Sexism and the Destiny of Self Sacrifice:
You Can’t Enter Someone Else’s Cause or Salvation
In Burger’s Daughter by Nadine Gordimer and Paradise of the Blind by Duong Thu Houng, the heroines, Rosa and Hang, are each robbed of her childhood by the burden of social and familial responsibility hoisted on her shoulder at an early age. Each female quietly acquiesces to the unusual load she must carry: Rosa, to unquestioned allegiance to her father’s role as benevolent Communist leader in the fight against apartheid in South Africa (before its final abolition) and Hang, to her mother’s subservient and self denigrating need for acceptance by her younger brother, who is a malevolent Communist leader in Vietnam. After all, Hang’s mother declares: “Each family has its own way. Chinh has always been difficult, but then he is the only male heir. We’ve always bent to his will.” Unfortunately, Hang’s mother does not listen to the advice of her neighbor, (who witnesses the suffering she brings upon Hang and herself in the process) when she explains that “there should be solidarity between brothers and sisters. But within reason, within the limits of human feeling.”
Hang’s situation was different, yet quite similar to Rosa’s. For instance, Hang’s mother had lived her life according to “proverbs and duties.” (e.g., “To live with dignity, the important thing is never to despair … Unhappiness forges a woman, makes her selfless, compassionate.”) As a result, whenever Hang’s self-serving, ignorant and demanding Uncle summoned her, no matter how much it cost her financially or physically, (at the opening of the story Hang is quite ill when her Uncle asks her to come to Moscow) like her mother– who took food out of their mouths to feed her brother’s family — Hang, took money out of her pocket and sustenance from her soul to fulfill a sense of family duty. In fact, Hang does not even have time to recover from that trip before she is summoned to come to the bedside of her dying Aunt Tam. In spite of the face that Hang is so physically, emotionally and mentally exhausted that all she wants is to crawl into her bed, Hang can always rely upon her sense of familial solidarity, duty and responsibility as a daughter, and her belief in the destiny of self sacrifice to summon the strength she needs to be there for others even though it means sacrificing her health, education and dreams. Rosa, in “Burger’s Daughter” exhibits similar behavior.
For instance, when Rosa’s mother was taken political prisoner by the South African government, the child became “an example …of the way a detainee’s family ought to behave. Already she had taken on her mother’s role in the household, giving loving support to her father … On that day he [her father] had put other’s plight before his own … he knew that his schoolgirl daughter could be counted on in this family totally united in and dedicated to the struggle.”
Alice Walker’s book Possessing The Secret of Joy reveals that the secret to joy is “resistance.” Even after Hang experiences an epiphany, upon hearing a female recording artist whose music “beckoned me to a kind of love — to revolt, the most essential force in human existence,” her heart immediately goes out to her mother’s suffering as opposed to her own: “If only my mother could feel this revolt, if only her heart could gather a spark from this inferno.” Hang does not realize that her mother’s social conditioning will not allow her to even entertain such a subversive idea, let alone act upon it … that it is up to Hang to resist or revolt against the sexist social sense of self sacrifice on the part of Vietnamese women.
Neither Rosa nor Hang can comprehend the autonomy Didier possesses (Katya, Lionel Burger’s first wife who now lives in Europe, introduces Rosa to Didier). Rosa refers to Didier as “a kept boy” who “feels free … free to be one” and marvels at this European concept: Freedom has never been a reality in their lives. Neither has independence, nor autonomy, for they are liberties that neither Rosa nor Hang felt entitled to by virtue of their sex. In fact, before coming of age, the two heroines could no more abandon their sense of obligation or self sacrifice any more than Didier could assume the social responsibility of his father who was a “collaborator with the Germans” and “was sent to prison after the war.” Didier admonishes Rosa “to forget about them. It’s not our affair. I’m not my father, eh?” Rosa’s South African sensibilities cannot even comprehend such a concept.
As a direct result of the political backgrounds they were born into, Rosa and Hang behave as if they are symbiotically attached to their respective family’s doomed destiny. From an early age they behaved as if they were without liberty or freedom of choice; thus, they could not even dream of escaping their tragic legacy. For example, even though Hang, at the age of ten, could see her bleak future, she tells herself not to “dare ask her if, in another ten years, I would live her life, this life. The thought made me shiver.” By the same token, Rosa tells her lover, Conrad, in a narrative to him (after he has done one of his disappearing acts), that “whatever I have said to you about them [her parents], however they may have seemed to me since I have been free of them, they are the ones who matter.” Even with the death of both of her parents, Rosa still cannot free herself from the responsibilities inherent in being “Burger’s Daughter.” She even admits that “I am like my father — the way they say my father was. I discover I can take from people what I need. But I am aware I don’t have his justification; only the facility’s my inheritance — my dowry, if any man is interested.” This is a burden she knows goes with the territory and one of which she is aware that few men will jump after the opportunity to share, which is why she ultimately chooses married lovers (whose commitment is to someone else just as hers is to the “struggle”) or a lover like Conrad, who is afflicted with a wanderlust that causes him to flit off to sea without preamble or prior notice in much the same way that her father’s work would cause him to disappear in prison, hiding, or service to the struggle.
We are each defined by the times in which we live. Rosa grew up in a household she described as having “had a connection with blacks that was completely personal” being born into “a human conspiracy, above all other kinds” which she felt was larger than herself, or even larger than the people involved. One which overwhelmed her following the death of her parents. After a year of feeling lost and resentful of having been used, suddenly Rosa experiences “a longing to attach myself to an acolyte destiny; to let someone else use me, lend me passionate purpose, propelled by meaning other than my own.” It is clear that Rosa has no clear purpose of her own, which makes her eager to enter into someone else’s cause or destiny as a form of self fulfillment.
While her parents were in prison, Rosa was the dutiful daughter who arranged her personal life around visits to them. The committed daughter who chose a profession similar to her father’s because it was safer and the government would not misconstrue a physical therapist as a threat, even though she really wanted to be an attorney. The good daughter who refused to take a better position with her half brother (who was a doctor, like their father) because it was too far away and she could not arrange prison visits around it; and, who took on undemanding and uncommitted lovers who would not interfere with her commitment to the “struggle” of her activist parents.
After her parent’s death, Rosa grew to fear her parents’ fate as her ultimate destiny. As a result, she began to play it safe, refusing to take chances on behalf of the “struggle” that might endanger her in any way or that might land her in prison, like her parents, where they both died.
Rosa comes of age and begins to create her own fate when she summons the courage to call in a favor from Brandt Vermeulen (a high ranking official in the government who was distantly related to her family) to obtain a passport which she had been denied because she was “Burger’s Daughter” and her parents’ passports were revoked. When Vermeulen listened to Rosa’s explanation of this situation he concluded that it “sounded like something merely handed down; another family recipe.” What really struck Vermeulen, however, was that “the mother, the father; their destination, here or anywhere, did not have to be hers.” The irony was that Rosa had not come to that realization. That much was clear to Vermeulen when Rosa explained that she “wanted to know somewhere else” other than the land of her birth and the legacy she had inherited.
Ironically, even after being presented with an opportunity to defect to France, Rosa, (with the support of anti-apartheid factions in Europe as well as that of her married lover, Bernard) chose instead, to return to her beautiful, beloved, yet branded country for the trial of a journalist friend of hers charged with treason by the South African government. Rosa had to have known, when she made such a momentous decision, that she was writing her own prison sentence while resigning herself to the fate she feared most — imprisonment — like her parents. Unlike Hang, the ultimate pull toward the destiny of self sacrifice caused Rosa’s life to become a self-fulfilling prophesy wherein she chose to defy the fact that “you can’t enter someone else’s cause or salvation.” Like a circus elephant tied to a flimsy rope that she can easily break, but no longer tries to do so because she is preconditioned by the heavy chain she was tied to as a baby, Rosa obediently walks back into captivity, straight into the mouth of the lion who patiently awaits her return with the knowledge that all good cubs return to their mothers. South Africa is, after all, Rosa’s motherland.
Hang could no more escape the politics of post war Vietnam any more than her mother could have escaped the ravages that the land reform campaign forced upon her mother, her father and Aunt Tam, who were literally torn apart by the divisive actions of Hang’s heartless Uncle Chinh whose political ideologies literally annulled his sister and brother-in-law’s marriage. Ultimately Hang’s mother had to flee from their family estate — when the villagers wanted revenge against her brother — into the squalor and filth of Hanoi. Once in the city, she had to eek out a living as a street vendor — a living which her Communist brother believes brings shame upon him as a leader of the party. Chinh’s pride, however, does not prevent him from exploiting the fruit of his sister’s labor even though he does not possess enough conscience to come to the aid of his self-sacrificing sister when she loses a leg in a car accident and cannot work for a while. Reciprocity does not even enter into his repertoire.
Hang abhorred the “sweet sacrifices” that her mother selflessly made for her brother’s family, viewing her mother’s actions as “needy, like a faithful dog heeling at the scent of its master.” She even questioned how her mother could “accept this humiliation. Why did she lower herself in front of my uncle and his pockmarked wife, before their children? Why did she love people who enslaved her?” In spite of these feelings, Hang ends up sacrificing her own future for her mother’s sake (by dropping out of the university when her mother lost her leg) and risking her health and welfare for her uncle (by coming to his beck and call in Moscow even when she is ill).
Aunt Tam hated her brother-in-law, Chinh, for destroying her family, and later came to hate Hang’s mother (whom she had formerly pitied and had viewed as a victim of her brother, like herself) for “sacrificing the fruit of her own womb like this,” in particular, for an unworthy, ungrateful brother who had no love for his sister or his niece. Unfortunately, Hang was so desperate for her mother’s love, (in the same way that her mother was desperate for her brother’s love) that she took for granted the unconditional love that Aunt Tam had for her, not realizing until Aunt Tam was on her deathbed that “my aunt, this tiny shell of a woman, had been my only refuge on this earth. When she disappeared, there would be no one left to protect me.” Shortly after reaching that cognizance, Hang comes of age (coincidentally she and Rosa are both in their mid twenties when this occurs) and finally decides to create her own fate by changing the bleak, self-effacing destiny she had previously claimed as her own.
Hang’s insight arose out of the awareness that: “in every life, there must come a moment when what is most sacred, most noble, in us evaporates into thin air. In a flash of lucidity, the values we have honored and cherished reveal themselves in all their poverty and vulgarity … no one is spared.” Unlike Rosa, who submits her soul to the destiny of self sacrifice, Hang decides to sell her inheritance after accepting that “it’s price was a life deprived of youth and love, a victory born of the renunciation of existence.” Ultimately, Hang comes to feel that the price her aunt and mother paid with their lives was too high for her to continue buying into. Rosa, on the other hand, ended up waking up to her own worst nightmare — a prison sentence — because she could not summon the courage to put herself first by making the struggle secondary to the freedom and happiness she stumbled upon in Europe through the hospitality, unconditional love and generosity of Katya, her father’s first wife.
The real clue to the silent, long suffering nature of both characters is that until one learns from her mistakes, she is condemned to repeat them. With that in mind, neither Rosa nor Hang, as young girls, possessed enough wisdom (which is the application of knowledge) to make an intelligent choice to do or be anything other than dutiful daughters — that is, until their coming of age. And, when they were younger, neither of them had role models or mentors that could show them how to make better choices. Ultimately, only one of them stumbled upon and found the strength — through witnessing and learning from the suffering of others — (e.g., Aunt Tam’s death) to sever ties with a past that obscured the future.
Check out my article Depravity, the Past, and the Alienated Character in William Faulker’s Works