Women's Love, Wisdom Statements, and the Narrator's Ethos in Catherine Lim's The Bondmaid

Catherine Lim's skilled narration in The Bondmaid takes various forms: she relates events, dialogue, and description with great ease, and every once in a while her narrator (or her narrative voice) rather abruptly shifts tone and takes the role of what we may term the Wisdom Speaker, one who informs the audience of unquestioned general truths. The most consistent use of such a tone and method appears when she writes of women's love. Not surprisingly, these interpolated passages first appear in the section entitled "Woman." Thus after Han prays for the safe return of Wu, who has been abroad for his education, she has a nightmare from which she wakes in "a panting fright," at which point Lim maks one of the first of her remarks on this subject: "Loving a man, a woman suffers both when he is with her and when he is away from her. Presence and absence link into an impossible whip-lash of pain upon her body" [112]. A few pages later as Lim relates how Han realizes her idyllic childhood friendship with the young master has ended, the novelist first makes a statement of fact that she then follows with a very different kind of prose mode: "She was now an invisible presence to him. Loving a man, a women is most pained by her invisibility to him" [118]. Encountering these brutally sweeping generalizations, readers in theory might ask, "Really? Does every women in every age and every place experience love this way?" But of course we do not ask such questions because as readers we understand that the novelist in this way is establishing the ground rules of her imaginative world.

And it is a consistent one, too -- something she establishes with such continued asides:

Loving a man, a woman grows eyes on the back of her head so that in a crowded room, with her back turned to him, she sees his every movement. Wanting him, she sprouts extra ears to catch at his every word above the din of one hundred people. The man has no idea when he finally leaves the room with once noticing her, of the fullness of her pain. [149]

Lim rarely expatiates at length on such wisdom statements that generate the ground rules of her narrative reality. Usually, they take the form of a single sentence that conceptually founds and thereby explains her characters' actions. Sometimes, as in the following passage, she begins with a generalization that explains a characater's actions:

A loving woman fills a man's absence with the objects of his erstwhile presence. She touched a chair he had just sat on, traced with her feet a short stretch of ground his feet had trod. She looked at his shirt hanging on the clothesline, recognising it as the one he wore when he went to see the Old One on his first day home. [154]

Here the first sentence, a generalization that apparently applies to all women, serves to explain Han's actions at this point in the narrative. The following passage in contrast begins with an aspect of narrative but closes with a generalization. The storytelling in this case takes the form not so much of actual deeds but the explanaion of her future plan of action:

That love would be secured by wary watching and patient waiting. It should never be jeopardised by impetuousity and folly; therefore she would not cause him any more discomforture, would never again be the cause of the slightest embarrassment or unease in the presence of others. A man who suffers a public discomforture on a woman's account loves her that much less.[175]

Lim's use of such blunt statements have several obvious purposes within her novel:

At the same time these generalizations in the guise of putative wisdom statements appear problematic in several ways. First of all, are these statements in fact as universal as she seems to claim? That is, do all women -- women in all times and all places -- experience love according to the Lim Rules? Or are her assertions bound more sharply by time and place. In the words of contemporary feminist theory, isn't she essentializing women with such wisdom statements?

Second, are all her assertions correct even within the world of The Bondmaid? For example, is it true within the novel that "A man who suffers a public discomforture on a woman's account loves her that much less [175]? That migtht be accurate most of the novel but seems to have little applicability to Wu's operatically tragic love for Han at its close.


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

Postcolonial Web Singapore OV Singaporean Literature Catherine Lim