Study Guide

Cutting for Stone Sex

By Abraham Verghese


The oldest profession in the world raised no eyebrows, even with Hema. She'd learned it was futile to object—it would have been like taking exception to oxygen. But the consequences of such tolerance were evident to her: tubal and ovarian abscesses, infertility from gonorrhea, stillbirths, and babies with congenital syphilis. (1.6.47)

In case you're wondering, "the oldest profession in the world" is a euphemism for prostitution. Hema has seen so much of the practice in her life as a doctor that she doesn't really have a moral opinion. And why, you might ask, would a doctor need to know about prostitution? Just read the list of conditions that result in unsafe sex, and you'll get the point.

"What gives you the right to address me this way?" he said, though he didn't really feel the anger his voice carried. He was about to add, Are you my wife?—but choked those words off. To his perpetual shame, he and Almaz had been intimate twice over the years, both times when he was drunk. She'd lain down, lifted, and spread, grumbling even as her hips fell into rhythm with his, but no more than she grumbled about the coffee or hot water. (2.11.21)

Sex is basically shameful for Ghosh, because he's always doing it with women he doesn't love. But here it's especially shameful because with Almaz, he has abused his power as her employer and has taken advantage of her. Think about it—what would be the consequences of her saying no? Possibly losing her job and her income.

In the bathroom Ghosh felt a sharp pain as he peed and was forced to cut off his stream. "Like sliding down the edge of a razor blade using my balls as brakes," he muttered, his eyes tearing. What did the French call it? Chaude pisse, but that didn't come close to describing his symptoms.

Was the mysterious irritation from lack of use? (2.11.27-28)

Ghosh pays for his shameful ways, though, just like pretty much every character in Cutting for Stone. Sex leads to no good, and in Ghosh's case, this takes the form of the famous burning urination: chaude pisse means "hot piss" in French, and it's a colloquial term for gonorrhea.

After his first liaison in Ethiopia (and the only time he'd not used a condom), he had relied on the Allied Army Field Method for "post-exposure prophylaxis," as it was called in the books: wash with soap and mercuric chloride, then squeeze silver proteinate ointment into the urethra and milk it down the length of his shaft. It felt like a penance invented by the Jesuits. (2.11.29)

Once again, sex is super dangerous in this novel. Ghosh has sex only once in Ethiopia, and he's immediately infected. He practices prophylaxis, which is basically preventive care, but it's kind of a scary treatment, and it might be doing more harm than the disease he's trying to prevent. Message: SEX = PAIN.

High heels to show off her calves. Dark polish on her toenails. Very pretty, he thought. [...] The land of milk and honey, Ghosh thought. Milk and honey, and love for money. (2.11.64-65)

The signs might seem subtle to us, because high heels and nail polish are pretty commonplace. But Ghosh reads the barkeeper's accessories as signs that she is willing to have sex for money. Ethiopia is associated with the biblical Promised Land, a land of milk and honey, and Ghosh associates it also with an abundance of prostitutes.

Much, much later, they retired to the back room; he closed his eyes and pretended, as he always did, that she was Hema. A most willing Hema. (2.11.92)

And there it is. Ghosh is so concerned about getting infections because he is actually not happy with the sex he's having. And why isn't he happy? Because he's not having it with Hema, his secret crush. So instead of just talking to her about how he feels, he fantasizes that every other woman is Hema. It doesn't really work.

She pulled him in, welcomed him—colleague, fellow physician, stranger, friend, and lover. She gasped in regret for all the evenings they'd sat across from each other, baiting each other and throwing barbs (though, now that she thought about it, she did most of the baiting and throwing) when they could have been engaged in this astonishing congress. (2.16.82)

Finally! Hema and Ghosh get together, and we have the one positive sex scene in the entire book. Seriously. So it seems that Cutting for Stone only advocates for sex between old friends, and all others will end in unwanted pregnancies, which in turn end in death, or in disease. Be warned.

What I felt with the probationer, I never wanted to feel with anyone but Genet. There were too many temptations out there, great forces ready to shake me free of my avowed intent. I wanted to succumb to temptation. But with just one woman, and that was Genet. (3.31.59)

The probationer awakens Marion's sexual feelings when he's hit puberty, but he doesn't feel like exploring them with her. He's in love with Genet and wants sex and love to be all part of the same thing. Unlike Shiva, he is unable to separate sex from love, and so he only wants sex with the woman he loves.

"You want proof? Is that it?" she yelled. "She reached to her waist and drew something out and flung it at me. A pair of women's panties. "Her blood… and your seed." I picked the garment off my face. In the dark I could see nothing. But I could smell blood, the scent of Genet… and I could smell semen. It was mine. I recognized my starchy scent. No one else shared that odor. No one but my twin brother. (3.34.67-68)

Poor Marion. Even though he would like to have been the one to sleep with Genet for the first time, Shiva got there first—and Marion is blamed for it, anyway. The fact that his twin brother would sleep with the girl he loves is a major betrayal at first glance, but maybe it happens because Shiva doesn't really see himself as separate from Marion.

I grabbed her shoulders and pulled her to me hard. I smelled her fever, and the scent of blood and sex and urine. I came again. (4.50.90)

When Marion finally loses his virginity, it is to Genet, but not in the jungle-fantasy honeymoon suite he'd dreamed about. Instead, it's after she's been sick and in jail, and the sex is painful for her. She asks him to stop, and he ignores her. There doesn't seem to be any responsibility for what amounts to sexual assault here, but Marion certainly grows to hate Genet when he contracts her illness.