Made the stupid mistake of referring to characters like real people again – need to stop doing that. I also need to remember to explain my interpretation of quotations from critical essays etc. I also never thought I’d actually write an essay on this. Huh.
It is asserted in Salman Rushdie’s novel that Saleem Sinai’s life ‘will be, in a sense, the mirror’ (Rushdie, Midnight, 167) of India’s now that it has achieved independence – and yet Independence and birth do not serve to legitimise existence. According to Lacan, ‘a personality … realizes itself only in suicide’ (Lacan 7) – it is necessary for there to be an entity that recognises someone for them to exist. This is generally expressed in terms of the subject being recognised and shaped by the desires of the Other. However, in the case of the novel, Rushdie tries to legitimise Saleem and India without being moulded by those that recognise them i.e the reader. He does this by debasing preconceived ideas of legitimacy, associating legitimacy with belief rather than truth, and by showing Saleem’s power over the narrative through his use of self-expression.
Throughout the novel there is a curious implication that legitimacy in the normal sense of birth is unimportant. Saleem asserts that he ‘became the chosen child of midnight, whose parents were not his parents, whose son would not be his own,’ (Rushdie, Midnight 157). In differentiating between the idea of biological parents and the parents who raised him, Rushdie implies that biology is arbitrary. Indeed, Saleem carries the defining trait of his grandfather – his nose, despite not being related to him. He never meets Methwold who is his real father. Despite all this his entire life seems to be influenced greatly by the history of his adoptive family, and barely at all by Methwold. In fact it is declared that ‘it made no difference’ in the long run to the perceptions of his family members once the truth of Saleem’s birth was revealed. Furthermore, in being a ‘child of midnight’, Rushdie directly implicates the idea of one’s country being an integral part of one’s identity and birth – but if one’s country has only at that moment of birth been made legitimate itself, Rushdie questions whether it is enough to legitimise one’s nationality.
Rushdie even goes so far as to delegitimise the most central positions held by characters in the text. Technically, the true ‘chosen child of midnight’ is Shiva, as Rushdie remarks that Saleem only became the chosen child ‘thanks to the crime of Mary Pereira,’ (157), implying that the Sinai family history is what will make the child ‘chosen’, and this strengthens the argument that traditional ideas of legitimacy through biology are false. This in turn also means that it is Shiva who is the true head of the Midnight Children’s Conference and that Saleem’s leadership is illegitimate.
In addition to changing our ideas of legitimacy, Rushdie also plays with the concept of belief being stronger than truth, which is established when he toys with parentage and legitimacy of birth. Rushdie projects the idea of there being greater power in believing what one wants to or is told to, which comes about because there are so many ‘truths’ that exist. This idea is expressed when Saleem pleads with the Midnight Children to not let ‘the endless duality of masses-and-classes, capital-and-labour, them-and-us,’ (354) to divide them. Each child, like every adult in India, is experiencing the world in a way which is true only to themselves, and so they believe that theirs is the truth. Rushdie highlights the difference in class and wealth because this is the line along which Saleem and Shiva are divided most prominently, and which they should have, if raised by the right parents, experienced the other side of, which ironises their beliefs that they are telling the truth. Whilst Saleem may be able to see past the ‘duality’ in the world, it is almost undoubtably because he has been raised in a wealthy, liberal way. This is the opposite to someone raised in poverty, such as Shiva, who has had to fight tooth and claw (sometimes literally) to survive, and so ‘duality’ is all that he can see.
Similarly, Rushdie highlights the power of perception and belief when he refers to the ‘new India’ and that a country is ‘itself a sort of dream,’ (159). In referring to India as a ‘dream’, Rushdie questions the power of belief in making something, such as a country, or a person, legitimate. He explores the idea that if everyone believes in India as a country, then everyone becomes a child of that nation because there is no open disagreement, therefore the truth becomes pliant. Ironically this still works despite countries and people only coming into being suddenly, at the stroke of midnight in this case, and yet the idea of nationhood is still not questioned. This unity of belief in a country is reflected and opposed in the Midnight’s Children Conference when Shiva confronts Saleem and declares that, ‘The world is not ideas, rich boy; the world is no place for dreamers or their dreams; the world, little Snotnose, is things,’ (354). Contrary to the previous idea of belief is Shiva’s idea of material proof which technically is far more logical. However, Rushdie has written this into a magical realist novel, which automatically invalidates Shiva’s rebuke because the reader has no choice but to trust and believe just as Saleem does, and just as many do in reality about their nationhood. In realising this, it is impossible not to question where the line between truth and belief is blurred and just how nationhood as a concept can be legitimised.
The most powerful tool that Rushdie allows Saleem is his power over the novel’s narration. Rushdie writes that Saleem wants to ‘shape his material [so] that the reader will be forced to concede his central role,’ (Rushdie, Errata 24). According to Lacan, the I is subject to the desires of others and is moulded by them,’ (Lacan 1-7), however, Rushdie seeks to give Saleem power over this by shaping the ‘material’ so that he dictates what the order and desires are, as opposed to being moulded by the reader. The first-person narrative asserts that Saleem is largely in control of the narrative, and no one else ever directly addresses the reader, this gives the impression that the reader is the primary audience, rather than any other character in the novel. However, there is open acknowledgement of Saleem ‘pushing him [Shiva], the other, into the background,’ (Rushdie, Midnight 568) which is a curious statement. Saleem is confessing his concealment of Shiva to the reader, but the imagined force behind the word ‘pushing’ implies that Shiva has a voice as well as Saleem. In fact, throughout the novel there are references to Saleem subduing and selecting moments to share, despite his assertion that he ‘swore to tell it [his story] all’ (589). It also emphasises the idea that there is no one truth in the novel, but that Saleem is shaping it, through his selective narration, in order to legitimise himself and cast his story as the absolute truth. He goes on to write that Shiva was ‘fond of boasting’ about his exploits, which invalidates Shiva’s reported story to the reader, influencing their belief in the characters. He refers to Shiva as ‘the other’ (568), which is a peculiarly Lacanian term that suggests that Saleem sees himself as the ‘Other’ who influences Shiva and the other characters.
Saleem’s attempt to control the perceptions of others doesn’t stop there. Rushdie has chosen the first-person format to allow Saleem to address the reader, but at no point is the reader able to respond. In the haze of magical realism the metafictional address to the reader by a character does not seem out of place, and it means that Saleem’s story is recognised – so his existence is legitimised – and there is no way for a reader to denounce his existence directly to him. The barrier between reality, truth, and belief are once again blurred, and Rushdie creates a belief, however temporary, in a character who is not real, but who carries enough history and self-confidence to be accepted at the very least as a ‘mirror’ (167) for India – and thus the nation of India is also legitimised. This is all done simply by making Saleem’s ability to express himself and incite belief more powerful than the truth.
In the novel, Rushdie is primarily concerned with the power of expression. Saleem’s self-expression is extremely important because his narration is all that the reader has, whether they would consider it accurate or not. Rushdie has created a character that appears to ‘write himself’ (Rushdie, Homelands 14) and so is able to legitimise himself by obscuring the division between what is real and what is simply believed to be real. Rushdie also introduces the parallel between Saleem and India, which suggests that to believe in a nation, which is not material but abstract, is as strange as believing in a fictional character – and yet when employing a first-person narrative it is difficult to do anything else, and so both are legitimised.
Lacan, Jacques, Ecrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Routledge, 1989. Print.
Rushdie, Salman. “‘Errata’: Or, Unreliable Narration in Midnight’s Children” Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism. London: Granta Books, 1991. Print.
—“Imaginary Homelands” Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism. London: Granta Books, 1991. Print.
—Midnight’s Children. London: Vintage, 2008. Print.