Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things – A Stylistic Analysis of the Novel’s Beginning

The exploration as to how the formal characteristics of a text contribute to the creation of literary effect has given rise to the field of stylistics. Sharing analytical techniques from linguistics and literary criticism, the stylistic method can essentially be defined as consisting of a linguistic description of a certain text, followed by an interpretation in order to fully understand the work, before an evaluation as to assess whether it is of any artistic worth.

Stylistics has its origins in the formalist school, particularly in the work of the Russian linguist and literary theorist Roman Jakobson, who devised a list of language functions for determining the nature of any given text. The most important of these in relation to assessing literariness is the ‘poetic function’, which identifies language that is self-referential, in that it emphasizes the linguistic qualities of words themselves, ignoring other features of a particular work. Jakobson believed that the poetic function was the most prevalent in works which would be considered literary.

The poetic function primarily manifests itself through deviation and parallelism. These involve the foregrounding of language within a text by either deviating from established linguistic norms or noticeable repeating of words, phrases and grammatical structures.

The opening page of Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things includes many examples of deviation and parallelism. For example, in the first paragraph there is a complex and abundant use of alliteration and assonance. These are characteristic of parallel structures in text, here referring specifically to the repetition of consonant and vowel sounds respectively. Alliteration occurs with the repetition of the letter ‘r’ in the very short sentence: “Red bananas ripen” and of ‘b’ in the phrase “black crows gorge on bright mangoes”, while assonance is apparent in the reiteration of ‘i’ in the phrase “river shrinks” and ‘a’ in “fatly baffled”. Groups of words with associated meanings and similar phonetic or morphemic structures, called phonaesthemes, are also evident, for example in the words “glittering” and “glistening”.

Reviewing the parallel structures of a text forms part of a descriptive analysis, although to gain a deeper understanding the stylistician has to interpret the meaning of a work through the linguistic choices the author has made. One of the purposes of the repetition in the Roy passage is to subtly make connections between the subject matter conveyed. For example, the alliteration in the phrase “black crows gorge on bright mangoes” immediately juxtaposes the darkness of the crows with the brightness of the mangoes. This use of contrast creates a greater degree of semantic density, as the text becomes suffused with multiple meanings.

The reader may assume that the concept of colour is an important narrative trope in The God of Small Things, a presumption which is given credence through the “red bananas”, the “immodest green” of the countryside, and the “mossgreen” of the brick walls. All these phrases serve to create a vivid impression of the world in which the novel is set.

The employment of imagery and metaphor within a text is considered a form of linguistic deviation. Through a stylistic analysis two notable aspects on the opening page of Roy’s novel illustrate foregrounding through deviation. The first is in the highly poetic line “glittering sunshine that thrilled children snatch to play with”. This phrase deviates from the norms of language use in that it likens ‘sunshine’ to a physical object that can actually be touched. This fanciful description cannot be taken literally so is therefore metaphorical. Later in the passage a house is described as wearing its “steep, gabled roof pulled over its ears like a low hat”. The building is portrayed as if it were a living human being, personified through the use of “wore”, “ears” and “hat”.

The God of Small Things clearly abounds with an elaborate figurative language and advanced linguistic patterning, factors which serve to establish a greater degree of literariness within the text. It is possible to assess its literary worth if a sufficient understanding of it has been acquired through a rigorous interpretative investigation of its stylistic properties.