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Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Beginning with the snake venom that saves Saleem’s young life, snakes play an ambiguous and complicated role in the novel. Saleem often refers to his favorite childhood board game, Snakes and Ladders. In the game’s simple formula of good and evil, Saleem learns an important lesson: for every up, there is a down, and for every down, there is an up. Missing from the board game, however, is the ambiguity between good and evil that he later detects as a natural part of life. Generally considered to represent evil, snakes are, in fact, much more complicated than that simple generalization might imply. While venom has the power to kill, it also has the ability to bring life, and it does so not once but twice in the novel. Snake venom represents the power of Shiva, who is both destroyer and procreator in the Hindu pantheon. In Midnight’s Children, snakes are also associated with Picture Singh, Saleem’s closest friend, whose career is both dependent upon and destroyed by snakes.
Throughout the novel, the past finds ways to mysteriously insinuate itself into the present, just as Saleem’s personal compulsions and concerns find themselves inexplicably replicated in national, political events. Perhaps inspired by his own constantly running nose, Saleem uses the term leaking to describe this phenomenon. The lines separating past, present, and future—as well as the lines separating the personal and the political, the individual and the state—are incredibly porous. When Saleem begins having dreams about Kashmir, for example, the stirring images of his dreams seems to seep into the national consciousness, and India and Pakistan begin to battle over possession of the beautiful region. In Midnight’s Children, the interplay between personal and public, past and present, remains fluid and dynamic, like leaking liquid.
Saleem claims that, much like his narrative, he is physically falling apart. His body is riddled with cracks, and, as a result, the past is spilling out of him. His story, spread out over sixty-three years, is a fragmented narrative, oscillating back and forth between past and present and frequently broken up further by Saleem’s interjections. In addition to the narrative and physical fragmentation, India itself is fragmented. Torn apart by Partition, it is divided into two separate countries, with the east and west sections of Pakistan on either side of India. This division is taken even further when East and West Pakistan are reclassified as two separate countries, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Within India, language marchers agitate for further partitions based upon linguistic lines. New nationalities are created, and with them come new forms of cultural identity that reflect the constant divisions.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Midnight’s Children!