Two Dark Times
–A literary comparison between the characters in Tender is The Night and Rickshaw Boy
The book Rickshaw Boy (also known as Camel Xiangzi) is considered to be a classic of the Chinese author Lao She and a great representation of the era after the establishment of the Republic of China in the early 20th century. Tender is The Night focuses on the jazz age and takes place in the Western world. Rickshaw Boy and Tender is the Night seem to be very unrelated since they are written under completely different geographical backgrounds. While Rickshaw Boy takes place in the revolutionary Beijing in the 1920s, the story of Tender is The Night happens in the United States, France, and Switzerland. After reading both books, I was fascinated by their similar character developments, tragic plots, and messages the authors try to convey under similar societal backgrounds. I highly recommend this book to literature lovers, and I would rate a 4.8/5 for Rickshaw Boy, because of its simple language. Everyone is able to understand every word and sentence in the book but is still able to appreciate the austere style. I would rate a 4.7/5 for Tender is the Night, even though it definitely deserves a higher rating for people who love aesthetic uses of words. The book Rickshaw Boy centers around the protagonist Xiangzi, who tries all his life to buy his own wagon, and it eventually reveals the fate spin of Xiangzi from a motivated wagoner to a desperate scoundrel. Tender is The Night focuses on the life of Dick Diver, who seems rich and successful to others but eventually ends up losing his wife and his job.
Even though Xiangzi is a typical worker in Beijing and Dick Diver is a prestigious middle-class doctor, they have similar character developments and characteristics, as both Xiangzi and Dick are characters of tragedy. They are docile, determined, and optimistic at the beginning of the book; the life of Xiangzi is the chase of the dream as a Chinese rickshaw puller, and the other symbolizes the typical chase of the American dream. As Xiangzi is first described in the book as a wagoner, his “legs are long, his waist is very stable, he doesn’t have much noise when he runs, he has some telescopic steps”. When he carries his wagon, his “big feet [squat] on the ground, they [stand] still; his strength [seems] to reach all parts of the car”. He is described as “active, neat, accurate”. Xiangzi is so determined to buy a wagon of his own that he works all day to achieve this goal, and he saves as much money as he can, living a thrifty life. Unfortunately, after this famous first “rise” of fate of Xiangzi, the wagon he works hard for is confiscated by the passing-by soldiers, which results in his famous first “fall” in the book. After the first “fall” of fate, Xiangzi starts working hard again and sells some camels to buy his second wagon, but before he could purchase the vehicle, he is deceived by a fake detective and loses all of his money, which is his second “fall” of fate. Xiangzi’s third “fall” and final lost of hope happens after his marriage when he buys a wagon from a neighbor but ends up having to sell the wagon for his wife’s funeral. Likewise, Dick Diver in Tender is the Night aspires to do research in the medical field. The fates of Xiangzi and Dick Diver are very similar in terms of the loss of motivation and hope, although they go through different things and indeed have unique storylines. Even though at first Dick and Nicole appear to be a glorious and happy couple, eventually “his work became confused with Nicole’s problems; in addition, her income had increased so fast of late that it seemed to belittle his work”, and as a result, Dick “had lost himself—he could not tell the hour when, or the day or the week, the month or the year” any longer. Dick and Xiangzi start off with hope but end up miserable. After continuous disappointments in lives, the two protagonists begin to collapse into indulgence, depression, and prostitution.
Other characters are also similar in the two books. The wives of Xiangzi and Dick, respectively, Lady Tiger and Nicole, both accelerate the pace of the collapse of their husbands. Neither protagonists really love their spouses, as Xiangzi is forced to marry Tiger Lady, and Dick’s marriage with Nicole is highly influenced by Florence Nightingale effect, which is when the “caregiver develops romantic feelings, sexual feelings, or both for their patient”. Dick has to take care of his wife, who is also his patient; Xiangzi has to tolerate Lady Tiger’s recklessness and even give up his job for her. Both Nicole and Lady Tiger prevent them from achieving greater life goals, as Dick and Xiangzi are constantly drawn back to family life.
There are also characters that romantically fulfill the protagonists, who are similar in characteristics and fates. Rosemary and Little Fuzi are the real lovers of Dick and Xiangzi, but they either change dramatically or die, which directly leads to the corruption and loss of hope of the protagonists, as nothing else in life is able to provide the protagonists with such comfort. In Tender Is The Night, the most direct cause of Diver’s collapse to love and work hard is his failed affair with Rosemary. Upon realizing the beautiful and pure girl Rosemary no longer exists as the words “do you mind if I pull down the curtains” repeats itself in Dick’s head, the final brightness of Dick’s heart extinguishes. The words carry the idea that Rosemary has had an affair with another man on the train, and Dick is incredibly jealous and angry. This is when Dick loses his mental anchor and says that “I guess I’m the Black Death. I don’t seem to bring happiness anymore”. Similarly, after the suicide of Little Fuzi, Xiangzi completely gives up on his life. Love play an important role in the lives of Xiangzi and Dick, and it contributes to the similarity of the characters.
Other supporting characters are also alike and serve similar functions in the books. Some characters are a direct result of the relentless societies, while some are the ones who oppress and completely torture the protagonists. Characters Abe North in Tender is The Night and Er Qiangzi in Rickshaw Boy symbolize the typical drunkards in both eras; characters like Baby Warren and some mean employers of Xiangzi represented the oppressors from the upper class. The characters are similar, because the major society background of the two times under which the books were written are very similar.
Though the two books were written differently regarding its language, tone, and background, both books have twisting storylines. They focus on the changes of fates of the main characters. However, Rickshaw Boy is written differently in its unique twists and turns, and it is famous for the ”three rises and three falls”, and the story is written chronologically, which adds on to its simple elements of the writing styles and techniques; Tender is The Night is famous for its complicated timelines. Despite the sudden time changes in Tender is the Night thatconfuse me now and then, I like that both books give a strong sense of pain that carries onto the readers. People find both books heartbreaking and may even complain about the tragic endings. The two tragedies are classic, and only when books are written realistically can they best represent the eras and periods of corruption and darkness in which the authors lived and hated.
The major themes of the two novels overlap in interesting ways while revealing different social issues. Both of them try to point out the dark side of the society. Rickshaw Boy, moreover, attempts to expose the upper-class exploitation to the poor, and Lao She expresses his sympathy for the lower-class people by writing the book. Tender is the Night, on the other hand, reflects the feeling of the author himself and focuses mainly on the extravagance of the upper-class instead of the exploitation taken place. Besides the upper class, the Jazz Age is another important background focus of the book. Parties were very prevalent back then, which were great examples of luxury lifestyles. For example, many party scenes are present in Tender is The Night, and these scenes ended up causing great trauma to the Divers. Certain types of people were born and shaped under certain social backgrounds, and these people, who are influenced by the historical society, further made the rest of the people in the society who they are. For instance, both Dick and Xiangzi are results of the corruptive and cruel societies, where it is extremely hard to change one’s fate and move up the social ladder. Because of the similarity in the society, the book developments are very alike in multiple ways.
The resemblances in the main characters, plot developments, and themes of Rickshaw Boy and Tender Is the Night are because the societal problems of the eras in China and the United States were similar. In the 20th century, the social and economic gap between social classes in both China and the United States were maximized. As a result of the class stratification, it became hard to move up social class by simply working hard, which contributed to the characters’ tragedies. When people first look at the two books, Rickshaw Boy and Tender is the Night appear to be very different. However, after uncovering them and analyzing the social backgrounds, characters, plot, and themes behind the two books, the resemblances were revealed, and it is worth it to take some time to appreciate their languages, themes, and individual uniqueness that have made them classics after all these years.
Information: Tender is The Night- F. Scott. Fitzgerald
Rickshaw Boy- Lao She
Date:7/1/2018 revised in April, 2019
revision comments: I revised this essay for the school literary magazine. The revision focused on specifying the plots and characters of the two books and relating the contents to the bigger social picture.