Whenever the word past is mentioned, one thing that immediately comes to mind is a history rich in noteworthy events. A history that not only defines a character, but a novel as a whole. However, as Lodge’s writings demonstrate, the past is much more than the historical events that take place within a novel. In relation to Paradise of the Blind, Lodge’s ideas demonstrate that a sense of the past is gained through much more than the constant flashbacks that Hang tells. Lodge lists two significant points that serve as a guide in understanding the sense of the past within the novel Paradise of the Blind. Through the interpretation of Lodge’s ideas on a sense of the past the reader can gain a better understanding on both the culture that the plot of the novel revolves around, and the viewpoints on communism discussed.
The first point that he makes is that the past represents the ways of life of ordinary individuals. These ways of life are revolved around three concepts: morals, manners, and culture (Lodge 131). For the Vietnamese, culture served as a means of shaping their day to day lives and influencing their identity as a whole. This is evident in the family structure that Hang discusses. When discussing Mother Que’s past Hang continuously mentions her mother’s day to day activities, which consisted of chores such as cleaning. This is evident on page 19 where she states: “it was difficult enough to clean it and scrub the floors. On top of that, there was the garden to maintain and defend from an invasion of weeds. As soon as she weeded one corner, weeds would swallow up another” (Huong 19). Her referral to the constant growth of weeds indicates that women’s lives consisted of an endless amount of tasks. When one chore was done, there was always another task to be fulfilled. Meanwhile, in the Vietnamese culture men had total authority over the decisions that were made. This authority is demonstrated by the actions of Uncle Chinh. Not only does he threaten to kick Mother Que out of the house if she remains married to Ton, but he also kicks out Ton, and forces Hang’s grandmother and aunt to obey his every command, as Hang states: “My grandmother and my aunt were forced to prostrate themselves, head bowed, arms crossed behind their backs”(Huong 24). Chinh also withholds authority on one of the most critical decisions in Vietnamese culture- the decisions made on burial. He never created a burial for his parents. This is evident in the novel when Mother Que asks: “Why did you never even bother to organize the memorial ceremonies in honor of our parents? After all these years” (Huong 49). In turn, Chinh replies: “Come on, let’s drop this nonsense. We live in a materialistic age. No one cares about all this ancestor worship. After death, there’s nothing” (Huong 49). Although ancestors were viewed as essential figures to not only an individual’s past, but their present as well; Chinh’s decisions were obliged. Thus demonstrating the total authority that men had, no matter how cruel or opposing their decisions were to culture.
Another significant point that Lodge makes is that the past underlines “the phenomenon of social and cultural change”(Lodge 131). This point is underlined when the author writes about events that took place in a time period prior to when the author wrote his or her novel. In turn, the effects of the novel are lost on modern readers (Lodge 131). However, what is particularly notable about this novel is the fact that Huong wrote about a historical event that she lived through. Huong published Paradise of the Blind in 1988. A year later, she was expelled from the Communist Party for her outspoken criticisms (Blodgett 33). Her direct experience with communism gives a justifiable perspective on the negative portrayal of communism within her novel. However, as Lodge states this leads to a lost effect on modern day readers- which in fact makes it difficult for them to truly empathize with Hang or appreciate the novel, since they are in a completely different time period. Not only have the effects of the novel been lost on modern day readers, but also the Vietnamese themselves. She wrote this novel in hopes of creating a change within a movement that she disagreed with. Thus, Huong wrote the novel in hopes of demonstrating to her people the negative effects of communism and the true damages that came with it, for it did not create a utopian society.
However, one thing that modern readers can appreciate from the novel is the lesson that Hang teaches us- in never letting the past define us. This is seen when Hang realizes that by staying in Tam’s house she lets the past define her. Hang finally realizes that she cannot let the cultural expectations and rules weigh her down, and that culture robs her of the ability to be who she truly wants to be. Therefore, she sells the house and moves on to discovering who she really is, through proceeding with her education.
Overall, Lodge’s ideas help readers gain a better understanding of the novel, and gain an appreciation for it. Through understanding the author’s past readers come to the realization that her negative perspective on communism is indeed justifiable (due to her direct work with communism). Readers can also gain an understanding on why Uncle Chinh had so much power within his household. Therefore, Lodge’s ideas are crucial in understanding the sense of the past within the novel Paradise of the Blind.
Blodgett, Harriet. “The Feminist Artistry of Vietnam’s Duong Thu Huong.” World Literature
Today, vol. 75, no. 3/4, 2001, pp. 31–39., www.jstor.org/stable/40156746.
Dương, Thu Hương. Paradise of the Blind. New York: Perennial, 2002. Print.