The Trauma of Youth
Scientists often call the first few weeks of life for a duckling the “sensitive period” due to the uniqueness of this time. During these weeks, the duckling’s mind is the most impressionable that it will ever be; the sounds it hears in these weeks from other ducks will be the duckling’s call for life; the migration pattern it learns will be its path forever, and if the pattern is not learned, the duckling will never in its life have a path to follow with the change of the seasons. In The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy, childhood is depicted as a time of life similar to that of a duckling’s. The story follows the lives of Rahel and Estha, twins whose lives are changed forever by events that take place over just a few days. Ultimately, Roy’s depiction of the tragedy in the context Rahel and Estha’s innocence serves to show the deep vulnerability and impressionability that is inherent in childhood.
Early in the novel, Roy depicts the fragileness of children’s concepts of their of self-worth, thereby showing the fragility of youth itself. Children often define who they are in the context of the important people around them, such as family. The love of a mother, sibling or friend easily translates into love for one’s self during the tumultuous years of childhood. When Rahel makes a petulant remark to her mother at the movie theater, Ammu responds darkly, telling Rahel that careless words make people love you a little less. The moment is significant in the development of Rahel’s character, and Roy writes that a “…cold moth with unusually dense dorsal tufts landed lightly on Rahel’s heart. Where its icy legs touched her, she got goose bumps. Six goose bumps on her careless heart” (Roy, 107). By using the moth as a metaphor for emotional impact of her mother’s words, Roy illustrates the feeling of “being loved a little less” with the chilling image of a frosty moth landing on a heart. The moth is a reoccurring element in the novel, showing that Ammu’s words have resonated with Rahel in her core. Ammu’s plight to earn back her mother’s love and her inability to forget the cold words show Rahel’s deep reliance on her mother for self-affirmation. Without her mother’s love, Rahel’s tenuous concept of her own self-worth is shattered. Moreover, a single comment by her mother has led Rahel to now believe her own heart is “careless”, despite the fact that Rahel’s petulant remark was a typical for a child. Later in the novel, the presence of Sophie Mol further brings Rahel to question her self-worth. With all the attention on the new British child, Rahel begins to compare herself to Sophie, whose presence leads Rahel to believe that “Littleangels were beach-colored and wore bell-bottoms. Littledemons were mudbrown in Airport-Fairy frocks with forehead bumps that might turn into horns” (Roy, 170). The shift in attention to Sophie leaves Rahel feeling worthless. The description of Sophie as a “beach-colored” angel contrasted with Rahel as a “mudbrown” demon highlights the fact that Rahel feels that she is a naughty and unlikeable child in comparison to Sophie, the white angel. Rahel even goes as far to mention the horns on her head, once again emphasizing the “demon” within that makes her seem unworthy of her mother’s love and attention.
The vulnerability inherent in childhood is underscored by childhood innocence that can leave young people vulnerable to harm and manipulation. During The Sound of Music, Estha leaves the theater alone because he cannot help but sing along to the words of the musical. This scene of pure childlike bliss as Estha sings alone is sharply contrasted with Estha’s subsequent molestation by a man who lures the boy in with the prospect of a free soda. Estha is unable to protect himself from the man’s advances, and he ultimately blames himself for what happened, fearing that “… if Ammu found out about what he had done with the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man, she’d love him less as well. Very much less. He felt the shame churning, heaving, turning sickness in his stomach” (Roy, 108). Because he is so young and innocent, Estha is unable to understand that he has been molested, and is made to believe that he has done something bad and shameful himself. A masked threat from his perpetrator leaves Estha in fear that his mother will find out, and love him less for what he misunderstands as his own wrongdoing. Roy further illustrates the susceptibility of young children to manipulation through an interaction with Baby Kochammama at the police station. Fearing punishment for lying about Velutha raping Ammu, Baby Kochammama saves herself by convincing the twins that they are at fault for Sophie’s death. She lies to them, explaining they could go to jail and bring endless suffering to Ammu because of their actions, ultimately giving them the choice between saving their mother or sending her to jail in order to coerce them into answering “yes” to the policeman’s question. The twins, after hearing the options, “whispered, ‘Save Ammu.’ In the years to come they would replay this scene in their heads… Had they been deceived into what they did? They hadn’t given it more than a second of thought before they looked up and said… ‘Save Ammu,’ Save us. Save our mother” (Roy, 302). This blatant lie by Baby Kochamamma that the children so easily believe demonstrates the gullibility of naïve children who have few real-world experiences. The fear and desperation with which they respond to Baby indicates how vulnerable the children are to her power, leading them to believe her lie. Moreover, the description of how the scene lingered in their thoughts shows that age eventually allowed them to escape from the bars of naïveté that, in childhood, kept them from understanding the situation and made them incriminate their best friend Velutha. Roy’s depiction of Baby, the man at the movie theater, as well as many other adults in the novel show manipulation or mistreatment of children. Thus, the theme of their helplessness and tenderness at such a young age, especially at the hands of flawed and sometimes dangerous adults, is present throughout the novel.
In the final chapters of the novel, Rahel and Estha, who are now adults, have intercourse. The text clarifies that no one could possibly say anything about the act to separate, “Sex from Love. Or Needs from Feelings” (Roy, 350). Despite the intimate nature of the scene in which the twins, “held each other close” and left a “semicircle of teeth marks” on a, “hard, honey colored shoulder”, the scene encapsulates the lasting consequences of the traumas inflicted upon the twins during childhood. While the act is described as one of love, the description that follows indicates that, “what they shared that night was not happiness, but hideous grief” (Roy, 350). Rather than sharing joy as a product of love and intimacy, the act of incest is wrought from shared suffering. 23 years later, the pains from childhood are still raw and “hideous”, leaving the broken adults to mourn for their own suffering and grief.
Ultimately, the vulnerability of Rahel and Estha in The God of Small Things speak more broadly to the danger inherent in child-like innocence and the lasting impact that wounds from childhood can have for the rest of one’s life. Because Roy chooses to tell the story using a third-person omniscient narrator, the thoughts of the children are revealed in the text. While the reader can clearly see the manipulation and abuse the children face at the hands of the adults, the text illustrates the children’s inability to understand the rejection, manipulation and pain they face, leaving them unable to cope with this trauma. The story of Estha and Rahel speaks to the tragedy of childhood itself, depicting the journey through the first years of life as a time of great helplessness and pain that can resonate within an individual for life.
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