I was discussing my blog entry on Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (Part 1) with a Chinese physicist friend, and she pushed me a little on how I would rewrite the ending, which seemed to twist me into such a knot. (This is per the novel, not the film, which I haven’t seen and which I’ve heard tweaks the ending somewhat.) For anyone interested, here is my response. (If this sounds quite critical, note from my first review that I loved the book but felt a little deflated at the end in a way that the conventional interpretation could not explain; hence, this follow-up.)
To clarify, I have no problem with the ending per se. My problem is with the conventional interpretation of the ending – that the little seamstress makes a good, wholesome decision. My reading (let’s call it the Romantic reading) may be no better than the conventional one (let’s call it the political reading), but here are my thoughts about why I feel this way.
First if I wanted the ending to look “good” for her decision, I’d give her a little more ambivalence about leaving her lover and friend. This is, on one level, a coming-of-age novel, and these kids learn much about love and friendship and loyalty along the way. She seems too ready to throw all that in the garbage at her first chance at the city. So I’d like to see a bit more emotion, sadness, mixed feelings about dumping them so quickly. They, after all, also have something at stake per what they are learning about love and friendship and loyalty.
Second, I’d drop the “blue Mao jacket” from her city slicker wardrobe. The cultural revolution has been negatively portrayed throughout the novel, and it’s hard not to see her putting on the Mao jacket as a symbolic gesture of putting on the (inauthentic) identity of the cultural revolution simply because it will help her leverage her interest in the city.
Third, I’d drop the last line, which equates female beauty with $$ value (to be gained in the city by dumping your friends and assuming the correct ideological self-presentation). I would have her learn something more complicated from Balzac, something more bittersweet about love, friendship, and doing what you need to do.
If we leave the ending the way it is, I can’t give up my Romantic interpretation (which sees her final act, as it is presented, as a sign of depleted values). I can SEE the other side that favors her decision as a cold political calculation that makes sense, but I can’t feel it in my heart.
So in order for me to feel the justice of the conventional interpretation, the ending would have to be modified to (a) be consistent with previous attitudes about the cultural revolution, (b) suggest that she really does care about Luo and her friend and at least has mixed feelings about discarding them without notice, and (c) the last line about Balzac would probably have to change into something a bit more emotionally complicated.
Maybe I’m wrong and all those conventional readers are right, but I have to be true to my heart 😊
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