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Beauty – in its physical embodiments – is one of the most important overarching themes of Dai Sijie’s novel Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. Dai creates a sense of beauty in the novel by highlighting the beauty of the characters, the place and the natural scenery. In exploring beauty in a truly multi-faceted manner, he is exceptional in his use of literary techniques such as attention to detail, juxtaposition, connotation, and metaphor, techniques that together indicate the human desire for beauty.
Firstly, Dai creates a sense of beauty through his portrayal of specific characters; most obvious embodiment of this approach is the Seamstress. In the third chapter of the novel, when Luo and Ma arrive at the tailor’s shop and are first introduced to the Seamstress, she is described with extraordinarily close attention to detail. Instead of talking about her appearance as a whole, Dai instead chooses to write about specific qualities such as the ‘sparkle in her eyes’, the ‘sturdy and supple’ appearance of her shoes, and the way that her pigtail falls from the ‘nape of her neck down to the small of her back’. The smallness of these details, combined with the vulnerability suggested through connotation by words such as ‘supple’ and ‘nape’, illuminates the image of the Seamstress in an incredibly intimate way. The sense of emotional closeness—of tenderness, almost—created as a result is what really makes her seem beautiful.
The Seamstress’s loveliness is also emphasized through the use of connotation in the passage. Throughout the passage, Dai describes her as ‘delicate’, ‘sophisticated’, and ‘fine’. These words, which suggest grace and daintiness, create an image of distinguished beauty. Dai also uses juxtaposing word pairs such as ‘cheap’ and ‘sophisticated’, and ‘barefoot’ and ‘supple’, which also contribute to this impression by showing the contrast between the Seamstress’s feminine refinement and the unattractive coarseness of her surroundings.
However, Dai’s characters don’t just possess beauty in terms of their appearance. The Little Seamstress is one of the most coveted women in the valley, her absence causing ‘great distress to all of the young bachelors.’ Her father the tailor, another major character in the novel, is also shown as having extremely high status, with ‘scenes of great excitement’ following him wherever he went. The pair are also referred to respectively as ‘like a king’ and ‘the princess of Phoenix Mountain’, suggesting that they have been exalted to the status of royalty. The fact that the pair are successful and celebrated almost to the point of being deified adds to their appeal by making the readers view them as people of incredible worth.
It is also worth noting that the tailor’s success is mainly due to the fact that new clothes are ‘much in demand’. The villagers’ desperate want for new attire, as well as the painstaking means through which they acquire it (going ‘all the way’ to Ying Jing to buy cloth and then sitting through arduous meetings with the tailor) suggest that the tailor is a metaphor for the desire for beauty. Dai doesn’t just portray the beauty in his characters, but also in the natural scenery. In the final paragraph of the extract, he recounts the boys’ ascent up a ‘steep, slippery path shrouded in milky fog’. The word choice in this passage is very interesting— ‘shrouded’ suggests etherealness, but also alludes to death; ‘milky’ creates mystery, but also emphasizes the opaqueness and danger of the fog; ‘steep’ and ‘slippery’ suggest excitement and adventure, but also mortal peril. The stark juxtaposition between the mountain’s apparent appeal and its implied danger creates a paradoxical allure.
Dai ultimately depicts the human desire for beauty as a driving force that drastically transforms the lives of his characters. Luo’s desire for beauty – in particular, physical beauty – leads him to pursue the Little Seamstress, a sexual awakening which marks his transition from into adulthood. Similarly, Four-Eyes’ desire for the beauty of Western literature motivates him to smuggle a suitcase of banned books into the country, a foolhardy and extremely dangerous action, but one that ultimately changes his destiny, as he trades the books for poems that enable him to go back to the city. But the most obvious embodiment of the desire for beauty is the Little Seamstress. Four-Eyes’ books introduce her to a world of sophistication and romance, a world which she immediately begins to covet. Such is the extent of her longing for the beauty she saw in the books that she chooses to her appearance and leaves her village in pursuit of her vision. Thus, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress creates a sense of beauty by highlighting the beauty of the characters, and by doing so through carefully-honed yet diverse literary techniques.
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