Study Guide

Sold Themes

  • Gender

    At the beginning of Sold, Ama explains that women are meant to endure their lives to Lakshmi, and that's what we see throughout the novel—women enduring. But despite their lower social status in the novel, we see women—namely Mumtaz, Auntie Bimla, and Bajai Sita—who seek power in whatever ways possible, even though that power means that they degrade and enslave other women.

    And the roles of men are complicated too. There are men who sell Lakshmi, but also men and boys who are kind, who teach her, and who help her escape slavery. So on both sides of the gender lines, it's hard to make definite associations with good or evil.

    The setting of the novel Sold introduces readers to a culture and social world they might not be familiar with. Nepal and India are fairly patriarchal, with rituals and actions that reinforce the differences of power between men and women. Does this mean that Sold is a commentary on gender inequality? Not really. Many societies have a power structure based on gender within them.

    And the social customs around gender within Sold are only one of the factors that permit Lakshmi's story to take place. In some ways characters defy gender expectations—being female doesn't necessarily make a character sympathetic, and being male doesn't necessarily make a character evil. Gender is much more complicated than that both in the novel… and in real life.

    Questions About Gender

    1. How does Lakshmi feel about her place in her village as a girl and as a woman, and what contributes to her attitude?
    2. Why might McCormick have chosen a woman to run Happiness House? What might she be commenting on regarding women and how their social roles are defined?
    3. What feminine qualities are valued in Lakshmi's village? At Happiness House? Why might these be valued in both places, and how do these values affect the status of women in general?
    4. Why might McCormick have a man rescue Lakshmi from Happiness House?

    Chew on This

    Lakshmi is too independent to be a subservient woman in the novel.

    McCormick characterizes women as either subservient or power-hungry.

  • Lies and Deceit

    The lies and deceit that occur in Sold are underhanded and often lies of omission. In fact, the lies are often found in what is unsaid. For instance, Lakshmi's never really told what work she will do until she is in not in a position to say no.

    But the lies don't end there. At Happiness House, deception becomes more complicated. There are Mumtaz's lies to Lakshmi about her debt and to Anita about the nature of Americans; and there are the ways in which Lakshmi and the other girls (and Harish) deceive themselves to make their situations more livable. We're stuck wondering which lies are unforgiveable and which lies help the girls in the house survive, because one thing's for certain: not all lies are created equal in this book.

    Questions About Lies and Deceit

    1. What is the worst lie told to Lakshmi in the novel and why? Who tells it to her?
    2. Are any of the lies and deceit in the novel unexpected? Why or why not?
    3. In what ways does Lakshmi deceive herself about her chances of escaping Happiness House and why might she do this?
    4. What are the consequences of lies and deception in the novel, if any, and what does McCormick want to imply with these consequences?

    Chew on This

    Lakshmi must lie to herself to maintain her identity.

    Mumtaz's lies to the girls are a kindness.

  • Power

    It's the classic chicken-or-the-egg issue: does power corrupt characters, or are characters already corrupt and therefore seek power in the book Sold? It's hard to tell because power is generally sought and used for different ends.

    Some characters—like Mumtaz, Uncle Husband, and Auntie Bimla—use the power they have over others for financial gain. Other characters—like the stepfather and the men who visit Happiness House—use power granted to them by social norms and values to take advantage of women. In this novel, then, power is tied closely to manipulation, social values, control, and violence. So we need to keep our eyes open for how Lakshmi regains enough power to orchestrate her rescue.

    Questions About Power

    1. Who is the most powerful character in the novel, and how does this person maintain his or her power?
    2. Which characters have been corrupted by power? Which characters were already corrupt before they had power? What makes you say this?
    3. How is money tied to power and corruption in the novel? Why do you think this?
    4. How is manipulation tied to power in the novel Sold? What makes you say this?

    Chew on This

    Mumtaz is as powerless with the policemen as the girls are with Mumtaz, and this lack of power makes her a more sympathetic character.

    Violence and the threat of violence are the only ways for characters to maintain power in Sold.

  • Friendship and Compassion

    Friendship in Sold develops in the most unlikely places. Yes Lakshmi had a friend in Gita before she was sold into prostitution, but the more developed and meaningful relationships in the novel occur at Happiness House. And thank goodness, because they provide a much needed bright spot in the novel.

    Shahanna's kindness gets Lakshmi through her awful transition into the brothel, and Monica and Harish each give Lakshmi the smallest and sweetest of gifts. These kindnesses give Lakshmi the strength she needs to endure Happiness House. Even so though, friendship isn't easy. When Shahanna is taken, Lakshmi almost loses it, and in the end she has to choose between friendship and freedom. So while friendship keeps hope alive for Lakshmi, it also hurts her in deeper ways than she imagined possible.

    Questions About Friendship and Compassion

    1. Whose friendship affects Lakshmi the most and what makes you say this?
    2. What meaning do small acts of compassion and kindness take on in Lakshmi's life, and how do they help her develop friendship?
    3. What message do you think McCormick wants to send about friendship throughout the novel? Support using evidence from the text.
    4. Do you think it will be possible for Lakshmi to make friends after her rescue? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Without her friends at Happiness House, Lakshmi would have lost all hope.

    Harish saved Lakshmi's life by being her friend.

  • Slavery

    Slavery in Sold is most likely different than what Americans think of when they hear the word slavery. Many of the girls in Happiness House are victims of human sex trafficking. They are stuck at the brothel either by force or by lack of other choices—their families reject them or they have no other place to go or other options. And many of the girls have been manipulated to fear the outside world and the very people who can save them.

    The psychological and physical torment the girls endure is downright brutal, so much so that at least one unnamed girl commits suicide. So slavery is integrally tied to force, fear, manipulation, abuse, and—most of all—the removal of choice from one's life.

    The novel is not only meant to illustrate the extent of suffering brought about by enslavement in Happiness House, but also how sex slavery is perpetuated. Though we follow Lakshmi's story intimately, we catch glimpses of the larger pictures of sex trafficking in that part of the world: the supply chain, the monetization of a human being, the demand for girls, the options that are available to brothel workers. Because of the other characters' story lines, we come to believe that Lakshmi's move toward freedom is the exception, not the norm. And that is heartbreaking.

    Questions About Slavery

    1. Who is most responsible in the novel for enslaving the girls at Happiness House? What makes you say this?
    2. Are Shilpa and Pushpa victims in the same way Lakshmi is a victim of human trafficking? Why or why not?
    3. How does corruption of authority affect the existence of slavery in Sold?
    4. Look at how Lakshmi is brought to the brothel and her life in the brothel. If the characters in the novel were to try to interrupt the cycle of human trafficking and abuse, where is the best place in the cycle to do it? That is, what is the weakest link in the trafficking chain?

    Chew on This

    The people most to blame for the perpetuation of sexual slavery are the men who visit the brothel.

    The Americans who try to rescue Lakshmi will never be able to understand the psychological and physical effects of slavery on her unless they, too, have experienced slavery.

  • Sex

    In Sold sex is a violation of self, a physical representation of power with serious and long-lasting physical and psychological effects on its victims. Above all, sex is monetized. It—and the women in the novel—is bought and sold, and this brings a whole host of repercussions with it. The role sex plays in the novel affects how women view the act of sex, their own sexuality, themselves, their worth as humans, and—perhaps most heartbreakingly—how others see them.

    The budding adolescence and tentative sexual hopes that Lakshmi experiences in Nepal are cruelly ripped from her at Happiness House. Sex becomes humiliating and shameful. The most intimate encounter Lakshmi has with a man involves simple human touch, not sex. In fact, she tries to desensitize herself to sex that she is helpless to prevent.

    The whole point of the novel centering around sexual slavery seems to be twofold. It seeks to tell the stories of human trafficking victims in realistic ways, and it seeks to outrage us enough to act. Because this book isn't just a novel—it's a call to action.

    Questions About Sex

    1. How does Lakshmi's view of sex change throughout the novel?
    2. Who is more to blame for the sexual violation of the girls in Happiness House—Mumtaz or the men who visit the house? What makes you say this?
    3. How do the other girls in Happiness House view the act of sex? Why do you think they think of sex this way or act the way they do?
    4. The second American has sex with Lakshmi. Why do you think McCormick made this choice?

    Chew on This

    Lakshmi will never associate the act of sex with anything positive in her life.

    Lakshmi will eventually get over her negative sexual experiences and repeated rapes to find love and joy in the act of sex.

  • Language and Education

    Language and literacy have power in the novel Sold. Even in a society that is pretty male-dominated and power-oriented, Ama recognizes the value of education—and as a result, Lakshmi attends school at home on the swallow-tailed peak, and she knows how to read and write in her home language.

    So when Lakshmi is removed from her home and taken to a place where she doesn't know the language, she loses the power that resides in education and literacy knowledge. In fact, the very fact that she can read, write, and do arithmetic puts her in danger at Happiness House. Yet this danger doesn't stop Lakshmi from satisfying her thirst for knowledge with Harish, and then—once he is gone—by herself.

    Language and education are some of the only ways Lakshmi regains control over her world, and as such they keep her from spinning into despair and are instrumental in her escape. One of the images that convinces her to trust the third American is a picture of girls in a school. And indeed, it's the words at the end of the novel that Lakshmi speaks in Hindi—the language she learned from Harish—that begin her path to freedom.

    Questions About Language and Education

    1. In what ways does Lakshmi regain control of her life through education, language, and literacy? How does this make her different from other girls at Happiness House?
    2. Why is Lakshmi's education and literacy a danger to her at Happiness House?
    3. How do education, language, and literacy prevent Lakshmi from giving up all hope of escape?
    4. Do you think Lakshmi's educational experiences and literacy levels are common or uncommon for girls in Indian and Nepali society? What makes you say this?

    Chew on This

    Lakshmi's literacy levels and education experiences directly contribute to her escape of Happiness House.

    Lakshmi would have escaped from Happiness House even if she didn't know how to read or write.

  • Suffering

    There are two major settings in Sold, and Lakshmi experiences suffering in each one. Life for Lakshmi on her mountain in Nepal is not easy, and struggles are a part of daily life—but in Nepal, Lakshmi can rely on Ama and her community to help her cope with her difficulties. So this type of physical and emotional suffering seems much more palatable than the suffering Lakshmi experiences at Happiness House because on the mountain Lakshmi's suffering is balanced with joys.

    At Happiness House though, no such joy exists. Lakshmi experiences physical and emotional suffering, and it's easy to see how her systematic abuse could destroy her spirit and her health.

    But Lakshmi's strong-willed, and she decides to try to find her own way out of this suffering. She does this by submitting, to some extent, to Mumtaz's will, and she also finds what joy she can in learning from Harish. Maintaining her hope though, is difficult because of what her life is like in the brothel. Even though she tries to form a community around her to help her deal with her suffering, one by one these friends disappear from her life. In the end, Lakshmi is left to save herself from her suffering and pain. It's definitely not fair, but it also seems incredibly realistic.

    Questions About Suffering

    1. In what ways does Lakshmi suffer at home on the mountain in Nepal? How does she cope with these difficulties?
    2. In what ways does Lakshmi suffer physically and emotionally at Happiness House? Which is worse for her—the physical or emotional suffering—and what makes you say this?
    3. How do other characters cope with their suffering at Happiness House? Think of Shahanna, Shilpa, Pushpa, Monica, and Harish.
    4. What other emotions are connected to Lakshmi's suffering both at home in Nepal and at Happiness House in India? What makes you say this?
    5. Does Mumtaz suffer?

    Chew on This

    Suffering is inevitable in Sold—no one escapes it.

    Lakshmi's suffering both in Nepal and at Happiness House has made her a stronger person, so it was worth it in the end.

  • Innocence

    Innocence is primarily associated with youth, sexual inexperience, and idealism in Sold. On the mountain, Lakshmi—to some extent—leaves the innocence for the role of womanhood when she gets her period for the first time, and this implies that she can't be an innocent child and a woman (who can be sexually active) at the same time.

    But this simplistic view of innocence vanishes when Lakshmi leaves her village on her journey to the city and, unknowingly, a brothel in India. In the brothel, we see Lakshmi's sexual innocence forcibly and brutally ripped from her—and yet despite her sexual experiences, Lakshmi seems to maintain some semblance of spiritual innocence. How can this be?

    So we have to ask ourselves some major questions as we read about Lakshmi: What, exactly, is innocence? Is it possible to maintain innocence after sexual entry into adulthood, and in what ways? And can we ever regain innocence that we have lost? None of these questions are easy to answer, but all are important to understanding Lakshmi's psyche.

    Questions About Innocence

    1. How might Lakshmi define innocence? Mumtaz? The author? Think about physical, emotional, and psychological elements to innocence.
    2. What contributes to Lakshmi's innocence in Nepal? In India? What makes you say this?
    3. Does Lakshmi ever lose her innocence completely? Does she regain it on some level? Why and how?
    4. Would you consider the other girls in Happiness House to be innocent? Why or why not, and in what ways?

    Chew on This

    Lakshmi never really loses her innocence despite her repeated rapes and suffering.

    Mumtaz is more responsible for Lakshmi's lost innocence than the men who use her sexually.

  • Perseverance, Hopes, and Plans

    In her mountaintop home in Nepal in the novel Sold, Lakshmi withstands extreme weather, poverty, and disappointment in her mother and her stepfather. Yet she and her family surge forward, because, as Ama says, "Simply to endure... is to triumph" (11.EverythingINeedToKnow.11).

    It's this introduction into hardship and struggle that helps Lakshmi persevere at Happiness House. She withstands Mumtaz's abuse, the abuse by the men who rape her, and a growing isolation as her friends gradually disappear into the fringes of society.

    But her hope is integrally tied to perseverance. Lakshmi hopes to be free of Happiness House, she hopes to return home, she hopes and believes that there is something more for her. Even on the mountaintop, she has goals that she wants to see realized. And without her hopes and goals, Lakshmi might not endure her struggles with the same determination.

    So Lakshmi makes plans to achieve her hopes, and these plans allow her to persevere despite almost insurmountable odds. Without hope and plans, Lakshmi's ability to endure her captivity as a sex worker might come to a much different end.

    Questions About Perseverance, Hopes, and Plans

    1. What are Lakshmi's hopes in Nepal, and how do the plans she makes around these help her endure the hardships she experiences there? What are her hopes at Happiness House, and how do her plans help her endure the experiences she has there?
    2. How are Laskhmi's approaches to perseverance on the mountaintop in Nepal and at Happiness House in India different?
    3. What makes Lakshmi's ability to persevere at Happiness House different from the attitudes of other characters toward hope and perseverance?
    4. Who affects Lakshmi's attitude toward perseverance and hope most? Try to think of one character who does the most harm and one character who does the most good.

    Chew on This

    Lakshmi has little control over her own rescue, so her perseverance and hope are actually pretty useless.

    Lakshmi is the exception rather than the rule when it comes to hopes and perseverance of girls in Happiness House.