Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress Essay Questions

  1. 1

    Discuss the different literary works that appear in Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. Why do you think that Dai Sijie chose to highlight the books and authors that he did?

    Although Dai mentions many Western authors in this novel, Balzac is the one whose work appears most prominently. This prominence is due to Balzac's focus on both a woman's beauty, and philosophical insight. While the narrator is drawn towards the latter, the Little Seamstress is particularly drawn towards the former. Dai might also focus on Balzac because of the French author's realistic style and humanist worldview, which align closely with both Dai's own style and the nature of the story being told about re-education. The other author prominently mentioned is Romain Rolland, who wrote the narrator's favorite book, Jean-Christophe. This work is emphasized because of its dominant philosophy of individualism, which reflects the narrator's own intellectual development, and because it provides occasion for the narrator and Dai to comment on the political oppression under which the story takes place.

  2. 2

    How do the narrator and Luo change over the course of the novel?

    Though both boys grow during their time on Phoenix Mountain, they take very different routes to maturity. The narrator grows more romantic as a result of his reading, and indulges in elaborate escapist fantasies. For example, when Luo 'entrusts' the Little Seamstress to him, the narrator "pictured [him]self at the head of a routed army, charged with escorting the young wife of my bosom friend, the commander in chief, across a vast, bleak desert" (148). His intellectual sensibility is also influenced by his reading; after being exposed to Romain Rolland, the narrator begins to contemplate the power of independence. Overall, the narrator's pensive nature only grows deeper as his new ideas align with his life experience. Luo, on the other hand, seems to learn the most from his life experiences with the Little Seamstress. When she leaves him, he becomes cynical, renouncing the books that inspired her to leave him. His distinct personality as a man of action (as opposed to a man of thought) is only intensified as he suffers heartbreak.

  3. 3

    What do the narrator, Luo, and the Little Seamstress learn from each other?

    When they meet the Little Seamstress, the narrator and Luo are immediately taken by her beauty. However, they also assume she would need to be 'civilized' before being a suitable romantic partner. Luo enthusiastically pursues this goal by reading Balzac to the Seamstress, teaching her the city dialect, and showing her more cosmopolitan fashions. Obviously, these lessons do greatly influence the girl. However, at the end, the Seamstress explains that what she learned most of all was that a woman's beauty should be treasured. In other words, she learned the value of realizing her own potential. In a way, she learned more from the books than the boys did. What this teaches Luo is that romantic love cannot be predicated on a patronizing separation. Finally, the narrator, the most contemplative of the three, learns of the power of love and beauty, and the way that both can be explored equally through life and art. The fact that he is telling this story, attempting to relate the insights he does, shows how profoundly he was affected by his friends - and finally, the fact that he ends with the Seamstress's escape suggests that she delivered to him the most profound lessons of all.

  4. 4

    Analyze the narrator and Luo’s relationship. What does Dai accomplish by having two protagonists instead of one?

    Having two protagonists allows Dai to enrich the characterization and structure of the novel. Luo and the narrator's personalities contrast, which heightens the story's drama and throws important characteristics into relief. By having the thoughtful, subdued narrator observe Luo's actions – which are often impulsive and flamboyant – Dai gives readers a chance to ponder the narrator's deeper thoughts while also observing the consequences of Luo's choices. Further, it allows Dai to explore two different approaches to making and understanding art (whether novels or performing). The narrator contemplates, while Luo performs. Also, the dynamic of the narrator and Luo's relationship changes over the course of the novel. At its beginning, the narrator seems to consider himself inferior to Luo, who is more extroverted. However, the narrator develops self-confidence by the end of the novel, showing not only the strength to help the Little Seamstress to procure an abortion, but also the insight to keep the secret from Luo.

  5. 5

    What does this novel say about the Cultural Revolution practice of re-education? How does Dai deliver this message?

    Overall, the novel is more concerned with human relationships than it is with political issues. However, Dai subtly and constantly weighs in on the human rights abuses that were consequences of re-education. These abuses included separating teenagers from their families, subjecting them to back-breaking labor, and developing in them a fear of transgression. However, their time on the mountain also teaches the narrator and Luo practical skills, and helps them develop a more mature attitude toward relationships. Ultimately, Dai suggests that while the narrator and Luo's experience had both negative and positive aspects, it is never the place of one person to try to re-educate another. He emphasizes this by showing how Luo's attempts to 'civilize' – or re-educate – the Seamstress backfire when she abandons him for the city. This instance is a perfect example of how Dai considers political questions in the novel; he examines them through their influence on human behavior and relationships.

  6. 6

    Compare and contrast the city characters with the villagers.

    At the beginning of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, city characters like the narrator, Luo, and Four-Eyes seem to have nothing in common with the people from the village. Although they have only graduated from middle school, they are nevertheless far more educated than the villagers are. Their perspective leads them to despise the primitive customs of and low standard of living on the mountain. However, the narrator and Luo eventually realize that they have much in common with the villagers. They all suffer under the rule of the village headman, and most of the villagers show an enthusiasm for music and stories equal to their own. Ultimately, Dai demonstrates that the differences between village and city are insignificant compared with the common qualities that bring people together, provided one is willing to look for those similarities.

  7. 7

    Why are the narrator's dream sequences significant?

    The narrator has three major dream sequences: he breaks into Four-Eyes's shack; the Little Seamstress falls off the cliff; and the suitors attack him before he is rescued by the Little Seamstress. Each of these sequences expresses the narrator's fears for the future. It's also notable that each of them features a benevolent female figure. (In the first dream, Four-Eyes's mother smiles at the narrator when he tries to break in.) The dreams certainly reveal the narrator's contemplative nature, as well as his perceptiveness. The fact that Luo dismisses the dreams reveals a stark difference between them. The narrator's fears over living under the confines of the Cultural Revolution manifest into these sequences, constantly reminding us of the psychic toll of repression.

  8. 8

    Analyze the narrator's visit to Yong Jing to arrange the Seamstress's abortion. What does he learn in this episode?

    On its surface, the episode in Yong Jing merely serves to put obstacles in the protagonist's path. However, it also allows Dai to explore the extent of repression and fear in the Cultural Revolution. In many ways, the narrator realizes how his re-education is far less grievous a punishment than that which other people suffer. The preacher and the police officer both lose their jobs because of minor infractions, and the factory worker loses his fingers. The fact that no one is willing to help the narrator reveals the extent of fear and paranoia that permeated this time period, in effect separating people from one another. Finally, the episode ends when the narrator bribes the doctor with a book, again underscoring how simple pleasures like a Western novel gain extra value in extreme circumstances. By opening the story up to a larger canvas here, Dai reminds us of the repressive, fearful mentality that permeates the entire novel.

  9. 9

    Why does the Seamstress leave at the end of the novel?

    The Little Seamstress explains that she leaves because she learned about the power of a woman's beauty. 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 were 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. Ultimately, when she realizes the extent of her repression, she decides to declare her identity by leaving for the city, where she will attempt to realize her potential. Her escape is a declaration of individualism, a refusal to be defined solely by her repressive community.

  10. 10

    Luo is the only character in the novel with a proper name. Why do you think this is?

    By only giving Luo a proper name, Dai differentiates his protagonist from the other characters he meets. It is important to note that in some translations of the novel, and in its film adaptation (written by Dai), the narrator also has a proper name – Ma. Whether or not we accept the narrator's name as Ma, he is obviously central. By giving Luo a proper name, Dai makes him more relatable than the other characters, and ensures that the reader will view him as a protagonist alongside the narrator. This makes sense given Luo and the narrator's attitude towards the villagers––they often an 'us-versus-them' mentality. Interestingly, Four-Eyes occupies a liminal space between having a name and not having one. While 'Four-Eyes' is technically a proper name, it is presumably not the character's actual name. This partial naming makes sense because Four-Eyes is another city youth and thus shares certain qualities with the narrator and Luo, but he is not a true friend to them. Finally, by referring to the characters using epithets, Dai also enhances the novel's conversational narrative style.