Academic journal article ARIEL

A Martyrology of the Abject: Witnessing and Trauma in Arundhati Roy's the God of Small Things

Academic journal article ARIEL

A Martyrology of the Abject: Witnessing and Trauma in Arundhati Roy's the God of Small Things

Article excerpt

Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things enjoys tremendous international success but perhaps more significantly, it touches individual readers deeply; many find it profound beyond its poetics. This essay explores the question of how it is that the novel has such power; it advances the suggestion that its literary power stems from a particular narrative deployment of the abject and the traumatic. The narrative of The God of Small Things exhibits the general characteristics of trauma, which may be defined as "a response, sometimes delayed, to an overwhelming event or events, which takes the form of repeated, intrusive hallucinations, dreams, thoughts or behaviours stemming from the event, along with numbing that may have begun during or after the experience, and possibly also increased arousal to (and avoidance of) stimuli recalling the event" (Caruth 4). Cathy Caruth also notes the common "delay or incompletion in knowing" that is often present in trauma (5). These characteristics of trauma are found in the content of Roy's novel but gain further force and significance by being repeated in its narrative structure. Events, especially the most traumatic ones, are referred to over and over again. Specific details (such as "the smell of old roses" [14 and passim]) and phrases ("Orangedrink, Lemondrink Man" [98 and passim]) are repeated; related dreams (like Rahel's of Ammu [214]) are recounted; scenes are iterated and reiterated, fragmentally, in various stages of completion, but always "absolutely true to the event" (Caruth 5). The traumatic structure of the narrative forces readers to experience the trauma of the abject as if they are already subject to it. (1)

Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub's Testimony situates contemporary trauma studies at the interstices of literature, psychoanalysis, and history; however, in it, the role of the abject, and its close relation to trauma, as well as to literature, psychoanalysis and history, is under-theorized. (2) The abject is everything that the human body excretes in order to live, all that might endanger our lives should we touch or ingest it; it is the things we must not do in order to be proper subjects in our societies. In exploring the role of the abject, both Julia Kristeva and, following her lead, Anne McClintock, have integrated aspects of Mary Douglas's Purity and Danger and Freudian concepts to move towards a social interpretation of psychoanalytic theories (3) that can be applied to modern imperialist and contemporary societies (McClintock 71-72). As Kristeva argues in Powers of Horror, "leaving aside the question of the priority of one over the other (the social does not represent the subjective any more than the subjective represents the social), I shall posit that they both follow the same logic, with no other goal than the survival of both group and subject" (68). Thus, the abject is active not only in, for example, excrement, but also in the social cast(e)ing out of groups, such as Untouchables in the context of Roy's Kerala. That the removal of bodily wastes is, historically, work that can only be performed by Untouchables reinforces the aptness of the social application of abjection theory to The God of Small Things, a novel that concerns itself with the politics of caste.

The character of Velutha most particularly marks the intersection of the abject and trauma within the novel, not only because his body becomes the site of the trauma that permeates the novel, but because his body, as the body of an Untouchable, also represents the socially abject. Kristeva argues that "literature is [abjection's] privileged signifier [...] literature as such, represents the ultimate coding of our crises, of our most intimate and most serious apocalypses" (208). She further claims that literature may be "seen as taking the place of the sacred" and that because it "decks itself out in the sacred power of horror, literature may also involve not an ultimate resistance to but an unveiling of the abject. …

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