Social and sexual hierarchies: Male-female relationships in Arundhati Roy's "The God of Small Things"

Seminar Paper, 2007

11 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1 Introduction

2 Social and Sexual Hierarchies
2.1 Family
2.2 Caste
2.3 Gender, Marriage and Sexuality

3 Analysis of Relationships
3.1 Ammu’s and Chacko’s Marriages
3.2 Chacko, Margaret Kochamma and Mammachi
3.3 Male and Female Sexuality
3.4 Ammu and Velutha

4 Conclusion

5 Works Cited
5.1 Primary Literature
5.2 Secondary Literature

1 Introduction

The interaction between private relationships and social hierarchies is a key issue in Arundhati Roy’s novel The God of Small Things. Set in the Indian region of Kerala, it deals with the impact that crossing social and sexual boundaries within private male-female relationships has on the lives of a Syrian Christian family. As the effects of transgression turn out to be different for the individual members of the family and others involved, it is worthwhile analysing how the different relationships are portrayed in the novel and how they are looked upon by family members and society.

The centre of attention will be Ammu’s and Chacko’s relationships with their spouses and their lovers. The social and personal dimensions of these relationships as well as the accompanying circumstances will be looked into. Striking parallels connect them in a way that reveals the varying judgements of Indian society and its modes of oppression by patriarchy and the caste system.

A description of the hierarchies prevailing in Indian society, the family, the caste system and gender relations, also with regard to sexuality, forms a basis for the close analysis of the male-female relationships in the novel.

2 Social and Sexual Hierarchies

Indian society is influenced by several kinds of hierarchies that determine one’s standing in it. To a greater extent than in other cultures, social relations in India are mainly judged by the question of social status that a person has relative to the other(s). The fact that each individual’s self-awareness depends on their rank highlights how deeply internalized the hierarchical system is (Cf. Kakar & Kakar 2006: 12f.). As it is represented in family networks, the caste system and gender issues, it permeates the main spheres of life.

2.1 Family

The hierarchical system is rooted in the network of the Indian extended family and, therefore, it influences children from a very young age. In the ideal extended family, the sons stay with their parents after their marriage, bringing their wives into their home. Widowed or abandoned daughters and other male and female relatives without a family of their own can also be part of an extended family. This way of life has economic advantages, especially for young married couples who mostly can only afford to set up a household of their own when their children have grown older. It is not unusual for children, hence, to grow up among and be influenced by all kinds of relatives (Cf. ibid.: 13ff.). They also learn that each position within the family network differs from the others concerning one’s rights and duties, making it necessary to adjust oneself to that system. The elder generations have to take care of the lower members of the family hierarchy whereas those have to be obedient and respectful. This, however, does not lead to generational conflicts as family care and integrity are valued more highly than individuality (Cf. ibid.: 18f.).

Despite demographic changes, the extended family remains the most desired form of living in India, which highlights its importance as a social structure. Thus, family networks, solidarity and responsibility for the family are a key part of the Indians’ self-image (Cf. ibid.: 13ff.). The early experience of hierarchy even determines later relationships with friends and workmates (Cf. ibid.: 20).

2.2 Caste

The Indian caste system, consisting of varna and jati, subdivides society into hierarchically organised social groups. The traditional varna system consists of the differently ranked castes of priests, warriors, merchants and servants, while there are more than 3000 different professional castes in the jati system. Indians are born into a varna caste (determining their fixed social position) and belong to a jati caste depending on their profession (determining their status within their immediate environment).

Jati members usually stay within their caste by practising the respective profession and by choosing a future spouse of the same caste. Contact to members of other castes is more formal due to unwritten rules regulating the relations between the castes. Following the family as the next sphere of identity development, each caste also has its own rules and values that its members internalise deeply.

The position of a caste in the caste hierarchy is defined by its way of life. The purer and cleaner that is considered the higher is the standing of the caste. The degree of cleanness depends mainly on eating habits and the traditional profession of a caste (Cf. ibid.: 30ff.). The most “unclean” castes have occupations concerned with death or bodily excretions and belong to the group of the so-called untouchables, which comprises about 150 million people. They are connected with a constant state of being dirty and, therefore, must not be touched. For centuries, they were refused access to temples, schools and other public places. Members of higher castes used to react with massive disgust near an untouchable (Cf. ibid.: 34ff.). Today, a lighter skin hue, associated with cleanness and a higher social rank, is still preferred to a darker one, associated with dirt (Cf. ibid.: 41f.).

2.3 Gender, Marriage and Sexuality

Despite cultural changes India remains a patriarchal society in which discrimination against women starts at an early stage. Whereas the birth of a son is mostly a joyful event, the abortion and infanticide rate show that female offspring is often unwanted. A girl is not likely to contribute to the family income as she will leave the family after her marriage, the dowry being another immense cost factor (Cf. ibid.: 50ff.). However, the many female relatives in the family network, often very considerate and sympathetic towards girls, help to alleviate the depreciation of the female sex. They also function as role models since they possess a certain power in the domestic sphere. Moreover, school education for girls is not unusual anymore; parents of the middle class even promote higher education for their daughters. Yet, unlike with sons, this is only to increase a girl’s chances of marrying an educated, moneyed man (Cf. ibid.: 54ff.).

The preparation for being a good wife and daughter-in-law is of higher relevance in a girl’s education. Marriage and maternity are considered a woman’s most important duties in life. Hence, a girl’s entrance into puberty is welcomed, but her blossoming sexuality also harbours a danger for the family honour. A set of rules, therefore, regulate a girl’s life from the beginning of puberty, restricting contact to the opposite sex, whereas boys remain able to move and act freely (Cf. ibid.: 57f.).

Marriage is also regulated since mostly the parents choose their child’s future spouse. The children do actually have a chance to reject the chosen partner, but again, consultation with daughters tends to be more briefly than with sons. Nonetheless, arranged marriages, which are the rule, are widely accepted among the youth as love marriages are said to be unfortunate (Cf. ibid.: 64).

The Indian attitude towards sexuality is very conservative, as well. In connection to ascetic ideals, sexuality is being condemned by regarding women as lewd by nature, their goal being the weakening of men through loss of semen (Cf. ibid.: 87). Only immoral women are sexually aggressive, a decent woman has to be chaste or motherly. Consequently, the only room for female sexuality is within marriage; women showing the slightest sign of sexual behaviour outside these borders become victims of sexual harassment (Cf. ibid.: 92f.). Even within marriage, sexual intercourse is regarded as a male urge and prerogative (Cf. ibid.: 96).

This forced suppression of female sexuality leads to a particular consequence for the relationship between mother and son. After the birth of a child, a woman is expected to be even more sexually reserved. Her erotic feelings can then shift to the male infant. In fact, it is not unusual in India for the women in the family to caress a baby son’s genitals. As adults, Indian men perceive their mother more considerate and caring than daughters do. Most men even feel closer to their mother than to their wife, trying to suppress their independence from the parent (Cf. ibid.: 97ff.).

3 Analysis of Relationships

The relations in God of Small Things reflect the hierarchies present in Indian society. Almost every relationship between men and women is marked by transgressions of social rules and boundaries, which, however, are sanctioned differently according to the transgressor’s status in society. As much as relationships formed outside the community and the caste system threaten society (Cf. Oumhani 2000: 85), the beneficiaries of the social hierarchies can take liberties for which the oppressed are punished severely.

3.1 Ammu’s and Chacko’s Marriages

A comparison between Ammu’s and Chacko’s relationships will highlight how differently the rules of patriarchal society apply to men and women and what consequences this has on family and the individual’s life. The recounted events in the novel are set in the conservative India of the 1960s. Both Ammu and Chacko are divorced; the reader gets to know through flashbacks how their relations and lives developed.

As a young girl, Ammu soon realises that her future has nothing special in prospect for her except marriage. Although her father is a scientist at an institute in Delhi he does not think that a higher education is of any use for a girl, but neither does he make any efforts to raise the money for a suitable dowry. Both parents must be aware of the consequences the lack of a dowry has for a girl, nevertheless, not even Ammu’s mother Mammachi tries to help her daughter: “no proposals came Ammu’s way. […] Her eighteenth birthday came and went. Unnoticed, or at least unremarked upon by her parents.” (GST: 38) This lack of help for the obviously dependent daughter clearly highlights the hostility towards girls in the patriarchal Indian society (Cf. Bharat 1998: 181). Ammu’s only chance to escape this situation is to accept the proposal of a man she meets at a wedding reception during her summer vacation with a distant aunt. Since this marriage is not arranged by her parents they disapprove of this supposed love marriage even though it stops Ammu’s dependence on them. Moreover, they do not consent to Ammu’s decision because her husband does not belong to the same social circle. So, Ammu breaks two rules at once, marrying someone of her own choice (though not out of love) and outside her caste (Cf. Almeida 2002: 264).


Excerpt out of 11 pages


Social and sexual hierarchies: Male-female relationships in Arundhati Roy's "The God of Small Things"
University of Wuppertal  (Fachbereich A: Anglistik/Amerikanistik)
Cultural Studies: Indian Literature and Culture since 1947
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ISBN (Book)
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The first part of the paper deals with the hierarchies in Indian society, especially problems in the family network, in the cast system and in the gender roles. The second part applies this information to Roy's novel. Ammu's and Chacko's relationships to spouses and lovers, which show many parallels, are compared.
Social, Male-female, Arundhati, Small, Things, Cultural, Studies, Indian, Literature, Culture, sexual, hierarchy, relationship, God
Quote paper
Eleni Stefanidou (Author), 2007, Social and sexual hierarchies: Male-female relationships in Arundhati Roy's "The God of Small Things", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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