Set in an age of monarchy in China, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan describes the lives of two women, Lily and Snow Flower. The story describes how women in china were oppressed during this age and were considered to be the property of men whom they were married to. …
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The worth of a woman was measured in terms of factors that were as unimportant as the size of the feet of the women. The author, Lisa See criticizes the inhuman treatment that women had to go through for the purpose of attaining small-sized feet that is a potent symbol throughout the novel. The novel places great emphasis on the relationship between the two main characters, Snow Flower and Lily and shows the progress of their relationship and the different courses that their lives take.
Lily, despite the fact that she is from a lower class, is able to find a wealthy and affluent husband merely on the basis of the fact that she had small feet which were considered to be an attractive feature in China during the nineteenth century. Snow Flower, however, is married off to a butcher, the lowliest of professions in China at that point in history. This creates a separation between the two women and this leads to bitterness developing between the two, especially on the part of Lily, who feels betrayed by the separation.
An important reason for the bitterness between the two main characters of the novel may be the fact that it was this relationship that enabled them to transcend the patriarchal structures of the society. This was enabled through the development of a “laotong” relationship that was made between two women. Lily’s aunt’s words make the significance of the laotong relationship clear to the reader.
She says, A laotong match is as significant as a good marriage … a laotong relationship is made by choice for the purpose of emotional companionship and eternal fidelity. A marriage is not made by choice and has only one purpose- to have sons (See, 56-7). This fatalist attitude towards heterosexual marriage and other heteronormal structures of sexuality as they existed in Chinese society is something that is critiqued in the novel. The novel makes it clear that the bond that developed between the women of the society was the only way in which women were able to exercise their own agency. Beyond this action of entering into a laotong relationship, there were no options that were open to women in the intensely patriarchal setup of nineteenth century Chinese society. Feminist critics and writers have often cited the bonding between women as one of the major ways in which women shall be able to emancipate themselves. Some like Audre Lorde argue that a homosexual society would be the only alternative open to women who seek to liberate themselves from the cloistered societies that they live in. Lorde’s biomythography, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, talks about this gain of agency that women who seek to bond attain (Lorde). The importance of this bond can be seen in the destabilizing effect that a rupture in it produces on one of the protagonist of the novel, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. Lily is unable to understand the reasons behind such a rupture and in her comfortable life, is able to lay the entire blame at the door of Snow Flower, without reflecting upon the ills of the patriarchal society that gave rise to such problems. A deep understanding of such patriarchal structures is achieved through the form of the novel. By presenting the novel as a flashback that is seen through the eyes of the protagonist, Lily, See is able to make the reader locate the reasons for the rupture of the relationship between the two main characters of the novel in the obstacles to female bonding that are brought about by the patriarchal social structures that are seen in society (Corallo and Merrick, 30). Thus, the historical condition of women during the nineteenth century is revealed to the reader through the travails of the
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