First of all, the writer uses an air raid as the consequence that creates the setting: If there hadn’t been an air raid, if the city hadn’t been sealed, the tramcar would have gone on forever. The city was sealed. The alarm–bell rang (499). Zhang Ailing wants to accentuate that men and women meet each other every day; tramcars cross the city back and forth all the time. However, the enforced stopping of time, throws two strangers together to ruminate a fantasy of romance. Another occurrence that sparks the meeting between the two main characters Lu Zongzhen and Wu Cuiyuan is Lu’s avoidance of a potential son-in-law.
The idea of being stuck in the same car with Dong Peizhi while the city was sealed off was too horrible to contemplate! Lu quickly closed his briefcase… fled in a great rush to seat across the aisle…he was screened by Wu Cuiyuan, who occupied the seat next to him, and his nephew could not possibly see him (502).
Without these two circumstances, the characters would have not met. The tramcar and its passengers create a frame to the story. The alarm bell indicates the disruption to the loud and busy life of Shanghai.
Within the setting, the author introduces Wu Cuiyuan, one of the main characters that is trapped in the tramcar who looked like one of those young Christian wives, though she was still unmarried (500). The author captures her psychological isolation while the city is shut down. Despite the fact that her appearance is very blank, simple and almost banal, the author takes advantage of the situation and reveals her inner complexity. Zhang Ailing shows her feminist struggles in traditional Chinese culture.
The moment Wu realizes that she gives A’s to one of her students, she starts questioning herself why. Wu comes to conclusion that the student respects her and treats her like a man. He treated her like an intelligent, sophisticated as if she were a man, someone, who really understood (501). This shows a huge accomplishment for her in the male dominated world. However, her biggest struggle is to balance the professional world with traditional women’s responsibilities. Although, her parents pushed her to study hard, they also want her to marry a rich man. Through Cuiyuan’s character, Zhang Ailing wants to break conventional mode of women and introduce feminist ideas to her culture. Wu said: In this world there are more good people than real people…Cuiyuan wasn’t very happy (501). The word good represents citizens, who live day to day without questioning their purpose. On the contrary, real people are analyzing their individuality. Cuyiuan think she is one of the real people.
The second character that shares similar struggles is Lu Zongzhen. Although Ailing first shows his absentmindness by simply observing surroundings and thinking about what he will have for dinner. Later, during the conversation with Wu, readers get a full confession of what is going in his mind. With an abundance of time Zongzhen also recognizes his meaningless life. He comes to the realization that his life goal is just keep going getting by without thinking –above all don’t start thinking! (504).
Zhang Ailing remarks Zogzhen’s monotonous life he lives every day. It seems there is no breakthrough in any aspect of his life. He is not passionate about his job; he questions himself why and most important whom he is earning money for. Along with his dead end job, Zongzhen is trapped in his marriage too. There is no emotional connection between him and his wife. Lu also wants to be one of the real people.
The short romantic connection between these two characters gives them a refreshing reality in this still moment. They both share similar struggles. Their meeting creates a daydream, an opportunity for emotional change. Lu is looking for woman’s attention, while Cuiyuan finds a man who values her intelligence. They fall in love (505). With that said, the author encounters their desperation. The instant connection releases them from their vacant lives. Zongzhen, like every man who is in love, admires her beauty and starts talking and revealing his dreams. Conversely, Cuiyuan modestly keeps her charm and blushes when he closely looks at her. Readers can feel sympathy towards both characters. Zongzhen is thinking the possibility of getting a concubine while Cuiyuan wants to get back at her parents. The outside world doesn’t even exist anymore. Sadly, the alarm bell rings and people around them disturb their fantasy. Neither of them wants the moment to end, but the city starts moving. The bell’s ring plays a significant role in this story; it represents the beginning and the end of the painful yet comforting dream. The noises surrounding them bring back to reality and cynically Zonghzen escapes first this flight of imagination and painfully says No, this won’t do! (505). Cuiyuan realizes that it’s over (506). Zonghzen returns to his original seat. For all that, the author shows Wu’s strong intellectual mind state, yet shares her loneliness. Wu emotionally hopes for the possibility of future exchange with Zanghzen. On the other hand author portrays a very interesting moment where they exchange phone numbers. It seems neither of them really wants to do that; it is more polite gesture to end their meeting. She does not give her pencil, while he was just mumbling the number over and over (506). Ironically, this was just a delusion. Everything that happened while the city was sealed was a non-occurrence (506).
The city of Shanghai being sealed off is a metaphor that Zhang Ailing uses to reveal psychological ambiguity of the two main characters. Cuiyuan and Zanghzen are isolated professionally and personally by other people in their lives. The short love affair brings temporary freedom from their entrap life pattern. Alienation and emptiness of their daily life is one of the main themes in this story that leads people to desire in opposing to the social order.
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