Reading guide for The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh

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The Glass Palace

by Amitav Ghosh

The Glass Palace
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2001, 512 pages
    Paperback:
    Feb 2002, 496 pages

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

  1. In an interview, Amitav Ghosh said of his work, The Glass Palace, "one can examine the truths of individuals in history definitely more completely in fiction than one can in history." Discuss this statement as it pertains to the novel. Which truths do his characters reveal?

  2. Look closely at the characters whom Ghosh envisions in the most detail, Rajkumar, Dolly, Uma, Arjun, to name a few. They become extraordinary in our minds of the reader, as we travel with them through a century of social upheaval and political turmoil. But according to the social structure, they are all, or once were, relatively ordinary individuals. What is the effect of focusing a novel of such grand, epic sweep, on members of common society? How does this very subtle choice affect the story's shape? What does it tell us about history, and how we have always been taught to remember it?

  3. Memory could almost be considered a character unto itself in Ghosh's novel. For instance, Rajkumar's life is utterly driven and shaped by his one, striking, boyhood memory of Dolly in the plundered Glass Palace during the invasion of Burma. How does memory play into the lives of Ghosh's other characters? Can you think of examples where memory compelled a character to action, or impeded him from recognizing a particular truth? To what extent does Ghosh suggest the existence of collective memory?

  4. Ghosh raises several debates over the course of the novel, one central to the political subtext being that of Imperialism vs. Fascism. Why does society not look upon Imperial soldiers with the same scorn it holds for those soldiers committing atrocities under fascist regimes? Should these Imperial mercenaries be considered willing and conscious henchmen, or were they merely following orders? What stance does Ghosh take on this issue, if any? What other debates were you able to extract from the book? What techniques does Ghosh use to bring these issues and their various arguments to light?

  5. Ghosh constructs several unique, remarkable, and strong female characters: Dolly, Uma, Queen Supayalat, even the First Princess, who becomes pregnant out of wedlock. Each of these women tells us something different and important about the time and place in which she was living. What strengths do these women express, and at what points are they identified and illuminated in the novel? In examining the range and evolution of Ghosh's female characters, what could we conclude about the relationship between feminine domesticity and empire? Where and how do the two intersect? What role do women play under colonialism, and how do Ghosh's characters either reflect or reject it?

  6. Uma is a particularly interesting character, as she illuminates one of the ideas central to Ghosh's novel. When we first encounter her, she is constantly worried about being the proper memsahib, following traditional domestic etiquette, and living up to the standards of her husband, the Collector. She soon realized, however, that her husband's dream was not in accordance with the rules of Indian custom, he longed "to live with a woman as an equal in spirit and intellect," and she could never, according to custom, fulfill those expectations. We see a monumental change in her disposition when she returns to India from New York. How has she transformed, and by what force? What does Uma's character tell us about the nature of history and the power of social forces as factors in everyday life?

  7. Over the course of the novel, the division between conquerors and conquered becomes increasingly hard to distinguish. The inevitable ethical dilemma faced by Indian soldiers in the British army comes to the foreground of the novel, as one member of the INA challenges Indian soldiers in the British army, "Do you really wish to sacrifice your lives for an Empire that has kept your country in slavery for two hundred years?" Can you think of any other episodes in which Ghosh highlights this argument? How does this debate affect the course and scope of the story?

  8. In several episodes, Ghosh asks the question, both of his readers and of his characters; can submission to an oppressor, in certain instances, be a sign of strength, rather than weakness? For example, at the very outset of the novel, Rajkumar is heartbroken when he sees Dolly marching out of Burma in the royal procession, offering the sweets he gave her as a token of his affection to one of the British guards. Was this a sign of strength on Dolly's part? How does this foreshadow other events in the novel? What do such episodes tell us about the effect of colonialism, both on the individual and the collective?

  9. In The Glass Palace Ghosh examines the individual, psychological dilemmas posed by colonialism. At one point, an Indian officer in the British army during World War II exclaims, "What are we? We've learned to dance the tango and we know how to eat roast beef with a knife and fork. The truth is that except for the color of our skin, most people in India wouldn't even recognize us as Indians." This quest for and recognition of personal identity, both lost and found, figures prominently in the novel. Where do we see this pursuit played out? How does Ghosh reconcile the notions of personal identity and national identity? Is one derivative of the other?

  10. Exile and return are themes that lie at the core of The Glass Palace. We see King Thebaw and Queen Supayalat living out their exiles in Ratnagiri, we also experience Dolly's flight from and return to Burma. Even Rajkumar appears in a constant state of escape and return, from his early abandonment at age 11. What other stories of exile and return play out over the course of the book? How do these individual cycles contribute to the overall structure of the novel?

  11. At various points in the book, Ghosh invokes the art of photography. We are encounter photographers throughout the novel, and find ourselves in a photography shop at the story's close. Where else does photography enter the story, and how does it serve as a thematic thread? How does Ghosh weave the theme of photography into the overarching ideas about history and memory that permeate his novel? How does the photographer's art relate to Ghosh's conception of the human heart and mind?

  12. The style of The Glass Palace is elliptical, and at times, uneven. Ghosh dedicates an entire paragraph to describing the camera with which Mrs. Khambatta photographed Dolly and Rajkumar's wedding, yet the actual ceremony takes place, elliptically, when Ghosh writes, "At the end of the civil ceremony, in the Collector's ‘camp office', Dolly and Rajkumar garlanded each other, smiling like children." Other such major life events occur in only sentences, the births of children, the deaths of loved ones, wars, and other national catastrophes. Do you think this was an intentional literary choice on Ghosh's part? What effect does it have on the book as a whole, on your perception of the characters and their stories?

  13. As much defeat as there is present in The Glass Palace, there are also extraordinary tales of survival and hope. Can you think of some examples by which devastating defeat is countered by enormous hope? What claims does Ghosh make about the human spirit in this novel?

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Random House. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

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