Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Transformation, Power and Contradiction in Narrative Development in Dai Sijie's "Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress"

ENG 358 Paper 2 - WIU
Dr. Allison
April 9 2006

Transformation, Power and Contradiction in Narrative Development in Dai Sijie's Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

Change, as a fundamental human experience, is used in writing to develop and maintain coherence and order and is manifest in writing through the stylistic choices that writers make, but it may also be used to reveal larger themes in the text. In Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, Dai Sijie constructs change as a stylistic mechanism for commenting on the process of change: how it affects characters and how it relates to larger themes of storytelling, government, and power. Dai Sijie comments on change both implicitly and explicitly throughout the novel. His implicit exploration of change and growth is present in the narrator’s commentary, while his explicit exploration is present in the tangible changes that are experienced by central characters.

Both Luo and the narrator are aware of many of the changes that they are experiencing throughout the novel, but some changes aren’t as obvious as others. Sijie develops the processes of change that characters experience through the narrator’s commentary, as well as through dialogue and plot development. Sometimes Sijie expresses change as contradictory by limiting the narrator’s control over the narrative—the narrator announces and comments on the process of change, but change is more fully, and often contradictorily, developed and divulged through the actions of characters. At the beginning of the novel, the narrator contrasts his own storytelling abilities with Luo’s, and claims that “the only thing Luo was really good at was telling stories” (Sijie 20). The narrator also downplays Luo’s ability to orally relate stories when describes storytelling as “a pleasing talent to be sure, but a marginal one, with little future in it” (20). Not only is he insulting Luo by claiming that his only talent was of little value, but he is also downplaying the value of storytelling. Although both statements are inconsistent with messages about storytelling that are implicit in the novel, they were appropriate because Sijie included them at the beginning of the novel. The plot, as it develops in the second and third sections of the novel, is not in line with his statements because it becomes obvious that both Luo and the narrator are talented storytellers—they have different styles of telling stories and different strengths, but they also have some similar talents as storytellers and communicators. Luo’s strengths are that he is lively, extroverted, animated, and quick-witted, while the narrator’s strengths are that he is orderly, prolific, prudent, and inspired. The narrator proves to be an excellent storyteller (perhaps even better than Luo), Luo turns out to possess more talent than the narrator originally gives him credit for, and storytelling (as both an oral and written tradition) proves itself to be a powerful and worthy endeavor.

In Part II, Sijie contradicts his narrator’s comment on Luo’s storytelling abilities. In fact, the narrator himself directly contradicts his earlier statements about Luo and storytelling when he voyeuristically dwells on the image of Luo and the Little Seamstress. When he describes how he imagines Luo telling the Little Seamstress Balzac’s tale, he says, “Suddenly I felt a stab of jealousy, a bitter wrenching emotion I had never felt before” (Sijie 61). The narrator’s feelings towards Luo and in relation to storytelling are complex. There are multiple factors at play here—his jealousy stems not only from Luo’s romance with the Little Seamstress, but also from the role of storytelling in their developing romance. The role of books and practice of storytelling complicates their friendship just as much as does the presence of the Little Seamstress. She, like storytelling, creates a competitive dimension in their friendship. It is not the image of Luo and the Little Seamstress, but the image of Luo using his ability to tell stories to her that arouses jealousy within the narrator. At times storytelling unites them, but as the narrative develops, both characters change and storytelling becomes a divisive barrier. Even so, the barrier does not result in a separation of the characters from one another, but rather in a separation of the characters from their former relationships with the Little Seamstress and Storytelling. The change in the narrator’s feelings (from arrogant dismissal to covetous interest) implies that storytelling is powerful. Storytelling is powerful because it is transformative—the narrator, Luo, and the Little Seamstress are all transformed by storytelling and their relationships with each other are transformed, as well.

Sijie includes this growing jealousy in his narrator without explicitly connecting it to a process of change. The narrator’s jealousy indicates that his opinions of himself and Luo, as well as of storytelling, are changing. The tone of his previous comments about Luo as a storyteller possesses a tone of arrogance, but his jealousy implies that he either no longer feels superior over Luo or never felt superior in the first place. Through the narrator’s admission to feeling jealous, readers may infer that the narrator is changing, realizing and acknowledging his own feelings of inferiority and questioning his previous assumptions. Sijie contradicts earlier messages about characters and storytelling, and allows readers the room to ponder the interaction between change that is explicitly conveyed through the narrator and change that is conveyed implicitly through character and plot development, as well as the role of the contradictions that are presented through those mediums.

In many ways, the relationship between the narrator and Luo seems to be growing stronger because they use storytelling and performance for their benefit (to get out of work, to win over the old miller, to appease the tailor, and to entice the Little Seamstress), but what at first appears to be a purely beneficial experience for the two later becomes a complicated struggle. As their relationship with one another changes, their relationship with storytelling also changes. One pivotal example of these changes is evident in the scene in which the narrator and Luo steal the suitcase of books from Four Eyes. Before acting out their plan to steal the books, the narrator feels uneasy and has a dream that cautions against their plan. His dream and feelings of worry suggest that the books are powerful and that they have a powerful hold on the narrator. Despite his fears, the narrator presses on with Luo—their desire for the books outweighs the risk of being caught. The narrator appropriately describes their drive when they approach the suitcase. He says, “We were beside ourselves. My head reeled, as if I’d had too much to drink…Brushing them with the tips of my fingers made me feel as if my pale hands were in touch with human lives” (Sijie 104). The closer they are to possessing the books, the stranger the narrator’s descriptions become. While it is likely that fear would cause a perpetrator to hurry, the narrator and Luo take their time, thoroughly observing their feelings. There is a supernatural quality to the narrator’s description of his encounter with the books. He feels connected to something human and living in the book that makes him feel so unusual that he equates it with a feeling of drunkenness (a loss of equilibrium and sense of reality).

Sijie’s dramatic description points to the powerful nature of works of the “great Western writers” (104), suggesting that the narrator’s and Luo’s encounters with the books are transformative. Prior to this event, both the narrator and Luo were aware that they desired to have the books, but it isn’t until this moment that their behavior reveals the extent of their desire to readers. They feel a strong need for the books, which implies that the books themselves possess power. Though they do not recognize the hold that their desire for the books is taking on them, they do acknowledge that the books have transformative potential. Luo’s personal transformation in light of the books is most obvious when he declares that “with these books I shall transform the Little Seamstress. She’ll never be a simple mountain girl again” (105). He identifies the books as a means through which he can change (or modernize in this case) the Little Seamstress, acknowledging that books possess a transformative power yet not realizing how that power may be affecting his own behavior. In his dialogue with the narrator, Luo explicitly comments on the potential for change in the Little Seamstress.

Sijie further comments on the reality of change—not merely in the Little Seamstress, but in all of the characters—in his implicit construction of the plot. The narrator and Luo are also transformed by their interaction with books and their practice of storytelling, but they are not aware of it. Whatever they lack in self-awareness, Sijie makes up for in the plot (for example in their reaction to the Little Seamstress’ transformation). Sijie exposes a contradiction between a character’s ability to identify and label qualities about other characters and his ability to apply the same strategies in self-reflection. He also exposes the limited nature of each of the elements that construct narratives. Each element (whether character development or narrative language) is limited in its ability to individually convey a nuanced narrative, but when all of the elements work together, those limitations are no longer present. Instead, a complex, and often contradictory, interaction between narrative elements is employed, and this interaction supports Sijie’s examination of the relationship between storytelling and power.

The contradictions between the reality in each character’s statements (personal truths and commentaries) and the reality that is present in dialogue between characters and plot development is one strong example of the way that change functions implicitly and explicitly in the novel. They force us, as readers, to question and analyze why Sijie has chosen to convey change in such a way. Through character development and the progression of the plot, Sijie comments on the relationship between storytelling and power, particularly power dynamics in intimate relationships and governmental power. A person may say one thing and do another, and this is one of the types of inconsistencies that is present in the process of change in Sijie’s novel. Books were banned during the Cultural Revolution in China, but stories were still powerful. Luo and the narrator change and grow, as they are able to put on oral cinema shows and read literature. They are transformed by literature and the characters around them are simultaneously transformed. These transformations signal a transformation in readers’ understandings of change, and suggest that there is a correlation between storytelling and power. At the same time that Mao banned “bourgeois toys,” such as instruments and books, the laws he imposed revealed a narrative language (4). Governmental powers utilize a sort of story language in the laws that they create and enforce. In this way, Sijie’s construction of change in the form of implicit and explicit contradictions is a comment on the power that is inherent in storytelling, as well as how that power may be manipulated for political agendas.

Works Cited

Sijie, Dai. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. Trans. Ina Rilke. New York:
Alfred A. Knopf, 2001.

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