In an interview about Sold, McCormick said that one of the biggest challenges to writing was not to let the sorrow overwhelm her. And while McCormick manages to balance to some degree Lakshmi's despair with the lighter, more hopeful moments of the novel, the sadness of Lakshmi's situation can still be overwhelming for readers at time.
There is poignancy to the novel, a deeply moving and touching tone that affects us more than we think. And because the language is so sparse, the words that McCormick chooses so deliberately convey more intensity than standard prose.
In between, men come. They crush my bones with their weight. They split me open. Then they disappear. I cannot tell which of the things they do to me are real, and which are nightmares. (82.Twilight.7)
Focus on the words used to describe Lakshmi's violation: "crush" and "split" are both violent words. And Lakshmi feels this violence not just on her surface, but in her bones. Finally, the fact that the men don't just leave—they "disappear" instead—implies that she is existing in a hazy world where nothing is what it seems. Which is exactly what is happening, because she is drugged. Check it out:
I inhale deeply, drinking in the scent of mountain sunshine, a warmth that smells of freshly turned soil and clean laundry baking in the sun. I breathe in a cool Himalayan breeze, and the woodsy tang of a cooking fire, a smell that crackles with the promise of warm tea and fresh roti. (84.BetweenTwilights.2)
As Lakshmi is locked in her room waiting for the men, think about the words McCormick uses to describe her longing. Lakshmi focuses on the sunshine of her home, a warmth that isn't just of sun but also of home. More than that, the sun cleanses her—and then we've got other descriptors: "woodsy," "warm," and "fresh." These adjectives imply life and hope and home, ideas that Lakshmi never truly relinquishes throughout her time at the brothel.
How could a novel about human trafficking on the other side of the world possibly be classified as young adult literature? It's actually easy to see how this happens. For one, the story line is about a young adult—how one person transitions from childhood to adulthood, to be precise.
For another, the language of the book is stark, beautiful, sparse… and not that difficult. In other words, the story is accessible to adolescent readers. And thirdly, it treats a topic that, although controversial, includes experiences other young adults may share with the main character: manipulation, betrayal by those whom she should be able to trust, depression, sexual abuse, and friendship.
So even though the content of the novel may appear at first glance to be beyond young adults' comprehension, it's not.
Lakshmi's story pretty closely follows the classic hero's journey. A hero wants to obtain something and then return home. There is a call to adventure; Lakshmi wants to leave her mountain and wonders about the world beyond it. There is the standing on the threshold; Lakshmi's beginning to transform from girl to woman, from child to adult at the beginning of her journey. And then there's the journey itself; Lakshmi's journey is both physical in nature (Nepal to India) and also psychological (old life to new life).
Of course she hits the abyss, which in the classic hero's journey is both death and rebirth. One way to interpret her abyss is the death of her virginity and rebirth as a working girl in the brothel. But that's a little depressing. Another way to interpret the story is that her abyss is the entire time she spends at Happiness House and her rebirth is when she leaves it with the American. Or that her abyss is the loss of hope and then the rebirth of hope, which would mean she hits several abysses. (Abyssi? Abysseousses? Gah.) Like much of literature, interpretation is pretty important.
And like any quest worth questing for, Lakshmi's ends on a note of hope. While in other books we might see our hero actually make it home, Sold ends on a slightly less certain note—with Lakshmi leaving Happiness House with the third American. And while we don't know with any certainty how the next leg of Lakshmi's journey will unfold, we have a strong hunch that things are finally starting to look up for her. It isn't a tidy ending by any stretch, but it does feel like a chapter in Lakshmi's lifelong journey has come to a close.
In addition to writing about human trafficking, Patricia McCormick has written novels about war, self-mutilation, and child soldiers. She does a ton of research for all her books, and Sold is no exception. For this bookshe went to India and Nepal, she toured the red light district of Calcutta, and she communicated with girls who had been rescued. Because she's trained as a journalist, she used all her senses and took scrupulous notes—and everything McCormick did to prepare lends the novel an air of authenticity.
One way to classify realistic fiction is that the elements of the story could actually happen. Lakshmi's story is more than that: it does happen, every day.
The title Sold—at first glance—references the sale of Lakshmi. The poor girl changes hands time and again, commanding a higher price from each subsequent buyer until she lands at Happiness House where Mumtaz sells her young body over and over again. As we read the book, we understand that more than just her body is being sold, too—her innocence and access to education, amongst other things, have also been stripped away from her for a price.
The word sold operates in another way, though—in a way that, without reading the book, might come to mind. Have you ever been in an argument with someone and, after trying to convince them of your side, had them respond by saying sold? It's basically the same as saying you convinced me. In Sold, despite being enslaved, beaten, raped, and more, Lakshmi is never completely sold on the idea that she has nothing left to hope for—in other words, she's both sold and not sold.
And you thought it was just a simple one-word title.
The ending to Sold is unsatisfying… And that's the point. In case you need a quick brush-up on how things wrap up, here you go:
I see my American. There are other men with him, Indian men, and the American lady from the picture.
"My name is Lakshmi," I say.
"I am from Nepal. I am fourteen years old." (177.TheWordsHarishTaughtMe.27-29)
These are some of the Indian words that Lakshmi knows. In many other contexts, these sentences would be polite phrases spoken in introductory conversation—but here Lakshmi is giving a name to her face and an indication that there are many other people who worked to bring her to India (whether or not she knows that this is what her words do). And finally, she gives her age—fourteen. She is the age of an American girl in ninth grade, yet she has lived a lifetime in the Happiness House. And Lakshmi isn't even the youngest girl in the house.
Significant too is the title of the last chapter: "The Words Harish Taught Me." It's these words that have anchored Lakshmi to herself and to her hope while in Happiness House, and these words that help her escape the brothel—both literally and figuratively.
So why end here? There's no resolution, and we don't get to see Lakshmi recover in a home or Mumtaz get her just desserts.
This uncertainty and the lack of resolution is meant to reflect what happens to human trafficking victims in real life. Because in reality there's no tidy ending, and there's no guarantee that the perpetrators of the abuse and violence get what they deserve. There's no certain future for girls rescued from human trafficking.
Often the people in their villages won't welcome them back, similar to how Monica's father and family drove her back to the city. And even though the victims did nothing to deserve their treatment, they may still be treated with shame and abandoned by those who first professed to love them. And so just like these girls, when Sold ends, we're left wondering what comes next to Lakshmi. In some ways, her journey's only just begun.
Setting is hugely important in Sold, mostly because of what the setting represents to Lakshmi and what each change in setting brings to the story. When we trace what happens to Lakshmi, we realize that setting helps drive the plot and how she changes throughout the novel.
This is Home with a capital "H" for Lakshmi. Yes she has dreams of what lies beyond her life in the village, but she appreciates the simplicity of daily living. She carries water to her cucumbers and rice paddy, she walks up and down the hill many times each day, and she lives in a decrepit thatched hut—but she also sees the beauty in her environment. In "Beyond the Himalays," Lakshmi describes each time of day, ending with nights when the moon is full:
On those nights, the hillside and the valley below are bathed in a magical white light, the glow of the perpetual snows that blanket the mountaintops. (6.BeyondtheHimalayas.5)
Her descriptions of her difficult life have a lush lyricism, despite the harshness of the environment. And the harshness of the environment on the mountain-top is what causes Lakshmi to have to leave the village—the dry season threatens to destroy her family's rice paddy, and then the monsoon rains wash the rice paddy down the mountain-top, leaving her family without food and destitute.
Even though Lakshmi leaves her home, she takes bits of it with her on her journey. She keeps a few belongings, and when she's stuck in the small room at Happiness House—being violated and beaten into submission—she takes out her old skirt and shawl and smells them:
drinking in the scent of mountain sunshine, a warmth that smells of freshly turned soil and clean laundry baking in the sun. I breathe in a cool Himalayan breeze, and the woodsy tang of a cooking fire. (84.BetweenTwilights.2)
For Lakshmi, the swallow-tailed peak will always be tied to innocence, purity, and simplicity.
Most journeys in literature indicate some sort of transformation, and the journey Lakshmi takes is no different. Along the way though, Lakshmi remains much of the child she has been on the mountain—she approaches the new sights with wide-eyed curiosity, taking in as much as she can, writing down new words, trying to become accustomed to the new world she's experiencing
The journey is full of both hope and fear—on one hand she's delighted to ride in a truck—but some of the things she sees terrify her, too: two busses look like they're about to collide, and the truck scares her half to death when she's bouncing around in the back.
As she approaches her final destination, the tone of the journey changes. Lakshmi sees a disgraced woman shamed by men, and she sees hundreds of homeless people:
Outside, the air is warm and heavy, thick with the smoke of a hundred cooking fires. The sky is so choked with dust that the light from the electric suns on poles disappears in the haze. All around us, people shuffle along, heads down, eyes empty, as the dust churns at their feet. (61.ACityoftheDead.7)
And the environment itself could not be more different than her rural mountaintop. (Which implies that her life is about to change drastically as well.)
Boy, can we talk about the irony of the name? The only happy people at Happiness House are Mumtaz and the men who pay her to violate the girls—no one else is happy.
Happiness House becomes Lakshmi's whole world. First she's locked in a small room where she is beaten and starved to get her to comply with Mumtaz's demands that she have sex with men. And when Lakshmi fails to do this, she's drugged and raped repeatedly until she learns to bow before Mumtaz's leather strap and wishes.
Then Lakshmi has relatively free reign of the house. But she can't leave it—remember, the girls are locked in during the day and watched by Mumtaz and the goondas while they work.
The house itself has a few different places. There is the small room where new girls like Lakshmi are taken until they submit to Mumtaz's wishes. There is the room Lakshmi shares with the other girls of the house—it has four beds, and when a girl has a customer she draws a dirty curtain around her bed to close it off. Then there is the common living space where the girls talk and watch TV, and the kitchen where the girls eat and gossip.
Finally there's Mumtaz's counting room, which is off-limits to everyone except Mumtaz and Shilpa. This is where they bribe police officers and count the profits of the brothel.
Since almost two-thirds of the book takes place at Happiness House, we would think that the locations of key scenes are important. But they don't seem to be. We don't really know where Harish teaches Lakshmi the words she learns, and it seems like Lakshmi learns from Shahanna in multiple rooms. Of more importance than location is the time of day:
There is a moment, between the light and the dark, when the smell of frying onions blows in through the windows. All over the city, the cooking hour has begun. This is the saddest smell in the world because it means that here at Mumtaz's house the men will start to arrive. (139.ASecret.1)
Mornings and afternoons are the best of times for Lakshmi, because this is when she is able to learn from Harish and spend time with Shahanna. So even though Happiness House has its separate rooms, the setting is really the whole house.
What's most important about the clean place is that Lakshmi—and we—never get there. It remains out of reach for us in the text of the story, and is only implied as the place she is headed to when the book ends.
And there's a reason that we never get to see Lakshmi come to that closure of transitioning to the clean place; McCormick doesn't want to end the book on an unrealistically hopeful note. More than that though, the recovery that Lakshmi seeks in the clean place will most likely be just as complex and tangled as her journey through Nepal, India, and Happiness House has been.
Let's be clear: it's not the language that makes this novel so tough. In fact, just based on language alone, the Tough-O-Meter would probably drop to Base Camp level—no dictionary required for this read.
But there is a lot in the book that makes it more difficult for readers. First and foremost is the subject matter—the entire novel is about the sexual exploitation of a girl barely into adolescence, and this is a difficult subject for readers to confront.
More than that though, the style and format of the book takes some getting used to. McCormick writes the novel in pseudo-poetry, and while the language is both stark and poignant, readers have to fill in gaps in the story with inferences about characters, ways of life, plot points, background knowledge of India and Nepal, and everything that isn't addressed in the novel.
In short? There's more than meets the eye with this book, and while that earns it Tree Line toughness status, it's also totally worth it.
McCormick throws traditional literary techniques out the window in Sold. Instead of blocks of text, she tells Lakshmi's story in a series of vignettes. The chapters use non-traditional paragraphing (no indenting, just different spacing) and line breaks to create a poeticism—and sometimes straight up poetry. McCormick found that the vignettes seemed to fit a topic that "is inherently so fractured." And this is why we see sentences that break, and repetition that emphasizes certain phrases (much the way poetry does). Check it out:
But no matter how often I wash
I cannot seem to rinse the men from my body. (87.ABucketofWater.2)
And this is why we see chapters that are sometimes just one sentence:
After five days of no food and water I don't even dream. (75.AfterFiveDays.1)
The contrast between the lyricism present in the vignettes and the dark material of the novel is stark. It sometimes feels strange to find so much beauty in such a horrifying and terrible subject, but we do. Do you think it is important for us as reader to find beauty as we read this book? Why or why not?
Lakshmi loves to learn. It's one of the things that sets her apart in her home in Nepal, and it's one of the things that saves her sanity in the Happiness House. Knowing this, we can immediately recognize her notebook and pencil—the tools Lakshmi uses for learning—as symbolic of her sense of self and intelligence.
The pencil and notebook don't just let us know that Lakshmi is a bright and self-possessed young girl, though. They also give us clues to the people around her. Consider this:
And my teacher, who gave me her own pencil when she saw I had none. (21.Maybe.17)
Here Lakshmi is talking about her teacher in the village who gives her the gift of a pencil in a moment of need. We see Lakshmi being supported through this gesture, encouraged to learn and grow. And when we find out that one of the four things that Lakshmi takes with her on her journey is the notebook her "teacher gave me for being the number one girl in school" (13.WhatICarry.1), we understand that at school Lakshmi was recognized for her intelligence, and rewarded for her hard work.
But when Lakshmi is in the Happiness House, her ability to read and write—and the notebook and pencil themselves—are seen as dangerous instead of a mark of pride.
"But—" I have seen her record book, with its entry of 10,000 rupees. I know this 20,000 price is a lie. (90.Changes.9)
Because Lakshmi is able to see the truth behind Mumtaz's lie, she chooses to make her own calculations in her notebook with her pencil, even though Shahanna warns her, "Mumtaz will bury you alive if she sees your little book of figures" (98.Mathematics.7). Mumtaz does not want the girls she's enslaved thinking for themselves—she wants obedience—and so Lakshmi's notebook and pencil represent a threat to Mumtaz's authority.
Eventually Lakshmi nearly fills her notebook. There are equations from her school in Nepal, words from her journey, and her calculations of debt and earnings, as well as words Harish has taught her. And again, Shahanna warns her that if Shilpa and Mumtaz find out that Lakshmi can read and write, "they will think you are planning to escape […] and then they will put you back in the locked-in room" (114.WhatILearnedToday.4-6). Clearly, notebooks and pencils are seen as dangerous—and Lakshmi's refusal to give them up symbolizes her refusal to give up on herself.
Interestingly, Harish gives Lakshmi a pencil on a day when Hindus celebrate brothers and sisters: "It is shiny yellow and it smells of lead and rubber. And possibility" (123.AGift.2). It is a thoughtful and sweet gesture in its own right, but it also seems significant that both of the pencils Lakshmi has have come to her as gifts. What do you make of this? Is it a subtle reminder that though Lakshmi is strong she still needs help from others to make it in the world? We think it might be because she receives pencils at two very different points in her life.
And when Lakshmi readies herself to leave with the American, she packs up her notebook (171.Ready). It has memories of her home in Nepal, true, but it also carries evidence of her time at the brothel. And there might be something to carrying the bad with the good as she prepares to leave this stage of her life.
So let's clear something up first: does Lakshmi's notebook count as a book? They're both bound, they both have pages… but their purposes are completely different, which is why we're treating them as two different symbols. Lakshmi's notebook is a place to record what is important to her—and the books that she reads serve a different function entirely in the novel.
Let's start by looking at a key passage:
But sometimes I find myself hating him. I hate him for having schoolbooks and playmates. (100.AnOrdinaryBoy.4)
Here Lakshmi is watching the David Beckham boy (Harish), hating him for having books and friends. In fact, she's so jealous that when he is out and about in the afternoon, she steals the storybook he has and pretends that it's hers:
I do not understand the words inside, and the pictures are queer and otherworldly.
But at least for a few minutes, I pretend I am in school with Gita and my soft, moonfaced teacher, and I am the number one girl in class again. (102.StealingfromtheDavidBeckhamBoy.7-8)
Okay—so first we see Lakshmi hating Harish for having schoolbooks, and then we see her stealing his schoolbooks to pretend to be back in school, valued for her intelligence and hard work instead of used for her body. It seems like books symbolize the life Lakshmi left behind, right? And also the longing she feels to be a kid—she envies Harish for his schoolbooks and friends, after all. So when Harish catches her with his book and offers to teach Lakshmi the words in it, we suspect right away that this might be the beginning of a friendship.
Books are also a way for the first and third Americans to communicate with Lakshmi. When the first American arrives, he needs to refer to a little book for the right questions to ask Lakshmi. And the third American, though more fluent in the language than his partner, also uses a book to communicate with Lakshmi. We think books in this instances represent the vast differences between the world the Americans come from and the world Lakshmi is trapped in. What do you think?
Another book enters the novel; this one is an American storybook that Harish received from an American woman who works at his school. And when Harish and his mother and sister leave the brothel, he gives the storybook to Lakshmi. It promptly becomes a lifeline for her.
When Shahanna is taken in the raid, all Lakshmi can do "is lie in bed and read Harish's beautiful American storybook over and over again" (146.Immobile.2). In fact, she just wants to say the words "over and over until one blends into the other, a chant that keeps all other thoughts away" (148.AllIHaveLeft.3). The book has become a way to check out of the awful world of Happiness House, to disappear and keep the awful reality away.
The American storybook has two more important appearances: Lakshmi uses it to keep the third American with her for a while longer, and it is the first thing she decides that she wants to take with her when she leaves Happiness House. Clearly the book has come to represent a whole lot to Lakshmi—a safe place to mentally disappear to, her friendship with Harish and the unlikely bit of happiness and hope that provided her during dark days, and an investment in her brain while her body was being abused. What else do you think it symbolizes?
When Lakshmi changes from her mountain clothes to the fancy clothes that Auntie Bimla gives her near the border, she stuffs her old clothes into her small bundle.
So why is this important? Well, clothing often represents something more than what it is in literature, and in this case Lakshmi's changing of clothes foreshadows the changing of identities and the new life stage that she's about to embark on.
Which makes it all the more devastating when Lakshmi says, "I feel more naked than dressed inside it" (52.NewClothes.6) about her fancy new clothes. And when Lakshmi understands for the first time the work she is expected to do at Happiness House, she bites the man who is accosting her and runs down the hall to the small room, where she pulls "my old clothes out of my bundle" (69.OldMan.18). Her clothes represent her old life—a life she desperately wants back.
When Lakshmi is trapped in the small room and Mumtaz is trying to break her spirit with beatings and rapes, Lakshmi unwraps her bundle from home and buries her face "in the fabric of my old skirt" (84.BetweenTwilights.1) to breathe in the smell of home.
But when she has been in the brothel a while and unwraps her clothes once more from her bundle, Lakshmi can no longer smell home; her clothes "became just a ragged skirt and a tattered shawl" (101.WhatIsMissingNow.4). And with this shift in the scent of her clothing, we understand that Lakshmi has come a very long way from where she once was—both geographically and mentally.
Lakshmi gives Harish a gift of a soccer ball that she makes out of her old shawl. And when she does we can see that if her clothes used to remind her of her old home, perhaps this gift symbolizes that Harish and the friendship he provides Lakshmi are a sort of small home in their own right.
Importantly, when she watches Harish leave the brothel with the ball she says, "a piece of me has left Happiness House" (124.SomethingfortheDavidBeckhamBoy.7)—and when she packs to leave with the third American, she packs her old homespun skirt from Nepal. With Harish we can see this is a sliver of hope—Lakshmi may be stuck at Happiness House, but something connected with her true is leaving—but we can also see it as a sliver of sadness, since Harish is her friend and so the piece of Lakshmi that is leaving just might be the happiest piece.
But when she packs her skirt to leave with the third American, we are confident this symbolizes a return to Lakshmi's true self. She has been beaten and discouraged, but she is ready to reconnect with her roots and carry forward.
As a rule of thumb in literature, locks imply a lack of control (or taking control), a power discrepancy, and imprisonment. On the flip side, a lack of locks represents something too—here we can think freedom, trust, and other things. For our purposes in Sold though, we're going to focus on where we can see locks (although if you're interested in locks, you might spend some time thinking about where they aren't in the book, too).
When Lakshmi is first taken to the small room at the brothel, she thinks of all the things the money she will earn will buy her family on the mountain as she hears "the girl lock the door behind her" (64.TenThousandRupees.20). Gulp. Right away we understand that while Lakshmi is dreaming of financial freedom, she's actively being confined against her wishes—and the lock quickly comes to mean something more than captivity to Lakshmi:
I have grown to dread one sound more than any other: the rasping of the key in the lock, which means that Mumtaz has arrived with strap and her taunts. (76.ACupofTea.1)
So in addition to being trapped, the lock incites fear in Lakshmi because it implies pain—both physically and emotionally.
After the raid Anita steals a lock to keep Lakshmi and her safe in future raids—if the two girls lock themselves in to a small cupboard, "then no one will be able to open the door" (149.AHidingPlace.8). In this context, the lock represents safety from those who would harm the girls—in this case, the police who come to take a girl away when Mumtaz fails to pay them off. We're curious: Do you see this as Anita taking control or giving up freedom?
Finally, when Lakshmi is trying to get Anita to go with her toward the American's voice in the last chapter, there's a world of meaning when Anita "lets go of my arm, closes the door between us, and I hear a sad and final sound: the lock sliding into place" (177.TheWordsHarishTaughtMe.20). Anita is too afraid of the uncertainty of freedom, and instead stays in a place that she understands. Is this actually a choice, though, considering the many lies about the outside world that Mumtaz circulates around Happiness House?
Roofs, for Lakshmi, represent prosperity. She and her mother have a thatched roof, which is made of closely bundled straw—it's cheap, and it leaks. Gita's father, who has more money than Lakshmi and her family do, has been able to put up a tin roof. For Lakshmi, a tin roof means that "when the rains come, the fire stays lit and the baby stays healthy" (1.ATinRoof.4)—both of which seem way better than their alternatives. And because of this, we understand that a roof symbolizes not just money, but warmth and health and general quality of life.
Of course, gold roofs are even better than tin roofs. When Lakshmi first sets out on her journey she asks Auntie Bimla if "all the roofs are covered in gold" in the city—surely the city must be full of people more fortunate than her (49.QuestionsandAnswers.6). And when they pass through the first city and there are no gold roofs, Lakshmi wonders when she will see them—and we see how naïve Lakshmi is.
After a long train journey with Uncle Husband, Lakshmi again looks for gold roofs as they come to their final destination. But all she sees is "roofs made of metal scraps […] roofs made of heavy paper […] roofs made of sheets […] but no roofs of gold" (61.ACityoftheDead.3-4). So what does this mean about both the prosperity of the people in the city and Lakshmi's expectations and dreams of possibility in the city? It's not looking good for our girl…
The first time Lakshmi sees a TV is in the common room after she arrives at Happiness House. She is entranced by it, and the movie star she sees on the screen is someone she wants to be.
But then she is imprisoned in the small room until her spirit is broken. The next time Lakshmi sees the TV is when she exits her room prison, and she thinks that both the TV soap opera and the lives of the girls in the house are strange, especially in the face of the violation of self she has just experienced (92.WhatIsNormal).
The first inkling we get that the TV is something more than a box of tubes and electronics is when Lakshmi explains how the remote control works:
Sometimes, I pretend that what goes on at night when the customers are here is no something that is happening to me. I pretend it is a TV show that I am watching from far, far away. I pretend I have a button I press to make everything go quiet. And another one that makes me disappear. (104.RemoteControl.3)
So for Lakshmi, the TV seems to represent something between reality and pretending. But which is it? And what about the remote control and the idea that Lakshmi as virtually no control over her life?
The chapter Two Worlds might give a little more insight into how Lakshmi thinks of TV. In this chapter, Monica tells the story of a movie that she has been privileged enough to go to, a story of marriage, love, and flowers. When Lakshmi asks Shahanna how Monica can leave the house, Shahanna explains that Mumtaz threatened to maim Monica's daughter if she tried to escape.
And I consider a world so ugly that a child would be maimed for life to fetch an extra rupee or two. And another world full of brides and marigolds, rain machines and white horses. (112.TwoWorlds.17)
Consider the distinction that Lakshmi is making between the two worlds and her reaction to them. Inside the world of Happiness House—a world in which "a child would be maimed for life to fetch an extra rupee or two"—there is another world contained within the TV, and a much better world at that.
So keep your eyes open for references to television (and definitely think about what happens to the TV during the raid and how Anita tries to get Lakshmi to stay at the brothel in the last chapter)—it provides much more than basic entertainment.
Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the fairest of them all? All right, so the mirrors in the brothel don't talk to Lakshmi, but they sure reveal a lot to her and us as readers.
Traditionally in literature mirrors are connected to the concept of the self or the soul, and one of the first times we see this is in the Greek myth about Narcissus, the guy who fell in love with his reflection and died. When we look in the mirror, we see that they reflect reality… to some extent, anyway—sometimes they distort reality, like in a fun house.
And when we look in mirrors, well, we usually do it for a reason: perhaps we want to confirm our existence, perhaps we want to connect to our soul, or perhaps it's a way for us to see who we really are (think Dorian Gray except with a mirror). Okay—and sometimes it's just to make sure there isn't any lettuce in our teeth.
With this all in mind, the moments when Lakshmi looks in mirrors throughout the novel are pretty important. Before her rape—before she realizes the true purpose of the Happiness House—Lakshmi is made up and looks in the mirror.
I see my face reflected in a silver glass on the wall. Another Lakshmi looks back at me. She has black-rimmed tiger eyes, a mouth red as a pomegranate, and flowing hair like the tiny gold-pants woman in the TV.
[…] I smile at this new Lakshmi. And she smiles back. Uncertainly. (68.ACityGirl.11-12)
This is a moment of Lakshmi meeting her new self—the self she is being forced to pretend to be at Happiness House. And though this leg of Lakshmi's journey is just getting started, the uncertainty of the smile that Lakshmi exchanges with her reflection infuses the moment with a bit of foreboding while also drawing our attention to the fact that this is a bit like a girl playing dress-up. The girl doesn't recognize this sort of grown-up version of herself and the uncertainty with which she smiles at her is similar to how we might smile at someone we think we recognize but can't quite place.
The next time Lakshmi sees herself is after Mumtaz shaves her head:
I stay very still, looking at the girl in the silver glass. Soon she has the shorn head of a disgraced woman and a face of stone. (70.Sold.28)
Who is looking back at Lakshmi? Is this a reflection of her spirit? Instead of seeing the young girl she came to Happiness House as staring back in the mirror, now Lakshmi sees someone much older, someone labeled as shameful, and someone emotionally frozen. So much has changed, right?
And then Lakshmi finds herself in the mirror again, right after Habib rapes her:
She has blackened tiger eyes and bleary chili pepper lips.
She looks back at me full of sadness and scorn and says, You have become one of them. (81.OneofThem.4-5)
Compare this to when Lakshmi first sees herself made up in the mirror, paying close attention to the descriptions of herself and think about what has been lost. Did you notice that while the first time she sees her reflection she smiles, here she scolds? What might this tell us about how Lakshmi's sense of self has shifted?
Every time Lakshmi looks at herself in the mirror, we see a progression and a reflection of her self-opinion: first she's a movie star, then a disgraced woman, then a prostitute. There are more instances—and pretty important ones at that—of Lakshmi confronting her appearances in mirrors. Check out the chapters "Am I Pretty" after the hugging man comes and "An Old Woman" after Lakshmi's illness to figure out how Lakshmi's perspective of herself continues to change.
There are two things that really fly in the novel: kites and birds. And flight, in literature, usually represents things like freedom or escape. So when Harish leaves to fly his kite as his mother works in the brothel, he's escaping from something that he wants to leave behind:
But in the evening, it is harder to pretend. As soon as dark falls, the bigger ones go up to the roof. They fly homemade paper kites until they are too tired to stand, daring to come down to sleep only late at night after the men have finally gone. (96.Pretending.11)
So the flight of a kite for Harish is a way of escaping his harsh reality. The symbol is obvious enough that we're almost prepared for what is on the business card the first American leaves Lakshmi:
It is full of American words I cannot read, and in the center is a drawing of a bird in flight. (137.AStrangeCustomer.28)
And as we follow this image, a bird in flight—freedom—throughout the rest of the novel, we too find ourselves full of hope that Lakshmi will fly free.
Monica's doll makes very few appearances, but it's important enough that Lakshmi packs it in her bundle as she prepares to escape Happiness House.
When we think about the purpose of dolls in our lives, the most important thing that emerges for us is that they hearken back to childhood. Often, children use dolls both in their play and to comfort themselves—so there's a certain vulnerability that comes with dolls.
When Monica gives Lakshmi "an old rag doll, loved almost beyond recognition" to comfort Lakshmi when Harish has left, it's a pretty big deal. At this point Lakshmi understands that Monica is vulnerable in ways that she doesn't let other people know about:
And I understand then, somehow, that Monica, the thirsty vine, Monica, the one with tricks to make men pay extra, sleeps with this tattered rag doll. (136.InsteadofHarish.9)
Monica might put on a brave face, but she's still soft and vulnerable inside, and in need of comfort. Consider the fact that Lakshmi thinks she has two selves, and apply the same split personality to Monica. Do we ever really get to know the true selves of the girls in the brothel? The answer may be no, but the rag doll reminds us that these hidden selves are still there.
Some of the names in Sold have some pretty important meanings. The thing is, though, that they almost all work as a sort of trick: the opposite of what a name suggests might be true about a character turns out to be true instead time and again. For instance Lakshmi is named after a goddess that brings light and prosperity to all—but when Lakshmi goes on a journey to work as a maid in the city, prosperity is nowhere to be found. And as we see this happen repeatedly with names, we can see that names in this book symbolize failed expectations.
Not convinced? Consider this: Habib, in Hindi, means beloved or friend. But for our purposes, this particular name is used ironically because Habib is the first man who rapes Lakshmi—and that's as far from beloved and friend as you can get.
Now get thee to Google to discover the meanings behind the rest of the names in the books.
Not only does McCormick write a story about a girl who has been trafficked into prostitution, she writes the story in first person. And she makes it believable (at least to us as outsiders). How is it even possible?
Seriously though—McCormick has a huge task in front of her when she chooses to write in first person. First person is an active style; as the narrator experiences the action of the story, we as readers also experience it. This choice ties us much closer to Lakshmi as we hear her describe objects and machines of the modern world as she encounters them for the first time, and we have to try to puzzle them out along with her. For instance:
And the men carry devices that trill like birds and cause them to shout Hello! Hello! (57.Train.4)
After a moment, we realize she's talking about cellphones. The effect of this first person narration is that we too get to experience our modern world for the first time and react along with Lakshmi—with wonder, with fear.
Not only do we see the world through new eyes, but we are limited to only what Lakshmi knows. And because we are more accustomed to the dangers of the modern world, we recognize that something is wrong with her journey far before she does. We recognize the manipulation of the trafficking train to get her across the border, the destitution of the city she ends up in, and the fact that she doesn't realize the work she will do until she is accosted in the brothel. We want to yell, "Lakshmi! Run!" before she enters the brothel—but we can't.
The point of this first person narration is that our reading of Lakshmi's story becomes infinitely more powerful. We are with her when she is beaten, when she is raped, when she descends into the darkness after her repeated violations. We cheer when she makes a friend, we mourn when Shahanna disappears—in short, her hopes become our hopes, and her fears become our fears.
And this ensures that her story sticks with us far beyond the closing of the cover.
We first meet Lakshmi on a swallow-tailed-looking peak on a mountain in Nepal. Because she's so poor, she's jealous of what others have—but life isn't too bad because she has a mom who loves her, a baby brother, and a pretty cute goat. Her stepfather though, well, he's a piece of work. This all sets us up nicely for the rising action.
Because of the monsoon, and because the stepfather is a lazy good-for-nothing, Lakshmi's family finds themselves in dire straits. So the stepfather tells Lakshmi she will go to work in the city.
Lakshmi leaves her mountaintop village and travels with Auntie Bimla and Uncle Husband to a city, where she sees both modernity and poverty and filth. Also, she's sold into prostitution, which she doesn't expect at all—though readers sort of do.
There are two climaxes in the story, and the first is when Lakshmi realizes what has happened to her and why Happiness House is ironically named.
After Lakshmi's initiation into her life in the brothel, she must learn how to live in Happiness House. A lot of this conflict is internal—how Lakshmi finds tiny bits of happiness despite her horrible situation, how she can make friends even in the worst of circumstances, and how she copes with repeated rapes.
Even though she has adjusted to her new life, Lakshmi hasn't given up hope of escape. She makes plans to pay off her debt (smart girl), and in doing this, has to keep secrets from Mumtaz and the other girls. These secrets become particularly dangerous when Lakshmi decides to rely on the third American to help her become free.
The second climax doesn't occur until the very end of the book, when Lakshmi finally leaves Happiness House. But we get the sense that her story isn't done.
These pieces in the classic plot analysis are missing for a reason. The book ends deliberately with the most powerful scene of Lakshmi's story. The question McCormick wants readers to ask, then, is why she chose to do this. We're left wondering what Lakshmi's future holds for her, and we remember that this book isn't just fiction—it is filled with elements of truth. With that in mind, in the real world there's no easy resolution for girls who escape brothels, no matter where they're located.