54 pages 1 hour read

Salman Rushdie


Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1983

A modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, SuperSummary offers high-quality Study Guides with detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, and more.

Summary and Study Guide


Written by Salman Rushdie in 1983, Shame takes place in a fictionalized version of the city of Quetta in Pakistan. Although several characters are based on historic Pakistani politicians, the novel incorporates elements of magical realism to create a richly nuanced fable whose philosophical message transcends the boundaries of the ordinary. The novel explores themes of Shame Versus Shamelessness, the partition of Pakistan through Partition and Duality, and The Systemic Misogyny of Patriarchal Societies. Shame was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1983 and won the French Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger.

This guide uses the 1995 Vintage edition of the novel.

Content Warning: Shame depicts sexual assault, pedophilia, ableist perspectives, and graphic violence.

Plot Summary

Shame begins in a sprawling mansion in Q., at the edge of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The house is called Nishapur and is supposedly the former home of the poet Omar Khayyam. Three unusual sisters named Chunnee, Munnee, and Bunny dwell here; one of the sisters (which sister is a closely guarded secret) gives birth to a son who is named Omar after the previous owner of the home. The sisters raise him in isolation from the rest of the town, and he grows up feeling his difference from the world without understanding it. Finally, the sisters allow him to leave the boundaries of Nishapur and attend the local school, but only if he promises never to feel shame. Omar makes this promise and goes on to live a debauched life that does not prevent him from also attaining great acclaim as an immunologist.

Omar makes friends with Iskander Harappa. They have many adventures together, but eventually Iskander marries Rani Humayun and has a daughter named Arjumand, who obtains the nickname of “Virgin Ironpants” for her refusal to marry and for her steely determination to defeat the obstacles her gender places in the way of her achievement. Iskander enters politics on his 40th birthday; his rival is Raza Hyder. Raza has a storied past of his own; with his wife, Bilquis, he has two daughters: Sufiya and Naveed. Sufiya is the embodiment of shame, and Naveed is nicknamed “Good News.”

As the result of a fever that she has in her youth, Sufiya only reaches the mental age of nine; however, Bilquis believes that her daughter’s intellectual disability is God’s punishment for her own infidelity. Within Sufiya grows a “Beast” made up of the world’s unacknowledged shame; the “Beast” seems to be a separate entity from Sufiya, but its eyes flash through hers from time to time, and as the years roll by, it grows more powerful within her, gaining the ability to take her body over and wreak havoc. One on occasion, while possessed by the “Beast,” Sufiya rips the heads from hundreds of turkeys, killing them all and falling ill herself as a result. While attempting to treat her for the illness of shame, Omar falls in love with her, even though he is aware that she only has the mental state of a child.

During this time, the tumultuous political landscape of the nascent Pakistan involves numerous scandals and coups. Iskander rises to power and becomes the most popular figure in the country, especially in the wake of a short but brutal civil war that results in the secession of East Pakistan and the creation of the nation of Bangladesh. In an attempt to control Raza, Iskander appoints him to be the new leader of the very demoralized army.

Against this political backdrop, Sufiya’s violent episodes continue. At her sister Naveed’s wedding, Sufiya bites the groom. Despite Sufiya’s increasingly erratic behavior, Omar resolves to marry her, doing so in a quiet ceremony. He is forbidden to have sex with her; instead, he sates himself with her ayah (nursemaid), Shahbanou. Sufiya does not quite understand what her marriage is lacking, but she understands enough to know that wives are supposed to provide their husbands with children and that the sounds coming from her husband’s bedroom mean that Shahbanou has usurped her position. This realization brings her inner “Beast” of shame to life in a more violent way than before, and in a frenzy, Sufiya runs out into the night and rapes and decapitates four boys. When Raza discovers the bloodied burqa in Sufiya’s bedroom, he tries to hide her crimes.

Upon realizing what Sufiya has done, Omar and Raza drug her unconscious and lock her up in the attic. To keep her unconscious and everyone else safe, Omar must continue to give her injections twice a day, but despite these precautions, Safiya escapes her imprisonment. She ventures out into the countryside, where rumors of a mythological creature called the white panther begin to spread. Raza allows the public to believe that Sufiya’s acts of violence are the result of a terrorist group.

Meanwhile, Raza has overthrown Prime Minister Iskander, declared an autocratic regime, and had Iskander executed. Raza is then overthrown himself. Disguised in women’s clothing, he flees with his wife and Omar to Omar’s childhood home, Nishapur. The three do not receive the welcome they expect, for the three sisters have nursed a grudge against Raza, who was responsible for the death of their second son. They kill him brutally using a “dumbwaiter,” a lift or elevator that carries food up and down. Sufiya eventually comes for Omar. When she finds him, she beheads him as she has her other victims, and in the end, they both perish in a fire.