Study Guide

Midnight's Children Themes

By Salman Rushdie

  • Time

    Midnight's Children is definitely a time warp. Forget Universal Studios and Back to the Future, this is the real Time Machine. Time goes forwards and backwards, up and down, slantways and sideways. The story only follows the linear narrative for moments at a time. At the same time, the characters are inescapably bound by time. Their lives are intimately connected to it, and even when they try to escape, they can't. That leaves us with a question: If time is so flexible, how can it be so constraining? Well that's up to you to answer, because Midnight's Children isn't giving any hints.

    Questions About Time

    1. How does time work in Midnight's Children? Does it control people, or do people control it?
    2. How are the lives of Saleem's family connected to history and time in the novel? Why are they connected?
    3. Which characters in the novel are focused on the past? The present? The future? What are the differences between these characters?

    Chew on This

    In Midnight's Children, time is inescapable. It controls everyone.

    Time is extremely flexible in Midnight's Children. It can go forward, backward, speed up, and slow down.

  • Truth

    Truth in Midnight's Children is not the truth that you're thinking about. It's not the sort of thing they're asking you for when you stand up in front of a judge with your hand swearing to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. If Saleem ever tried that, we are pretty sure he'd end up in jail. Truth in this novel is more about feeling, about memories, about what should be right even if it's not. That might not stand up in court, but it sure is an interesting way of viewing the world.

    Questions About Truth

    1. If truth is more elastic in Midnight's Children than it is when a dictionary defines it, is deception looser too? Does it matter?
    2. What are the standards that the characters in the novel measure truth by?
    3. Why do you think Rushdie decides not to use the traditional definition of the word truth in this novel? What impact does it have on the story?

    Chew on This

    It doesn't really matter what's true and what's not in Midnight's Children.

    Truth does exist in Midnight's Children, but it's not based on facts, it's based on feelings.

  • Philosophical Viewpoints: Fatalism

    So what is this fatalism stuff anyway? Fatalism is a philosophical viewpoint that believes that things are inevitable and it makes no sense to resist. Fatalists believe that all of your actions are predetermined, and even if they aren't, all actions lead toward a predetermined end. Sounds like some depressing stuff, huh? Throughout Midnight's Children we are told that characters will die, and that things are inevitable. But we are also presented with alternatives and different futures. Saleem sure seems invested in telling us that there is no way to change the future, but we're not so sure that he's right in the end.

    Questions About Philosophical Viewpoints: Fatalism

    1. In Midnight's Children Padma is not fatalistic, but Saleem is. What about these characters changes their position on fate?
    2. Saleem says that his birth was predicted by soothsayers. But Amina was actually carrying Shiva when the predictions were made. Were the soothsayers predicting Saleem, or were they predicting Shiva and Mary changed their fate?
    3. Based on the contradictory attitudes towards fate in the novel, do you think Rushdie expects us to believe in fate or reject it? Why?

    Chew on This

    No matter how much you try to fight fate in Midnight's Children, you can't escape it.

    Everyone in the novel might say that fate is inevitable, but the truth is that it's incredibly malleable.

  • Literature and Writing

    It makes sense that writing is an important part of Midnight's Children. The story is the written autobiography of the main character, after all. You can't have books without writing, can you? Even though Saleem literally creates himself and his own India through writing, most of the characters are not literary people. It's word-of-mouth versus pen and paper, and for almost everyone else beside Saleem, the mouth always wins.

    Questions About Literature and Writing

    1. Why do you think Saleem points out that Padma and Tai are both illiterate?
    2. Why is Saleem so invested in preserving memories through writing? Why does he choose writing instead of something else, like film?
    3. What reactions do other characters in the novel have to Saleem's writing? Why? How is writing seen in their culture?

    Chew on This

    In Midnight's Children, the written word is all fine and dandy, but the spoken word is better.

    The characters of the novel are literally made up of letters.

  • Foreignness And 'The Other'

    Ever notice how people don't tend to like foreigners? Not us of course, or else who would we practice our foreign languages with? But many other people think that foreigners are weird. They're different. They eat strange food. They talk funny. So they ostracize them.

    The characters in Midnight's Children are no different. When Adam Aziz comes back smelling of Germany's foreignness, he's ostracized in a matter of months. We guess these things are genetic, because it seems like all of his children have problems with being weird. Even though we learn at first that being different is a bad thing, Saleem tries to turn being strange into a force for good and change. He's not too successful, but at least he tried.

    Questions About Foreignness And 'The Other'

    1. Which characters are not considered other to some extent? Which characters are shown to be other?
    2. What problems does being other present for characters that are identified as different in the novel?
    3. Is being other good or bad in Midnight's Children?

    Chew on This

    Otherness is a bad thing in Midnight's Children.

    Otherness is actually awesome in this novel, because it means that you're special.

  • Women and Femininity

    Ah, the gentler sex. They need to be protected by big strong men, and by religious rules so that those big strong men won't defile them. Or not. Even the women who believe in tradition in Midnight's Children are not very good at following it. They work when they aren't supposed to, they save people who they shouldn't even be speaking to, and they expose their faces and feet when they aren't supposed to. Some might also say that they are the most powerful characters in the novel. The Widow certainly has the most lasting impact, but we won't spoil the ending for you.

    Questions About Women and Femininity

    1. Saleem's beloved city is Bombay, which he keeps reminding us used to be named after Mumbadevi, or the Mother Goddess. What do you think this says about women in Midnight's Children?
    2. Which gender is more influential in the novel, men or women? Why?
    3. What is the role of mothers in the novel? Who are the mothers in the novel? Which women become Saleem's mothers? Which women are not mothers at all?

    Chew on This

    Women in Midnight's Children are delicate and must be protected from the outside world by religious rules and regulations.

    Women in the novel are strong and would rather break religious rules than follow them.

  • Sex

    You thought you knew everything about sex—some orifice does something with some other body part, bada bing bada boom. But in Midnight's Children, sex is more than just that. It's hopes, dreams, and even the powers of ancient Hindu gods. Let's get this straight: Sex is a big deal and birth control isn't just a walk down the street to your local gynecologist in this novel. It's life or death.

    Questions About Sex

    1. What is the significance of impotence in Midnight's Children? Which men in the novel are impotent? Which men are fertile?
    2. What is the relationship between fertility and the midnight's children? Why does The Widow's procedure remove their powers?
    3. Are there any sexually satisfied couples in the novel? What happens to the couples that are not sexually satisfied?

    Chew on This

    Sex is just physical in Midnight's Children.

    Sex is physical, metaphorical, religious, and all other kinds of things in the novel.

  • Family

    What is a family? Two grownups get together and have a kid. Maybe they aren't married. Maybe the kid is adopted. There are so many options that we could spend all day listing them. Families have gotten pretty non-traditional nowadays, but not as non-traditional as in Midnight's Children. Here children get switched at birth, parents are created by the children, and genealogies are the product of drunken reverie. It's safe to say that the idea of family is pretty malleable in the novel, but that doesn't make it any less important to the characters.

    Questions About Family

    1. Why is Ahmed obsessed with creating a genealogy for his family? Does he succeed?
    2. Why does Saleem's uncle create genealogies for Indian families? What impact does his hobby have on the novel?
    3. Saleem mentions that Aadam Aziz and Amina Sinai are orphans. Who else is an orphan in this novel? Do they have anything in common?

    Chew on This

    Family is not very important in Midnight's Children.

    Even though family can change, grow, or shrink, family is still very important to the characters in the novel.