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The major theme in the novel is the determination or the challenging spirit to fight against all odds in life. These qualities are reflected in the personality of the prime narrator, Winnie.
The thematic progression is clearly seen in Winnieís relentless fight against all the misfortunes in her life. Right from an early age, Winnie has to put up with partiality and differences in attitude. She is totally a neglected child. Though born in a prosperous family, she has to live in a place where she is unwanted. She accepts her desolate life without any grudges.
Marriage for many girls, in those times in China was a golden opportunity - to get wedded to a wealthy man was every girlís dream. For Weiliís especially, marriage seemed to be a better solution to her present problems. Little does she know that her marriage would be the cause of graver troubles in her life. A shy bride, Winnie, tries to adjust to the whims and fancies of her husband and her in-laws. Gradually, she understands the true color of her pilot husband Wen Fu who is an arrogant and malicious fellow.
The country, itself is in doldrums in those times. Depravity seemed to be the order of the day. Winnie has to manage the household with the money from her dowry as her husband spends all his earnings on gambling. All her dowry money is spent on necessity items during the emergency period. For quite some time Winnie meekly suffers all the troubles, hoping that some day he would change his manners and be a better husband. But, he becomes worse with each passing day.
One gets a clear insight into her courageous spirit, when she decides to divorce him. Divorce in 1920ís, in China, is an unthinkable phenomenon. A divorced woman is considered as a disgrace to the society. Perhaps no other woman knew this better than Winnie who had heard the cruel gossips about her mother, who had decided to separate from her husband. Yet, Winnie had the inner strength, to decide to live, without the tag of Wen Fu name. She decides this even before Jimmy comes in her life. She is prepared to face the adversities of life as a lone woman than live as a whore with Wen Fu.
It is because of Wen Fu that, Winnie lands up in prison. During her trial in the court, Wen fu offers to free her from the charges, if she returns to him. Her daring nature shines through, when she proclaims in the court, "I would rather sleep on the concrete floor of a jail than go to that manís house."
In prison, Winnie has to endure several discomforts-unclean surroundings, dingy cells, and mundane works. But Winnie has changed from the naïve teenager, who found it difficult to adjust to adversities. She has faced a lot in the hectic journey during wartime. She now knows that she has to struggle in her life in order to emerge as a winner. Her good nature and generosity help her to convert the dingy cells into a better place to live. The other inmates also develop a soft corner towards her due to her kind- heartedness.
The most sparkling example of her valor is reflected in the presence of mind, she shows when Wen Fu barges into her house. The very next day Winnie had to go to US to be with Jimmy. All her preparations were complete and she had even managed to procure the divorce papers duly signed by Wen Fu. Wen Fu enters the house. He is furious because she has tricked him into signing the divorce papers. At gunpoint, he brutally rapes Weili and tears off the divorce papers. Winnie feels utterly humiliated and like a wounded tigress, she tries to kill him with his gun. For the first time, Winnie humiliates him and he has to run out of the house without his pants to save his life from her wrath.
Only because of her brave act, could she manage to come to the US and live with Jimmy. Any others woman in her place would have found it extremely difficult to fight with the vigor with which she had managed to defeat Wen Fu.
Her relentless struggle and bravery is an example not just for her daughter but for all the women who consider themselves as helpless victims. Even in old age, Winnie continues to inspire her daughter and is optimistic about life. Weiliís strong character clearly reflects her survivalist tendency.
In a broader dimension, Winnieís struggle against Wen Fu is a revolt, a rebellion against patriarchy, dogmatism, and conservatism. The power of the female spirit is brought to the forefront. The ultimate victory of Winnie over Wen Fu also symbolizes the establishment of righteousness and the supremacy of goodness over wickedness.