Kelly is an instructor of creative writing and literature in the Chicago area. In this essay, Kelly examines the ways in which the novel can be seen as too rich with possible symbolism to be understood, identifying the central symbolic structure.
Into his sprawling, dense novel Midnight's Children, Salman Rushdie packs hundreds of ideas that do not serve any clear purpose in advancing the narrative. There are details that are not only unnecessary but are distracting, little loose ends that do not make any real sense. When a writer does that, it is an open invitation to readers and critics to inquire into the significance of what the author has included. Not all elements must serve the story, and no one even asks that all elements be connected logically, but they all must have some reason for existing. It could well be that the reason some things seem unconnected in Midnight's Children is precisely to keep the story unfocused: starting, as it does, at such a significant time as the very moment of India's independence, the life of the novel's narrator, Saleem Sinai, is bound to have some allegorical meaning, and the allegory just might be that free India has no focus. If this were the case, though, then any sort of nonsense could happen in the novel, to be justified with the excuse that any sort of nonsense could happen in India. Works have been written based on theories of chaos, but Rushdie's prose is just too precise, his characters too intricately connected, and his sense of the society too acute, for one to believe that he is going for nothing more than proof that life in postcolonial India was weird.
The novel does clearly want to walk a balance between sense and nonsense. The protagonist, for instance, is about as far from a dashing leading man as Rushdie could make him. Saleem is a thirty-one-year-old castrated employee in a pickle factory, ugly to the point of gruesome, with no companion except for a woman who cannot read the story that he is writing about his life and who mocks him, apparently finding him more ridiculous than he does himself, which is saying a lot. Much about his life is absurd, but not all of it, and as his story unravels readers are struck by just how much sense there actually is among all of the trivia. His life is not just capricious, but it follows a cyclical pattern, with Saleem's fortune going from good to bad, then good to bad, then bad, then good, ad infinitum (a process the book captures deliberately in its reference to the children's game Snakes and Ladders).
As with many novels, Midnight's Children presents its readers with differing degrees of significance. What makes this a particularly difficult book to understand is that there are so many specifics mentioned that readers are constantly trying to find where each detail fits in the larger scheme of things. Is a detail mentioned for local color and mood, such as the ghost of Joseph D'Costa, haunting his old girlfriend, Saleem's nanny, with no apparent connection to the plot? Is it told for emotional significance, a personal sort of symbolism, such as the spittoon that Saleem carries around with him for years after the destruction of his family? Or maybe, as in the case of his sister Jamila's popular singing career in Pakistan, it could be social satire. Most of the details of the novel can fit into one of these categories, or they can be connected to the book's main stream of symbolism, the duality between Saleem and his archrival, Shiva.
It would be difficult to argue that the relationship between Saleem and Shiva lacks symbolic significance. They are both the true Children of Midnight, born at the same exact time on August 15, 1947: the other 999 referred to as Midnight's Children in the novel are actually born in the minutes and hours following the stroke of twelve. The novel seems built around this conceit, making it both the story of a boy, Saleem, whose destiny is the destiny of free India, but also the story of two children whose lives are forever, inexorably linked, having had their fates inverted, a device with literary echoes of The Prince and the Pauper and A Tale of Two Cities. However, the parallel between Saleem and Shiva is obscured by the fact that Shiva hardly appears in the book. He is a vague presence during childhood;...
(The entire section is 1764 words.)