Paradise of the Blind

by Duong Thu Huong, Thu Huong Duong

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How does one of Huong's female characters critique her male-dominated culture through her response to her societal role and background?

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In the novel, Que is Hang's mother, a woman who is deeply committed to the Vietnamese Confucian values of her society. Because Vietnam spent almost 1000 years under its Chinese overlords, Confucian ethics permeated every sector of Vietnamese culture during the ancient era. Please refer to the link below to read more about this.

Confucianism holds that five primary relationships are inherently important in any society. These are the relationships between a ruler and his subject; a husband and his wife; a parent and his child; a brother and his sister; and a senior and his junior acquaintance. Confucianism essentially favors a male-dominated and patriarchal societal structure. In such a society, social expectations are rigid and uncompromising. As the older sister to her only brother, Chinh, Que must fulfill her social obligations without complaint. Failure to comply would result in dishonor in the present life as well as for all eternity.

So strong are these Confucian values that Que sacrifices her health and life to meet the needs of her self-absorbed brother. Since Chinh is the only male heir in the family, Que feels that she is responsible for her brother's well-being and happiness. In the story, Chinh, a communist, forbids Que to continue associating with her husband Ton (a schoolteacher); Chinh asserts that there are only two types of respectable people in the world: the proletariat, who he calls the "beacon of the revolution," and the peasants, "faithful ally of the proletariat in its struggle for the construction of socialism." Since the professional class is what Chinh considers the "exploiter" class or "parasites," Ton must be persecuted and held accountable for his "crime" of dismissing communist values.

In the novel, Chinh is responsible for Ton having to flee his village, in fear for his life. During the communist occupation, the land reforms, led by men like Chinh, caused great anguish and suffering to the Vietnamese people. Yet, despite her brother's cruelty, Que persists in placating him and catering to his selfish desires. For example, Chinh demands his share of the profits from the sale of their parents' home. Despite her own poverty, Que makes sure that Chinh has his share, although there is no indication that she has allocated any money for her own share. In the novel, Que and her daughter, Hang, live in extreme poverty.

However, Que doesn't feel that she can readily dismiss her brother's demands. Chinh wants her to work in a factory and essentially position herself so that she can ascend the communist hierarchy. He accuses Que of denying him a right to a promotion and tries to shame her into submission. Accordingly, one of Chinh's colleagues supposedly has a sister who has been a militant since 1945 and who works at the Central Commission for the Women's Union. This colleague, despite his inferiority to Chinh, has supposedly been promoted to region deputy in the last year (all due to his connections to his sister).

Chastened, Que submits to her brother's draconian whims. At one stage, despite being near starvation, she uses her meager income (and money that Aunt Tam has left for Hang's welfare) to purchase lavish banquets for Chinh, his wife, and their two children. Que's groveling capitulation to her brother's will and her extreme preference for her brother's family causes her and her daughter Hang to suffer greatly from want of food. Not content with this state of affairs, Que even turns against Hang for refusing to support her martyred desire to sacrifice their lives on the altar of Confucian ethics.

Que's inability to respect her own right to personal agency or self-realization inspires the author's call (through Hang) for the "reinvention of hope and the rediscovery of human dignity." As the novel ends, Hang's Aunt Tam dies and leaves all her wealth to Hang. Despite this, Hang resolves not to carry on the traditions and societal obligations of her ancestors. She decides to chart her own path through life:

Forgive me my aunt: I'm going to sell this house and leave all this behind. We can honor the wishes of the dead with a few flowers on a grave somewhere. I can't squander my life tending these faded flowers, these shadows, the legacy of past crimes.

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