Insight Text Guide author Anica Boulanger-Mashberg discusses Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger
At first glance, Aravind Adiga’s 2008 Man Booker–winning novel The White Tiger is a headlong, near-epic, slyly humorous, tension-building story of one man’s audacious plans to rise above the soul-destroying poverty of modern India through whatever opportunities he can find – even when this includes murder. At second, third, fourth, and further glances, however, this text offers more sophisticated layers perfect for study. It reads almost like genre fiction (the suspense as Balram builds towards finally telling his audience the details of the murder is as good as any telly series cliffhanger) but stands up to deep analysis like all good capital-L Literature. Perhaps an unusual thing, to find both in one book. Of course, English study at this level is about serious investigation and concentrated skill development – but why shouldn’t students be engrossed by the narratives too?
Though engrossing, the book’s not always easy. I found Adiga’s protagonist, Balram, often frustrating and sometimes despicable. Yet at other times he is so charming and shrewd, and always intriguing – which is exactly how he chooses to present himself. He is an unstable character at the best of times; one who has had many names while also evoking a kind of everyman-ish anonymity (‘Munna’, one of the many names by which he has identified himself, merely means ‘boy’). There are plenty of opportunities throughout the text for students to come to terms with the notion of an unreliable narrator. In consciously constructing himself as an ‘entrepreneur’ – a figure he believes must be ‘straight and crooked, mocking and believing, sly and sincere, at the same time’ (p.9) – Balram works hard to build a public version of himself for his two audiences: the explicit audience of Wen Jiabao, the Chinese Premier (to whom he addresses his narrative, in a series of letters) and the implied audience of readers of the novel. This invites a detailed discussion not just of how Adiga creates a layered character, and how this character reveals both what he intends to tell us and also what we discover about him through events, but also of how the text creates meaning through the central textual feature of character development. How does Adiga manage to show us, for example, the improbability of Balram’s success, despite his own blinding confidence and self-promotion in both his stories of his past and in his direct addresses to Jiabao? And how, at the next level, does this communicate the authorial values and ideals embedded in the text? How does the creation of character – through narrative perspective as well as language choice – knot together with the biased portrayal of events both personal and national (even global) in order to create a holistic and coherent portrait of the world around us? How does the text’s structure help Adiga shape his readers’ interpretation of the text’s events and actions? These are all useful areas for exploration within the current Study Design.
The conflicts in the unreliable narrator’s personality not only underlie the novel’s main events (particularly the murder of his master, Ashok) but also underscore one of its central themes: contrasts of extremes (poverty vs. wealth; ambition vs. failure; luck vs. agency; and the ever-present symbolic motif of the sociocultural environments known as ‘the Darkness’ and ‘the Light’). Further, the tensions within Balram echo one of the engaging ethical examinations of the text: that of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. The narrative invites judgements of Balram’s actions, particularly the murder. But at the same time, context (such as the oppressive poverty) and minor events (such as the incident when Pinky runs over a child) offer complicating notions of morality. This will strongly challenge students to explore the values Adiga endorses or critiques, and in turn how these are constructed in the text. For example, the language and imagery used to contrast the poverty of rural India differ from his descriptions of the suffering the poor experience in the city, yet there are also similarities. This promotes a close examination of the textual features, in turn deepening students’ responses, both analytical and creative, to the text.
Students will need some understanding of the caste system and India’s contemporary social and political state, but Adiga knows this, and has incorporated most of the necessary background and context into the narrative itself: as Balram educates the Premier, he also educates his real audience. This provides two particular areas of useful examination for students and teachers. First, discussion of who the audiences are for texts (both ‘real’ and implied) and how this can shape authorial decisions (and in turn, how authorial choice influences readers’ understanding). Second, the importance of context and background, and how these contribute to the way that a text presents its values and themes.
- How does the narrative structure help Adiga shape his readers’ interpretation of events and actions in the text?
- How does Adiga show us the improbability of Balram’s success, despite his own confidence and self-promotion in both his stories and in his addresses to Jiabao?
- How does the creation of character (through narrative perspective as well as language choice) tie together with the biased portrayal of events, both personal and national, in order to create a holistic and coherent portrait of the world around us?
- How does Adiga’s construction of an unreliable narrator help convey some of the ideals and values embedded in the text?
Need help getting to grips with The White Tiger? Purchase our Insight Text Guide for The White Tiger by Anica Boulanger-Mashberg. With chapter-by-chapter analysis, discussion of characters and relationships, practice essay topics, in-depth analysis of themes, ideas and values, and much more, the Insight Text Guide for The White Tiger provides a clear, comprehensive and accessible analysis of the whole text.
Insight Text Guides are produced by Insight Publications, an independent Australian educational publisher.