Like Traces of Love, this is a story, set in modern China after Boxer Rebellion but before Communist takeover, in which Chang casts a jaundiced eye on the relations between men and women. The happiness prior to marriage is placed in sharp contrast to the dullness and resentment, even disappointment, after marriage. To Chang, marriage is overrated. It’s particularly scathing portrait of the shallowness of the characters, who are more concerned with appearance than with living.
Yuqing is the bride-to-be, born of an eminent family in decline. She seems to know how to play the social system, but being in a family in decline, she is urgent to find a husband. Da Lu, with a degree from overseas university, is the perfect match. She spends the entire allowance from her parents for wedding preparation on herself. In the opening scene her future sister-in-laws are heard bouncing off nasty, derogatory comments about Yuqing, who probably lies about her age and looks heavy-boned. But the sister-in-laws are as fastidious as the bride, thinking they ought to be the focus of the wedding. The bride is no more than the end credits of a movie, whereas they are the much-anticipated upcoming feature. The sisters despise her as the social climber, undeserving of their brother.
The future mother-in-law, Mrs. Lou, is stuck in an unhappy marriage and she is miserable. Her marriage to Mr. Lou, a scholar who recently turned noveaux rich, is always deemed unequal in the social circle. Her family would gang up on her and remind her of her shortcomings. There is a telling line when Mrs Lou observes that without the servants in the house, her husband would have no need to treat her with any consideration as there would be no one to put a display on for:
It wasn’t as if she didn’t realize that if the people who cared about her were all to die, leaving her and her husband to rattle around in the empty house alone, her husband would not bother about her at all. Why be a responsible husband when there’s no one to see?
In the presence of servants and friends she often puts on a show to disguise this unhappiness. But her tragedy is that she cannot even come to terms of her sadness, for she tries to ward off this sadness by dismissing it as nuisance. Chang, relentlessly, nails her:
With thirty years of failure under her belt, she becomes fearless.
Chang really captures that essence of failure, of a disappointed life. Even the bride is not spared. With all the money she spent on herself and tried to make herself pretty, she is no more than “a corpse still not awaken from the grave on resurrection day.”
Great Felicity along with six other stories are available in one collection published by NYRB under the title Love in a Fallen City.
Filed under: Books, Chinese Literature, Eileen Chang, General Fiction, Literature, Love in a Fallen City Tagged: | Books, Chinese Literature, Eileen Chang, General Fiction, Literature, Love in a Fallen City, Short Story