The God of Small Things
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At both AS and A Level, this examined unit asks students to examine how narratives work, with reference to their chosen text.
TOPIC: Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things
- Apply relevant methods for text analysis, drawing on linguistic and literary techniques
- Identify how meanings and effects are created and conveyed in texts
- Analyse the ways a narrative text draws on its generic and literary contexts.
At AS Level, this is examined via analysis of narrative techniques in an extract from the text, printed on the paper.
At A Level, students choose from two questions, each focussing on an aspect of narrative. Their study of narrative techniques in Section A is applied to their own creative writing in Section B.
Approaches to teaching the content
This examined unit requires students to read a substantial prose fiction text: The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy.
In this combined Language and Literature course, the key focus is on how narratives work, drawing on integrated linguistic and literary approaches.
Students will study aspects of narratives such as the use of voice, point of view, time & chronology, dialogue, characterisation, genre, symbols and motifs, structure and settings.
They will need to apply relevant techniques in their response to The God of Small Things via either an extract (AS) or a question (A Level). They should use these in textual analysis to explain how meanings and effects are created.
It is important for both AS and A Level that students have an awareness of broader contextual factors. These would include understanding of how the text draws on genre conventions, as well as the social and historical context of the text.
Common misconceptions or difficulties students may have
In the transition from GCSE study, students may worry that this approach differs from a familiar schema of plot, themes, characters, setting. In fact, the difference is just a shift in emphasis from WHAT to HOW, from ‘characters’ to ‘characterisation’. They will still be studying the familiar aspects, but the focus will be on critical analysis, exploring how, for example, a particular perspective shapes the creation of character. Or the role of different settings in the novel in the development of plot and the themes conveyed.
Conceptual links to other areas of the specification – useful ways to approach this topic to set students up for topics later in the course
For A Level students, there is an immediate link to Section B of the exam, where they move from ‘Reading as Writers’ to ‘Writing as Readers’ and show their understanding of narrative techniques as they produce their own. It may well be productive for AS students to engage in this sort of creative text production as part of their study of narratives.
Learning to apply relevant linguistic and literary techniques in close analysis is a fundamental part of all AS and A level units, whether the focus for study is spoken or written language, the literary genres of poetry, prose or drama, or non-fiction genres such as journalism, travelogue or memoire.
For all units, students will benefit from a perceptive understanding of the ways contextual factors (including genre, purpose and audience) influence the writer’s choices and the reader’s interpretation.
For a perceptive understanding of narratives, it is vital to study them in context, not, for example, to analyse a line of dialogue in isolation. The term ‘context’ refers to a range of aspects in this unit. First, any part of the text needs to be considered in light of the novel as a whole; then with awareness of broader genre conventions; and also with some knowledge of the social, historical contexts - particularly where these differ significantly from those of the reader.
It may be useful to think of the derivation of the word: con+text = WITH the TEXT. The following activities focus on a range of aspects of the text in context, such as:
- Narrative perspective / point of view
- Voice - representation of speech and thought
- Settings & style
- Motifs and symbols
- Genre conventions
- Social historical context
Arundhati Roy uses the narrative technique of foreshadowing throughout her novel. The reader is given hints of the tragic events that will only become fully clear and explained by the end of the novel. In this way she creates suspense, by giving just enough information to make the reader curious, and leaves a number of tantalising questions.
To find a fuller definition of foreshadowing click on the Resources link. It’s a useful site for brief definitions, with examples, of a range of literary terms.
This activity can be done as students begin the read the novel, as the chosen extract is taken from Chapter 1. Students should work in small groups for this activity, to explore Roy’s use of foreshadowing in more detail. They should read the extract provided and underline the phrases that foreshadow events to be explained later in the novel. For each underlined phrase, note what is unexplained, and what possible suspicions you have.
To develop this area of study, each group should prepare and present another extract as an example of Roy’s use of foreshadowing in the novel.
The narrative in The God of Small Things uses time in striking ways. There is no simple relationship between chronological (real) time and narrative time. The novel begins in 1993 (the narrative present), almost 25 years after the main events in 1969, (the narrative past) when the twins were 7 years old. Each storyline covers a span of about two weeks. The novel ends at a point in 1969 before the climax: the consequences of Ammu and Velutha’s love affair. Roy also gives the reader glimpses of characters’ backstories – events that happened before the main action of the novel.
This activity can be done while reading the novel, or retrospectively. For each chapter, students should note how it shifts between the two main narratives and backstories. There are 21 chapters, so each member of the class could work on a different one.
Students should be familiar with the terms: backstory, flashbacks and flashforwards. These also function as foreshadowing: a hint or warning about what is to come in the story. (See Activity 3).
It is useful to have an outline of the chronological events of each storyline. There is a useful link, where this has been done for you: A guide to teaching world novels (Department of Humanities, Wisconsin University).
The epigraph for The God of Small Things is a quote from the critic John Berger:
Never again will a single story be told as though it’s the only one.
Arundhati Roy’s use of perspective is a fascinating aspect of the way in which she presents the stories in the novel from many different points of view. Students should be familiar with terminology such as 1st v 3rd person narration; omniscient v partial perspective from a particular character’s point of view.
In addition, students should be aware of the concept of voice: the author can narrate in a character’s voice or use a more neutral style. (This is developed in Activity 5 on Voice and Style).
This activity can be prepared individually and discussed in small groups. Students are asked to annotate an extract (from p. 145) to indicate how Roy shifts the point of view and voice. (The point of view and voice may not always be clear, so students should discuss any differences in their responses.)
To develop this area of study, each group should choose another extract from the novel where Roy shifts the narrative perspective. They should make a copy and display it, with their comments, for the rest of the class.
Arundhati Roy narrates the novel The God of Small Things in 3rd person, and often from the perspective of an omniscient narrator. But she shifts the narrative perspective into the point of view of various characters. Often the reader is given the young child’s (Rahel or Estha’s) point of view. As well as giving the interior viewpoint of a child’s thoughts and feelings, Roy also suggests a young child’s voice (a seven year old who has to operate in two languages: Mayalem and English). She conveys this by using some non-standard forms of graphology, lexis and sentence structure.
Working in small groups, students should collect examples on the worksheet provided. They can then report back to the class on the most interesting findings.
This activity can be done once the novel has been read, and the narrative techniques (use of chronology, narrative perspective, voice) have been studied.
Students should be divided into three groups and assigned one of the claims on the worksheet re. the effects of Roy’s narrative techniques. You can find these comments on the website in the Resources link.
Each group should find supporting evidence from the novel for each claim, before reporting their findings to the class group.
Students should be familiar with these terms and concepts. Briefly, symbols stand for some abstract idea (red for danger). Motifs are images, ideas, or symbols that recur in a literary work and therefore are understood to have further significance. The river – and connected ideas of water and drowning - is an example of a motif in this novel.
The title The God of Small Things suggests the questions: what are ‘the small things’, and in contrast ‘the big things’? In this activity, students are asked to list ‘small things’ and ‘big things’, both in literal and metaphorical terms. In the novel, tiny insects, for example, recur at various key points.
Love is an example of a ‘big’ thing; in the novel, Roy refers to the Love Laws at the end of the first chapter, making their importance clear, as this is where ‘it all … really began’ when they were made.
Sometimes small and big things are connected, for example the toy wristwatch and the idea of (frozen) time. In a previous activity, students looked at the use of capitalisation, conferring importance on certain nouns. These might be examples of things regarded by the children as ‘Big Things’.
Place and time are integral to the reading of this novel. It is set in Kerala, a state in the south of India in the late 20th century. Students should be aware of the range of political and cultural movements that Roy refers to in The God of Small Things:
- Communists as a political party Untouchables caste becoming politicised
- Western culture influences in film and music, e.g. ‘Sound of Music’
- Religion – two dominant cultures coexist: Christianity v Hinduism
- Languages – Malayam and English spoken by the family
She is perhaps more famous as a campaigner and activist, than as a writer of fiction. In telling the story of one family’s tragedy, she introduces the reader to social / political issues such as: criminal injustice, gender equality, the caste system.
Working in small groups, students should read the extract from p.33 and list all references to the social historical context. Each person in the group should find out key facts about one of these references and report back to the class group.
Individually, make notes on the ‘Love Laws’ mentioned at the end of the extract. Does this refer to actual laws encoded in the Indian judicial system, to religious commandments, or to socially accepted conventions? Who broke the Love Laws?
Finally, once students have read the whole novel, discuss what you feel Roy means by the final lines of Chapter 1.
Is there a single protagonist in The God of Small Things?
Students should consider the definition of the role of Protagonist: the central character in a story (novel, drama, film). The protagonist may also be the hero, the character that the reader empathises with.
Working in 5 or 6 small groups, they should prepare an argument to support the case for each of these characters:
- (or both the twins)
- Sophie Mol.
In the AS exam, students will have to analyse a short extract from the novel, commenting on narrative techniques in the set extract and placing it in the context of the novel as a whole.
This will also be useful practise for the A Level exam, where students would select relevant techniques in their response and support comments with quotations and precise analysis.
This activity can be done as homework, or as timed practice for the exam.
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