The God of Small Things

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Change vs. Preservation Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Family and Social Obligation Theme Icon
Indian Politics, Society, and Class Theme Icon
Love and Sexuality Theme Icon
Change vs. Preservation Theme Icon
Small Things Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The God of Small Things, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Change vs. Preservation Theme Icon

Many characters try to preserve old memories and traditions in the novel, but Roy also portrays the inevitable march of change through small shifts in the status quo. Paradise Pickles & Preserves is the most obvious symbol of preservation (pickling things to preserve them), as Mammachi and the people of Ayemenem cling to the old caste system and the gender double standard. In places like Mammachi’s house and the “History House” things linger from the past and are nursed and kept alive, like the “Loss of Sophie Mol” or the ghost of Kari Saipu. Other than through its name, the History House also becomes a symbol of preservation as the resting place of Rahel’s plastic watch with the time painted on it – a small example of literally freezing time.

Despite these attempts at preservation, the pickle jars keep leaking, and one of the book’s common refrains is “things can change in a day.” Much of the action takes place in two days, one in 1969 and one in 1993 – the days of Sophie Mol’s death and Rahel’s reunion with Estha. The efforts to preserve tradition are eroded away, and change still comes to both characters and country through the “small things.” Ammu gets divorced and then loves an Untouchable, defying gender roles and the caste system, and the Marxist movement gains power and overturns the system of landlords and laborers. Small things like Ammu’s warning that she loves Rahel “a little less” lead to big events like Rahel and Estha running away, which in turn leads to Sophie Mol’s death.

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Change vs. Preservation ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Change vs. Preservation appears in each chapter of The God of Small Things. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Change vs. Preservation Quotes in The God of Small Things

Below you will find the important quotes in The God of Small Things related to the theme of Change vs. Preservation.
Chapter 1 Quotes

It is curious how sometimes the memory of death lives on for so much longer than the memory of the life that it purloined. Over the years, as the memory of Sophie Mol… slowly faded, the Loss of Sophie Mol grew robust and alive. It was always there. Like a fruit in season. Every season.

Related Characters: Sophie Mol
Explanation and Analysis:

The first chapter of The God of Small Things jumps backwards and forwards in time, mostly focusing on the reunion of the twins Estha and Rahel after decades of separation—and the rest of the book will largely be about what caused that separation. By starting in the "present" and jumping back into the past, Roy builds up the novel's theme of change and preservation, notably by highlighting which things are preserved over the years and which things change. And in this passage, it's clear that "the Loss of Sophie Mol" is something that his been perfectly preserved.

Note that "the Loss of Sophie Mol" is capitalized, as if it has become a character in itself, apart from the real person of Sophie Mol. Roy uses this kind of capitalization often, partly to show how "small things" take on large significance in a child's view of the world, and partly to emphasize and even characterize those same small things. This particular instance also shows how Sophie Mol's "Loss" has become more important than Sophie Mol herself—this family is more about fragmentation than togetherness, more about loss than love. More broadly, Roy is also basically beginning the story with its conclusion; what is arguably the tragic climax, Sophie Mol's death, is foreshadowed from the start.

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He didn’t know that in some places, like the country that Rahel came from, various kinds of despair competed for primacy. And that personal despair could never be desperate enough. That something happened when personal turmoil dropped by at the wayside shrine of the vast, violent, circling, driving, ridiculous, insane, unfeasible, public turmoil of a nation. That Big God howled like a hot wind, and demanded obeisance. Then Small God (cozy and contained, private and limited) came away cauterized, laughing numbly at his own temerity.

Related Characters: Rahel Ipe
Explanation and Analysis:

As the narrative moves quickly around in the first chapter, Roy gives us a brief overview of Rahel's adult life leading up to her return to Ayemenem. At college in Delhi, Rahel met and married Larry McCaslin, an American, and then moved with him to Boston. As is described in this passage, Larry eventually leaves Rahel because he cannot understand her detachment and depression. Roy emphasizes here that Rahel's personal struggles (here seemingly personified as "Small God," an echo of the "small things" of the title) reflect the turmoil of India itself (the howling "Big God"), as within the country "various kinds of despair competed for primacy." Furthermore, Rahel's despair is increased by the thought that for an Indian, "personal despair could never be desperate enough." This shows Rahel's lifelong guilt and pessimism, and is also an early example of a theme Roy brings up again and again: "small things" (like objects, moments, names) both echoing and encapsulating "big things" (like historical or social forces, love, hatred).

They used to make pickles, squashes, jams, curry powders and canned pineapples. And banana jam (illegally) after the FPO (Food Products Organization) banned it because according to their specifications it was neither jam nor jelly. Too thin for jelly and too thick for jam. An ambiguous, unclassifiable consistency, they said… Looking back now, to Rahel it seemed as though this difficulty that their family had with classification ran much deeper than the jam-jelly question… They all broke the rules. They all crossed into forbidden territory. They all tampered with the laws that lay down who should be loved and how. And how much. The laws that make grandmothers grandmothers, uncles uncles, mothers mothers, cousins cousins, jam jam, and jelly jelly.

Related Characters: Rahel Ipe
Related Symbols: Paradise Pickles & Preserves
Explanation and Analysis:

In the narrative present, Rahel, who has returned to Ayemenem, looks out at her family's old pickle factory and ruminates on its significance. This passage is a good description of how Paradise Pickles & Preserves acts as an important symbol in the novel.

On the simplest level, pickling things is about preserving them, and as Roy has already shown, many things are preserved for years in Ayemenem and the Ipe household (most notably "the Loss of Sophie Mol"). The symbol is complicated, however, with the mention of the illegal banana jam—which is illegal because it can't be defined as strictly jam or jelly. This absurd and humorous fact becomes significant to Rahel in hindsight, as it brings up ideas of breaking boundaries, and shows how far society will go to maintain the status quo: even banning a food just because it doesn't fit into a convenient category. This "small thing" then connects to the "big thing" of love: "who should be loved and how...and how much," a phrase repeated many times in the novel, and one that will become much more important later on.

Perhaps it’s true that things can change in a day. That a few dozen hours can affect the outcome of whole lifetimes. And that when they do, those few dozen hours, like the salvaged remains of a burned house – the charred clock, the singed photograph, the scorched furniture – must be resurrected from the ruins and examined. Preserved. Accounted for.
Little events, ordinary things, smashed and reconstituted. Imbued with new meaning. Suddenly they become the bleached bones of a story.

Explanation and Analysis:

The novel's first chapter is a rather confusing collection of small moments and descriptions, and here the chapter ends with a list of actual small things—objects that seem meaningless by themselves, but when taken together become "the bleached bones of a story." Ultimately, this is a good preview of Roy's writing style in general.

The passage also introduces the idea that "things can change in a day," a concept crucial to the structure of the novel itself. The book mostly takes place over the course of two days—one in 1969, and one in 1993. This, then, is another "small thing," as the events of one day can affect many years afterwards. And the fact that the day's significance hinges on "change" suggests that despite the family's attempts at preservation, drastic changes have taken place.

Chapter 2 Quotes

What was it that gave Ammu this Unsafe Edge? This air of unpredictability? It was what she had battling inside her. An unmixable mix. The infinite tenderness of motherhood and the reckless rage of a suicide bomber. It was this that grew inside her, and eventually led her to love by night the man her children loved by day. To use by night the boat that her children used by day. The boat that Estha sat on, and Rahel found.

Related Characters: Rahel Ipe, Esthappen Yako Ipe (Estha), Ammu, Velutha
Explanation and Analysis:

Here the narrator describes Ammu, the mother of the twins and one of the novel's central characters. Ammu has a seeming contradiction at the core of her very being—she has both "the infinite tenderness of motherhood and the reckless rage of a suicide bomber." It is this contradictory nature that makes her such an intriguing character, but that also brings tragedy, particularly for her children (who depend on her "tenderness of motherhood"). As the novel will explore later, it's also suggested that Ammu's contradictions are seen as an affront to the status quo in her society. Women are not supposed to be "unsafe" or "unpredictable," to express their sexuality and "love by night," and it is this "Unsafe Edge" that brings about Ammu's downfall. Roy also introduces more small things here, repeating phrases in a childlike manner (particularly about the boat) while also hinting at tragedy to come.

The marchers that day were party workers, students and the laborers themselves. Touchables and Untouchables. On their shoulders they carried a keg of ancient anger, lit with a recent fuse. There was an edge to this anger that was Naxalite, and new.

Explanation and Analysis:

In the 1963 portion of the narrative, the Ipes make a "pilgrimage" to go see the movie The Sound of Music (and pick up Sophie Mol and Margaret Kochamma afterwards). On the way, their car is stopped by a political protest: a march of Naxalites, a more radical wing of the Communist Party in India.

As Roy describes here, the anger the marchers carry is "ancient," directed not just at the wealthy landowners, but also at the caste system (as exemplified by the description of Touchables and Untouchables marching together) and a general sense of injustice. The anger is ancient, but this march has an "edge" that is new, and associated with the Naxalite movement. Chacko is himself a wealthy landowner, but as an academic he also likes to play at being a Communist—yet the Naxalites threaten the very basis of the old order, and thus Chacko's position of privilege and power.

Pappachi would not allow Paravans into the house. Nobody would. They were not allowed to touch anything that Touchables touched. Caste Hindus and Caste Christians. Mammachi told Estha and Rahel that she could remember a time, in her girlhood, when Paravans were expected to crawl backwards with a broom, sweeping away their footprints so that Brahmins or Syrian Christians would not defile themselves by accidentally stepping into a Paravan’s footprint.

Related Characters: Rahel Ipe, Esthappen Yako Ipe (Estha), Mammachi, Shri Benaan John Ipe (Pappachi)
Explanation and Analysis:

The character of Velutha first appears at the Naxalite march, briefly glimpsed by Rahel. The narrator then discusses the "Untouchable" caste, of which Velutha is a member (as a Paravan). The caste system, which divided classes of people into a rigid religious and social hierarchy based on birth, was officially abolished in 1950, but in many parts of India it still existed in all but the letter of the law at the time the novel is set.

Tellingly, it's Mammachi, the oldest remaining family member and "preserver" of pickles, who remembers the more rigid and oppressive traditions of the past. She and Baby Kochamma, then, go on to uphold these social divisions later in the novel, even when the human cost is tragically high.

Chapter 8 Quotes

Suddenly Ammu hoped that it had been him that Rahel saw in the march… She hoped that under his careful cloak of cheerfulness he housed a living, breathing anger against the smug, ordered world that she so raged against… The man standing in the shade of the rubber trees with coins of sunshine dancing on his body, holding her daughter in his arms, glanced up and caught Ammu’s gaze. Centuries telescoped into one evanescent moment. History was wrong-footed, caught off guard.

Related Characters: Rahel Ipe, Ammu, Velutha
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Ammu watches Velutha play with the children, and she sees him as a man, a sexual being, seemingly for the first time. Ammu then thinks about Rahel supposedly seeing Velutha at the Naxalite march, and hopes that he was there—Ammu hopes that even behind his "careful cloak of cheerfulness" Velutha shares her anger at the unjust society that oppresses them both.

As Ammu watches Velutha, then, centuries of caste and gender roles "telescope" into this single moment—another kind of "small thing" affecting many big things. This scene plants the first seed of their forbidden romance, which will break many of the strict rules that Ayemenem society clings to so tightly.

Chapter 14 Quotes

With a street fighter’s unerring instincts, Comrade Pillai knew that his straitened circumstances (his small, hot house, his grunting mother, his obvious proximity to the toiling masses) gave him a power over Chacko that in those revolutionary times no amount of Oxford education could match.
He held his poverty like a gun to Chacko’s head.

Related Characters: Chacko Ipe, Comrade K. N. M. Pillai
Explanation and Analysis:

Chacko visits Comrade Pillai, a local Communist leader who also prints labels for the pickle factory, to discuss the Naxalite march and whether or not Velutha was there. Once again Roy shows Chacko's hypocrisy, in that he supports Communism intellectually, and can speak its jargon and play the part of a "comrade," all while trying to maintain his privilege and still exploiting his position of power.

In the upset of order inherent in Communist revolution, however, Pillai's "proximity to the toiling masses" (his lower class, essentially) makes him more powerful than the wealthy, educated Chacko. In these troubled times of sometimes-violent worker revolts, Pillai's poverty becomes a "gun" he can use against the newly-vulnerable Chacko.

Note also that while Chacko is a hypocrite, so is Pillai—he takes Chacko's money (for new labels for the pickles) even as he plots to overthrow him for the sake of "the masses." In a similar way to Chacko himself, Pillai talks about ideals of equality while simultaneously trying to do what's best for himself at the expense of others.

Chapter 18 Quotes

Blue-lipped and dinner-plate-eyed, they watched, mesmerized by something that they sensed but didn’t understand: the absence of caprice in what the policemen did. The abyss where anger should have been. The sober, steady brutality, the economy of it all.
They were opening a bottle.
Or shutting a tap.
Cracking an egg to make an omelette.
The twins were too young to know that these were only history’s henchmen. Sent to square the books and collect the dues from those who broke its laws. Impelled by feelings that were primal yet paradoxically wholly impersonal. Feelings of contempt born of inchoate, unacknowledged fear – civilization’s fear of nature, men’s fear of women, power’s fear of powerlessness.

Related Characters: Rahel Ipe, Esthappen Yako Ipe (Estha)
Explanation and Analysis:

The twins, unknowingly asleep near Velutha at the History House, wake up to see the police brutally beating him. Baby Kochamma has told the police that Velutha tried to rape Ammu and kidnapped the children, and so they find him and administer their "justice" swiftly and efficiently.

In this moment Estha and Rahel don't understand what is happening, but the narrator steps back to show that the beating is as much a result of larger social and historical forces as it is an individual instance of violence and brutality. The police aren't personally angry or passionate, and the narrator, taking a tragically detached tone, describes them as just acting as they must to preserve the status quo: "cracking an egg to make an omelette." Roy then goes on to clarify just what this status quo is, the social and historical forces the policemen are trying to maintain with their violent actions: the hierarchy of civilization over nature, men over women, and power over powerlessness.

Chapter 20 Quotes

This was the stuff their dreams were made of. On the day that Estha was Returned. Chalk. Blackboards. Proper punishments.
They didn’t ask to be let off lightly. They asked only for punishments that fitted their crimes. Not ones that came like cupboards with built-in bedrooms. Not ones you spent your whole life in, wandering through its maze of shelves.

Related Characters: Esthappen Yako Ipe (Estha)
Explanation and Analysis:

Rahel, Estha, and Ammu describe their dream house, which they imagine they will get some day—even though in the present Estha is about to be "Returned," and he will go on to never see Ammu again, and won't see Rahel again for twenty-three years. The house remains a fantasy, one that will never be realized.

While this is tragic in itself, a crucial part of the dream is the way the twins think of the school they will go to—a school where there will be small and simple things (like "chalk" and "blackboards") but also where there are "proper punishments." The twins don't long for anything unrealistic or idealized, but only want punishments that fit the crimes they are punishing—instead of punishments that are endless and haunting, like the one they feel they have received for their "crime" of running away and then "saving Ammu." Just as Rahel previously wanted Ammu to punish her instead of "loving her less," the twins now would rather have a simple (and even harsh) punishment instead of the lingering guilt and sense of brokenness that haunts them.

There was very little that anyone could say to clarify what happened next. Nothing that (in Mammachi’s book) would separate Sex from Love. Or Needs from Feelings…
But what was there to say?
Only that there were tears. Only that Quietness and Emptiness fitted together like stacked spoons… Only that what they shared that night was not happiness, but hideous grief.
Only that once again they broke the Love Laws. That lay down who should be loved. And how. And how much.

Related Characters: Rahel Ipe, Esthappen Yako Ipe (Estha), Mammachi
Explanation and Analysis:

This scene is the climax of the novel's 1993 storyline—the day when Estha and Rahel are finally reunited after twenty-three years. After acting distant and wary for a while (and Estha remaining silent, as he now has for years), the twins here lie down together and cry, and then they have sex.

The narrator presents the twins' act as, like their Ammu's affair with Velutha, breaking the "Love Laws" (through committing incest, in this case), but also describes it as being like one person who was split in half becoming whole again. This controversial and ambiguous act is not a "happy ending," certainly, or even a resolution to all the tragedy Estha and Rahel have experienced, but is at least a definitive expression of the "hideous grief" that has haunted the twins for so long. As described in an earlier passage, they never used to even consider themselves separate individuals, but only two parts of one whole, and now they have at least been fully reunited—and can hopefully begin to heal together after this expression of grief.