Synopses & Reviews
"A morally and psychologically complicated novel that examines the deceptions and self-deceptions of India's Anglicized elite, a tribe deliberately created by Britain to think and act Britishly, still going strong after 50 years of independence." The New York Times Book Review, Summer Reading 2001 selection
Reading Group Guide
Brilliant and impassioned, The Glass Palace
is a masterly novel by Amitav Ghosh, the gifted novelist Peter Matthiessen has called an exceptional writer. This superb story of love and war begins with the shattering of the kingdom of Burma and the igniting of a great and passionate love, and it goes on to tell the story of a people, a fortune, and a family and its fate. The Glass Palace
tells of Rajkumar, a poor boy lifted on the tides of political and social chaos, who creates an empire in the Burmese teak forest. During the British invasion of 1885, when soldiers force the royal family out of the Glass Palace and into exile, Rajkumar befriends Dolly, the woman whose love will shape his life. He cannot forget her, and years later, as a rich man, he goes in search of her.
1. Dolly is one of the most compelling characters in The Glass Palace, and the one besides Rajkumar that the reader follows throughout the course of the novel. How does her identity and role evolve as she grows older, and takes on new positions in new locales? What was Dolly's function in the royal household while they were living in the Glass Palace and how does it change once they are forced in to exile in Ratnagiri? How does her role evolve once she marries Rajkumar and has children of her own? What is the significance of her relationship with Uma, and how does the friendship change Dolly as a character?
2. Although a work of fiction, real people and events appear throughout the novel, like the Burmese Nobel Peace Laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, the Japanese invasion of Malaya, World War II, the British invasion of Burma, and the deportation of the Burmese royal family. This history of Burma, Malaya, and India throughout the late 19th century and mid 20th century is the backbone against the fictional story is told. How do the real events and people lend credibility to the characters and their plight? Does the creation of these fictional characters make the history of the real people and places more immediate and comprehensible? If The Glass Palace were a strict work of nonfiction, would the issues raised by the book differ significantly? Do you think it is more powerful as a work of fiction? Amitav Ghosh was inspired to write The Glass Palace by his uncle, a self-made businessman, not unlike Rajkumar, who had taken on almost mythic status in Ghosh's family. It was originally going to be written as a memoir. Why do you think Ghosh may have decided to write a novel instead?
3. The Glass Palace considers the forces of war and governments and the role they play in shaping the fate of individuals, a people, and a country, and most specifically Burma. The novel begins with Burma's last king going into exile during the British invasion of 1885 and returns to Burma for its conclusion, but this time the country is under a repressive military regime. What point do you think Ghosh was trying to make by bringing the story back to where it started for its conclusion? How had Burma changed and been transformed as a country? How do we see the Burmese people themselves evolve throughout the novel in the face of war and different regimes? What remains constant in national identity and what easily changes?
4. In many ways Arjun is the character that most embodies the conflicting forces and loyalties that have come to shape the modern Indian identity. He is neither fully Burmese nor Indian, and culturally he is in many ways British. Why do you think Arjun is initially so successful in the British army? Do you think it is wrong of him to fight for Britain? Why do you think he resisted joining the Indian National Army for so long, and should he have joined at all? How do other characters in the novel express this conflict of national allegiance and identity?
5. The character of Rajkumar seems to embody everything that is both good and bad about British imperialism. He is a self-made businessman who through sheer enterprise and tenacity was able to raise himself out of his humble beginnings and build a teak empire, which is not unlike the imperialist urge to expand and improve. His empire, however, like Britain, relied on exploiting Indian workers for raw labor and disregarded most everything else. Do you think Rajkumar is a sympathetic character? Does he only prosper from imperialism, or does he suffer as well? What is the importance of his relationship with Dolly, and do you think it has redemptive force in his life?
6. Why do you think Ghosh goes into so much detail what the life of the royal family's life was like in exile in Ratnagiri? Why do you think they initially held on to their customs so tightly? Was Dolly's live better or worse after the family went into exile? At times there was something almost comical about the royal family and their helplessness once they were removed from the comforts of the Glass Palace. What do you think Ghosh was trying to convey by this?