You may recognise the author’s name from her bestselling The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, which was first published 8 years later in 2005.
WHAT THE STORY IS ABOUT
A girl feels overlooked because her important father gives names of significant family members to each of her siblings except to her. She tries in vain to win his attention and affection, but unfortunately, she only wins attention by trying to smother the baby twins which have lead to a long, worrisome labour for their mother. Eshlaini’s father then names her after his own mother, which is no compliment whatsoever. When Eshlaini comes of age, the father turns away all of her suitors, because like his own mother, this daughter Eshlaini must care for him in his old age.
Sure enough, Eshlaini nurses her father tenderly as he dies. She has insisted that he leave his smallest house to her in his will. But as it happens, the land value of this cheap house has skyrocketed over the last 20 years as the city sprung up around it, and Eshlaini is now rich.
Unmarried, but free at last from her controlling father, she sells up and buys a nice apartment in the city. She then decides to adopt a little girl from a nearby orphanage.
I’m tempted to say that the setting for this story is ‘ambiguously elsewhere’. If I were better travelled then I would have been able to pinpoint exactly where this story is set. For this reader, however, it could have been set in any number of countries where large families rule, where men control the lives of women, and where the new has supplanted the traditional within the space of a single generation. We do get a few clues: The country has recently become independent (though we don’t know from who or when, exactly). Families are very religious, living their lives around ancient beliefs. There is talk of a ‘communist rebellion’.
Before a second reading, a quick search of the name Jamaluddin leads me to Malaysia. The name Eshlaini is also Malaysian. Malaysia achieved independence from British colonial rule in 1957. The narrator is old enough to have memories of her father before 1957. The communist rebellion happened before the narrator was born. So the clues are all there for readers who know their history or who are prepared to look it up.
The era of The Great Chain Of Being is significant. Much progress happened all around the world after the world wars and Malaysia evolved along with everyone else, and just like the narrator herself. The city is even personified in the phrase, ‘No one imagined then that the city would expand, pressing outward like a deep breath‘.
See also: The History Of Malaysia.
This story as a Storyteller as Character. See: The Role Of Storytellers In Fiction. There are a number of advantages to using a storyteller when writing a short story, and perhaps the most beneficial reason in this particular story is the following:
If the storyteller is identified the audience knows that this is someone’s memory — cue feelings of loss, sadness and ‘might-have’been-ness’. We know that the storyteller will be retelling the story with a touch more wisdom, since a measure of time has elapsed since the ending of the story and the retelling of it.
There is certainly an element of what-might-have-been-ness when it comes to Eshlaini. Each of her suitors seemed pretty good, given the restrictions of her circumstance and gender. Yet the reader sees them each turned away. I’ll append that with: The suitors weren’t all that great if they turned away so easily. But the reader doesn’t really see this until the end of the story, when Eshlaini finds true freedom without men. Until that point, we assume that Eshlaini would have been better off with any of those young men who weren’t her father.
When writing a short story, the characters who are not there are sometimes as important as the characters who are. In this case, the spectre hanging over Eshlaini’s life is of course her grandmother Rohila. We know enough about the father to mistrust his opinions of anyone, including his own mother. Therefore, the reader is left wondering who Rohila really was. What we do know is that she never managed to break free from her son’s control. Rohila is therefore the Eshlaini that never achieved independence — Eshlaini’s ‘negative role model’. For several reasons, Eshlaini would never have become the woman she did if it weren’t for her dead grandmother’s reputation.
SIGNIFICANCE OF THE TITLE – Hierarchy
The great chain of being is a concept derived from Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, and Proclus; further developed during the Middle Ages, it reached full expression in early modern Neoplatonism. It details a strict, religious hierarchical structure of all matter and life, believed to have been decreed by God. The chain starts from God and progresses downward to angels, demons (fallen/renegade angels), stars, moon, kings, princes, nobles, men, wild animals, domesticated animals, trees, other plants, precious stones, precious metals, and other minerals.
This story is all about hierarchy. Being a girl and a middle-child in a patriarchal society of very large families, and caught once in the midst of a (maybe) terrible act, Eshlaini is at the very bottom of the pecking order.
Chains in general carry connotations of restriction and lack of freedom, which applies to Eshlaini in every sense.
People can make their minds up about others on a dime.
A single act that involved Eshlaini when she was only nine years old (the age is repeated a number of times for emphasis) is what formed her father’s lasting impression of her. This impression formed the entire rest of her life. First impressions, unfortunately, last, even when it comes to your own children. The practice of re-naming the children after other family members didn’t help the father to see each of his children as individuals. Instead, once they were named, he saw only the original bearer of that name.
Our names can be surprisingly important and influential.
By rejecting the name Rohila, Eshlaini was able to reject her father and brothers’ opinions of her. She clings onto the meaning of ‘star’, until at the end of the story she feels she embodies the star. In her own mind, she is somebody important, even though distant from the rest of her family (her world). ‘Words have power’, narrator Eshlaini tells us , though in reference to what she tells her older brother about what she intends to do with the house. She is of course referring to the names each of the children has been given.
Women in patriarchal societies who are charged with the term ‘crazy’ can actually turn somewhat crazy because of the restrictions which are subsequently heaped upon them. Anger can be misinterpreted for ‘crazy’.
There is a long, sad history of women being crazy or neurotic or hysterical, or generally childlike or unstable or too emotional to make proper judgements. These ideas about grown women have been used across many cultures for hundreds of years to control wives and daughters.
1. Stop Telling Girls They’re Hysterical, from The Feminist Wire
2. Hysteria and Femininity: A Tentative Investigation into a Victorian and Edwardian Myth from Early Modern England
5. Why We Need To Stop Saying “Calm Down” and “You’re Crazy” from The Current Conscience
6. Women Who Are Judged Mentally Ill Might Just Be Mad from Women’s eNews
7. This article discusses etymology of ‘hysterical’ and its widened use over time to include the meaning of ‘extremely funny’. 8. Is it okay, then, to use the word ‘hysteria’ even when you’re using it in an ungendered way? Perhaps.
Kim Edwards explains by way of this story that what is so often mistaken for ‘crazy’ is blind rage:
What happens to an anger, so fierce it burns the inner eylids with a white light, when it goes too long unexpressed? I can tell you–it turns into a black nut, a bilious knot in the gut, a dark coiled seed.
Insight comes with age.
In many short stories an epiphanic moment happens in the ‘real time’ of the story. In this case, since a storyteller is used as narrator, the epiphany has not taken place over the course of a moment but over the course of years. The narrator describes this gradual strengthening and fortification by imagining herself/describing herself as a tree:
On that day the dark seed sprang open. I felt it releasing, the sap of it running through my veins. As each day passed and my father grew weaker, new shoots made their way through my arms and legs. I felt myself growing alive from within….Roots shot to my toes, took permanent hold. It was only my name, yet to me it was like a flash of the sun, a trigger for the quick photosynthesis of joy.
Eshlaini’s transformation is also marked by the clothes she refuses to wear. She throws out all of her little girl clothes and ‘old-maid clothes’, replacing them with the ‘crisp tailored clothes’ bought as a tribute to her mother. The brightly coloured clothes and jewels are like the bright star she has been named after.
TECHNIQUES OF NOTE
Foreign-sounding Narrative Voice
After completing her graduate work, she went with her husband to Asia, where they spent the next five years teaching, first on the rural east coast of Malaysia, then in a small city an hour south of Tokyo, and finally in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
– Goodreads biography of Kim Edwards
It’s significant that Kim Edwards has experience living in non-English speaking countries, and that she first started writing her short stories during this time, because the narrative voice in this story very much has the feel of ‘having been translated into English’, even though the original language is, in fact, English.
Other languages quite often mark time by the seasons:
My mother’s labour began when the fruit trees ripened, just after the hot season and before the monsoon…
The dialogue, as well as the main narrative, is written carefully and as summary rather than in naturalistic style:
“Take this one,” he said…Take her and lock her in her room. She has gone mad, like her grandmother before her. Rohila… This evil girl, she is Rohila once again.”
The figurative language, too, is distinctively non-Western:
her needle flashing like a minnow in the dark
Empathy With Narrator
The reader is encouraged to empathise with Eshlaini. First, she is the seventh child of thirteen. The plight of the middle-child is well-known, and is heightened in large families. So we feel her rejection when she tries to attract the father’s attention. Even though Eshlaini is comforted by her mother, she must talk to ‘the curve of’ a pregnant belly. Eshlaini never gets either of her parents entirely to herself, even when she is in need of comfort.
Foiled Reader Expectations
This scene also sets up the relationship between Eshlaini and her mother, Shalizah. Through their shared femaleness, Eshlaini worries about the mother when the mother goes into a long labour with twins. The technique of using a narrator as storyteller has allowed the author to include only the most significant parts of the story of Eshlaini’s childhood, and so the reader has already been told that subsequent pregnancies are dangerous for the mother. Used to the technique of Chekhov’s gun, the reader expects the mother to die in childbirth as much as Eshlaini does, especially when we find out the pregnancy bears twins.
Hinting At The Passage Of Time
Since this story is told by a character who is narrator, there is no ‘Finally spring came’ or ‘Seven years later’ and so on. Instead the reader is given clues that time has passed:
At night I sat before the mirror, scanning the new wrinkles where none had been, clipping at the hairs that sprouted on my chin.
The Storyteller Ends The Narration Before The Story Is Over
John Truby says this about using characters as storytellers:
Don’t end the storytelling frame at the end of the story, but rather about three-quarters of the way in. If you put it right at the end the act of remembering and telling the story can have no dramatic or structural impact on the present. You need to leave some room in the story for the act of recounting the change to the storyteller herself.
At the end of The Great Chain Of Being, Eshlaini is about to adopt a daughter, and presumably embark upon another cycle of growth. The act of storytelling itself has been a part of her becoming free of the past.
This is the first short story in the collection Secrets of a Fire King, published 1997.