Introducing a character into a story is not easy, even if it is actually leading the whole story. Mostly because the descriptions of the characters’ appearance tear the fabric of the story down, they are typically provided at the very start of the story and often look rather out-of-place. However, there would be no rule without an exception, which Eileen Chang’s short stories have proven successfully.
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By showing the changes in her characters’ facial expressions throughout the entire novel, Chang manages to display a complex palette of emotions, which the leading characters experience, therefore, making it clear that a specific facial expression can have millions of shades of meaning, as well as that a shadow passing across one’s face can tell much more about the given person than an entire tirade.
One of the most striking things about the fleeting emotions of the characters and the way in which Chang manages to capture these emotions is in how many contexts a simple smile is used. It serves to express curiosity, tiredness, reluctance, etc.; in fact, one might be surprised how few times the smile is actually used to show that the character is genuinely happy.
For example, Eldest Mistress Tai-chen smiles to invite Feng-hsiao for a walk – i.e., the smile is used as a way to express concern. After arriving later than expected, Ts’ao Ch’i-ch’iao smiles to show how sorry she is for the delay: “She smiled, showing her small teeth” (Chang).
Yun-tse, who smiles in response to Ch’i-Ch’iao’s attempt to take her by the pigtail: “Yun-tse turned aside to protect her pigtail, saying with a smile: ‘I can’t even lose a few hairs without your permission?’” (Chang), which shows that the change in Yun-tse’s expression was used to display slight disobedience and a polite refusal.
Ch’i-ch’iao then smiles in attempt to hide the emotion that overwhelm her at the sight of how protective of her Second Brother Chi-tse is, which is a striking contrast to the previously mentioned situation when Ch’i-ch’iao smiled.
Thus, in addition, to the portrayal of a fleeting emotion, the description of Ch’i-ch’iao’s fleeting emotions shows how diverse and complex this character is, since different emotions trigger almost identical reactions in her.
In fact, the shift to a smile seems the most frequent emotion change in Eileen Chang’s novel; smile is mentioned as much as sixteen times (Chang). The given phenomenon might owe much to the specifics of the Chinese culture, where politeness is a top priority and, therefore, a variety of emotions may hide under a simple smile.
It would be wrong, however, to consider the characters in the novel lifeless puppets who never display their real emotions. Although smile is, indeed, the most frequently mentioned emotion in the novel, the leading characters allow a negative emotion pass over their faces once in a while.
For example, one of the characters actually frowns in the novel; much to the readers’ surprise, the frown is not a symbol of thoughtfulness or a situation when the character has to make an important decision. Unlike one might have expected, one of the characters in Chang’s novel expresses a discontent with a frown.
To make it even more unexpected, the character who displays such an explicit dissatisfaction is a woman; to be more exact, it is Ch’ao-lu, known as Miss Tsao, or Little Miss Ch’ao: “Ch’ao-lu plucked a piece of raw fat a foot wide off the hook and threw it down hard on the block, a warm odor rushing to her face, the smell of sticky dead fish… She frowned” (Chang).
It is also noteworthy that the frown does not come from the unpleasant smell; though Ch’ao is clearly disgusted by the odor of the fish, she clearly thinks of something other than the stench. As the readers are able to have a sight of what opens in front of Miss Ch’ao, however, all pieces fall into their places: “On the bed lay her husband, that lifeless body…” (Chang).
With the help of a description of a frown passing across Ch’ao’s face, Chang managed to capture the fleeting emotion of regret. Though Ch’ao has seemingly adapted to her life with a man who is clearly not worth her, the feeling of dismay still gets the best of her once in a while, which the above-mentioned frown shows.
Therefore, the given emotion stresses the strength and patience of the character, at the same time letting the reader know that she still yearns for a better life.
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While most of the above-mentioned ways to get across a complex emotion are rather subtle, some of the changes in the characters’ moods are displayed in a much more explicit manner, which helps understand the characters better. In contrast to a composed smile, which can have a million of shades of meaning, such a facial expression as sneering tells much about Little Shuang as a character.
Making it clear that Little Shuang is more open than the rest of the characters, a sneer also points at such traits of her character as jealousy and scorn: “Little Shuang sneered. ‘How could she afford me! I used to wait on Old Mistress, but Second Master took medicine all day and had to be helped around all the time, and since they were short of hands, I was sent over there’” (Chang).
Sneering helps to show how indignant Little Shuang is, and how unfair she believes she was treated. Thus, a mere act of sneering helps get an entire palette of emotions across, without breaking the character by making her indignation take the best of her.
Finally, such emotion as anger deserves a proper mentioning. Though it does not appear in the novel very often, whenever it does, it becomes truly overwhelming. For example, as Yun-tse overhears the conversation between Old Mistress and Lang-hsien, she literally turns “white with anger” (Chang), which portrays her as a very impulsive person.
While not all of the characters in Chang’s story are given a proper description of the way they look at the very start of the novel, their facial features are being discovered all the way through the novel, with every new feature being revealed to the reader with another twist of the story.
A rather unusual; approach towards character description, this method helps the author keep the reader engaged and at the same time provides more room for the character development exercises. Even though the characters’ expressions do not change very often, each time when they do, it serves a specific purpose, therefore, making the characters more three-dimensional.
With the help of her art of describing people’s emotions, Chang turns her stories into character study, therefore, making character arches more complex and the characters more compelling.