Hi Class, While we closely examine and analyze Pushkin’s play, it will be interesting to also briefly look at his life and background! As one of the most significant poets in Russian history, Alexander Pushkin greatly affected future literature. At the same time, this big figure also has a dramatic life! Though the characters in his A Feast During the Plague Year are terribly afraid of death confronting the hopeless plague, Pushkin himself did not own much fear towards death and commit to an abrupt duel with his wife’s admirer. Check out his biography!
Also, don’t forget to enjoy this dramatic play acting by authentic Russian actors… (Though we may understand no word… but their body language has explained everything)
In this week’s class discussion on Pushkin’s A Feast During the Plague, we often touched upon the topic of empathy, which was great because if there’s anything at all that arouses my interest more than books it’s psychology. So for this week’s post I’ve combined my love of both to bring you an exciting new…BOOK RECOMMENDATION! I’ve been assigned Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower to read by this coming Sunday, which may mean more reading but at least it gave me something to post here other than videos of cute babies teaching empathy.
In this book, the main character Lauren has a (non-contagious, sorry) disease called Hyper Empathy Syndrome, which causes her to acutely feel others’ pain. I don’t just mean “feel” as a sort of faux sympathy, I mean feel as an agonizing physical wound. This is a terrible condition to have in chaotic, lawless 2025 America, where crime and murder are so rampant that people have to barricade themselves in walled neighborhoods, and step over severed limbs and heads when they dared to venture outside for necessities. I looked up Hyper Empathy, and it turns out it is a somewhat legitimate disease although it is so new to psychiatry that either there isn’t much information about it or the data is very questionable.
Either way, it’s interesting (if slightly depressing) to think of worlds and situations in which empathy is considered a weakness rather than the thing that makes us human. But I don’t want to end this with such a bleak view of humanity, and it would be terrible to have mentioned cute baby videos without including them. I’m attaching this and this as a reminder that empathy is such a good thing that even very young children have a sense of altruism.
Through the use of diction, the authors of Contagion Literature have managed to portray …
We started Contagion with King Oidipus. As baptism, we read the scene of Oidipus gauging his eyes out with talons which, it can be argued, foreshadowed the horrors we would go on to visualize in the succeeding books. For the plot of Oedipus, the plague served as a precursor, an agent that began the plot but disappeared from the book soon after, making it easy to forget to feature it in a plot summary written for the course Contagion. In the books read since then, some diseases have been more outspoken than others and all with their own consequences. Taking a look back, in what ways did disease affect class discussions even when it was not explicitly being talked about? For example, every time we examined rumors, weren’t we always looking at it with the connotation of its resemblance to disease in the way it spreads?
Among its firsts, Oedipus made us conscious about the role of rumors in an epidemic, featured the debate of fate vs free will into the contagion narrative and juxtaposed the land’s anatomy with human anatomy [“a woman’s barren labor pains” (Sophocles, 92)]. Since then, a notable time Oidipus was recalled was in drawing the comparison between son Oidipus and the son in Dream of Ding Village inheriting the judgment for the sins of their fathers.
Next, DoFoe. Although slightly tedious, DoFoe introduced important plague discourses such as death counts, quarantines, plague seen as a heaven sent judgment and large public gatherings in between an epidemic. Since, our class discussions have closely monitored the reactions of the characters (both sick and healthy) towards those around them, and the collective reaction against the plague. We have also seen numerous ways of responding depending on the manner people understood the plague. Mocking it (Pushkin), trying to infect others (Defoe) or just trying to help (Camus); each novel was less neater about the above categories. People’s mentality was affected, influence that proved, sometimes to be stronger than rationality. The reactions are both specific and universal (we often recognized very similar reactions between characters of different epidemics, time periods and geographical regions). What do we do with our current database of reactions of characters in various disease and epidemic scenarios?
As we progressed through the course and books began to be culled from more recent time periods, the need to reason out disease as God’s retribution was less present. Diseases have been represented as a mystery for people, forcing their imagination, their intelligence and maybe, most importantly, their beliefs. Unable to understand their own destiny, they tried to assign the force of plague to their divinity. With progress, the faith in gods seems to have been replaced by the faith in science. However, this debate was culled again in the fairly recent Nemesis.Is God a time period or more inherent that that to human nature?
Often times, the disease is not an isolated social entity in the book but is rather in conjunction with other social epidemics like the war or the Bhopal incident. Another book, Dream of Ding Village exposes the blood bank business and ensuing AIDs epidemic rampant in China. How is disease a social epidemic that cannot necessarily survive in isolation but requires the presence of other social epidemics in order to exist? Disease has also been exploited as an allegory for larger concepts. In Zone One, the zombie epidemic is used to explain the concept of the likeness of consumers to zombies. The “bug” in Black Hole makes tangible teenage alienation and angst. How does the social commentary in these books differ from the books that use disease in a more straightforward manner? What if sometimes yellow fever is just the yellow fever and zombification is just zomfbification? When do such allegories stop becoming relevant? Do such allegories in literary examination have a life span similar to wise words becoming clichés?
There has also been a succession of rather interesting narrators. It was rather difficult to get a class consensus on whether or not to believe Arthur Mervyn and his misadventures with yellow fever. Arthur Mervyn also slowly engulfed the narrative in a way similar to how disease takes hold of the body or of society. Since, we have had a dead narrator, Animal, a teenager. We have also had in total one female voice for the narrator which was in a book written by the only female writer (actually, two female narrators if you count Black Hole). Is it a more feminist concern or instead a concern about the minority of disease literature or both?
“Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed … it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.”(Virginia Woolf 1930)
So much to think about.
Most honest narrator: Animal [Animal’s people]
Least honest narrator: DoFoe [A journal of the Plague Year]
Best coping mechanism in an epidemic: The group of storytellers in [The Decameron]
Worst coping mechanism in an epidemic: The priest [A feast during the plague]
Best Doctor: Dr. Stevens [Arthur Mervyn], Rieux [The Plague]
Most graphic: Black Hole
Ideal book for class discussion: Nemesis (might have been a different one for everybody)
According to the Kübler-Ross model, there are five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. (It is to be noted that not all five may occur depending on the individual, and they do not always occur in this particular order.) These five stages can be used to analyze and better understand the characters in A Feast During the Plague.
Denial is the stage in which the individual refuses to acknowledge the fact that a loss has occurred. The young man, who states:
“But many of us still live, and we
Have no cause to be grieving. So
I propose we drink a toast to him
With glasses clinking and with shouts
As if he were alive.” (Pushkin, 96)
is clearly in denial of the fact that there are in fact many “cause(s) to be grieving”, and wishes to proceed “as if he were alive”.
In the stage of Anger, one begins to accept reality, and expresses frustration at the given situation. Envy is also a form of this frustration, as can be seen in Louisa’s scoffing attitude towards Mary:
“I can’t stand the jaundice-yellow hair of these Scotch girls.” (Pushkin, 99)
Bargaining is the stage in which the individual attempts to bargain with reality, in search of a solution or avoidance of the grief. This is clearly the main stage depicted throughout the literary work, in which the characters are gathered around a feasting table in which they attempt to sing and drink their woes away.
In Depression, individuals have finally completely come to terms with the situation, and feel a variety of emotions: listlessness, sadness, and fear. Perhaps the Priest, who urges the people to take the more conventional path of mourning, is at this stage:
“If the prayers of so many reverend men and women
Had not consecrated the common gravepit,
I would have thought that devils even now
Were torturing some ruined, godless soul,
Laughing as they dragged it to outer darkness.” (Pushkin, 102)
Acceptance is the last step in coping with grief, where the individual has completely come to terms with, and feels the strength to accept and overcome the given occasion of grief. The ending scene, in which “the Chairman remains, plunged in deep contemplation” seems to imply an oncoming Acceptance of the Plague.
Team Pushkin was given the beautiful gift of a person who speaks Russian, so our post used this expertise in our approach to this piece. Here is what we learned. Enjoy.
Translations and imitations are among the large number of works of Alexander Pushkin. These works make up about a fifth of all the works of Pushkin, and can rightly be called magnificent samples of his genius, although they are borrowed from other authors. This is what Pushkin writes on this matter: “Imitation is not shameful kidnapping or a sign of mental poverty, but a noble hope of own strength, a hope to discover new worlds, seeking the footsteps of the genius — or even more sublime feeling: the desire to explore your masterpiece and give it a secondary life”.
A Feast During the Plague (1829) is one of the most famous Pushkin’s “Little Tragedies.” Pushkin’s masterpiece was even adapted to a movie. This the scene where Mary sings.
The originality of Pushkin’s play is still debated among lot of Russian scholars; they argue whether Pushkin’s play is simply a translation of John Wilson’s The City of the Plague (1816) or an independent Pushkin masterpiece. We, Team Pushkin, as “linguistic researchers”, examined three versions of the Plague narrations (Wilson’s, Pushkin’s, and the translation of Pushkin’s work by Anderson) and came up with the conclusion that the last two works slightly differ in terms of word choice and punctuation from the original text, but overall they accurately convey the basic content of the source plays. Here is the example:
Wilson’s The City of the Plague (1816)
O impious table! Spread by impious hands!
Mocking with feast and song and revelry
The silent air of death that hangs above it,
A canopy more dismal than the Pall!
Amid the churchyard darkness as I stood
Beside a dire interment, circled round
By the white ghastly faces of despair,
That hideous merriment disturb’d the grave
And with a sacrilegious violence
Shook down the crumbling earth upon the bodies
Of the unsheeted dead. But that the prayers
Of holy age and female piety
Did sanctify that wide and common grave,
I could have thought that hell’s exulting fiends
With shouts of devilish laughter dragg’d away
Some harden’d atheist’s soul into perdition.
Pushkin’s A Feast During the Plague
Безбожный пир, безбожные безумцы!
Вы пиршеством и песнями разврата
Ругаетесь над мрачной тишиной,
Повсюду смертию распространенной!
Средь ужаса плачевных похорон,
Средь бледных лиц молюсь я на кладбище –
А ваши ненавистные восторги
Смущают тишину гробов – и землю
Над мертвыми телами потрясают!
Когда бы стариков и жен моленья
Не освятили общей, смертной ямы –
Подумать мог бы я, что нынче бесы
Погибший дух безбожника терзают
И в тму кромешную тащат со смехом.
Anderson’s A Feast During the plague
A godless feast, befitting godless madmen!
Your Feasting and your shameless songs
Mock at and profane the gloomy peace
Spread everywhere by death and desolation!
Amidst the horror of the mournful burials
Amidst pale faces I pray at the graveyard,
And your hateful shouts and cries of revelry
Disturb the silence of the tomb – because of you,
The earth itself trembles over the dead bodies!
If the prayers of so many reverend men and women
Had not consecrated the common gravepit,
I would have thought that devils even now
Were torturing some ruined, godless soul,
Laughing as they dragged it to outer darkness.
In all three texts we can see the following pattern of the language use:
Archaic English → Simplified Russian version of the play –> Translation of the simplified Russian version
Moreover, we can regard A Feast During the Plague as independent work simply because it is not the word-by-word translation of the whole of Wilson’s play, but only a part of it. And why did Pushkin choose exactly this scene from all the play?
According to the Russian scholar, Leo Polivanoff, Pushkin generally chooses to translate to his native language only the brightest part of the original foreign work. This is what happened with A Feast During the Plague: Pushkin chose from all the play the part that interested him most, and thus shifted the focus from describing the horrors of the plague to the conflict.
As for the sources of the tragical story, some evidence indicates that Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722) actually inspired John Wilson to write a play. Another famous Russian scholar Yakovlev wrote: “The book of Defoe influenced someone who in turn was a source of inspiration for Pushkin — an English writer John Wilson”. In addition, Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year was also found in the library of Pushkin, and perhaps he read it as well.
We can definitely notice the resemblance between the play A Feast During the Plague and the tavern scene, where people partied and behave atheistically, in A Journal of the Plague Year. Both scenes essentially have the same settings and major actors. Both scenes are happening at a tavern and the major actors all involves a dead-cart, group of jesting people, and a godly or moral man that tries to correct the group’s way. In fact, even the plot progresses in a similar manner, with the moral person failing to change the behaviour of the group. However both pieces differ in the perspective that the story is told. Pushkin told the story in the form of a play and therefore gave us the perspective of both the priest and the group while Defoe told the story from the perspective of H.F., the moral person.
Given the amazing thread of a creative work such as this one, we could not help but make the connection of a traveling text and a traveling plague. Specifically, the way in which the nature of the plague transforms through communication. The Russian version was slightly more explicit than either of the English versions, be it the original work or the translation. The author’s taste is key. With talk about any sort of contagion, the details one chooses to express or omit will affect hordes of people’s actions and perceptions when it come to the given contagion.The telling and retelling of the horrors of the contagion gives people a sense of agency and authority in a situation that renders them helpless and subject to whatever may come. But to get back to the situation of the authors at hand, their adaptations of this story in effect becomes their own once they allow it to pass through their analytical lens. Thus, the foundational idea may not be original, but the products still stand as a one worth recognizing, one of a unique analytical lens.
So we say go ahead Pushkin, recreate with your bad self.
Camus, The Plague (Vintage) Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year (Norton Critical Edition) Kushner, Angels in America (TCG) Ma, Severance (Picador)** Mpe, Welcome to Our Hillbrow (Ohio UP) Yan, Dream of Ding Village (Grove)*
All readings are posted on or linked from the Textbooks tab on Brightspace
*Distributed separately in an electronic edition via VitalSource **Available in print via the Bookstore and in PDF on Brightspace under Content > PDF resources
M Aug. 30: Introductions and The Big Question: Are we too connected?
Oh, come not near then to your Jenny, No last kiss on her pale lips lay, Watch, but watch you from afar off When they bear her corpse away
Feast During the Plague, Lines 60-64
What does it mean to grieve in a pandemic?
All over the world, burialritualshavechanged, and people are experiencing grief not only for the loss of their loved ones, but also for the loss of customs they were meant to remember them by. Families in Wuhan have not been able to pick up the cremated ashes of their loved ones for two months because of lockdown. Filipino wakes normally last up to three days, but the pandemic has enforced all cremations to take place within 12 hours of death. Big public funeral processions that were once so vital in many faiths of South Asia are now complicated by social distancing. When the best one can do is Zoom into a friend’s funeral, a great deal of human connection is lost.
I find Pushkin’s exploration of coping mechanisms and grief particularly relevant to this modern concern. Edgar Allan Poe wrote a similarly story to Pushkin’s called “The Masque of the Red Death” where a group of rich people also throw themselves a feast in the middle of plague, but while Poe’s play was about confronting mortality head on, Pushkin is more concerned with those who have to consider it second-hand.
Pushkin through the Chairman and other characters, considers the emotionally turbulent experience of restricting our reactions to loss. Though Mary seems distraught over the empty churches and schoolyards and burials and conveys her sadness through song, her companions are perhaps equally distraught but a little better at hiding it. “So for the Plague a hearty cheer!” says the Chairman. Though his mother is dead and so is his wife and dear friend, a cheer, he says. His grief is expressed in the active denial of hurt and sadness. He turns to alcohol and merriment as a cheap way of coping with tragedy. It makes one wonder how much of this reaction was imposed on by the plague? Would he have reacted similarly if his mother had died in more normal circumstances? If he had been allowed to see her and mourn? Or did the plague amplify his grief?
Interestingly enough, it is not those who have been those most heavily hit by loss of loved ones that are out there partying today. The only parties I ever hear of are these so-called COVID parties. While Pushkin’s feast was about grief and respect for the tragedy of plague, the modern COVID party (if it does exists) is centered on the active denial of plague. It makes me wonder, maybe plague-denial is in itself is an expression of grief. Or maybe not. Who knows.
Since the first iteration of my Contagion course in 2012, during my first semester at NYUAD, I’ve tinkered with the syllabus quite a bit. I’ve added texts, dropped texts, played around with historical and contextual readings. The current version of the course, spring 2019, marks the most substantial shift yet.
Contagion was originally created as a “Writing Intensive” course in NYUAD’s original Core Curriculum, in a now-defunct category called Pathways of World Literature. It met three days a week, included several writing workshops, and had much more class time to discuss reading. The list of books was much longer than it can be in the current format, which meets only twice a week.
And so I thought it might be good to commemorate here, like so many headstones in a graveyard, the books that have not survived. Here’s a list of titles that no longer appear on the syllabus. Consider them optional further reading if you just can’t get the course to release its hold on you once the semester’s over.
Marcus, The Flame Alphabet (Knopf)
Mann, Death in Venice (Norton)
Pushkin, A Feast in the Time of Plague Burns, Black Hole (Pantheon) Preston, Hot Zone (Anchor) Roth, Nemesis (Vintage) Sinha, Animal’s People (Simon & Shuster)
Saramago, Blindness (Harvest) Whitehead, Zone One (Doubleday)
The class changes every time one of these texts comes and goes. I’m looking forward to seeing what emerges in the new, more multidisciplinary format of the Core Colloquium. But I’ll miss some of these and their characters, I’m sure. Search the archives for content related to these fallen friends.
Sinha’s Animal’s People is a novel that is composed of a collection or a series of tapes recorded by a 19 year old boy, the protagonist of the novel identifies himself as an “Animal.” He does not really remember the days before the horrible incident caused by the poisonous smoke and chemical leakage in the Kampani’s factory, resulting in many diseases and death of people living in Khaufpur. One of the victims of “that night” (4) incident is the protagonist, Animal. He got the disease at the age of six. He “could not even stand up straight. Further, further, forward [he] was bent. When the smelting in [his] spine stopped the bones had twisted like a hairpin, the highest part of [him] was [his] arse” (15). Ever since then, Animal was teased and called, “‘Animal, jungle Animal!’” (16) by other kids and recognized that he was different from the normal people in appearance, differentiating himself from others and calling oneself, “Animal,” and therefore, going through an identity struggle.
Identity is one of the major themes in Sinha’s novel. From the very beginning of the novel, Animal addresses the issue of his identity: “I used to be human once. So I’m told. I don’t remember it myself, but people who knew me when I was small say I walked on two feet just like a human being” (1). In this first statement, he says “used to be,” signifying that he no longer sees himself as a human after his appearance got distorted. The fact that Animal convinces himself to be viewed as an animal is evidently portrayed in the novel, especially in the earlier part of it. He says, “I no longer want to be human” (1). The following conversation between Zafar and Animal illustrate that Animal does not really know his origin and identifies himself as “Animal:”
“What’s your real name?”
“Animal’s a nickname, na? I mean your born name.”
“I don’t know.”
“My name is Animal,” I say. “I’m not a fucking human being, I’ve no wish to be one.” (23)
The conversation above suggests that Animal has convinced himself not to be viewed as a human. While he is a human being, he denies his human nature and calls himself “Animal.” Do you think Animal is trying to run away from reality by seeing himself as Animal? Doesn’t this remind you of Walsingham who created the feast during the plague?
Animal’s identity struggle is further explored later in the novel, during the conversation between him and Zafar and Farouq, Animal says,
Zafar and Farouq have this in common, I should cease thinking of myself as an animal and become human again. Well, maybe if I’m cured, otherwise I’ll never do it and here’s why, if I agree to be a human being, I’ll also have to agree that I’m wrong-shaped and abnormal. But let me be a quatre pattes animal, four-footed and free, then I am whole, my own proper shape, just a different kind of animal from say Jara, or a cow, or a camel.
“I’m the only on there is of this type.”
“You pretend to be an animals so you can escape the responsibility of being human,” Farouq carries on.
“And I’m an animal, why?” I retorted. “By my choice or because others name me Animal and treated me like one?”
“You’re well enough looked after now,” says Farouq. “We are your friends. … To be accepted as a human being, you must behave like one. The more human you act, the more human you’ll be.” (206-208)
Do you agree with Zafar and Farouq that Animal should see himself as a human being? What does it really mean to be a human? What is the difference between a human and an animal? What does the title of the novel, “Animal’s People,” suggest about identity and difference between men and animals? Moreover, what makes and creates one’s identity? Is identity inborn, shaped by one’s experiences, or determined by other people’s point of view? (We asked this question in FYD, remember? ;))
Other than calling himself, Animal, due to his appearance, it is significant to note that he does not know his origin. While he was given a name when he was in the orphanage, he claims that he does not remember his born name. In order to understand one’s identity, it is crucial for one to know where one originates from. This seems to be a recurring theme in many novels. Even before the conversation between Zafar and Animal, Animal talks about his origin:
On that night I was found lying in a doorway, child of a few days, wrapped in a shawl. Whose was I? Nobody knew. Mother, father, neighbours, all must have died for no living soul came to claim me, who was coughing, frothing etc. plus nearly blind, where my eyes had screwed themselves against the burning fog were white slits bleached on the eyeballs. (14)
Not knowing his parents influences Animal to undergo inner struggle. While he shows hatred toward being called a human, the inner side of him illustrates that he yearns to be a human being, creating further inner struggle. This is explicitly seen when he desires and regains hope to stand on two legs when Elli, the American doctor comes and builds a health laboratory or clinic.
Another important aspect of this novel is the languages that it is composed of. The characters of this novel all speak different languages: English, Hindi, French and in some cases we could consider the sounds of nature as a language of its own. All these languages were combined in one novel for the Eyes to read. What is the purpose of this combination? To start with, the editor explains (at the beginning of the novel) that some idioms could not be translated into English, and that is why French is used throughout the text. And, since the story is based in India then it would make sense why Hindi is used. But, what if the combination of languages has an implicit meaning? It might be that, what has happened in Khaufpur was the responsibility of global governments? Language is also strongly linked to identity, the French nun (Ma Franci) forgot all the languages she has learned other than her mother tongue. On another note, Animal is taught different languages. He he could understand the language of nature, and is taught other languages to blend in the community. Why does the author incorporate different languages? How does language affect one’s identity?
Along with all the language spoken throughout the novel, Animal seems to hear voices. These voices that are trapped in his head do not only speak to him, but also influence his actions and tell him the future. Surprisingly, Animal doesn’t see his situation as a problem; he embraces it. This is depicted when the French nun takes him to the doctor, and he asks the doctors about the possibility of walking on two legs rather than mentioning the voices. At that momment, he meets and speaks to Kha-in-the-jar. Are the voices Animal is hearing real or is he suffering from a mental illness? To what extent do these voices influence Animal’s actions?
Another significant theme of the novel is justice. The novel is not only the first book where the victims are not victims of a biological disease but a chemical one, but we are, also, informed of the group that is responsible for the cause of this plague. We know who is to blame for the cause of this story that Animal narrates; it is the Kampani factory and its workers. All the people of Khaufpur want justice. Zafar is the leader of their hope for justice. He is battling an on-going case of eighteen years in the courts against the Kampani group. Zafar is the symbol of hope for the people of Khaufpur. They trust that under his guidance, they will be compensated for the effects that they have lived with from that night. However, Zafar knows that the Kampani group has more power, connections and resources on their side but he still keeps his thoughts positive. He says,
“Friends, the Kampani sitting in Amrika has everything on its side, money powerful friends and the government and military, expensive lawyers, political masseurs, public relations men. We people have nothing, many of us haven’t an untorn shirt to wear, many of us go hungry, we have no money for lawyer and PR, we have no influential friends… The Kampani and its friends seek to wear us down with a long fight, but they don’t understand us, they’ve never come up against people like us before… having nothing means we have nothing to lose. So you see, armed with the power of nothing we are invincible, we are bound to win.” (54)
The people of Khaufpur had tremendous faith in Zafar and they knew that he could bring them justice. He reassured them with his actions and his devotion towards them. Should the people of Khaufpur have so much faith in one person or should they take justice into their own hands? What does justice mean to the people of Khaufpur? Do they really want justice or is a dream that Zafar has convinced everyone to believe in?
Ma Franci on the other hand does not believe that the cause of the night was the Kampani factory. She believes that it was the hand of god. She says, “this is his work, he’s up and running again, this time there’ll be no stopping him.” Animal thinks that Ma Franci is crazy to think that god would have this happen to his people. But Animal also does not like this god figure that Ma Franci refers to because he is always silent. Ma Franci thinks that the end of the world had begun that night but Animal tells us, “Sanjo was wrong. F****** world didn’t end. It’s still suffering” (64). Is it fair for the people of Khaufpur to suffer like this? What can be done to reduce the effects of the aftermath of the poisoning that occurred on that night?
The ideas about identity, languages and voices, and justice are discussed throughout the novel. They all influence the actions of individuals and their beliefs regarding the cause of the chemical incident. We hope that we have provided interesting questions to discuss. Hope you guys enjoy the reading and the post!
p.s. We found an interesting video about the novel!
(Can you embed this again pls professor? Thank you. :))
Set in an imaginary village in China’s Henan province, Dream of Ding Village (2006) by Yan Lianke is a story about rural Chinese citizens who lived through China’s Plasma Economy. It reveals the sufferings that arose from this profit-seeking campaign. The novel invites us to imagine the early years of China’s AIDS epidemic, the time when farmers, or the villagers of Ding, awoke from dreams of wealth and prosperity to a fatal disease, their “dream” for a better life turned into a nightmare.
Ding Qiang, the murdered twelve-year-old boy and the narrator of the novel, is the son of Ding Hui, who was the village’s most scandalous bloodhead. The boy was poisoned by the villagers in retaliation for his father’s doings, which was setting up Ding’s largest and unhygienic blood bank that eventually caused the spread of AIDS, while using the profit to improve his family’s house. In other words, he got what he ‘paid’ for and his son died for him. Once again, a son is punished for his father’s sins, does this sound familiar? After Ding Qiang’s murder, the boy lingers over Ding Village as an observer watching over his father and grandfather. His omniscient narration gives us an insight on the daily life of the infected Ding Village and serves to illuminate the thoughts of his grandfather, who tries to care for the sick villagers while carrying the shame of his son’s actions. Even though the grandfather dreamt that this would lead to a disaster, he still persuaded people to do it, obeying the request of the “higher-ups.” Who do you think is to blame for the blood selling? Does the dream aspect of the novel remind you of a story we have read?
The father’s greed has caused tragedies upon Ding’s villagers; it had ‘cost’ people their lives. The blood business has become very competitive to the extent that he put his plasma bank on wheels, pushing it around the village to collect blood. The blood selling business was booming and it seemed as though it became something sacred to them. The villagers “didn’t believe in Guan Yu any more; they believed in selling blood” and they sold it religiously (24). People seemed to be convinced that this trade will bring them more prosperity than religion. Selling blood became an ‘addiction’ and people’s veins started to feel like they will burst if they did not extract any blood. Once someone began to sell their blood, there was no coming back. They could not escape it just like they could not escape the fate that was coming their way (i.e. AIDS). The villagers have become so absurd that they were easily persuaded to sell their blood, even by the smallest self-serving kindness from Ding Hui and the other officials, particularly the former Mayor Li Sanren who absolutely condemned the campaign at first. Moreover, those who were against the idea at first had no other choice but to sell their blood as well due to social pressure. They were forced to give away part of themselves to be able to afford living in the village and feed themselves to survive. Little did they know, however, they were killing part of themselves by doing so. Why was instant gratification worth risking one’s life in this case? Whose fault is it that people had to resort to selling ‘part of themselves’ to make money? Is it an ethical way of dealing with loss of money (on the part of the government and on the part of the villagers)?
Bloodheads were getting out of control; they were demanding blood to the extent that they were bribing the villagers with words. They were like mad vampires, except they were able to walk in daylight. Ding Hui was the most manipulative bloodhead of all; he knew how to persuade the villagers to stretch out their arms to him and he made them think that when they get the money and live in comfortable conditions, that will, in turn, ‘stretch’ out their lives. A particular scene that shows how his bribery worked is when he convinced the resistant Li Sanren, the former mayor, to do just that:
While pushing his mobile blood bank round the village, Ding Hui saw Li Sanren working his field and asked him if he wanted to sell blood. Li Sanren angrily replied: “You Dings, you won’t be satisfied until you’ve milked this village dry.” Ding Hui, not wanting to lose a customer turns to Li Sanren, calling him “Mr. Mayor” which he knew was a strong way of getting him to listen, starts talking about the county cadres’ search for a new mayor. He then tells him that they had offered him the job but then exclaims: “Of course I’d never take the job, I told them there’s only one person in this village qualified to be mayor, and that’s you (87).
How effective is propaganda / manipulation in this situation? Those who benefitted financially from this scandal, such as Ding Hui, viewed this AIDS crisis as a good opportunity for making money. However, before the epidemic, when blood selling earned you money to live comfortably, everyone was happy about it. Only when the consequences of their decisions came, people started complaining. Do you think the people “asked for it?” Do they have the right to complain? Who is to blame for the start of the epidemic after all? Although it was the government who encouraged the trade at first, when people saw how beneficial this transaction was to their lives, they were willing to continue and sell more frequently each time.
Because doctors used unsanitary equipment for the procedures to lower costs and maximize profit, it was as though they were treating humans like production machines by disregarding their health and safety. The poor villagers were like slaves; the “higher-ups” were ‘buying’ their lives and benefitting from them, and then they left them to die. Would you consider this objectification? The villagers seemed to be even less than objects as they were treated with indifference and money was seen as more valuable than people. It is as though the father and the other bloodheads exemplified lack of empathy which is one of the characteristics of an ‘authoritarian personality.’
In addition to manipulation, indifference, instant gratification and ethics, other prominent underlying themes in this novel are power and pride. Ding Hui was a powerful man in Ding Village and he used his house as a reflection of this power. For instance, he refused to have a house on the same level as the other villagers: “When everyone else started building bricks-and-tile houses, my father [Ding Hui] tore down ours and built a new two-storey house. When everyone started building two-storey houses, my father added a third storey” (19-20). The people of Ding village were materialistic and used wealth to reflect their position in society. This is why Ding Hui bought all the unused machinery in the house, just to “show we could afford them.” (20). When the father was asked to apologize to the people for what he had done, his pride got in the way and, as a result, he said: “You’re not my father and I am not your son” (22). What do you make out of this situation? Do you believe that this reply was a consequence of the father’s powerful position? What do you think would have been his reply had he not been wealthy? Do you think that apologizing hinders one’s position or lifts it? What does Ding Hui think?
The theme of power also reoccurs when the county director visits the grandfather in school. The grandfather is asked to use his powerful and respectful position in the village to mobilize the selling of blood. The grandfather is in complete disapproval of the phenomena at first. However, due to the powerful position of the county director and the fact that he used his position to allow the grandfather to be nominated as a model teacher, he agreed to promote selling blood in the village. In the end, however, the grandfather becomes the caretaker of the sick villagers instead of the model teacher. This could be seen as the cost of choosing to obey the authority’s instructions in order for him to be raised to a better position (“You reap what you sow” ). Nevertheless, his efforts to help the sick at the school was done voluntarily out of compassion, restoring the humanity that was lost from the way the bloodheads treated the villagers. Do you believe what the grandfather did was morally justified (i.e. obeying authority to raise his position in society)? Is obeying authoritative figures more beneficial to the community than staying true to one’s self and moral standards?
The grandfather’s character reminds us of the doctor’s wife in the movie Blindness (2008) who did not catch the disease and remained in the asylum to take care of the sick. Both were willing to risk their lives and stay with the diseased to support them in their last days even with the idea that there was no cure (which the people did not know at the beginning of their stay in the school). Does risking one’s health, by any chance, remind you of Arthur Mervyn (1799)? Moreover, does the idea of secrecy and telling people there is a cure for AIDS (in the beginning) remind you of Dr. Rieux from The Plague (1947)? Another striking similarity to the movie Blindness is when the infected population created their own organized society in which the healthy held the role of the leader. Although the people did not get along at first and everyone was frustrated with their fate, they were forced to accept this destiny and work together for a better end to their lives. As we have seen in our previous readings as well, disease brings people together just like a celebration (shared feelings; the aim of ‘making most of today’). People collectively want to forget and that, as a result, intensifies their bonds. This is similar to Emily Davis’s quote from Priscilla Wald’s book: “The interactions that make us sick also constitute us as a community.” Can you draw a connection to Camus’s The Plague (1947) or Pushkin’s A Feast During The Plague (1830)?
Lastly, in order to understand the bigger picture of the way Ding Village’s society works as a whole, we found it necessary to examine the major setting of the plot: the village school. Prior to the epidemic and the rise of the phenomena of selling blood, this place used to be “part of a village temple dedicated to Guan Yu, the god of wealth” (24). From this explanation alone, we can come to a conclusion about life during this period in Ding Village. It is safe to say that people were humbled and religious, and were also filled with hope that one day, they would have their share of wealth. Following this period, the action of blood selling was introduced in the village and that is when “they [the villagers] started getting rich from selling blood, [that] they tore down the temple” (24). The change brought by selling blood to this society was massive. The religious beliefs of this society collapsed as they found praying for wealth useless when compared to selling blood. During this period, the people of Ding Village found that the best use for this physical space is education which is when the school was built. Years after the school was built, the AIDS epidemic started, which is when this place took on a different role in benefiting the society; it served as a safe haven for those who suffered from AIDS.
This selfless act proposed by the grandfather has helped re-establish some of the values this place had prior to being a school; the values of giving without expecting anything in return. It once again became a symbol of hope, but a completely different type of hope. People no longer hoped for wealth and were no longer materialistic. Instead, they hoped for the recovery of their loved ones; they hoped to go back to the time before they sold their own blood for the sake of money; they hoped to restore the humanity in this society that seemed to have died the moment they extended their arms for a few yuans.