Last Updated on September 6, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 598
The story opens in a run-down hostel as the narrator, a young Chinese man named Juansheng, describes the mundane settings of his room. Simple objects—a broken window, a square table, the moldering walls—remind him of his life as it was a year ago. As he longs for the happiness and companionship he squandered, he retells the story of his relationship with Zijun.
He describes the early days of their relationship when she would visit him in this room and listen to him discuss feminist literature and gender equality. As he does, he comments that she “probably hadn’t yet freed herself entirely from old ideas,” an off-hand comment that disguises his adherence to tradition. He woos her with this talk about women’s independence and strength and his love for the independent, convention-defying Nora Helmer of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. They fall in love and move in together, incurring the wrath and judgment of a society that criticizes pre-marital cohabitation. At first, Juansheng and Zijun do not care about what other people think, as they are a young couple making their own way in the world; all that matters is their love for each other.
They rent a room in a house owned by another family, for their unwed status makes finding adequate housing difficult. Quickly, Zijun is relegated to the domestic realm because she has few other opportunities to work. She desperately wants to contribute monetarily to the household—even selling her only gold jewelry to do so—but for all her strength and independence, her opportunities remain limited. As such, the only things she can contribute are domestic, so she adopts the role of a traditional housewife. Dissatisfied and unhappy, Zijun begins to grow weak and short. All of her time is consumed cooking, cleaning, and caring for the dog and chickens she brought into their household, leaving her little time to connect with Juansheng, read, or do anything for herself. Her personality begins to change, and their relationship sours.
Eventually, Juansheng's lifestyle choices lead to his firing. He cannot find another job nor can Zijun find work; their resources wear thin, so they must eat the chickens and, later, get rid of the dog. Zijun seems to grow weaker and emotionally colder, and Juansheng spends as much time as he can away from home. He spends his days in the public library, sitting by the fireplace pretending to read and considering his life goals, his relationship with Zijun, and his feelings. One morning, he decides to tell her the truth: he doesn't love her anymore, and she should consider herself free to leave him without guilt or remorse. When she does go home to her father's house, Juansheng is a bit shocked, and he gradually realizes that his life has little meaning without her love.
Shortly after she leaves him, Juansheng learns that his former love has died. Though he does not know the details of her death, he feels deeply remorseful for the influence he had on her fate. He acknowledges his role in ruining her and knows that he essentially ruined her life by moving in with her while unmarried before abandoning her to the judgment of her strict family and the condemnation of society. The things he once criticized her for—her childishness and dependency—were neither her fault nor her choice. After the pair moved in together unwed, their already slim options became even more limited; Zijun had no other choice but to become dependent on him because society would not allow her to support herself.