Han's Characterization

George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University; Distinguished Visiting Professor, National University of Singapore, 1998-1999

From our first sight of Han asleep, we sense that we have encountered someone with a streak of toughness, someone who can and will fight for what she considers her own. In fact, Catherine Lim first shows us her protagonist, "the child Han, the youngest," lying on top of a heap of other children, her older brothers and sisters," victoriously clutching a blue bolster, one small fist thrust into the cheek of an older brother who, in turn, had a leg draped over a sister's shoulder." It is Han's defiance -- together with her charm, energy, imagination -- that make her an attractive, interesting character, but Lim in no way either idealizes her or, as far as I can tell, endows her with anachronistic qualities. Certainly, she has a child's self-centeredness and consequent unawareness of others, and this quality, which makes her seem so believable, so realistic and unidealized, also leads to the novel's tragic end, for her cruelly indifferent treatment of her master's future wife when they are all young children engenders a hatred that eventually leads to the destruction of Han and two families.

Han's characteristic drive and self-centeredness appear when she calculatingly repairs the shrine of the Forgetful Goddess, figuring that such an action will give her prayers an edge, and they again appear in her choice to make an "exclusive prayer, for him and herself alone. For us to be together. For us never to be separated again." Such a prayer hardly seems unusual for a young woman deeply in love, but, again what makes Han such an interesting character is that she is not just blindly, tragically in love but that she is also quite aware that such love makes her choose to ignore what she herself sees as her duties to others:

Others clamoured for their needs to be included too, but she pushed them aside: Oldest Brother, tossed upon his raucous world of the rough appetites of fellow males that he must needs serve to make a living by bringing to them young frightened girls; her dead mother, perhaps confined behind hells gates for her sins and not allowed out even for the Feast of the Hungry Ghosts; Wind-in-the-Head, her body a wreck since that day of the bleeding in the bathroom and her mind a greater wreck with a hundred unceasing terrors; Spitface, lowest of the low, beyond a god's help, but perhaps not the gentle grace of a goddess who had herself experienced abandonment and despair. [176-77]

Nontheless, although "these crowded upon her and cried out their needs: Pray for us, we too need help," Han remains "adamant; her prayers to the Forgetful Goddess would be for herself and him only, to ease the divine task" [177].


Lim, Catherine. The Bondmaid. [1995] London: Oriel, 1997.

Postcolonial Web Singapore OV Singaporean Literature Catherine Lim