Waiting Essay - Essays and Criticism

Ha Jin

Essays and Criticism

A Novel of Character

Waiting is primarily a novel of character, and the character in question is Lin Kong. Like that other great literary procrastinator, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Lin is more suited to thinking than to acting. His chronic indecisiveness in pursuing his relationship with Manna condemns him, and her, to a life of “waiting.” Too passive to initiate action, he allows his life to be shaped by others. Moreover, just as Hamlet has a foil in the character of Laertes, who does not hesitate to take decisive action, so Lin Kong has a foil in the character Geng Yang. (A foil is a character that sets off another character by contrast.)

Geng Yang is everything Lin Kong is not. When Manna first meets him, she finds him interesting because he is so unlike anyone else she has known, so “manly,” which is not a word that could be used to describe the quiet, bespectacled, scholarly Lin. Lin is a rather refined man, whereas Geng Yang is coarse and vulgar in his speech. When he and Lin are both recovering from tuberculosis and share a room in the hospital, Geng Yang makes suggestive comments about the nurses and questions Lin about whether Manna is really a virgin. However, Lin does not allow this direct approach to offend him; on the contrary, he likes Geng Yang, seeing him as “a man full of certainty and capable of decisive action, a real go-getter.” Since it is common for people to admire in others what they lack in themselves, it is perhaps not surprising that Lin is drawn to this no-nonsense military man who knows how to get what he wants and does not allow obstacles, whether internal or external, to stop him. Indeed, it is Geng Yang who comes up with the idea of bribing someone in the village so that Lin will be able to get the divorce he so badly wants.

Geng Yang is also shrewd in his assessment of others. He quickly takes stock of Lin, and his observation is absolutely accurate. This is what he tells Lin when they are both in the hospital:

I know your type. You’re always afraid that people will call you a bad man. You strive to have a good heart. But what is a heart? Just a chunk of flesh that a dog can eat. Your problem originates in your own character, and you must first change yourself. Who said “Character is fate?”

When Lin replies, “Beethoven,” Geng Yang’s response is, “Yes. You know so much, but you can’t act decisively.” Geng Yang’s point is that what happens to people in their lives is a product of their own character, not the result of external causes or some unalterable fate. He then goes on to produce a saying of Chairman Mao that says much the same thing. Geng Yang well knows how to get through to Lin, the obedient party member who has been known to lecture at the hospital on the work of Chairman Mao.

Of course, Geng Yang later demonstrates by his brutal rape of Manna that a comparison between him and Lin does not in the end come out in his favor. Lin is a moral man who would never force himself on a woman. But certainly his basic goodness is compromised by his inability to act decisively, with courage and determination. After many years of their long-drawn-out attachment, Manna is well aware of this aspect of his personality: “She knew the workings of his mind: he would always choose an easy way out.” At one point she berates him for his attempt to think through their situation. “All you can do is think, think, think,” she says with exasperation and rushes out through the door.

Lin’s indecisiveness stems in part from the fact that he does not know how to love fully. He is incapable of loving his first wife, Shuyu, despite her many years of loyalty and devotion to him. He simply does not, until the very end of the novel, see her as a person in her own right, with desires and emotions of her own. Since he lacks empathy, he is...

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