Study Guide

Beneath a Marble Sky Themes

By John Shors

  • Art and Culture

    Hey, Beneath a Marble Sky is all about the events that led to the construction of the Taj Mahal—considered one of the great wonders of the world—so it's no surprise that art and culture are a big deal for the characters in this book. The arts have long been respected by Jahanara's family: her father is an amateur poet, whose love for the genre exceeds his talents; her brother is a devotee of cultural cultivation; and her lover is an architectural visionary. One message is hard to miss: Art appreciation is crucial to civilization.

    Questions About Art and Culture

    1. Why does Jahanara's father believe he couldn't have been a great poet?
    2. Does Jahanara aspire toward the arts? Would you say her skills were artistic?
    3. How does Aurangzeb's opinion of art and culture help to define his character?
    4. Why does Jahanara theorize that artistic expression and creation are so important?

    Chew on This

    The deterioration of Hindustan can be directly tied to Aurangzeb's rule and his disdain for cultural advancement.

    Hindustan is way better off once Aurangzeb takes over, because those namby-pamby artists leave and stop wasting the kingdom's money.

  • Revenge

    Revenge is kind of like quicksand: once you grow up, you realize it's much less of a problem than you thought it would be. In books, however, revenge can be a pretty big motivator for protagonists and antagonists alike.

    In this book, revenge plays a huuuuuge role. People are getting revenge on each other back and forth. In Beneath a Marble Sky, it's tit for tat and tat for tit, over and over, and all that revenge has ramifications that seem to echo throughout the characters' entire lives. Some people like to play the long con, like Ladli, and others get their gratification through more immediate, violent methods—we're looking at you, Aurangzeb.

    Questions About Revenge

    1. In the end, who gets the best revenge? Is it better because of methodology or because of the level of satisfaction it provides the character?
    2. Does Aurangzeb ever really get revenge on Jahanara?
    3. When does Aurangzeb's animosity towards his sister really start?

    Chew on This

    The immediate, violent kind of revenge is the most satisfying.

    Although it may be less immediate gratification, Ladli's type of revenge—stealthy, secretive, and long-term—is way more satisfying in the long run.

  • Marriage and Love

    What'd Sinatra say about love and marriage? That they go together? That you can't have one without the other? Well, this book certainly proves that one wrong. There are many different types of love in Beneath a Marble Sky, but one thing's for sure: there's no love in the arranged marriage between Jahanara and the disgusting Khondamir. In fact, let's just say their marriage ends with a devious twist on the phrase "'til death do us part."

    And yet, some marriages in the book do work out. The marriage of Jahanara's parents has gone down in the history books for its awesomeness, after all, and it inspired the Taj Mahal. But for the most part, this couple is the exception to the rule. When Jahanara does find love, it is outside of marriage—with Isa, duh—and Ladli and Nizam have their own unconventional arrangement later in life as well.

    Questions About Marriage and Love

    1. What are some of the ways Jahanara's father describes love? Why is he uniquely positioned to advise her on such things?
    2. Do you think Aurangzeb loves Ladli? Why? Does he actually love her?
    3. Nizam has some pretty interesting thoughts on love for a guy who thinks that he "can't." Would you say his love for Ladli is any less because of his physical handicap?
    4. How does love complicate Jahanara's planning and scheming?

    Chew on This

    Love is one of the biggest factors in Jahanara's decision-making process throughout the novel.

    In Beneath a Marble Sky the men are the true romantics.

  • Duty

    Duty. It's no coincidence that it's a homonym for doodie, because sometimes it can be a real pain in the butt. It's also a major driving factor for Jahanara throughout Beneath a Marble Sky, leading to various issues like imprisonment, an extremely unhappy marriage, and extended separations from loved ones.

    An overdeveloped sense of duty makes Ladli sign on for a life with the terrible Aurangzeb, and it motivates Nizam to do a number of difficult things in service to Jahanara's family. It certainly doesn't help that she keeps making deathbed promises to people. Come on, Jahanara, get some self-control?

    Questions About Duty

    1. What are some of the drawbacks to Jahanara having a strong sense of duty? What about rewards?
    2. What does Jahanara's mother say about duty? How about her dad?
    3. Does Isa understand Jahanara's need to fulfill what she thinks is her duty? Does her daughter?
    4. Does Aurangzeb have a sense of duty toward Hindustan? What is it?

    Chew on This

    Sometimes duty is a wonderful plot device, but it wouldn't hold such strong sway in real life.

    Some people feel more strongly than others about the importance of duty.

  • Philosophical Viewpoints: Hinduism vs. Islam

    The Indian subcontinent has always been a melting pot of different religions—sometimes a happy melting pot, sometimes a not-so-happy melting pot. In Beneath a Marble Sky, we see a simmering undercurrent of tension that stems from the conflict between the two main religions in Hindustan: Islam and Hinduism.

    On the macro level, there is the unrest within the city of Agra due to the fact that Muslims are ruling over the Hindu majority. There are also frequent battles with neighboring Hindu kingdoms. Then there's the struggle within Jahanara's family to reconcile their different thoughts on religion—take the conflict between Dara's broad, scholarly acceptance of all religions and Aurangzeb's extremist adherence to Muslim superiority, for example.

    Basically, it's a big mess, and the conflict between these philosophical viewpoints serves as a background for all the events that unfold in the novel.

    Questions About Philosophical Viewpoints: Hinduism vs. Islam

    1. Has Aurangzeb always been an extremist, even since childhood? Or does he grow into this position over time?
    2. What are some of the more interesting religious tidbits that Shors mentions in the book?
    3. How does Jahanara feel about religion? How important is it to her?
    4. Why is it important to consider the differences between religions when discussing the characters in our story? For example: what role does religion play for Aurangzeb? How about Ladli?

    Chew on This

    The philosophical battles between Dara and Aurangzeb colorfully illustrate how religious texts can be manipulated to support very different, even opposing views.

    This story could not have been told without discussing religion and people's attitudes toward it.

  • Time

    Ugh, time. There's never enough of it, it goes by either too quickly or too slowly, and it's always slipping away from us. It's troublesome, this concept of time, and Jahanara is all too aware of it, whether she's regretting time spent away from her loved ones or reflecting on all that has passed in her eventful life. Beneath a Marble Sky is, after all, the story of that life, so it'd be pretty hard to avoid thinking about time and the effects it has on all of us. Milestones, aging, death, memory—it's all here.

    Questions About Time

    1. What are some of the different ways Shors depicts time passing? Are some methods more effective than others?
    2. How would this story be different if it had been written as it happened, instead of having Jahanara retell the story to her granddaughters?
    3. If time could be categorized as an inherently good thing or bad thing, which would Jahanara think it was?

    Chew on This

    Jahanara sees time as the enemy: she's always combating its effects and its inevitable passage.

    Time is inevitable, therefore there's no sense trying to fight it. Jahanara is resigned to its whims.

  • Manipulation

    Boy howdy, is there a lot of scheming and plotting and wheeling and dealing in Beneath a Marble Sky. Jahanara's mom, Arjumand, is the original schemestress, and she teaches Jahanara that the only way to get through life is by being smarter than everyone else. Oh, and by then using what you know to manipulate everyone around you—there's that, too.

    So what do we get? Assassination plots, empty threats, false accusations, and matchmaking schemes that make you wonder just where Jahanara's priorities really lie. Hey, all this intrigue definitely keeps things interesting, at least…

    Questions About Manipulation

    1. Why do you think Jahanara's mom teachers her that juggling men is like juggling hot coals? What does she mean by that analogy?
    2. Jahanara's solution to most problems is to scheme and plot. Are there any examples in the book of times when her machinations get her into worse trouble than she would have been in if she'd just been straightforward?
    3. Who's better at manipulation: Ladli, or Jahanara? How about Mother or Jahanara?

    Chew on This

    Manipulating other people is one of the only ways women can get ahead—or even survive—in Hindustan in the 1600s.

    Manipulating other people is one of the only ways noblewomen can get ahead in Hindustan in the 1600's. Everyone else was kind of up a creek.

  • Family

    Families almost always have their fair share of conflict. Like, who doesn't have that one relative you always hope will no-show on Thanksgiving? But it's safe to say that the main family in Beneath a Marble Sky is more melodramatic than a Saturday-afternoon telenovela.

    There's the battle over the right to the Peacock Throne; there's sibling rivalry taken to a whole new level (as in, threaten to kill your brother and then actually do it); there's love affairs, illegitimate children, and romance. All this book needs is a crazy bruja, and it would be a real blockbuster on Telemundo.

    Questions About Family

    1. In this book, there are two types of family members: people who are family by blood, and people Jahanara picks for herself. Which family is she more loyal to?
    2. When is the first time Jahanara realizes that there's something off about her brother Aurangzeb?
    3. Which of her family members had the greatest impact on Jahanara's life?

    Chew on This

    If there were stricter rules about who inherits the Peacock Throne, then all this sibling rivalry stuff could have been avoided.

    Jahanara is more loyal to her father than to her lover and child.