The God of Small Things

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Family and Social Obligation 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.
Family and Social Obligation Theme Icon

The God of Small Things basically deals with the complicated relationships between members of the Ipe family in Ayemenem, India. Each family member has different factors weighing on their relationships, like social obligation, familial duty, and personal dislike. Baby Kochamma, one of the book’s most negative characters, allows her personal grudges and preoccupation with society’s approval to lead her to betray her own family. Outside of the Ipes, Vellya Paapen also chooses his duty to society over familial love when he offers to kill his son, the Untouchable Velutha, for sleeping with Ammu. It is this tension between internal love and social obligations that makes up most of the novel’s conflict.

The most important relationship of the book is between the twins Estha and Rahel and their mother, Ammu. The twins see themselves as almost one person, and their closeness is a shelter from the harsh political and social forces of their world. The twins’ relationship with Ammu is also very complex, as Ammu is both a loving mother and an unpredictable woman who sometimes says and does things that hurt her children deeply. The very existence of the twins in her current state of divorce is also a disgrace for Ammu in Indian society. Mammachi deals with social and personal issues with her children as well, as she loves Chacko with a repressed sexuality and forgives his affairs, but disowns Ammu when Ammu sleeps with an Untouchable. Familial love is always struggling with society and duty in the novel, and it is rarely victorious.

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Family and Social Obligation ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Family and Social Obligation 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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Family and Social Obligation 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 Family and Social Obligation.
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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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.

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.

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.

“Stop posing as the children’s Great Savior!” Ammu said. “When it comes down to brass tacks, you don’t give a damn about them. Or me.”
“Should I?” Chacko said. “Are they my responsibility?”
He said that Ammu and Estha and Rahel were millstones around his neck.

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

In an argument in the car, Chacko defends the twins from Ammu's anger, and in response Ammu lashes out at her brother, accusing him of hypocrisy. And indeed, as the only man in a relatively wealthy family, Chacko is the most privileged member of the Ipes. He has the freedom to play at being a Marxist or a sympathetic uncle, but doesn't have to face any real responsibilities or consequences because of these positions—he can use the jargon of Marxism with his workers while still exploiting them and retaining his wealth and power, and he can be kind to the twins when it's convenient for him, without having to really take care of them or sacrifice anything of himself.

In tragic contrast to Chacko's casual attitude towards his sister, nephew, and niece, Estha and Rahel truly desire Chacko's love. Thus they are presumably very hurt (though the narrator tellingly detaches from their perspectives here) when he so easily and carelessly shifts from defending them to calling them "millstones around his neck." This image—of the children as a deadly, hateful burden weighing someone down—will return later, as Ammu repeats it in one of the novel's climactic scenes.

Chapter 4 Quotes

“D’you know what happens when you hurt people?” Ammu said. “When you hurt people, they begin to love you less. That’s what careless words do. They make people love you a little less.”

A cold moth with unusually dense dorsal tufts landed lightly on Rahel’s heart. Where its icy legs touched her, she got goosebumps. Six goosebumps on her careless heart.
A little less her Ammu loved her.

Related Characters: Ammu (speaker), Rahel Ipe
Related Symbols: Pappachi’s Moth
Explanation and Analysis:

Rahel has just said to Ammu, "Why don't you marry him then?"—referring to the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man (who has also just molested Estha). Because of her fraught history with marriage and the social stigma of being a divorcee in a small, conservative Indian town, Ammu is hurt and offended by this question from her child, and in response she says this quotation to Rahel. As with many of the "small things" of the novel, Ammu's words then become a small phrase that has huge consequences.

Here Ammu is seemingly just trying to punish Rahel and make her feel bad for making Ammu herself feel bad, but the fear of being "loved less" is a real and terrifying one for the twins. This then marks the first appearance of "Pappachi's moth" as a symbol of Rahel's inner anxiety, insecurity, and fear. When she hears Ammu's words, Rahel feels like the moth (described just as Pappachi once described the moth he discovered) land on her heart and chill her with the thought of losing Ammu's love. Because of their history, the twins are already insecure about the strength and constancy of Ammu's love, and her statement here, along with the haunting image of the moth on Rahel's heart, will again lead to tragedy later in the novel.

Chapter 6 Quotes

And the Air was full of Thoughts and Things to Say. But at times like these, only the Small Things are ever said. The Big Things lurk unsaid inside.

Explanation and Analysis:

This quotation marks the first mention of the novel's titular "Small Things" in those exact words, as the Ipes pick up Sophie Mol and Margaret Kochamma from the airport. Though there are many unspoken tensions in this important moment—like Chacko's divorce from Margaret Kochamma, the idealized whiteness of Sophie Mol compared to the twins, and Mammachi's jealous hatred of Margaret Kochamma—the only words spoken are small talk.

As Roy suggests here, this is not a phenomenon unique to the Ipe family—it is human nature to cling to the Small Things at "times like these," particularly in tense or uncomfortable family gatherings. There is something ominous about the Big Things, something frightening about their very bigness, that makes them difficult to articulate and embody in a hectic, confusing moment like this. Note also that "Thoughts," "Small Things," and "Big Things" are all capitalized, as Roy continues her pattern of emphasizing certain words, phrases, and objects in a repetitive, childlike style.

Chapter 8 Quotes

She was aware of his libertine relationships with the women in the factory, but had ceased to be hurt by them. When Baby Kochamma brought up the subject, Mammachi became tense and tight-lipped.
“He can’t help having a Man’s Needs,” she said primly.
Surprisingly, Baby Kochamma accepted this explanation, and the enigmatic, secretly thrilling notion of Men’s Needs gained implicit sanction in the Ayemenem House. Neither Mammachi nor Baby Kochamma saw any contradiction between Chacko’s Marxist mind and feudal libido.

Related Characters: Mammachi (speaker), Navomi Ipe (Baby Kochamma), Chacko Ipe
Explanation and Analysis:

Mammachi loves her son Chacko intensely, even with a kind of quasi-romantic love, and so she is initially hurt by his many "libertine relationships" with his factory workers. She eventually decides to accept these affairs, however, although she even goes so far as to pay money to Chacko's lovers so that she can see them as "prostitutes" and thus more easily scorn or ignore them. Mammachi and Baby Kochamma's acceptance of Chacko's affairs as "Men's Needs" that "he can't help" then highlights the extreme double standard in the house and society in general. Chacko's "Men's Needs" are seen as something almost sacred, while Ammu's sexuality (particularly later in the novel) is seen as shameful, sinful, and hateful.

The narrator also rather sarcastically points out Chacko's hypocrisy in these affairs, as he likes to play at being a Marxist, but still enjoys his "feudal" powers. He is the wealthy factory owner, and so can exploit his workers even sexually, undercutting any ideals of worker equality he might profess to hold.

Chapter 11 Quotes

As the door was slowly battered down, to control the trembling of her hands, Ammu would hem the ends of Rahel’s ribbons that didn’t need hemming.
“Promise me you’ll always love each other,” she’d say, as she drew her children to her.
“Promise,” Estha and Rahel would say. Not finding words with which to tell her that for them there was no Each, no Other.

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

The narrative briefly jumps to a moment after Sophie Mol's death, when Ammu has locked herself in her room with the twins and Chacko batters down the door. In the linear narrative of 1969, Estha and Rahel are in this same bedroom (Ammu has just woken from her nap), and so it's as if the room itself has preserved this memory forever, both backwards and forwards in time—this is a flashback from the scenes of 1993, but a "flash forward" for the plot taking place in 1969.

In another example of Roy's focus on "small things," Ammu concentrates on hemming Rahel's ribbons (even though they "didn't need hemming") instead of directly facing the fact that her life is essentially falling apart around her. The passage also emphasizes the closeness of the twins, a closeness that even Ammu cannot understand. Estha and Rahel don't even think of themselves as separate individuals, but rather as two halves of one whole, a fact that makes their later separation even more tragic and even violating.

Chapter 13 Quotes

“Because of you!” Ammu had screamed. “If it wasn’t for you I wouldn’t be here! None of this would have happened! I wouldn’t be here! I would have been free! I should have dumped you in an orphanage the day you were born! You’re the millstones round my neck!”

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

Here Ammu's angry, careless words to her children partly set the novel's "Terror" in motion, causing the twins to try to run away—an act which then leads to Sophie Mol's death and later Velutha's as well. Here Ammu again shows her contradictory, volatile nature, as she longs to be free and independent, but feels bound by her children and her own love for and responsibility to them. Usually this is an internal struggle for her, but in this moment of anger and desperation Ammu gives voice to her darkest thoughts. (Note also that she echoes Chacko's casually cruel phrase from earlier in the book, when he called both the twins and Ammu "millstones around his neck.")

As we've seen before, the twins have a constant sense of anxiety and insecurity, worrying that Ammu doesn't love them, just as earlier Ammu suggested that Rahel's careless words made Ammu love her a little less. Here that fear is seemingly realized, and the twins decide to run away in despair.

Vellya Paapen began to cry. Half of him wept. Tears welled up in his real eye and shone on his black cheek. With his other eye he stared stonily ahead. An old Paravan, who had seen the Walking Backwards days, torn between Loyalty and Love.
Then the Terror took hold of him and shook the words out of him. He told Mammachi what he had seen. The story of the little boat that crossed the river night after night, and who was in it. The story of a man and woman, standing together in the moonlight. Skin to skin.

Related Characters: Mammachi, Vellya Paapen
Explanation and Analysis:

Vellya Paapen, Velutha's father, weepingly confesses to Mammachi what he has seen—that Velutha and Ammu are having a secret affair. Vellya Paapen surely knows that something terrible will happen to Velutha as a result of this revelation, but in this tragic moment social obligation and the power of cultural norms win out over familial love. As the passage itself says, the conflicted Vellya Paapen ultimately chooses "Loyalty" over "Love." It is because of this confession that "the Terror"—the novel's tragic climax—truly begins.

The scene again shows the lingering strength of the caste system in places like Ayemenem, even though it has technically been abolished for years (at this point in the novel). Vellya Paapen, like Mammachi, remembers the old days when castes were even more rigidly divided, and Untouchables even more ostracized and oppressed, and he has clearly internalized this external oppression to the point that he truly feels that he and his sons are inferior to people like Mammachi. Thus he is willing to betray Velutha to his fate, feeling that Velutha has truly broken a sacred social law by daring to love Ammu.

Chapter 16 Quotes

“Sophie Mol?” she whispered to the rushing river. “We’re here! Here! Near the illimba tree!”
Nothing.
On Rahel’s heart Pappachi’s moth snapped open its somber wings…
There was no storm-music. No whirlpool spun up from the inky depths of the Meenachal. No shark supervised the tragedy.
Just a quiet handing-over ceremony. A boat spilling its cargo. A river accepting the offering. One small life. A brief sunbeam. With a silver thimble clenched for luck in its little fist.

Related Characters: Rahel Ipe (speaker), Rahel Ipe, Sophie Mol
Related Symbols: Pappachi’s Moth
Explanation and Analysis:

Estha and Rahel are trying to run away to the History House, convinced that Ammu has rejected them. Sophie Mol convinces the twins to let her join, and the three children take the small boat across the newly flooded river. The boat tips, however, and Sophie Mol drowns—the event foreshadowed from the novel's start, and the beginning of the powerful, lingering entity of "the Loss of Sophie Mol."

While Sophie Mol's is essentially one of the climaxes of the book, and becomes a long-lasting tragedy for the entire Ipe family, Roy portrays the actual moment of her drowning with her usual method of describing "small things"—a technique here used to poignant and tragic effect. Sophie Mol's death is portrayed as a small and random accident, a "brief sunbeam" extinguished without drama or fanfare. It is only the "big things" that exist at its edges that turn it into such a monumental event.

Pappachi's moth also returns here as a symbol of Rahel's fear and anxiety, as she realizes she has lost her cousin, and that everything is about to change.

Chapter 19 Quotes

The twins looked up at her. Not together (but almost) two frightened voices whispered, “Save Ammu.”
In the years to come they would replay this scene in their heads. As children. As teenagers. As adults. Had they been deceived into doing what they did? Had they been tricked into condemnation?
In a way, yes. But it wasn’t as simple as that. They both knew that they had been given a choice. And how quick they had been in the choosing! They hadn’t given it more than a second of thought before they looked up and said (not together, but almost) “Save Ammu.” Save us. Save our mother.

Related Characters: Rahel Ipe (speaker), Esthappen Yako Ipe (Estha) (speaker), Rahel Ipe, Esthappen Yako Ipe (Estha), Ammu, Navomi Ipe (Baby Kochamma)
Explanation and Analysis:

Baby Kochamma tries to convince the twins to lie and say that Velutha indeed kidnapped them and killed Sophie Mol: repeating the lies that Baby Kochamma herself first told to the police. Baby Kochamma is trying to protect herself, because if it's determined that she lied and Velutha was beaten without reason, then she would be punished—but here she cleverly frames the twins' choice as one of "saving Ammu" or not. If they lie, Baby Kochamma suggests, Velutha (who, she says, will die either way) will take all the blame, and Ammu will be saved—but if the twins deny Baby Kochamma's story, then both they and Ammu will go to jail (supposedly for the murder of Sophie Mol).

When faced with this choice, Estha and Rahel quickly decide to go along with Baby Kochamma, offering just a whisper of "Save Ammu." This small, two-word phrase has vast repercussions, then, as the narrative suddenly steps back and defines this as the moment the twins truly lose their innocence. Their decision to "Save Ammu" clearly haunts Estha and Rahel for years, as they question whether they were really tricked and innocent, or if they knew what they were doing—if they freely chose family over honesty, loyalty over truth, and comfort over suffering.

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.