Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children is a sprawling and fantastical novel that is considered one of the most influential works of literature to emerge from the late twentieth century.

The novel’s importance

Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children is a sprawling and fantastical novel that is considered one of the most influential works of literature to emerge from the late twentieth century. First published in 1981, the book tells the story of Saleem Sinai, a character born at the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947, the moment India gained independence. Saleem discovers that he, and others born at this precise time, possess magical powers and are inextricably linked to the fate of their newly independent nation.

Midnight’s Children is a work of enormous scope and ambition, and its impact has been long lasting. Rushdie combines elements of magic realism and historical fiction to create a book that resonates with readers on multiple levels. As a fantastical tale, the book is often playful, but it also provides a searing political commentary on the consequences of colonialism and the challenges faced by a young nation struggling to define itself on its own terms. The result is a work that is both entertaining and thought provoking, and one that has earned its place as a modern classic.

Key themes

One of the most significant themes in Midnight’s Children is the matter of identity. Rushdie navigates questions of both individual and national identity, inextricably linking Saleem’s sense of self with the larger story of India’s independence. Consequently, the novel raises questions about how we understand and interact with our own history, and the extent to which one’s environment shapes one’s sense of self.

Another key theme in the novel is the idea of fragmentation. Many elements within the novel seem disjointed, from the kaleidoscopic storytelling to the geographical division of India and Pakistan. Some critics argue that this fragmentation symbolizes the chaos that enveloped South Asia after gaining independence, while others suggest that the fragmentation speaks more broadly to the messy and multifaceted nature of reality itself.

Historical context

One of the key historical contexts that informed Midnight’s Children is the Partition of India in 1947. The novel deals with the birth of independent India and Pakistan, with and the subsequent upheaval and societal changes, mirroring the chaos and excitement of the era in which Rushdie was writing. This experience of fragmentation informs much of the novel, as characters are often divided by their backgrounds, ethnicity, and language, while the story itself traverses various regions in India and Pakistan.

Another aspect of the historical context to consider is the state of postcolonial literature in the late 70s and early 80s, when Rushdie was completing Midnight’s Children. It was becoming increasingly common for authors from Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean to write back against colonialism and give voice to perspectives marginalized by the Western literary canon. Rushdie himself was keen to push boundaries with his work, and as such, Midnight’s Children’s experimental nature and nonlinear storytelling is also part of its historical context.

Intellectual and cultural context

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, postmodern literature emerged as a dominant force in the Western literary scene, challenging tradition by questioning the notion of absolute truth and blurring the lines between fact and fiction. Rushdie’s novel fits well within this milieu, appropriating many postmodern techniques.

Another way of understanding the context of Rushdie’s novel is to examine the other books being written around the same time. Notably, the early 1980s marked the beginning of the magical realism movement in Latin America, with works such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits achieving international acclaim. The genre, which blends fantastical elements with realistic narratives, is echoed in Midnight’s Children, which incorporates surreal, dream-like aspects into its narrative of India’s post-colonial history

Plot

In Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie sets up a complex and layered story, weaving elements of magical realism and historical fiction. We follow the life of Saleem Sinai, a child born on the stroke of midnight when India achieved its independence from the British Empire. As Saleem grows, he discovers he possesses unique and extraordinary powers that seem inextricably linked to his birthdate.

However, the book is more than just a magical coming-of-age tale. Rushdie also explores the disruption and violence that followed India’s independence, and the ways in which this tumultuous period impacted ordinary citizens. From partition to the Emergency, Rushdie covers many of the most significant events in India’s recent history through the lens of Saleem’s unconventional life.

Narrative structure

One of the most striking features of Midnight’s Children is the unusual way in which the story is structured. The novel jumps back and forth in time, with Saleem introducing events from different parts of his life in seemingly random order. In doing so, Rushdie creates a fragmented narrative that is sometimes disorienting, but ultimately very engaging. This approach allows readers to see how different moments in Saleem’s life intersect and influence one another, making for a much richer and more complex story.

Another key element of the book’s structure is the use of first person narration. By choosing to tell the story from Saleem’s point of view, Rushdie is inviting readers to see the world through the protagonist’s eyes. This allows us to empathize with Saleem, and to understand the significance of the events that take place in his life from a more personal perspective. This style of narration also makes the novel feel intimate and immediate, as if we are being told a secret story by a close friend.

Key characters

One character central to the novel is Saleem Sinai, the protagonist and narrator of the story. He is a complex figure, representative of the new nation of India in many ways. Saleem struggles with feelings of isolation and fragmentation, which also plague the young country. As he narrates his own story, Saleem often reflects on the ways in which his experiences parallel events in India’s history.

Another key character is Shiva, Saleem’s nemesis. Like Saleem, he was born at the stroke of midnight on India’s independence day, and he is also blessed with supernatural abilities. However, Shiva’s character is often in direct opposition to Saleem, and he seems to embody some of the darker aspects of India, such as unchecked ambition and violence. Shiva’s rivalry with Saleem is one of the driving forces in the novel, and their contrasting characters provide a fascinating exploration of India’s post-independence struggles.

Literary devices

One of the most well-known literary devices used in Midnight’s Children is the element of magical realism. Rushdie manages to intertwine the fantastical with the factual in a way that makes both seem believable within the context of the novel. By doing so, he adds a layer of intrigue and mystery to the story, pulling readers in and encouraging them to suspend disbelief.

Another core technique Rushdie employs is his use of symbolism. Many of the events, objects, and characters in Midnight’s Children can be interpreted as allegorical stand-ins for broader themes and concepts. For example, the character of Saleem Sinai, who is born precisely at the moment of India’s independence, self-consiously symbolizes the hopes and struggles of a new nation.

Symbolism

One of the most prevalent ways Rushdie communicates his ideas in Midnight’s Children is through the use of symbolism. Symbolism allows Rushdie to convey complex themes and concepts without explicitly stating them. For example, the protagonist Saleem’s birth at the stroke of midnight as India achieves independence is an obvious symbol for the way the character is intertwined with the history and fate of the nation.

Rushdie also uses metaphor and analogy to make comparisons between different aspects of his novel. When Saleem describes his memory as a “perforated sheet,” for example, he is using metaphor to evoke the sense of a memory that is fragmented, with significant gaps.

Critical readings

Some critics have interpreted Midnight’s Children as an allegory for the birth of modern India. They argue that the many disjunctures and shifts in the novel reflect the chaotic transformations that the country underwent in the years following its independence. Others, on the contrary, see the novel as a critique of the neocolonialism that continued to pervade India even after the departure of the British. In this reading, Rushdie’s characters are seen as struggling to free themselves from the grip of external forces, even as they attempt to forge new identities in a changing world.

Others have dwelled more on the stylistic aspects of the novel. Many have praised Rushdie’s magical realism as a way of defamiliarizing and re-enchanting the mundane aspects of daily life. For these critics, Midnight’s Children is an exploration of the many possibilities for storytelling, and a reminder that even the most seemingly ordinary events can be shot through with the fantastic.

Influence

One particularly noteworthy aspect of Midnight’s Children is the impact that it has had on the literary world since its publication. The novel is often cited as one of Rushdie’s most influential works, and it has had significant effects on subsequent novels, both thematically and stylistically. 

Beyond its influence on fellow writers, Midnight’s Children has had impressive cultural impact as well. A widely celebrated novel that explores the experiences of Indians in the years following the country’s independence, the book has sparked conversations about personal and national identity. Midnight’s Children is a literary landmark. Not only did it win the Booker prize, but also the ‘Booker of Bookers’ – a special one-off award for the best Booker winner in the competition’s 40-year history.

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