Finding their Wings: Yan-Zi and the Princesse's Journey from Object to Subject in Ying Chen's L'ingratitude and Madame de Lafayette's La Princesse de Clèves
- Romance Notes
- The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Department of Romance Studies
- Volume 48, Number 3, 2008
- pp. 385-394
- Additional Information
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FINDING THEIR WINGS: YAN-ZI AND THE PRINCESSE’S JOURNEY FROM OBJECT TO SUBJECT IN YING CHEN’S L’INGRATITUDE AND MADAME DE LAFAYETTE’S LA PRINCESSE DE CLÈVES HOLLY COLLINS HAMILTON AS is evidenced by its critical commentary and its translation into many languages, Ying Chen’s novel L’ingratitude has become quite a success. A great read at any level, this novel is also charged with many deeper issues. Many have read L’ingratitude as a metaphor for Ying Chen’s own personal story of errance: at the age of 28 she left her homeland of China to settle in Montreal and begin writing in French, but to read this novel as exclusively a story of immigration or perpetual wandering grossly misses the wide-reaching nature of many of its themes, especially that of being a woman living in an overbearing patriarchal society. Though one is fully aware that the novel takes place in China, Chen avoids using specific geographical names and locations in an effort to not render her novel applicable to only one audience or culture. In Quatre mille marches she writes: “J’ai tenté […] d’attirer l’attention des lecteurs sur la destinée individuelle plutôt que sur la destinée collective, sur des différences personnelles plutôt que sur les différences qui sont prétendument culturelles” (103). As readers, we are not to consider only the plight of Chinese women in Chinese society, but rather should consider the entire patriarchal power structure which includes – as is very clear in the mother/daughter relationship in L’ingratitude – the role of mothers and women in reinforcing the patriarchy. As Jaime O’Dell points out, “whether [Chen’s] work is set in the East or the West, the content and focus of the work are not particular to one nation but rather 385 cross oceans, borders, time periods, and doorways to transcend a specific culture or history” (7). In this article, I will explore how Yan-Zi, the principal character of L’ingratitude, seeks to liberate herself from the male-dominated and governed society into which she was born. Due to the overbearing and watchful eye of her mother, the local representative of the patriarchy, as well as the extensive layers of control in place to secure the perpetuation of male dominance, Yan-Zi is forced to go to extreme measures to assure her own subjectivity. Though the novel ends ambiguously, Yan-Zi’s quest to go from an object in the lives of those around her to the subject of her own existence is complete. Clearly, Yan-Zi’s struggle is one that speaks to many people, societies and cultures, and as a woman she embodies the struggles felt by all women living in patriarchal society. Names hold a very important place in L’ingratitude. Yan-Zi explains that she has been given the name of a bird by her mother. “Yan” is Chinese for swallow bird, and “Zi” is a descriptive meaning “beautiful,” “elegant” or “graceful.” She describes how before her birth her mother raised birds, in fact, possessed them: “Avant moi, maman avait élevé des oiseaux en cage. Elle les avait nourris le matin, caresses le soir, promenés les dimanches, toujours en cage, et enfermés de temps en temps dans la salle de toilette pour les punir d’avoir trop crié” (L’ingratitude 58; emphasis added). Yan-Zi sees herself as the next possession of her mother who, after having sold her birds, she says, “m’a conçue et nommée Yan-Zi. Je déteste ce nom d’oiseau” (58). Her position in her family and also her position as a woman in the patriarchy is very much like that of a bird in a cage. She has no freedom to act on her own and is only allowed to move between her home, her work and le café Bonheur; she remains trapped inside her mother’s cage. The fact that Yan-Zi was given the name of a bird is important, and even more significant is the particular type of bird for which she is named. Swallows are small birds that, as many descriptions state...