What is a summary of the story "Sketches from the 'Cattle Shed'" by Ding Ling?

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jameadows eNotes educator| Certified Educator

"Sketches from the 'Cattle Shed'" by Ding Ling is about a female political prisoner during the Cultural Revolution in China who does not abandon her sense of optimism even in the midst of great suffering. At the outset of the story, the narrator, who is not named, hopes to be able to go out into the yard of the prison to sweep. Even if her back hurts after sweeping, she regards this potential experience as one of "extravagant longings." She delights in thinking about the glimpse of freedom this opportunity would allow her and the sense of "boundless encouragement" that she would receive from working alongside the other prisoners.

However, she is not allowed to go out but instead sees a figure sweeping in the square who looks at her and opens his mouth as if to start to say something. In response, her heart beats wildly, but she is afraid of revealing her secret connection to this figure to the warden. Instead, she hides her secret and takes delight in what she calls "paltry pleasures," such as watching the prisoners shuffle to get their food and return to their cattle shed.

The warden, Tao Yun, was at first sympathetic to the narrator when the narrator arrived at the prison. However, after the Military Control Commission arrived and interrogated the narrator for a month, the warden turned heartless. Now, the narrator is not even allowed one book or newspaper. Instead, she must "sit blankly like a mute." She keeps poems and letters from her husband at first, but then they are stripped from her. She dreams of the time she lived with her husband in a thatched room in their house. 

As the spring weather arrives, more and more prisoners are assigned back to their old work units or to production brigades. She narrator is sent to a brigade called XX Brigade, where she knows that "I could expect no gentle treatment." Even though she is 65 and will have to leave her husband, who is referred to as "C." (he is the figure she glimpses from time to time in the prison yard), she maintains hope. She says, "every place had a certain number of scoundrels, and would certainly also have good people." As she leaves, she is allowed a meeting with C., who tells her to remain optimistic and that good times will eventually come. As she leaves the prison, a lone figure, likely C., waves to her as if she is heading out on a joyful trip.