The Novel Consciousness in Midnight’s Children
In Atlas of the European Novel, Franco Moretti argues that “The novel functions as the symbolic form of the nation-state …and it’s a form that not only does not conceal the nation’s internal divisions, but manages to turn them into a story.” He characterises the ‘nation-state’ as a single geographical territory in which a nation’s pluralistic ideological and cultural landscape coincides with the monolithic notion of a political state, resulting in irreconcilable “internal divisions”. Moretti thus posits the novel as, in the words of Ian Watt in Rise of the Novel, the only “logical literary vehicle of culture” (Watt 13), a discursive site through which an inconclusive dialogue between the multiple fragments that constitute the national discourse can be narrated. It challenges the “literary traditionalism” (Watt 13) of “previous literary forms [that] had reflected the general tendency of their cultures to make conformity to traditional practice the major test of truth”(Watt 13). Hence, this essay aims to explicate how the novel Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie subverts the binary between nation and narrative, asserting that it is only through “individualist and innovating reorientation” (Watt 13) that a literary work can present a cohesive plot which accurately reflects a national narrative.
In focalizing the narrative through the subjective lens of an intrusive narrator who has the ability to “avert [his] eyes” (Rushdie 112) and express issues “in [his] opinion” (Rushdie 112), Rushdie thematizes the individualistic process of personal remembrance of the novel whose “primary criterion was truth to individual experience” (Watt 13). However, rather than advocating a dichotomous relationship between individual recollection and a historical truth, Rushdie establishes instead a mimetic relationship between the two. In tying Saleem’s very existence from the moment of his birth to India’s historical narrative, Rushdie blurs the line between Saleem’s subjective personal recollection and the narration of supposedly objective historical ‘fact’, the latter of which is often widely mistaken for an indisputable truth. Midnight’s Children asserts instead that “Memory’s truth, because memory has its own special kind. It selects, eliminates, alters, exaggerates, minimizes, glorifies, and vilifies also; but in the end it creates its own reality, its heterogeneous but usually coherent version of events” (Rushdie 254). Hence, in validating the complex process that personal recollection undergoes before eventually producing a “coherent version of events”, Rushdie mirrors Moretti’s exoneration of the novel form and its role in producing a cohesive narrative encompassing multiple fragments of time.
He likewise posits the novelistic recollection of events at the core of the storytelling, proving hisbelief that a certain extent of “truth can be discovered by the individual through his senses”(Watt 12). Hence, through exposing the inherent fictionality of what the hegemonic reader identifies as ‘fact’, Rushdie thus encourages his readers to question their proclivity for internalizing constructed fictions as a natural truth, given that “fact is produced by the narrative simulacrum” (Bowen 94) and is hence in itself a work of novelistic fiction. The mimetic portrayal of Saleem’s life story in alignment to India’s historical narrative also functions to expose the performativity of nationhood and the illusion of sovereignty. For one, the detailing of the family’s personal relationship with William Methwold serves to parallel the problematic separation between the newly freed India and it’s pre-colonial past. The liminal space of transition between the colonial state and the newly independant India is problematized in how “the sharp edges of things are getting blurred”(Rushdie 98) in such a naturalised way that they fail to realize how the remaining fragments of colonial power “is changing them” (Rushdie 99). The illusion of freedom from imperialist notions upon gaining political independence is exposed instead as an imagined state, whereby in reality, conformity to colonial practices have been so deeply entrenched into the subconscience of the colonial subjects, making their identities inseparable from their colonial past. The private sphere observed and pieced together through the lens of Saleem’s private memory hence constructs a truth that ironically seems to be a more objective representation of reality.
This aligns with Rushdie’s essay Errata, in which he claims “Reality is built on our prejudices, misconceptions and ignorance as well as our perceptiveness and knowledge.” (Rushdie 25). Saleem’s observations of the habitual nature of how “every evening at six they are out in their gardens” and how “they slip effortlessly into their imitation Oxford drawls” (Rushdie 99) thus serve as a subjective yet grounded representation of the transition. The pretentious and affectatious manner with which he observed the locals mirror the mannerisms of the colonizers novelizes the bigger picture encompassing a sense of disconnect between the cultural and political circumstances of the nation. The newly freed nationhood is instead exposed as being merely performative, plagued with an underlying reality of an undocumented legacy. Hence, the individual experience here is revealed to be a reflection on a microcosmic level of the larger truths of the nation-state. The novel as a discursive site not only allows for the utterance of different fragments of discourse within society, it also provides a cohesive structure to disjointed fragments of temporality. As an intrusive narrator whose storytelling not only toggles between his personal narrative and the nation’s political history, the use of analepsis and prolepsis in the novel also gives a temporal dimension to the fragmentation of national discourse.
The novel mirrors the human “consciousness, the awareness of oneself as a homogenous entity in time, a blend of past and present…[that hold] together [his] then and [his] now” (Rushdie 351). It posits itself within a fixed temporality, yet embodies the lapse between private time and public time, making sense of the experiences within ones private consciousness in correlation to the external landscape. Having been tied to India’s political events from birth, Saleem’s consciousness and it’s cohering function within his own personal narrative hence doubles up to present a cohesive archive of national events. Here, the novel becomes a discursive site for the nation to negotiate and overcome its “fear of schizophrenia, of splitting” (Rushdie 351), both spatially and temporally through the utterance of the various fragmented responses to the political shifts within the country. The “past and the present… divided by an unbridgeable gulf” (Rushdie 351) is brought to terms with one another within a literal space harnessing the cohering qualities of the human memory.
The novel in this case not only becomes a reconciliatory tool, but also “responsible… through the workings of the metaphorical works of connection” (Rushdie 351) for influencing the reality of the nation in being the “literary vehicle of culture” (Watt 13). Furthermore, the novel, as in Making the Novel, “is characterized more by certain kinds of discourses with particular ideological agendas, than it is by specific formal features associated with genre” (Hammond and Regan 25) allows for its appropriation in Midnight’s Children to expose the multiplicity of discursive fragments that constitute the notion of the nation. For instance, the cultural discourse, represented by motifs of dreams and the imaginary, collide with realist notions seemingly of the political discourse throughout the novel. In alignment with Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, where it is proposed that a nation is “an imagined political community”(Anderson 7), Rushdie’s novel constantly reiterates the idea of the country as being a “new myth”, “a mythical land”, “a collective fiction”, “a fable” and “a dream we all agreed to dream” (Rushdie 112). Yet, notions of the subjective imaginary are plotted alongside realist notions of “the calendar” and “the game of chess” (Rushdie 111), provoking the credibility of such tangible representations of indisputable time and knowledge, seeing as they are inherently notions of subjectivity themselves. As so, Rushdie asserts how “the “real” is the product of the imaginary” (Bowen 94), with fragments of collective discourses only coming together through the novelistic construction of a timely narrative. Furthermore, the public discourses are also interrupted abruptly by a private discourse, which dismiss the former as producing mere “generalized, macrocosmic notions” (Rushdie 112).
The multiplicity of different discourses colliding here to form the narrative of Midnight’s Children hence exemplifies the function of the novel as being the discursive site in which the multiplicity a nation can be dealt with. Hence the novel, characterized by “an unprecedented value on originality, on the novel; and it is therefore well named” (Watt 13), thus functions as an effective literary manifestation of the particularity of the human mind. The discursive site it establishes, mirrored in Saleem’s congregating function amongst the voices of the Midnight’s children, enables the utterances of multiple discourses within the nation to exist within a single cohesive plot. The foregrounding of individualism and personal memory also establishes the imagined and performative nature of the political sovereignty, with it being a mere figment of “mass fantasy” (Rushdie 111).
Rushdie, Salman. Midnight’s children. Random House, 2010.
Watt, Ian P. The rise of the novel: studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding. Univ of California Press, 2001.
Bowen, Deborah C. Stories of the Middle Space: Reading the Ethics in Postmodern Realisms. McGill-Queen’s Press-MQUP, 2010.
Rushdie, Salman. “‘Errata’: Or, Unreliable Narration in Midnight’s Children.” Imaginary Homelands (1991): 22-25.
Benedict, Anderson. “Imagined communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism.” (1987).
Hammond, Brean, and Shaun Regan. Making the novel: fiction and society in Britain, 1660-1789. Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.
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