Ai is more concerned with social class than with racial identity or gender in Cruelty. The book is a series of poetic dramatic monologues spoken by members of the underclass in America. It is a searing indictment of societies that permit the existence of poverty.
Life, itself, is cruel for the speakers in Cruelty. The speaker in “Tenant Farmer” has no crops. The couple in “Starvation” have no food. In “Abortion,” a man finds the fetus of his son wrapped in wax paper and thinks: “the poor have no children, just small people/ and there is room for only one man in this house.” Men and women become alienated from each other in these conditions. The speaker in “Young Farm Woman Alone” no longer wants a man. In “Recapture,” a man finds and beats a woman who has run off from him. In “Prostitute,” a woman kills her husband, then goes out to get revenge on the men who use her.
Out of the agony of their lives, some of Ai’s characters achieve transcendence through love. The couple in “Anniversary” has managed to stay together, providing a home for their son for many years, in spite of never having “anything but hard times.” In “The Country Midwife: A Day,” the midwife delivers a woman’s child for “the third time between abortions.” Beneath the mother “a stain . . . spreads over the sheet.” Crying out to the Lord, the midwife lets her bleed. Ending the cycles of pregnancy for the woman,...
(The entire section is 451 words.)