The story "Sabateur" is about an obvious conflict: that of the individual against an oppressive state. The story of "Miss Brill" has a less obvious conflict, but is full of symbolism centered around the protagonist's view of herself which changes and which is represented by her wearing of her little fur piece. In this story, Katherine Mansfield looks at the very small life of Miss Brill and how a random comment makes her see herself in a different light. It's a small story, but it shows the character's view of herself and of her reality being popped like a balloon.
In fiction, as in life, we can be oppressed by others ("Sabateur,") or by life itself ("Miss Brill"). In fiction, it is often one thing, one catalyst, which causes character change. What causes the character change in these two stories, and what is the nature of that change?
In his one-act drama, Huis Clos [No Exit], the Existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre creates a hotel hell of rooms garishly decorated in Second Empire furniture. In one room devoid of mirrors, three strangers, a man and two women, one of whom is homosexual, find themselves in serious conflict, only to realize that they are to spend eternity together. The male character, Garcin, ends the play with these words: "Hell is--other people."
In both short stories, "Miss Brill" and "Saboteur," it is the actions and remarks of others--the "hell" given to others--which effect the changes in the main characters of Manfield's and Ha Jin's narratives; for, these characters have life-changing experiences brought about by others which change their hearts permanently. In "Miss Brill" the protagonist is cheerful as she pulls out her little fur necklet and attends the band concert at the public garden where she delights in watching people as she listens. For Miss Brill, whose life is rather tedious as she reads to an old man and tutors students, the garden is a venue of delight in which she observes people and creates silent vignettes through which she can vicariously share as she listens and watches other people. But, on the Sunday of the narrative, just as she delightedly listens with a smile upon her lips, two young people move to the bench on which Miss Brill is seated and she begins to imagine what the "hero and heroine...just arrived from his father's yacht" will say. The eager lover who has been refused by the girl petulantly asks,
"Why does she come here at all--who wants her? Why doesn't she keep her silly old mug at home?"
"It's her fu-fur which is so funny," giggled the girl.
The romantic vignette is lost, the delight in the music fades. Miss Brill returns to her dark little room, so like a cupboard, and sits without moving for a long time. Finally, she removes the tragic fur necklet and replaces it in its box from which she imagines that she hears weeping.
In Ha Jin's "Saboteur," Mr. Chiun is also content until his life is invaded by gratuitous cruelty, the "hell" of other people. He and his new wife enjoy a meal before their train arrives to return them home after their honeymoon; however, two sadistic policemen decide to disrupt their lives by manhandling Mr. Chiun after he becomes angry because they have maliciously thrown hot tea on his and his wife's sandaled feet. A respected lecturer, Chiun finds this treatment very demeaning; consequently, he objects strongly to it. For his objections, Chiun is taken to jail, and his new wife must catch the train and return home. She later sends a lawyer, one of Chiun's former students, who has come to effect the release of her husband but, instead, is tied to a pole and left in the hot sun. Finally, in order for the lawyer to be released, Chiu must sign a paper, stating that he is responsible for his own arrest. Under restraint, Chiu signs with bitterness in his heart that he has been forced to admit to something he has not done.
As he and the lawyer, Fenjin, depart the jail where Chiu has had to admit to something he has not done, Chiu tells Fenjin he is very hungry but eats only a little. So, they must stop at another place and eat. Chiu repeats his meager meal at several places.
Fenjin was baffled by his teacher, who looked ferocious and muttered to himself mysteriously, and whose jaundiced face was covered with dark puckers. For the first time Fenjin thought of Mr. Chiu as an ugly man.
The bitterness in Chiu's heart over the injustice of his treatment--the "hell [of] other people"-- has transformed him into a vengeful man and he has become no better than the policemen. Eight hundred people contract acute hepatitis in Muji, a few of whom die.