Commentary on Tash Aw’s Harmony Silk Factory Essay
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The extract from the novel “The Harmony Silk Factory” by Tash Aw, seems to serve as an introduction within the larger context of the complete novel. The central theme of the extract is the concept of appearance VS reality; some things are, in reality, not what they appear to be. Through the use of characterisation and setting, the author manages to bring out this theme. In addition, the use of setting and characterisation creates a degree of tension within the extract, and draws the reader into the story.
Characterisation plays a major part in the extract. The main character of the extract is also the narrator. The narrator is characterised through the use of many literary devices; through his narration, aspects of his personality are revealed to the reader. We find that the narrator has two sides: the face he shows the world around him and the side that the reader is introduced to through his narration.
The side that the narrator shows to the world around him and the side of him revealed to the reader are two different personalities. His external appearance is one of a quiet, non-existent, seemingly inconsequential person as can be seen from the fact that “none of the visitors ever noticed [him]”. However, this quiet exterior belies the fact that he observes all the comings and goings within the silk harmony factory. “From my upstairs window, I saw everything unfold. Without father ever saying anything to me”. The narrator is fully aware of all his father’s smuggling activities “opium and heroin and Hennessy XO” and bribing of the “Thai soldiers…with American cigarettes and low-grade gemstones” but never lets his father catch on to that fact.
The narrator also states that he is only of “modest intellect” and this is supported by his father’s belief that he would “always be a dreamer and a wastrel”. We find however, that his quiet demeanour conceals an observant, keen intellect. Contrary to his self-deprecating statement, we notice that he displays an extraordinary sense of awareness in a child of his age, suggesting that he is extremely intelligent. Even as a child he “was aware of what [his] father did”. His action of lifting the linoleum and pressing his ear to the floorboards to listen into his father’s Safe Room reveals to us his ingenuity and is a reflection of his intellect. While he does not mange to discern any information, he is sharp enough to realise that the “low, muffled rumble” was the “tipping of diamonds onto the green baize table”. While the narrator may appear to be of merely modest intellect, it seems that in reality he is incredibly intelligent for a young child. His self-deprecating statement also serves to highlight his actual cleverness and quick mind.
The theme of appearance VS reality can also be seen in the characterisation of two minor characters: the general and the young lady in the car. The narrator tells us that the general “didn’t look much like a soldier, but he had a Mercedes-Benz with a woman in the back seat”, which would indicate a fairly high level of affluence and power which comes with the rank of a general in the army. With his “cheap grey shirt” and gold teeth, the man may not have looked like a general, but other indications would have exposed the reality of what he really was.
This is similarly echoed in the characterisation of the young woman in the back seat of the car. The narrator describes her as having “fair skin, almost pure white, the colour of salt fields on the coast”. The narrator then goes on to state that “she was young and beautiful, and when she smiled I saw her teeth were small and brown”. This contrast between the state of her teeth and the colour of her skin further highlights the theme of appearance VS reality; while she appears to be pure and white on the outside, her teeth are dirty and decayed. This contrast is highlighted also by the use of visual imagery “salt fields” when describing the colour of her skin.
Furthermore, the contrast between the general and the young woman also emphasizes the theme of appearance VS reality. The general wears a grey shirt, while the young woman is described as having white skin. Where the general’s teeth are gold in colour, hers are small and brown. From this we can see that outward appearance does not seem to be a very good indicator of what the reality really is.
Finally, the setting also contributes back to the theme of appearance VS reality. The name of the factory “The harmony silk factory”, which becomes synonymous with the house, gives no indication as to the activities of vice conducted there. Both physically and figuratively, the narrator’s house seems to be hiding behind the factory. The theme of appearance VS reality is manifested in the physical setting of the Harmony Silk Factory.
The characterisation and setting, besides bringing out the theme of the appearance VS reality, also serves to create tension in the story and cause the reader to want to read on.
The setting of the house, with its “small mossy courtyard which never got enough sunlight” gives the location of the extract an air of mystery; the lack of light and dampness of the place (as can be seen by the growth of moss) further builds upon the mysteriousness of the setting. This description appears in the first line of the extract, and the reader’s curiosity is pricked as to what actually goes on within the Harmony Silk factory.
Also, the characterisation of the narrator serves to lead the reader on to read the rest of the novel. How is this achieved? Firstly, the narrator is a nameless, 1st person narrator. The use of the 1st person narration serves to give the tone of the extract a feeling of intimacy, or closeness to the subject matter. At the same time, his lack of a name distances him from the reader, again creating an air of mystery which surrounds him.
Secondly, the tone of the narrator is very “matter-of-fact”. He describes somewhat shocking, illegal proceeds with the same tone one would use to describe everyday activities. He matter-of-factly states “Mainly he smuggles opium and heroin and Hennessy XO” and “I knew what he was up to and whom he was with”. The narrator describes theses happenings with a certain detachment which seems nonchalant or could be due to the fact that he is already used to this sort of behaviour. In fact, the narrator comes across as unfazed by all his father’s wrongdoings and does not seem affected in any way.
This matter-of-fact tone is further highlighted by the narrator’s use of literary devices such as verbal irony. The use of verbal irony is evident throughout the extract. One of the first instances is in the 2nd paragraph in which the narrator describes the type of people who visit his house. He describes his Father’s clients as if they were guests or VIPs. “Entry was strictly by invitation” with “privileged few” being granted access; he states that only the “liars, cheats, traitors and skirt chasers” of “the highest order” are allowed in. These individuals have been seemingly elevated to a position of importance but by describing them in this way, the narrator has revealed them to be merely the scum of society.
Another instance of verbal irony is in the line “Now I would give everything to be the son of a mere liar and cheat”. The irony is in the fact that the narrator views his father is so vile that he would rather be the son of someone who only cheats and lies. Also further irony can be found in the line “my crime-funded education to good use”. We find that he is now using his education, paid for by his father’s crimes, to uncover his father’s crimes. The use of verbal irony builds upon the narrator’s characterisation, as parts of his personality are slowly revealed to the reader.
The narrator also uses an extremely convoluted and verbose way of narrating known as periphrasis. His manner of speaking is roundabout and elaborate. He uses ellipsis to interrupt his own narrative, “partly for convenience – the only people who came… – partly because my father’s varied…” The narrator constantly interjects his own narrative with interruptions and unnecessary lines such as “gold, real solid gold”. The use of unnecessarily long paragraphs to say a simple thing also add on to his convoluted manner of narration. The second last paragraph could have been shortened by saying “I am now at peace and am not ashamed to reveal the story of my father’s life”. However, he instead says “there is another reason I now feel particularly well placed………I am at peace”.
The use of periphrasis also heightens the melodramatic way the narrator leads the reader on. Phrases such as “that wasn’t all he was” and “…I have searched for this all my life. Now, at last, I know the truth and I am no longer angry. In fact, I am at peace” serve to heighten the tension within the paragraph. He describes his father’s past as “terrible” and the title he gives to his tale, “The true story of the infamous Chinaman called Johnny”, seems to elevate his father’s story to one legendary importance. The use of the phrase “true story” also lends a sense of credibility to his account. The revelation of the title to the reader is the climax of the tension that has been building in the last few paragraphs, albeit a somewhat anti-climatic one. This climax (or anti-climax) serves to leave the reader wanting more and leads the reader on to continue reading the rest of the story.
The narrator’s self-deprecating and quirky way of narrating serves to endear the narrator to the reader. We also discover certain facts about his childhood through his narration. At no point in the extract does a narrator mention his mother. This may only be a conjecture, but the lack of a motherly figure in his life, a lack of love, may have contributed to his strange and unusual way of narrating and also his self-deprecating attitude. Also, we find that he may have endured physical abuse as a child from the line “I had become used to this kind of punishment” in response to his father twisting his ear.
This makes the reader increasingly sympathetic to the narrator as the narrative progresses. Thus, when the narrator begins using melodrama to capture the attention of the reader and lead the reader on to the rest of the novel, the reader follows with little resistance. This characterisation and narration, coupled with the mysterious atmosphere created by the setting, creates a sort of tension which compels the reader to read on. It engages the reader and draws the reader into the world the author has created.
As we have seen characterisation and setting both have a dual purpose. If this extract is the beginning of the novel, then the author has succeeded in drawing the reader into the novel. By using both characterisation and setting to bring out the theme and simultaneously create tension, the author has succeeded in creating a world with characters that engage readers and has successfully written an effective and exciting beginning to the novel.