The Refugees Themes

The main themes in The Refugees include communism, death, and immigration.

  • Communism: The communist takeover of Vietnam is depicted as a catastrophe that brings violence and oppression and forces many of the book's characters to flee the country.
  • Death: Death, and fear of death, haunts the stories’ characters, many of whom have lost loved ones or narrowly escaped an untimely death themselves.
  • Immigration: Nguyen’s stories portray the necessity as well as the difficulty, danger, and trauma of immigration for those fleeing Vietnam for the United States.

Themes

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Last Updated on January 6, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 606

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,...

(The entire section contains 606 words.)

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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 Refugees. Immigration brings the refugees from the shores of Vietnam and gives them the opportunity to become United States citizens. However, the means of immigrating to the United States aren't always safe, easy, or attainable, as the narrator of "Black-Eyed Women" learned when she was gangraped by pirates who raided the boat on which she and her family were fleeing Vietnam. For Phuong, the second sister in "Fatherland," immigrating feels impossible without the sponsorship of her sister, Vivien, just as it would be impossible for Liem to stay in America if Parrish (or someone like him) weren't sponsoring him. For most of the characters in The Refugees, immigration is a complicated but necessary process they undertake to escape the communist regime in Vietnam.

Money

For better or worse, money and economic status often determine the fate of the characters in The Refugees. Many of them flee their homes with little to nothing, their property having been seized by the government via the New Economic Zones program and their money being of little value in the United States. Consequently, the ability to find a job and send money back home to Vietnam is a marker of success for a refugee. Liem, for instance, works in a liquor store in San Francisco and helps his family financially when he can. For many immigrants, America is a land of opportunity, and the reality of life in America sometimes disappoints them. The first Mrs. Ly, for instance, lies to her ex-husband about owning a nail salon, presumably because she's ashamed of not achieving greater success in America. Vivien's willingness to spend all her money on a trip to Vietnam only further proves that immigrants have very different ideas about money than American citizens.

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