Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 476

The dominant subject matter is war and government oppression. Though not clearly stated by Nhât, the setting is various towns in South Vietnam during the earlier part of the war and during the presidency of Ngo Dinh Diem (1955-1963). “An Unsound Sleep” creates a story around the Buddhist demonstrations that actually took place in South Vietnam during 1963. One of the primary reasons that the Buddhist demonstrations were severely suppressed was because the members of the Diem family (which was similar to the Kennedy family in the United States in terms of fame and fortune) were Roman Catholics who fervently disapproved of the monks’ suicides. Catholics were a minority in Vietnam during that time, amounting to no more than 10 percent of the population. However, they predominated in government positions because Diem was Catholic. The Buddists’ resettlement resulted from Diem’s severe discrimination against them.

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Miss Phan and Su are portrayed as taking part in the Buddhist demonstrations. Although Nhât does not identify the demonstrations, they are most likely the May, 1963, demonstrations against Diem. The demonstrators are fired on by police. Miss Phan and Su are arrested and imprisoned along with thousands of high school and grade school students who are involved in protests against the Diem government. Although Diem is never mentioned by name in the story, readers familiar with the history of the Vietnam War will recognize what regime was ruling South Vietnam and remember how oppressive it was. Readers may also remember that at least seven Buddhist monks set themselves on fire to protest the repression, but Diem dismissed these suicides as publicity stunts and promptly arrested fourteen hundred monks.

The author illustrates that Diem government as no better than the communists, who ruled North Vietnam at the same time, by the fact that his characters are promptly jailed and stripped of their livelihoods when they show discontentment with the government. Almost as if they had been subject to communist reeducation, Miss Phan and Su lose their jobs and have to leave the city to find jobs in other areas of the country.

The loss of jobs is also a dominant motif in “An Unsound Sleep.” The first scene in the story is of beggars doing what they do to survive—begging. Economic downfall and financial difficulty are recurrent motifs throughout the narrative, although the story never addresses the cause. This economic motif is an allusion to the fact that the Vietnamese people were discontented with their government and viewed the Diem government as corrupt. Living under the Diem regime was really no better than living under the communist regime, especially for Buddhists. As a result, the communists of North Vietnam had many Buddhist sympathizers. Miss Phan and Su are not explicitly depicted as communist sympathizers; however, they talk about revolution and are imprisoned for distributing leaflets and participating in the Buddhist demonstrations.

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