The experience of reading, while often done on one’s own, has the power to strengthen and expand the mind and the mindset, allowing entry to ideas that may not have been available to the reader previously. Such was the collective effect of books on the young minds of Luo, the Little Seamstress, and The Narrator; while they were each exposed to practically the same thoughts as gleaned from the legendary writings of iconic Western authors—Balzac, in particular—their interpretations made the ultimate difference.
The magic of the words spun so engagingly and in a thought-provoking manner eventually cast its spell on the specific need of each individual. While The Narrator and Luo were marked for re-education as a requisite of the Cultural Revolution, the Little Seamstress, on the other hand, was in dire need of education. The ending revealed the outcome of these goals in terms of friendship, love, life, power, and respect.
II. Power and Life as Read By The Narrator Of all three characters, The Narrator achieves the traditional level of one who comprehends the nature and purpose of reading books—which is the equivalent power resulting from learning new ideas and exploring uncharted territories. Books gave him the confidence to be what he never thought he could, and do things he would have never considered.
The discovery of this newfound power ironically meant new life in the midst of his training to eliminate intellectualism; thus it was a non-negotiable fact to claim the source, even if it meant breaking into Four-Eyes’ home, or having his “body as a rallying ground for armies of lice” (Dai Sijie 71) at the miller’s. The Narrator is a boy of gentle and unassuming character, making him the perfect foil to Luo’s aggressive and devil-may-care stance, born out of his privileged background.
The Narrator was of ample means as well, but Luo would outdo him in almost every aspect. The Narrator’s knowledge was the acquired taste of violin music, whereas Luo’s affinity for storytelling made him the more popular of the two. Even in their common interest in The Little Seamstress, Luo emerged as the victor. Thus when The Narrator discovered the power afforded not just by Balzac, but also of “Flaubert, Gogol, Melville, and even Romain Rolland” (Dai Sijie 119).
The last author’s work, Jean-Christophe, proved to be the most significant to The Narrator; it was perhaps the singular theme of “one man standing up against the whole world” (Dai Sijie 119) that resonated within his own reality. The separation from his parents and the humiliation that awaited them as part of the ostracized bourgeoisie, his forced stay in Phoenix Mountain, and the rules that he had to follow may have been the factors that The Narrator believed he had to fight.
At the end of the story, it was the values of love and loyalty imparted to him by the books he read that led him to act on the greatest adventure of his young life: protecting The Little Seamstress as a promise to Luo. III. Adventure and Conquest as Read by Luo The boy Luo appeared to be the most complete of all characters, specifically since his attitude and interests were simply within the conventional concept of heroes in books. A typical hero was one who exhibited exceptional courage, devoid of weakness, and saved the damsel in distress.
While Luo did read the books he and The Narrator got their hands on, he was particularly fixated with the work of Balzac, the first of which was about a “French story of love and miracles” (Dai Sijie 57). With this in his arsenal, Luo proceeded to use the book’s allure to capture the heart of The Little Seamstress, his own version of a storybook princess. Clearly, Luo’s relationship with books had more to do with his goal to conquer, rather than to enrich his mind.
Luo already had the gift of gab and an innate talent for spinning tales, and traveling great distances to read Balzac’s stories to The Little Seamstress was part of his concept of adventure. If heroes in novels presented jewelry and clothes to their ladies, Luo’s offering was his borrowed stories, intending to educate the girl on culture, as he was of the mind that “’she’s not civilised, at least not enough for me! ’” (Dai Sijie 27). Little did he know that his constant sharing of knowledge from Balzac’s books would not only impart culture, but change the way The Little Seamstress viewed her own life and value.
As an added note, it is apparent that Luo, among all the characters in the novel, did not undergo much change or progress; what he was in the beginning was the same as in the end. Again, this correlates with the narrative of a hero, who always begins and ends with the same amount of strength and bravado. IV. Freedom and Discovery as Read by The Little Seamstress The Little Seamstress, being a country girl, was the exact opposite of The Narrator and Luo; all she had to offer were her sewing skills, her sense of daughterly duty, and her exquisite beauty.
The last quality had been expounded upon by The Narrator at length, her face at one time he described as “oval... and the sparkle in her eyes—without doubt the loveliest pair of eyes in the district of Yong Jing, if not the entire region” (Dai Sijie 21). Being of no formal education, The Little Seamstress could not read, and thus relied on Luo to take her through the fascinating worlds she could not access. Her life, until the arrival of Luo and The Narrator, was dull, mundane, and repetitive—as life in the country during the Mao era was characterized.
It could be assumed that her skills in sewing were simply acquired for lack of choice; her father was a tailor, and a successful one at that. Women like The Little Seamstress, hidden in the mountains and tasked to do female-oriented jobs, had little or no chance to grow intellectually; and the ban on intellectualism during this period made this even worse. Thus her attraction to Luo may not just be seen on the superficial level, but also because she saw the boy as her only source of the kind of knowledge she lacked.
Ironically, it is her acquired knowledge of her celebrated beauty that allowed her to move forward and embark on a new life; by taking Balzac’s words to heart, “a woman’s beauty is a treasure beyond price” (Dai Sijie 184), The Little Seamstress set forth to make use of the one quality she knew she had and explore opportunities that would separate her from the mechanical life she was doomed to live. Literature offered her not just the exotic locales described to her by Luo, but also the understanding that she had to be part of such a world for her new dreams to be realized.
Dai Sijie’s description of her eyes as her best feature had become a metaphor for her new outlook. V. Conclusion The appropriation of books as the catalyst in the novel is more than just a technical device to introduce the idea of learning new ideas and philosophies; the more integral aspect is the environment in which they exist, a society where intellectual growth and exploration is deemed illegal and immoral. By creating this setting, the hunger for knowledge had become more palpable, and the acquisition of it, albeit secretly, became the weapons needed by the more vulnerable members.
Having young people on the verge of adulthood is perfectly suited for this argument, as they are the most capable of traversing the distances of new knowledge. Ironically, books and young people do not always mix, in less restrictive circumstances; but because of the situation into which they had been forced, books became their sole ally. Clearly, the author took on a critical view of Communism and how it greatly affected China and its people; by exposing the practice of ‘re-education’, Dai Sijie put forth a believable discussion regarding the natural human need for growth, individuality, and knowledge.