Third Section: Pages 89–117 Summary

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

The narrator begins this section with an aside, telling the story of a Vietnamese woman from Savanna Khet, known as “the Lady.” After the Lady’s husband began working in the town of Vinh Long, she started an affair with a young assistant administrator in Savanna Khet. As the scandal of their liaison became public, the Lady decided to leave her lover for the sake of her two daughters. The day she left for Vinh Long to be with her husband, the jilted lover shot himself through the heart. Like the Lady, the narrator is also ostracized by scandal and disgrace. Like the Lady in the story, who slowly recovered her social capital, the narrator will also outgrow the scandal surrounding her and move on.

The narrator’s mother pays little heed to the scandal, delighting in her daughter’s fashionable appearance and boldness. To the headmistress of the boarding school, the mother states that the narrator’s beauty is not her fault. Rather, the fault lies in the older men who sexualize the narrator. The mother’s defense of the narrator is also erratic; sometimes she mocks the narrator to her teachers and breaks down in tears. The narrator never discloses her affair to her mother; she refuses to speak about the affair later on in life when her mother often tries to coax the information out of her. The narrator recalls one such instance, which took place right before the mother sold her land in Indochina and returned to France. The mother asks the narrator why she had the affair, but the narrator says nothing. The mother tells the narrator that her reputation is ruined; the narrator will never be able to find a husband in the colony. Soon after, the mother falls asleep, leaving the conversation unfinished.

The narrator recalls her mother used to love photographing her children. All the photos of their time in Indochina are of the narrator and her siblings and never of the surrounding landscape. Perhaps it is because of her mother’s penchant for photography that the narrator views her life as a series of images, such as the one of her on the Mekong ferry. The mother’s photographs of the children are posed and unnatural. When she visits her family in France, the mother loves to show off the pictures to her relatives and cousins. To the narrator, the mother’s pleasure in these contrived photos reveals something of her nature: for all her flaws, the mother never gave up on her children, wanting to see everything to the “bitter end.” In this, the narrator finds a kind of brave grace. The narrator recalls that even when her mother was old and gray, nearing death, she got her last pictures taken in her favorite red dress and gold jewelry.

In 1929, it becomes increasingly clear that the narrator and her lover are destined to part. The lover’s father is so adamant in his views the lover stops approaching him with the request to marry the narrator. Like the lover’s father, the narrator’s will is unbendable. She knows the relationship must end soon. The narrator feels her body’s thinness has stopped bothering her since she became intimate with her lover. To the lover, the narrator seems as slender as a local girl; he believes her body has been similarly shaped by growing in the heat and consuming the tropical diet of fruit and fish. In comparison to the narrator’s softness, the skin of the French women he knew in Paris was rough. The lover is entranced by the narrator’s youth. The narrator notes that she and the lover speak...

(This entire section contains 1279 words.)

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to each other seldom, communicating mostly through their bodies.

The narrator’s body entrances the lover because of its youth, and he watches it evolve in real-time. According to the narrator, this makes the lover feel that the narrator is his child. The lover seems consumed with worry about the narrator’s health. Even when he makes love to her, the narrator feels he treats her as gently as if she were his offspring. This strange dynamic gives their relationship a deep, disturbing intimacy. On the limo rides back to the boarding school, the narrator and the lover are mostly quiet. The lover keeps repeating it is a good thing the narrator will soon finish high school and leave for France, as she has planned. When she is alone, the narrator thinks she is growing apart both from her friend Helene and her lover. The narrator begins to sense in herself the desire to die and to be alone. From now on, these desires will be inextricably tied up for her with the desire to live. The narrator is turning into someone beyond both her best friend and her lover: a writer.

The narrator now recalls the harrowing day she received the news of Paulo’s death. The pain she felt was as great as the one she felt when she had lost a child at birth months before. Her brother’s death ended the concept of immortality for her. From then on, the narrator realized that nothing was free from time and despair. Paulo was only twenty-seven when he died. When the narrator and Paulo would speak before his death, they discussed mundane topics like hunting, guns, and cars. Even though Paulo was an ordinary man, her love for him was, and is, wild and consuming.

Like Paulo, the narrator’s time in Indochina is dead. The long sea voyages of the 1920s are a distant dream, as is the world’s reliance on water and shipping. The surge of adrenaline that accompanied travel is also gone now that travel is so easy and frequent. The world of the narrator’s childhood and first love affair is now lost.

In Cholon, the impending date of the narrator’s sea voyage to France changes the course of her relationship with her lover. As if to prepare himself for her body’s absence, the lover stops making love to the narrator. He tells the narrator he is already dead from her departure. On the day the narrator leaves Indochina on an ocean liner, she is accompanied by her mother and Paulo. On the ship, she weeps for her lover but doesn’t allow her mother or brother to see the tears because he is Chinese, and “one oughtn’t to weep for that kind of lover.” Finally, as the ship begins to pull out of the harbor, the narrator sees the lover one last time, sitting in his car by the docks.

The long ocean voyage takes the narrator across the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean, and the Suez Canal. On the trip, a fellow passenger, a young man the narrator fleetingly knew, kills himself by jumping overboard. The young man's death makes the narrator feel lonely, and she longs for her lover. She is startled by the intensity of her feelings for her lover, which she has always tried to undermine. One night, the faint strains of a symphony by Chopin tug at her heart and remind her of her lover.

Years later, the narrator learns her lover ultimately married a Chinese girl of sixteen his father chose for him when the lover was in his thirties. To the narrator, the girl’s youth indicates the lover was trying to find her in the Chinese girl. Only once, years later, did the lover phone the narrator in France, where he was on vacation with his wife. Before hanging up, the lover told the narrator he still loved her and would love her until he died.


Second Section: Pages 46–88 Summary