The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy and All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy are two works that give their respective characters a choice between love and duty. Although these works differ drastically in historical setting, how love and duty develop throughout each novel are similar. In The God of Small Things, Roy creates the story of twins Estha and Rahel and alternates between the years of 1969 and 1993 in a southwestern Indian village called Ayemenem. In All the Pretty Horses, McCarthy writes the story of John Grady Cole, a teenage cowboy who leaves his home in Texas to go to Mexico in the late 1940s. The works take place on opposite sides of the world, but the characters are bound by the historical makeup of each area, seemingly affecting how they respond to the choice of love and duty and how other characters are affected by their choice between the two.
The God of Small Things is a work driven by the power of love. A common theme in the novel is the idea of the Love Laws, which are “the laws that lay down who should be loved, and how. And how much” (Roy 33). Still, the main conflict of the work is the clash between love and duty, or in this case social obligation. For example, in the beginning of the novel, Roy mentions regarding a set of her characters that “They all tampered” (Roy 31) with these Love Laws, and how their tampering affected themselves and others are proved throughout the entire work. Overall, Roy’s characters decide to choose love over duty, which is the reason for most of their distress. The most significant case of this choice is between Ammu, Estha, and Rahel’s mother, and Velutha, Ammu’s Untouchable lover. In this case, Ammu’s social obligation is to avoid the Untouchables, since the caste system was still an important part of Indian society. Yet Ammu chooses her love for Velutha in the last chapter during a sexual encounter, as they both ignore the consequences that their affair could have, especially when Velutha contemplates, “What’s the worst thing that can happen? I could lose everything. My job. My family. My livelihood. Everything” (Roy 316). This is mostly true because in Indian society at the time, the Untouchables’ duties were to remain invisible to the more distinguished people. In other words, they had to be extremely cautious of their actions because they were supposed to remain Untouchable to the other citizens.
However, by the time that Velutha and Ammu actually have sex, Roy highlights that “The cost of living climbed to unaffordable heights” (Roy 318) in that moment because, due to Roy’s unique structure of the novel, the consequences of Velutha and Ammu’s encounter are shown to the reader before the encounter itself. The reader becomes aware of the fact that Velutha is brutally beaten by the police, and Roy openly describes that situation as “History walking the dog” (Roy 271). In other words, Roy makes it clear to the reader that despite Velutha’s love for Ammu, his social obligations, or his duty, as an Untouchable are still valid in an Indian society, which eventually is the cause of the beatings he gets from the police. Ammu experiences the idea of social obligation invalidating love too, since at Sophie Mol’s funeral after her family had become aware of her relationship with Velutha, “they [Ammu, Estha, and Rahel] were made to stand separately, not with the rest of the family. Nobody would look at them” (Roy 7). Although Velutha and Ammu deliberately chose love over duty, their social obligations still overpowered their love as a whole, creating everlasting or even fatal consequences for the both of them.
On the other hand, most of the characters in McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses choose duty over love. As mentioned before, a large portion of this novel is set in Mexico and follows the story of John Grady Cole, a teenager who finds work at a ranch and eventually falls in love with the ranch head’s daughter, Alejandra Rocha y Villarreal. Since John Grady Cole is an American, he is unaware of the traditional Mexican society that he immerses himself into, which is first seen when Alfonsa, Alejandra’s great aunt, warns him about his and Alejandra’s relationship by saying that she “wants you [him] to be considerate of a young girl’s reputation” (McCarthy 136); John Grady Cole replies, “I never meant not to be” (McCarthy 136). In this same conversation, Alfonsa claims that “This is another country. Here, a woman’s reputation is all she has” (McCarthy 136), presenting to the reader how severe this relationship could be if it shown in public. Since Alejandra is of a higher class, she has to be more mindful of who she is in a relationship with since her reputation as woman is all that she possesses in Mexican society during that time, in a departure from The God of Small Things, in which people of lower class are supposed to be mindful of their place in society.
Later in the work, when John Grady Cole and Alejandra meet again, the reader becomes aware of her choice of duty over her love for John. Alejandra admits to him that Alfonsa told her that she “must stop seeing you [him] or she would tell my father” (McCarthy 250) and eventually her father became aware of the relationship. However, Alejandra decides not to talk to John Grady Cole again after their final encounter, mostly because “I [Alejandra] broke my father’s heart. I broke his heart” (McCarthy 251). Also, in the end, Alejandra tells John Grady Cole that she, “cannot do what you ask. I love you. But I cannot” (McCarthy 255). Even though Alejandra truly loves John Grady Cole, she cannot run away with him because of the social traditions she has always been accustomed to. Even though her own father “was going to kill” (McCarthy 251) the man she loved, the love from her father, which is seen as the most important in this society, invalidates the love from anyone else. In other words, once again, a character’s social obligations outweigh the romantic love they are allowed to experience. The consequences of Alejandra’s choice are temporarily seen in John Grady Cole’s actions and thoughts after their final interaction. John Grady “felt something cold and soulless enter him like another being and he imagined that it smiled malignly and he had no reason to believe that it would ever leave” (McCarthy 254). John Grady was absolutely heartbroken over her choice, but due to the society they inhabited, Alejandra’s loyalty to her family was what was necessary.
The controversial themes of love and duty persist throughout Roy’s The God of Small Things and McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses, but they hold different effects. In both works, what the characters were obligated to do due to the societies in which they lived invalidated romances that went against their social obligations. For example, in The God of Small Things, it was Ammu having a relationship with an Untouchable, and in All the Pretty Horses it was Alejandra having a relationship with an undistinguished American. Both works go into depth about how the social traditions of their respective histories refuse to change despite the strength of individual loves. History was a common theme in Roy’s work, while Alfonsa told John that, “In history there are no control groups” (McCarthy 239). However, the consequences of each set of choices contrast; since Ammu and Velutha chose love over duty, Ammu’s family ended up being ignored by everyone else and Velutha ended up dying. Yet Alejandra’s decision to remain loyal to her family only resulted in John Grady Cole’s heartbreak. Even though in both novels the duties and social obligations of the characters invalidate the romantic loves that they harbor, the consequences of the choice between love and duty differ in severity. Overall, the decision between love and duty depends almost entirely upon the society each work is placed in, thus creating starkly different outcomes.