The God of Small Things

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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.
Small Things Theme Icon

In both the novel’s title and in her writing style, Roy emphasizes the small moments, objects, and changes that symbolize and lead to the “Big Things” in life, like death, love, and political upheaval. Much of The God of Small Things is written in a kind of free indirect discourse, a style where the third-person narrator partly perceives the world in the childlike way that young Estha and Rahel do. This leads to many words written oddly (like “Bar Nowl” or “Locusts Stand I”) but also to an emphasis on the innocent way a child sees the world, focusing on certain images and words. Through this lens, Roy dwells on small things like Rahel’s watch, Estha’s “Two Thoughts,” and the little Marxist flag instead of straightforwardly describing the plot of the story.

Within the narrative itself, Roy often points out that small talk is a mask for large, hidden feelings. The most important example of this is in Ammu and Velusha’s relationship at the end of the book. Instead of speaking of the huge taboo they are breaking or the impossibility of their future, the two lovers focus on the bugs in the jungle around them and look no farther than “tomorrow.” While the “Big Things” eventually reveal themselves, it is the small things of the novel that make the story so poignant and human, and Roy’s writing style so intimate.

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Small Things ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Small Things 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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Small Things 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 Small Things.
Chapter 1 Quotes

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).

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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.

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.

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

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 11 Quotes

If he touched her he couldn’t talk to her, if he loved her he couldn’t leave, if he spoke he couldn’t listen, if he fought he couldn’t win.

Who was he, the one-armed man? Who could he have been? The God of Loss? The God of Small Things? The God of Goosebumps and Sudden Smiles?

Related Characters: Ammu, Velutha
Explanation and Analysis:

Ammu is napping, soon after the scene in which she was admiring Velutha. As she sleeps, she dreams about a beautiful one-armed man who can only do one thing at a time—"If he touched her he couldn't talk to her," etc. This dream figure is clearly a stand-in for Velutha, though Ammu is seemingly not yet willing or even able to recognize her sudden attraction to him. Importantly, Ammu's dream introduces the novel's title in the text (as the dream man is called the "God of Small Things") and also connects Ammu and Velutha's forbidden love with the theme of small things. Throughout their brief affair Ammu and Velutha will only focus on small things, on "goosebumps and sudden smiles," because the big things surrounding them (like the sexism, classism, etc. that forbids and condemns their romance) are too terrifying and oppressive to face directly.

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 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.

Inspector Thomas Mathew squatted on his haunches and raked his jeep key across the sole of Velutha’s foot. Swollen eyes opened. Wandered. Then focused through a film of blood on a beloved child. Estha imagined that something in him smiled. Not his mouth, but some other unhurt part of him…
The Inspector asked his question. Estha’s mouth said Yes.
Childhood tiptoed out.
Silence slid in like a bolt.
Someone switched off the light and Velutha disappeared.

Related Characters: Esthappen Yako Ipe (Estha), Velutha, Inspector Thomas Mathew
Explanation and Analysis:

Throughout the novel it's apparent that Estha ends up even more traumatized by the "Terror" than Rahel does, and here we finally see why. Both twins decide together to "save Ammu," but Estha is the one who has to actually betray Velutha to his face. Inspector Mathew asks Estha a question (presumably, did Velutha kidnap the children and kill Sophie Mol?), and Estha says "Yes." Estha eventually stops speaking altogether after uttering this fatal "yes," to the point that he is totally silent in the scenes from 1993.

This is perhaps the tragic climax to the novel, as Estha truly loses his innocence and Velutha becomes the complete and helpless victim of all the sins of the other characters and of society itself. Yet again Roy describes the monumental events through "small things," and small things end up having the greatest impact. Velutha is portrayed only through fragmentary descriptions, and the small word "yes" comes to haunt Estha for the rest of his life.

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.

Chapter 21 Quotes

Even later, on the thirteen nights that followed this one, instinctively they stuck to the Small Things. The Big Things ever lurked inside. They knew that there was nowhere for them to go. They had nothing. No future. So they stuck to the small things.

Related Characters: Ammu, Velutha
Explanation and Analysis:

The final chapter describes Ammu and Velutha's brief love affair, ending on a note of hope and romance despite all the tragedy that we know will follow these events. Once again the "small things" hide the "big things" here, as Ammu and Velutha cling to each present moment, each tiny fragment of their surroundings, to avoid facing the many social, cultural, personal, and historical forces that would divide and crush them. When the two lovers only see the small things, they can briefly forget that he is an Untouchable and she from a wealthy, upper-caste family; that she is a divorcee with two children and he a poor factory worker; that she represents the ruling class and he the rebelling worker class. This is the beauty of Ammu and Velutha's love, and also its downfall—it was only ever a fragile, fleeting thing, and so could never survive the larger forces that seek to destroy it.