Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 617
“An Unsound Sleep” takes place in Vietnam during the Vietnam War. The main concern of the story is how people’s lives are changed by political censorship and war. The story traces the Phan family’s downfall after a daughter and her husband participate in Buddhist demonstrations. Nhât Tiên skillfully incorporates descriptions of the local lifestyle and historical facts in his fiction.
The story begins in early afternoon in what is typically a boisterous, poor part of town. Old Phan is watching beggars and finishing off some dry shrimp and alcohol. He gets up to leave for the marketplace, then spots a rather cheap eating place. Again drinking alcohol and eating dry shrimps, he hears someone yelling about a fire at Lo-Gom hamlet. After expressing surprise, he finishes up his food and drink and heads for a park. He hears news of revolution in his state of half-sobriety. Afterward Old Phan heads for home.
After a day’s work as a porter for numerous storehouses in the marketplace Cholon, Old Phan usually sits on his doorstep enjoying a drink and peanuts. However, since the Buddhist demonstration, his daughter has been coming home from her greengrocer job later and later. Old Phan is very annoyed by the fact that dinner has been left to grow cold lately because his daughter, Miss Phan, is always late. He grows very impatient with her increasing lack of punctuality, when she used to get home before 7:00 p.m.
When Miss Phan finally comes home, Old Phan furiously reprimands her and accuses her of sneaking off with some man to some city corner for a love tryst. He warns her not to bring scandal and shame to the family. Miss Phan reassures him that she has not done and will never do such things, and that if she finds a lover, she will introduce him properly so no shame would be brought on the family.
Miss Phan tells her father why she is often late and shows him a stack of leaflets. Old Phan scolds her for going to pagodas and taking part in the Buddhist demonstrations. He fears his daughter’s illegal activities will place them in great danger from the government. She reassures him that she will be fine, dismissing his fears about censorship.
A few days later, Miss Phan brings home Su, a man she met at the demonstrations, to meet her father. Su is arrested two weeks later for being active in the Buddhist demonstrations, and Miss Phan also disappears. Old Phan visits Su in prison and worries about his daughter. After he is released from prison, Su marries Miss Phan.
Su loses his job working in a garage in Saigon, and the now-pregnant Miss Phan and her father become worried about their livelihood. The couple has to leave the city, and Su looks for a job elsewhere while Old Phan stays behind. One day he receives a letter from his daughter and has it read to him because he is illiterate. The letter says Su lost his promised garage job but has found another one at a bus parking lot even though his wages are poor.
Physically weakened, Old Phan staggers in his porter job. A few days later, he is thrown out of his house because he can no longer afford his rent. He sells what few valuables he has to pay the landlord. Haggard and weak, Old Phan leaves Lo-Gom hamlet for Saigon and picks pockets to survive. He sleeps in corners and on park benches with newspapers for a blanket. The only things of value that Old Phan carries with him are his daughter’s letters and her wedding photo wrapped in newspaper.
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