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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 777

The Sea Wall, which documents one form of colonial oppression by chronicling the intimate life of an idiosyncratic family, is a masterpiece of narrative strategy. The characters’ intense, often abusive relationships are shaped by spiritually debilitating cultural conditions and defy conventional moral expectations.

The narrative begins when Ma and...

(The entire section contains 777 words.)

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The Sea Wall, which documents one form of colonial oppression by chronicling the intimate life of an idiosyncratic family, is a masterpiece of narrative strategy. The characters’ intense, often abusive relationships are shaped by spiritually debilitating cultural conditions and defy conventional moral expectations.

The narrative begins when Ma and her two children have lived on their land concession for three years and recounts the family’s history to date: Ma, widowed soon after moving to the colony, obtained the land from the colonial government with savings earned from many years of hard work as a cinema piano player. Her hopes of a comfortable income from rice farming have been worn away by the yearly floods on the land—the Pacific flooding which has driven several other families from the same concession. After the first flood, Ma gathered together the native plain dwellers and, with the halfhearted consent of the local land agents, planned and executed the construction of a great seawall to drain the land and make it arable. For all of their efforts, however, the annual flood came and destroyed the wall in a single night.

Since that flood, Ma, heavily in debt from her failed project, is obsessively preoccupied with building another, stronger wall and prevailing over the land agents, who will profit from her failure to cultivate the land by repossessing and then reselling it. Ma still maintains a subsistence banana crop, and her children have accommodated themselves to a bleak existence by entertaining passive fantasies in which a rich, attractive stranger of the opposite sex rescues them from the plain.

A stranger does appear on the plain, and while not attractive, he is rich and therefore desirable. Monsieur Jo begins his courtship of Suzanne in a seedy nightclub where he meets the girl and her family. This location sets the illicit tone which characterizes the whole relationship. Bearing gifts, the unpleasant man visits Suzanne alone in the family’s bungalow, with Ma strategically positioned within earshot but not in view of the house. Joseph makes no effort to mask his contempt for the vacuous Monsieur Jo, which stems from his disgust at Suzanne’s prostitution for the family.

Suzanne, increasingly aware of her body as a family asset and potential commodity, draws closer to her brother as her relationship with Monsieur Jo magnifies the economic and personal inequities already present between the two men. Comparing her aggressive brother to Monsieur Jo, she is repulsed by her weak suitor, who, although desiring Suzanne sexually, will not marry a woman of her low social position. Even after giving her a diamond ring, Monsieur Jo fails to seduce Suzanne. Instead, he is perfunctorily expelled from the family circle. Although, in obtaining the ring, Suzanne has executed the family’s objective with Monsieur Jo, she is beaten for her pains by Ma, who encourages but cannot accept the family’s moral debasement.

After the family has the ring, the scene of the narrative shifts to the colonial city where Ma, Joseph, and Suzanne travel to sell their acquisition. While Ma runs from one diamond dealer to another, desperately trying to get a higher price for the ring, Suzanne and Joseph separately wander the city, going to cinemas and fantasizing about what they see on the screen. Suzanne meets and rejects another suitor, Joseph Burner, an English wool salesman wanting a pure and submissive wife; Suzanne cannot sell a false representation of herself to a man who pales in comparison to her brother.

Meanwhile, Joseph disappears with a beautiful, wealthy woman, to whom he finally sells the ring—and from whom he returns, after a long tryst, with a sum of money and, bizarrely, the ring. Ma pays off her debts, only to suffer a great irony: No longer abjectly poor, she cannot give up the burden of her ambitions; she is now too solvent to justify acquiescing to the native’s poverty level. Grown ill and in despair, Ma returns to the plain with her children.

The trip to the city has profoundly changed the family. Joseph remains on the concession only long enough to gather his possessions and soon departs with his lover in a sleek automobile. While Ma’s health deteriorates, Suzanne achieves a certain degree of autonomy by taking a lover—the son of another homesteader named, not surprisingly, Joseph. The novel ends with Ma’s death, releasing the family from its futile struggle to achieve affluence. At the same time, the terms of the children’s psychological struggles are irrevocably altered. Their mother’s death signals a release from obligation—and a mournful recognition of all that the absence of that obligation implies.

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