Themes

Communism

Communism is a recurring theme in Viet Thanh Nguyen's The Refugees. Most of the characters in Nguyen's stories fled the communist regime in Vietnam or are the children of parents who did. By and large, the communist regime and the Viet Cong soldiers themselves are presented as enemies, and the titular refugees in this collection are fleeing from war, violence, and oppression. Nguyen's depictions of communist soldiers and policies are overwhelmingly negative, and, though he rarely delves into the politics associated with the communist regime, he makes it clear that the reality of communism is very different from the original theory of communism. Viet Cong soldiers are said to believe in a brighter future for all their comrades but at the same time spy on their people to the point of restricting their freedom of speech. Overall, Nguyen depicts communism as something to flee from, not embrace.

Death

Death takes many forms in The Refugees: it haunts the main character of "Black-Eyed Women" in the form of her brother's ghost; it hangs over the heads of Liem's family, who can't write what they really think without fear of being persecuted by the Viet Cong; and it reminds Arthur Arellano to be grateful for what he has after he survives a liver transplant to treat a deadly autoimmune disease. Death, in its various forms, pervades the collection, taking mothers, brothers, and random strangers. For a number of characters in the collection, death is something that strikes early—unfairly—killing the wrong people at the wrong time. It's also a quiet certainty, a dark force that hovers at the very edge of Mrs. Khanh's life, reminding her that she's getting older and won't be able to take care of her own husband for much longer. One could argue that the fear of death leads many of Nguyen's refugees to America.

Immigration

Immigration is the foundational theme in The...

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