Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 818
In its simplest terms, Waiting is the story of a love triangle. The Prologue, set in 1983, introduces the major characters and outlines their dilemma. Lin Kong, a military doctor stationed in Muji, is attempting to divorce Shuyu, the peasant wife his parents chose for him years earlier. Shuyu maintains their home in Goose Village, a place Lin visits only twelve days each year. At the hospital in Muji, he has been courting Manna Wu, a nurse. Lin believes he would be happier with this modern, sophisticated woman than he is with his illiterate wife. Unfortunately, while the Chinese communist government permits divorce, military officers must either have the consent of their spouses or remain married for eighteen years in order to obtain an uncontested divorce. For more than a decade Lin has returned home each year to ask Shuyu for a divorce. With similar consistency, Shuyu refuses, so Lin and Manna must wait until he no longer needs his wife’s consent.
The major sections of the novel highlight Lin’s passivity in dealing with his situation. Ironically, what appears to be his stoic approach to life and his wide learning have gained him great respect among the hospital staff; his stature among his peers is what initially makes him attractive to Manna, who is older than most nurses. The two maintain their chaste relationship, however, less out of a sense of moral commitment than out of fear for the consequences that could befall them if they become sexually intimate; both know their careers would be ended if they were caught. When on one occasion Manna, less inhibited than Lin, arranges for them to spend a weekend in an apartment outside the military compound, Lin refuses, largely because he does not want to risk the security of his current position.
On his trips home, Lin becomes increasingly disaffected with the squalor of the family farm. Shuyu’s bound feet are constant reminders that she is tied to China’s feudal past, not its communist future. Though he displays some affection for Hua, the daughter he has fathered with Shuyu, Lin finds his other relatives little better than country bumpkins. While Muji is hardly a center of culture, it is cosmopolitan compared to Goose Village. In fact, the scenes depicting Lin’s visits home provide comic relief for the otherwise unrelenting sense of longing and unfulfillment that characterizes his life in the city.
At times Lin is ready to recognize the futility of his desire to marry Manna, and on two occasions he tries to arrange a marriage for her, first with his cousin and then with a government official. Not everyone is as patient as Lin, however, in seeking to fulfill their desires. The one moment of real tragedy occurs when an acquaintance whom Lin had met when hospitalized briefly for tuberculosis manages to meet Manna and then rape her for the sheer thrill of having deflowered a virgin. That event almost poisons Lin and Manna’s relationship; at that point his patience seems to be a sign of emasculation.
When the long wait is over, Lin divorces Shuyu and marries Manna. The results are decidedly disappointing. Their union does not bring the bliss they anticipated but results in both feeling disappointment—in each other and in themselves. Manna becomes pregnant and delivers twin boys, but her health is so precarious that Lin is forced to seek help from his daughter and former wife. The novel’s final scenes depict the trio adopting a curious modus vivendi in which Lin has the ironic satisfaction of being served by both the women in his life but still feeling that he is left not only waiting, but wanting.
Waiting has clear political overtones: Lin’s story can be read as the story of China itself, feeling the tensions caused by its break from the past but discovering that its long-sought future is in the end unrewarding. On a literary level, the work is replete with irony; Lin’s story suggests that the “reward” for those who wait may simply be disappointment at opportunities missed along the way. Though some reviewers have compared the lovers in this novel to Romeo and Juliet, a more apt comparison may be to Tristan and Isolde, lovers separated by an arranged marriage who pine away and eventually die for love. In Waiting, however, passion never rises to that level. Instead, the will to survive trumps romantic passion, and the result is that the lovers end up frustrated, cheated of the happiness they imagined by the realities of a world that governs their every action. Ironically, only Shuyu appears to survive with any equanimity. In the end, she remains resourceful, even cheerful, and active in assisting the man to whom she was married. One would not be wrong to see her as a symbol of the Chinese people, capable of waiting out any form of government.