The story setting is the early 30's with a detailed description f peasant life. The author gave a patronizing view of the peasantry. From the onset, the author explores the countryside setting of a people not willing to embrace change, a people conservative enough to stick to the traditions of their culture and equally unwilling to be swayed away to western ways. Their skepticism is perfectly portrayed in the way they view the girl students and Congwen perfectly allays the segregation of the community from the fast approaching realms of civilization. The story achieves a certain balance as he parallels the civilized life and makes it exist alongside the ancient life without any interferences whatsoever between the two lifestyles.The introductory theme is the child bride custom which later unravels itself as thematically essential. Congwen introduces the story through this custom and goes further to explore the practice seemingly a norm in the society at the time. The practice was undertaken without the will and whim of the bride, who happened to be older than the bride, or the acknowledgement of the groom who would be relatively young, seemed to favor the parents whose main aim would be the siring of an heir who would inherit the family property. The prospect of sleeping with an unknown man would frighten many of the girls and only few would bravely embrace the marriage, but the author's strategy makes Xiaoxiao one of those who weather the storm. Infact he observes, "So on her wedding day, she was all smiles, neither abashed nor afraid." The author takes an insightful indulgence on the life after marriage of Xiaoxiao, an establishment that enriches the thematic content throughout the story. Xiaoxiao comes out as an astute character. For a girl orphaned at her age it is difficult to imagine the boldness she has. She embraces the new life and adapts to it so easily that she seems to perfectly fit into the family. For a girl married out at her age, with no relatives save for one uncle who seems to care less, her character stands out throughout. In the time of her only fall, luck stands up for her and she is not sold. When she delivers a baby boy the family rejoices and cannot offer to sell her and this makes her more than satisfied. Though not a fault of her own, she should never have given in to the lies of Huagou. However, she beats other characters in terms of awareness and sensitivity. She envies the girl students and is happy to be associated with them even in mockery, denoting an interest in the one opportunity which she missed; education. Naturally one expects her to do something to regain that chance but it never comes to be. It gets worse when Huagou impregnates her and she tries severally to abort for her mind is diverted from the girl students.Shen Congwen uses a third person narrative point of view. This provides a chance of review and expansion of concepts for better perception in the audience. As an observer, he seems wary of the life in the ancient practices and the civilization life symbolized by the girl students, their practices as well as their lifestyle. The life in towns represents the civilization as the peasant life of the family Xiaoxiao is married to symbolize the ancient lifestyle of the rural parts. Through explicit and easy to decipher language, Congwen perhaps relays his story and explicitly explores his theme by expanded discussion necessitated by his strategy of writing.
The writer uses symbolism to maximum effect. When describimg Xiaoxiao's adaptation to married life he says, "She flourished like a castor-oil plant growing unnoticed in wind and rain in a comer of the yard. As if taking no thought for her husband, she shot up from day to day." When Hougou takes her, the writer symbolically introduces the emergent husband with more juicy berries alongside mussels and pebbles. All XiaoXiao could do was to smile. This though should not divert our attention from the acts of Xiaoxiao who can't be married for the family to recoup their losses yet gives birth to a boy whom is loved by all in the family. It seems ironical that months ago, they were bitter and aggrieved over hers act with Huagou and now "Grandma" happily seeks for him a bride.
Unlike most literary works, the author enhances his themes and characterizations through dreams. Xiaoxiao is initially brought out as a bright girl who dreams of a wealthy future. Her dream to one day pick up big copper coins, eating goodies, climbing trees, turning into a fish and gliding through the water, or of shrinking till she was so
light that she soared up to the stars, all on her own, through rays of white and gold" portrays her as a girl capable of achieving heights and with a dreaded vision for a good life. She seems to enjoy her night sleep, a sign of contention and luck. Lady luck seems to stand in her way throughout and the only time she can be said as not smiling was the time she was impregnated.
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The aforementioned girl student or "coed" has a basic significance. The author uses this concept to bring to the reader's attention the notion of civilization. For a start, the girls are of the am age as Xiaoxiao yet are not married. Unlike Xiaoxiao, they walk with a determination and a sense of purpose in life, singing and chatting happily. He even concedes that they never hold out for marriage as most grow to be lawyers and live in towns. The student girls are moved around in box-like contraptions run by machines, of different sizes and shapes. 'Gandad' also inferred that they could befriend boys and sleep with them without need for betrothal gifts. The whole concept elaborates a society alienated from the dynamics of modernity, a society unwilling to conform to the required realms of change and even more unwilling to venture into the advisable world of curiosity. The values they attach to their practices are generally too modest and they cannot stand to be challenged by a culture they consider modern. His comparison of peasant life and the life of the student girl gives us a clearly dimensional instinct on the attitude of the peasants (whom he represents) towards the modern life.The parallelism of the theme of culture clash enhanced throughout the story is brought out by the happy ending. The author uses this tact to instigate a point of personal observation and choice by refusing to side with neither of the factions and leaving the reader to his/her own choices. This lack of bias promotes a reader choice of sides as well as authenticity to the whole manuscript. The author played his part; the reader should now play his.There are myriad themes in the novel. The theme of change dominates the text. Pitting the east versus the west, the writer gives a detailed description of the practices inn the east at the time. He focuses on that crucial detail that will essentially differentiate the east from the west and partakes of the theme an integral part in the creation and modification of the history of the side at those times. The introduction loudly screams of a practice common to the natives but utterly undesired in the West. The comparison of the "coeds" and Xiaoxiao speak volumes in terms of the renaissance period and the willingness of Mother-in-law affirms their astute stand that they are no where near giving up their treasured practices. As for the girl student's they are likened to their predecessors who live a "strange" life in town, no pigs, hens or cattle, and they have taken up modest careers like law.The theme of family relations is broadly focused on. There seems to be a cohesive co-existence within the family. The presence of the parents of Xiaoxiao's husband as well as their parents means that the bond is tight and has remained so. The purpose of the marriage is of course the continuation of the family line and it seems to mater less who or how those lines are maintained. When Xiaoxiao gives birth to a baby boy, the memories of Huagou seem to be fast lost within them and the focus is how to keep the family united as they aim for a better future. Credit goes to Congwen for such a skillful manuscript and insight into the family values he sought to protect and enhance as well as retaining them within the text as an effective reminder that he never sought to disrupt the family setting. The only time the family ties are put to test is when Huagou takes Xiaoxiao, a test the kinship association is able to pull through triumphantly.Apart from the above two, the most important theme is feminism. Since the passing on of her parents, a lot is asked of Xiaoxiao. She is expected to keep herself for her husband, married off to a "manikin" of a husband and has to bear the burden of keeping herself for a man a number of years younger than her. The trend seems to cut across all the feminine characters save for the girl students. It leaves the reader with a mouthful of questions about the male gender who seem less discussed by Congwen. The hopes of the society and the practices seem pegged on the girl child.To conclude, Congwen produced a masterpiece of writing in a time when writing itself was a tiresome and resource consuming task. The manuscript itself does not spell such as is a perfectly conjured up story that perfectly hit the target, eliciting the required response from avid readers of all angles.