The God of Small Things
by Arundhati Roy
Tools of Characterization
Clothing is used in the novel to help contrast Rahel and Sophie Mol. When Sophie Mol steps off of the plane, the first thing we learn about her is what she's wearing:
She walked down the runway, the smell of London in her hair. Yellow bottoms of bells flapped backwards around her ankles. Long hair floated out from under her straw hat. (6.57)
Sophie Mol, with her go-go bag and her cosmopolitan London clothes, is fashionable and hip, even for a little kid. In contrast, consider what Rahel is wearing right before Sophie Mol arrives:
In her stiff lace dress and her fountain in a Love-in-Tokyo, Rahel looked like an Airport Fairy with appalling taste. (6.38)
Estha isn't afraid to call Rahel out, either:
Estha – with some basis, it must be admitted – said that Rahel looked stupid in her Airport Frock. Rahel slapped him, and he slapped her back. (6.14)
Everyone seems hyper-aware of appearances when Sophie Mol arrives. The contrast between the two girls' clothes symbolizes much larger differences of culture and background.
You've probably noticed that names play a big part in this book. People's names tell us a lot about who they are. The first name we get explained to us is Baby Kochamma's. Her real name is Navomi Ipe, but "everybody called her Baby. She became Baby Kochamma when she was old enough to be an aunt" (1.6). "Kochamma" is a title of respect (or "honorific") given to women. (Margaret Kochamma's last name isn't Kochamma either – she's called that as a way of honoring her.) The name "Baby' is interesting considering how catty and immature Baby Kochamma is. Rahel also notes that Baby Kochamma lives her life backwards, having gone from being pious and hardworking as a young woman to being self-centered and immature as an old lady.
"Mol" isn't really part of Sophie Mol's name, either; it just means "little girl." This is fitting given that Sophie Mol, having died in childhood, will never be anything but a little girl. She will forever be remembered as she was as a child, as the endurance of the title "Mol" indicates.
Names get a little more fun when we look at Estha and Rahel's various nicknames. On one hand they are pretty entertaining – you can't really help but smile when even the narrator refers to Estha as "Elvis the Pelvis Nun" or to Rahel as "Ambassador S. Insect." The names are kind of cute and show us the sweet, innocent side of these two characters. Still, it's worth thinking about how such nicknames also tend to undermine them. Don't forget, when we first hear some of these nicknames, they function as insults that Estha and Rahel hurl at one another. When these names stick, we get the vibe that somehow the twins are continually being put down.
The other key point to pay attention to when thinking about names in The God of Small Things is the link between names and identity. Most of the characters in the novel share the same last name, Ipe, be we rarely see this name pop up. Ammu doesn't want give Estha and Rahel a last name until she decides whether to give them her father's last name or their father's last name, neither being a great choice in her mind.
The twins' lack of a last name affects their sense of identity and legitimacy. Think back, for example, to the passage about Estha's Wisdom Exercise Notebook:
On the front of the book, Estha had rubbed out his surname with spit and taken half the paper with it. Over the whole mess, he had written in pencil Un-known. Esthappen Unknown. (7.16)
What does this say about his place in the world? Estha will grow up to be a silent, unobtrusive presence, almost as if he weren't there. Similarly, the narrator often refers to Estha Alone, driving home the point that he doesn't really know what his place in the world is. His lack of a last name emphasizes the point that he doesn't belong anywhere or to anyone.
Physical appearances provide key clues about the characters in The God of Small Things. The narrator pays close attention to the way people look, and in many cases their outward appearance tells us quite a bit about their place in society.
Sophie Mol, for example, is glamorous in the way she dresses (well, at least for 1969 – we're still waiting for yellow bell-bottoms to make a comeback), but her physical appearance also fascinates Rahel and Estha. To them, Sophie Mol seems to be "better" because her mom is white. Though she shares some of their physical characteristics, she's also "exotic" and western:
She was taller than Estha. And bigger. Her eyes were bluegrayblue. Her pale skin was the color of beach sand. But her hatted hair was a beautiful, deep red-brown. And yes (oh yes!) she had Pappachi's nose waiting inside hers. (6.84)
Sophie Mol is undeniably related to the twins, but she also looks like she comes from another world.
When we look at Rahel and Estha, one of the physical characteristics that comes up over and over is their hair, which shows us that they are not as "with it" as Sophie Mol. First, let's take a look at Rahel:
Most of Rahel's hair sat on top of her head like a fountain. It was held together by a Love-in-Tokyo – two beads on a rubber band, nothing to do with Love or Tokyo. In Kerala, Love-in-Tokyos have withstood the test of time, and even today if you were to ask for one at any respectable A-1 Ladies' Store, that's what you'd get. Two beads on a rubber band. (2.11)
Let's think of other accessories that have withstood the test of time: fanny packs, anyone?
Turning to Estha, we can spot him in a second with his Elvis Presley Puff, which he achieves by pouffing up his hair and swirling it around with a comb. For him, this is the height of sophistication.
Estha was wearing his beige and pointy shoes and his Elvis puff. His Special Outing Puff. His favorite Elvis song was "Party." "Some people like to rock, some people like to roll," he would croon, when nobody was watching, strumming a badminton racquet, curling his lip like Elvis. "But moonin' an' a groonin' gonna satisfy mah soul, less have a pardy...." (2.9)
Estha's Puff really makes him feel cool. How devastating, then, when Baby Kochamma completely disses his appearance in front of Sophie and Margaret Kochamma. She makes him sound passé and totally uncool:
"Elvis Presley," Baby Kochamma said for revenge. "I'm afraid we're a little behind the times here." Everyone looked at Estha and laughed. From the soles of Ambassador Estha's beige and pointy shoes an angry feeling rose and stopped around his heart. (6.109-110)
The aspect of Estha's appearance that he takes the most pride in becomes a source of mockery and shame, further highlighting just how hip and awesome Sophie Mol seems in comparison.