Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress Summary and Analysis of Part III, Chapters 8-9


Chapter 8

The Little Seamstress confesses to the narrator that she is pregnant. This condition is devastating because the law prohibits women from having children before they are married – and the minimum age for marriage is 25, so neither the narrator nor Luo could marry her to legitimize the child. Abortion is also illegal.

The narrator travels to Yong Jing in hopes of consulting the gynecologist there for advice. In the makeshift Yong Jing hospital waiting room, he endures the glares of other female patients, wishing he had disguised himself as a woman. As patients enter and exit the main office, he glimpses the gynecologist, but eventually leaves, realizing he will need to consult the man in private.

That evening at a restaurant, the narrator meets a police officer who has been fired for sleeping with two women. However, the police officer is reluctant to offer advice.

In desperation, the narrator decides to consult a former Christian preacher who now works as Yong Jing's street sweeper, a punishment placed on him after his Latin Bible was discovered. The narrator and Luo had noticed him on their previous visits.

When he learns that the preacher is dying of cancer, the narrator visits him at the hospital. There, he finds the man on his deathbed, his family crowded around him and begging him to say something positive about Chairman Mao into a tape recorder, so that they can avoid later persecution. However, the preacher will only speak his Latin prayers.

The narrator suddenly spots the gynecologist passing in the hallway, and rushes after him. When he learns from an orderly that the doctor is preparing to conduct surgery on a factory worker who has lost his fingers, the narrator walks into the surgery chamber and quietly helps the gynecologist stop the man's bleeding.

After the crisis is over, the gynecologist asks the narrator what he wants. The narrator introduces himself - it turns out that the gynecologist knows his father. But when the narrator asks for help with his ‘sister’s’ pregnancy, the gynecologist angrily calls him a liar, knowing that the narrator's parents do not have a daughter.

As a last resort, the narrator offers the gynecologist a Balzac novel if he will perform an abortion for the Little Seamstress. To prove he has access to the book, he shows the doctor the passages he had transcribed into his jacket. The gynecologist recognizes the translation by Fu Lei, and mentions that Fu has been labeled a class enemy. This news brings tears to the narrator's eyes.

The following week, the gynecologist performs the abortion. The narrator gives him Ursule Mirouët and also throws in his favorite book, the first volume of Jean-Christophe. On their way home, the narrator and the Little Seamstress stop at the cemetery to pay their respects to the preacher, who died two days earlier. Though he is unsure why, the narrator believes the preacher was instrumental in providing guidance. They promise to one day return and erect a beautiful memorial for him after the Cultural Revolution ends.

Chapter 9

Chapter 9 begins with the narrator and Luo burning their books outside of their hut. The narrator then catches the reader up to what has happened.

During the months after her abortion, the Little Seamstress modified her accent, cut her hair, and crafted fashionable clothes for herself. One day, the tailor found them in their village to tell them that she had left that morning for the city, to make a new life. Luo immediately raced after her, and the narrator followed him.

After a long, exhausting sprint, they found her at her grandfather's grave, near where the narrator first met Four-Eyes's mother. Luo privately tried to dissuade her from leaving, as the narrator watched from a distance. He saw her run off, and called her name. She merely ran faster.

Luo returned to the narrator, and explained that “she had learnt one thing from Balzac: that a woman’s beauty is a treasure beyond price” (184).


In Chapter 8, Dai details the narrator's efforts to procure an abortion for the Little Seamstress in Yong Jing. Before he directly approaches the gynecologist, he makes several attempts to procure advice from locals. These people neither help him nor advance the plot, but they do allow Dai to further define the novel's setting. For most of the story, Dai has discussed Yong Jing as a cosmopolitan foil to the village. However, we here discover how provincial it truly is, and how fully the Cultural Revolution has infiltrated it. The people he meets there have encountered their own problems, like unemployment or cancer. These are real and painful issues, ones that the narrator and Luo have yet to fully encounter because of their youth. The town's unique character comes alive through these descriptions, again revealing Dai's appreciation for life outside of the urban and educated scene.

Like the narrator and Luo, the people of Yong Jing have also had their lives destroyed by the Communist government’s policies. The police officer and preacher both lost their jobs because of minor infractions, and the factory worker has lost his fingers in an accident. Although accidents happen in factories around the world, the high production quotas and lack of safety equipment in 1960s China meant that these incidents were common (Edles 395). Further, Mao's failed communal model meant that facilities like the hospital were often poorly run. Because of these dangerous truths, people like the police officer are frightened of even a casual conversation. To openly discuss an abortion could cost him far more than simply a job.

Similarly, Dai emphasizes the Christian preacher’s status as a martyr; he refuses to recite Mao’s sayings even on his deathbed. Though the narrator is uncertain how the preacher helps him, he feels certain that the man was instrumental in their success. Perhaps this is a comment on the old man's bravery, his refusal to submit. The contrast between the preacher - who remained true to his faith until his final breath - and the many other characters who hypocritically praise the government for their survival, is significant. The preacher embodies the individualism that impressed the narrator in Jean-Christophe, and arguably inspired him to force his way into the surgery room.

The novel’s final chapter is full of surreal imagery, which has heretofore only been used in the narrator's dream sequences. The narrator likens Luo and the Seamstress to “stone figures leap[ing] into motion” (183-4). As she flees, he also absurdly offers her a sweet potato to bribe her into returning. (This detail echoes the moment in which the narrator offered a sweet potato to Four-Eyes’s mother in exchange for information.) Stylistically, this surreal imagery reinforces the harsh surprise that the girl's decision brought, the atmosphere of unexpected change in which these events take place. Just as the narrator and Luo are blindsided by the Seamstress’s departure, readers may be disoriented by the final chapter’s change in style.

In addition to the shift in mood, Dai also inverts the chronology of the final chapter, first recounting the book burning and then describing the Seamstress’s departure. After the Seamstress’s abortion –arguably the novel's climax – readers may expect a subdued conclusion. Luo’s shocking choice to burn his books shakes the audience from this expectation, and engenders curiosity and suspense. The inverted chronology may also help readers to understand the narrator and Luo’s shock over the Seamstress’s departure. However, Dai foreshadows the Seamstress’s decision at several points in the novel. These include the numerous passages in which she is associated with ravens, as well as her conversation with the narrator at the preacher’s grave. They resolve to build the preacher a memorial when they are rich, implying that both of them have the potential to lead successful lives off the mountain.

The Seamstress’s surprising choice is in many ways inspired by the boys themselves. For much of the book, Dai seems to implicitly approve of Luo's patronizing attempts to 'educate' the girl. Though he certainly feels real affection for her, Luo sets out to mold her into the likeness of the women he knew and misses. However, his efforts backfire when she moves to the city – without him. It is as though Luo wanted her simple enough to be dependent on him, but sophisticated enough for him to enjoy. Dai makes no explicit comment on the distinction between city and rural life, but does suggest that the two can never fully co-exist. We cannot have everything at once.

The final line is profound and nuanced. One could understand the sentiment as superficial: she wishes to exploit her beauty in the city. However, the significance is far greater. The Little Seamstress, as a rural victim of Mao's policies, had little opportunity to develop a self-worth and individual identity. Instead, the villagers are forced to work under a communal model, unable to question the dictums enforced from above. These dictums manifest into situations like her lack of options when she becomes pregnant. These strict expectations are horrific to consider, and help us understand the challenges of repression.

However, both through the boys and through Balzac, the Little Seamstress comes to develop a self-worth. Her admiration of her beauty is not vanity; it is a statement of pride in who and what she is. Rather than being defined the way that the village wants her to, she will define herself. She will not waste her "treasure" on people who refuse to properly appreciate it, but will attempt to declare her own identity to the city world, which might allow some semblance of individual liberty and expression. She is refusing to submit, thereby embodying the spirit of Jean-Christophe with more power than the narrator ever has.

The final sentiment allows Dai to implicitly praise the value of education and literature. Had she never read Balzac, the Little Seamstress might have married a common man and lived the rest of her life with only an inkling of what she was missing. It was only through exposure to other perspectives that she became conscious of what the world was doing to her. It is telling that the narrator chooses to end his story here. He does not tell us how he and Luo survived re-education, because re-education is not his story's subject. Instead, ending the story here suggests that the narrator wished to explore the simultaneous beauty and sadness of education and individualism. He wants to tell us about his childhood, about how he learned that life is not made of certainties like those imposed by the Communist government, but is instead made of questions, ideas, and mysteries. The story ends here because he has no answer to the profound nostalgia he feels when he remembers the Little Seamstress. All of the complexities are summed up in that final declaration.