolt.” What do you think this means?
  • How does Baby Kochamma manipulate Chacko? Why do you think this works?
  • We’re told that, as adults, Estha and Rahel “broke the Love Laws. That lay down who should be loved. And how. And how much.” What does this mean? How could this scene be explained (both in the sense of how could Estha and Rahel’s actions be explained, and how might we explain why Roy chose to include this in the story)?
  • Now all of the events of the story have been revealed, but the story is still jumping around in time. At the end, it goes back to the night Sophie Mol arrived in Ayemenem. Why is the story of this night retold — do we learn anything new? Why would Roy choose to end the novel with this scene? 

Reading Reflection III

Post a reflection on the novel to your portfolio.

Consider what you think the novel is designed to communicate to us, and how you think we’re intended to relate to the characters in the story. How does Roy use her novel to reflect on and communicate about the world (whether we’re talking about the geographical world the characters inhabit, or their social world, or their psychological or emotional world)?

Choose any angle on these questions that interests you. You can use the focus questions provided with the reading assignment as a prompt, but you may also choose to reflect on another aspect of the novel that interests you.

Include specific details from the story to support your analysis, quoting at least one passage.

Don’t forget to use MLA format, citing content taken from the book with the author’s name and page number in parentheses.

200 word minimum

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