Term Paper: Fear of Pollution Is a Recurrent Theme

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¶ … fear of pollution is a recurrent theme in both Lu Xun's "New Year's Sacrifice" and Xiao Hong's "Hands." The two authors treat the subject of social stigma, isolation, and social hygiene similarly. In both stories, the protagonist is a female: in a sense, she is already born polluted. Although Hsiang Lin's Wife is older than Wang Ya-Ming, both women are ostracized from their peers and their community. Hsiang Lin's Wife of "New Year's Sacrifice" is shunned and scorned because of her socially unacceptable past. Twice a widow, her boy child died from a wolf attack. Hsiang Lin's Wife is therefore viewed by the people of Luchen as being dangerous as well as spiritually dirty. Lu Xun describes her symbolic pollution through the use of color contrasts, namely whiteness vs. blackness. Similarly, Xiao Hong relies heavily on color symbolism to convey the central theme of social pollution in "Hands." The story's protagonist Wang Ya-Ming and her family members have black hands. Furthermore, both authors show how poverty and pollution are closely linked, as Wang Ya-Ming and Hsiang Lin's Wife are both destitute. Lu Xun and Xiao Hong show that social persecution causes loneliness and illness. At the same time, the polluted characters in the two stories retain a sense of inner strength in spite of their ordeals.

One of the key ways that both authors describe social pollution is through the use of color and color symbolism. In "New Year's Sacrifice" and in "Hands," snow is a recurring motif. The silence, purity and whiteness of the snow in both stories serve as striking contrasts to the polluted nature of the main characters. Against the backdrop of snow, Hsiang Lin's Wife and Wang Ya-Ming stand out from the crowd even more so than they would have had the stories been set against a more colorful backdrop. Color becomes a more outstanding feature in "Hands" than in "New Year's Sacrifice," however. The title of "Hands" refers to the most visible reminder of Wang Ya-Ming's stigma: her blackened hands.

Toward the beginning of "Hands," Wang Ya-Ming's condition could be attributed to an organic disease or some kind of genetic deformity. However, later in the story, the true cause of her discoloration becomes clear. Wang Ya-Ming's hands, and those of her father, are black because of their being exposed to fabric dyes. As dyers, they are at the bottom rung of the social class ladder. Therefore, Xiao Hong closely links social class and poverty with social pollution. Wang Ya-Ming is polluted not only because her hands are dark and different but also because she is very poor.

Similarly, Hsiang Lin's Wife's most distinguishing feature is her poverty. At the beginning of the story she is described as being clearly a beggar, and she remains a beggarly woman throughout the tale. When she works, she is a mere maidservant. As an outcast from her community of origin, she can only seek the lowliest form of work in Luchen. When the people of Luchen discover the stains on her past, though, Hsiang Lin's Wife becomes like an untouchable. She is no longer qualified even to handle the meats and other aspects of the New Year's ceremony because of her tainted past.

Wang Ya-Ming is also forbidden from participating in social activities because she is viewed as being tainted. She must sleep outside of the regular girls' dorm on a bench outside the room; the principal is convinced that Wang Ya-Ming is unsanitary and that she is covered in vermin. Calling her "filthy" and smelly, the principal segregates Wang Ya-Ming further from her peers based on her perception as being impure.

Ironically, the narrator of "Hands" describes the principal as being psychologically disturbed, and every bit as impure as Wang Ya-Ming herself. For example, the narrator states, "Her speech was forever dotted with terms like 'unsanitary,' 'ludicrous,' 'filthy,' and so on, and she always called lice 'vermin,'" (4). The narrator refers to the principal in a derogatory manner, describing her as being fanatical. Using the word "dotted" underscores the nature of the principal's pollution: her speech is tainted by the overuse of fanatical words. Also, the narrator shows that the principal is being irrational by calling lice 'vermin.'

The means by which Wang Ya-Ming can purify herself are unclear. She appears to be a perpetual pariah, a girl who will never fit in. "Even if you wore gloves," the principal states, "you still wouldn't be like the others," (2). The only hint of Wang Ya-Ming achieving purification is through the narrator's sympathy. At the end of the short story, the narrator calls Wang Ya-Ming by her real name for the first time. The affirmation of Wang Ya-Ming's humanity is the closest thing to purification the young girl can hope for.

On the other hand, ritual purification is a central motif in "New Year's Sacrifice." In fact, themes of religious and spiritual pollution are more pronounced in Lu Xun's short story than in Xiao Hong's. The story focuses on the New Year's celebration preparations in Luchen, showing how Hsiang Lin's Wife is too impure to participate even though she is a servant. "She must not join in the preparations for sacrifice; they would have to prepare all the dishes themselves, for otherwise they would be unclean and the ancestors would not accept them." Liu Ma tells her how to ritually purify her sins: "Go to the Tutelary God's Temple and buy a threshold to be your substitute, so that thousands of people can walk over it and trample on it, in order to atone for your sins in this life and avoid torment after death."

Wang Ya-Ming is offered more mundane means of purification, as religion is not a major motif in "Hands." Wang Ya-Ming is simply told that she should wash her hands more furiously, or cover them with gloves. Her being separated from her peers is one of the main ways that the community seeks to purify itself. Seeing no way to cleanse Wang Ya-Ming, the schoolgirls and principal distance themselves so that they will not catch whatever strange social disease they think Wang Ya-Ming has. When the custodian refuses to open the door for Wang Ya-Ming, the extent of her perceived pollution becomes apparent in the story.

Pollution is portrayed by both authors as being socially defined. Hsiang Lin's Wife is polluted for no reason other than her socially unacceptable past. All Luchen community members agree that Hsiang Lin's Wife is polluted for the same reasons, because customs and norms are entrenched in their community and woven into their culture. The narrator of the story remains objective, however, similar to the way that the narrator of "Hands" also remains an objective observer and only indirect participant in the shunning of the polluted woman. In "Hands," as in "New Year's Sacrifice," the entire community cohesively agrees that Wang Ya-Ming is polluted. No one stands out from the crowd to protest her being mistreated, not even her father who has suffered similar social stigmas due to his hands being blackened too. Although the narrator warms up to Wang Ya-Ming, talks to her kindly, and feels sorry for her, she does not become her champion. In "New Year's Sacrifice," the narrator recalls Hsiang Lin's Wife somewhat affectionately but would not venture to stick up for her in public.

Therefore, one of the overarching consequences of conformity is the creation of clearly delineated social norms. Conformity is conveyed in both stories as being an ideal: those who do not or cannot conform will suffer dearly. Wang Ya-Ming becomes sickly on several occasions. She has a "slightly hollowed chest" and looks as if she is "suffering from consumption," (3). Hsiang Lin's Wife becomes progressively sick too. "In less than half a year her hair began to turn gray, and… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Fear of Pollution Is a Recurrent Theme.  (2005, October 1).  Retrieved July 21, 2019, from https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/fear-pollution-recurrent-theme/9550760

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