Book Review and Analysis
Waiting is a good title for Ha Jin’s novel because it has multiple associations. Not only is Manna Wu waiting for Lin Kong to get permission to divorce his first wife, but the people of China are waiting for the good things in life that they have been promised as well. Meanwhile, the whole world is waiting to see what political, economic, and social changes will take place in this mysterious land of 1.5 billion people—whether it will become a peaceful member of the family of nations, or a lucrative market for the Western world, or whether it has a hidden agenda that will turn it into an aggressive monster that could bring on an apocalyptic third world war.
Jin does not criticize the Communist government. He does not suggest that there is corruption in high places or that the higher- ranking members of the party enjoy a more luxurious lifestyle than that of the common people. His characters are too humble, too subdued, and too regimented to think of questioning the bureaucracy regulating every aspect of their lives. Like the reader, they seem to realize that with the enormous population pressure, the Chinese people are lucky to have a plain but adequate amount of food, decent clothes, clean beds in shared living quarters, and books, plays, and films heavily weighted with propaganda for entertainment. Furthermore, they are kept in ignorance of the outside world, so they have no basis for comparison. Possession of foreign books could ruin a budding career. The Communist bureaucrats have the power to send anyone anywhere and to appoint them to any occupation they choose. Lin Kong owns a small collection of relatively innocuous books like Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1865-1869) that he keeps out of sight, and he has bound them all in plain wrapping paper to hide their titles.
For nearly eighteen years, Lin Kong and Manna Wu have been waiting to be free to marry. Lin’s wife Shuyu remained behind in tiny Goose Village when he went off to the city to work as an army doctor. She symbolizes the old China. She even has bound feet that are only four inches long. The two were never in love but were united by an old-style marriage arranged by their parents in accordance with ancient Chinese tradition. Shuyu became a devoted wife who bore Lin a daughter and faithfully cared for both of his aged parents until their deaths. She is humble, obedient, and industrious, and has come to worship her husband; he, however, has become so citified that he no longer has anything in common with her. He has fallen in love with an intelligent, relatively liberated woman who might be said to represent the new China. They work together, but Manna Wu remains a virgin because their activities are so carefully monitored that they are not even able to go for walks together outside the grounds of the hospital where they work.
Lin regularly applies to the village court for permission to obtain a divorce. Shuyu obediently accompanies her lord and master, but cannot bring herself to tell the judge that she no longer loves her husband or that she willingly agrees to the divorce. Instead she breaks into tears. The judge can find nothing in her conduct to justify a divorce; on the contrary, she has been such a model wife that she makes Lin look like a monster of ingratitude. Shuyu’s cunning, avaricious brother Bensheng always accompanies his sister to the court and speaks in her behalf. He is opposed to the divorce because it would affect him financially. He has been able to borrow money from his brother-in-law on a regular basis, partly because Lin is a soft touch and partly because he feels guilty for virtually abandoning his wife and daughter.
Year after year the application for divorce is summarily rejected. Lin and Manna can only wait for eighteen years to elapse, after which time he will be free to obtain the divorce unilaterally. In the meantime, everyone connected with the hospital takes it for granted that Lin and Manna are virtually the same as an engaged couple; she has no chance of attracting another mate, especially as she grows older and new crops of attractive young nurses arrive every year. When Lin visits his home on periodic leaves, he does not sleep with his wife. He is forced to remain celibate while waiting for his divorce and marriage to the woman he loves. The reader is made to feel great pity for all three of these simple, honest people whose lives are being ruined by an inflexible bureaucratic system that knows no pity but only rules and regulations. Without intending to do so, the author reminds the reader of such Western works as George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), Henry James’s short story “The Madonna of the Future” (1873), and even Franz Kafka’s Der Prozess (1925; The Trial, 1937). Francine Prose, who reviewed Waiting for...
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