Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The dominant subject matter is war and government oppression. Though not clearly stated by Nhât, the setting is various towns in South Vietnam during the earlier part of the war and during the presidency of Ngo Dinh Diem (1955-1963). “An Unsound Sleep” creates a story around the Buddhist demonstrations that actually took place in South Vietnam during 1963. One of the primary reasons that the Buddhist demonstrations were severely suppressed was because the members of the Diem family (which was similar to the Kennedy family in the United States in terms of fame and fortune) were Roman Catholics who fervently disapproved of the monks’ suicides. Catholics were a minority in Vietnam during that time, amounting to no more than 10 percent of the population. However, they predominated in government positions because Diem was Catholic. The Buddists’ resettlement resulted from Diem’s severe discrimination against them.

Miss Phan and Su are portrayed as taking part in the Buddhist demonstrations. Although Nhât does not identify the demonstrations, they are most likely the May, 1963, demonstrations against Diem. The demonstrators are fired on by police. Miss Phan and Su are arrested and imprisoned along with thousands of high school and grade school students who are involved in protests against the Diem government. Although Diem is never mentioned by name in the story, readers familiar with the history of the Vietnam War will recognize what regime was...

(The entire section is 476 words.)