Cattle Shed

1 January 2017

Optimism in ‘The Cattle Shed’ Imagine this: you are confined in a small room as a prisoner, forced to be a laborer because of the political preference Communism, and the love of your life is locked up in his own ‘cattle shed’. How is a person supposed to stay optimistic in these horrible living conditions? In Ding Ling’s “Sketches from the ‘Cattle Shed’”, the narrator who is placed in solitary confinement due to being a Communist struggles through her everyday life to survive.

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Most people would be sullen, defeated and angry, but Ling’s narrator embraces glimmers of hope through her lover’s, C. , secret letters. C. is a very important character supporting Ling’s, his letters in the form of poems are inspiring, hopeful and powerful. They relieve the stress of confinement for only a moment, but the lasting effects change her outlook at the end of the story. Optimism at a time like this is crucial for the narrator and support from her lover is exactly what she needs, C. chooses his words carefully and subtly eases his lover’s tension.

This is shown when the beginning and ending lines of the short story are compared and analyzed. The beginning of the short story starts off as a very vivid description of the prison she is in, Ling uses words like, ‘shrill whistle shrieking’, ‘ear piercing sound’, ‘darkness’, and ‘naked electric light bulb’ (142). Ling sets the tone of the story right from the beginning, using this depressing language to enhance the miserable atmosphere she has been placed in. There is hopelessness in the language used at the initial setting described by Ling.

Because of the weighted controversy, the reader expects the narrator to continue with her feelings of hopelessness and defeat. However, when the letters by C. are introduced, they fill the narrator with feelings of optimism and inner strength. The letters by C. are very political and poetic. He is acting as a support system for her, to ease the realities of confinement. When Ling receives these letters she describes them as ‘treasures’ and that “they would accompany me through the world to the end of my days” (150) giving the sense that these are extremely important and vital to her survival- at all times.

It is these ‘treasures’ that give her the power to keep her head up high and also reflect on the positive messages from her husband.. She adores them so much that she says, ‘.. poetic exhortations that I recited so often and which became indelibly imprinted on my heart. ” (149) There are many key phrases and words that infer this type of optimism In these letters, C. carefully selects optimistic phrases and words like: “You must live on! ”, “Hope lies in the struggles of your waves. ”, “Forget the names of those people who harmed you; hold fast to the names of those who stretched out a helping hand in times of difficulty. (149), and “Straighten your back; fearlessly live on. ” (150).

Each sentence, carefully written and thought out, were subtle ways to strengthen that hope, to give Ling any small amount of happiness to hold on to. Although Ling still feels like a captive and cannot bear to be away from her lover, she realizes, “He sought to bring a smile to my face with his optimistic words, but I was already incapable of smiling” (155). Ling feels like she has nothing left to look forward to, she cannot even bear to smile at her husband for the last time.

She doesn’t understand that it will be the last time seeing each other, but the fact that she does realize that he is putting in the effort to put her emotions before his own shows that she’s embracing the optimism not by choice but for her undying love for C. The language that is used at the end of the novel, more specifically the last sentence, shows the transfer of C. ’s hope, into the emotions of Ling’s narrator. It reads, “His arm was raised high, as if in a carefree, joyous, warm farewell to a friend setting out on a journey to distant parts” (155).

The language used here ‘carefree, joyous, warm’ all contrast with the hollow hopeless words from the beginning. If she had not been touched by his uplifting words in the letters, the language to describe his departure would be more depressing and heart-wrenching. By looking closely at the beginning and the ending of the short story, the reader can see how his poems/letters shaped her negative, worrisome thoughts into becoming more freeing and positive.

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