We all had to learn about symbolism in highschool, right? As I recall, a bunch of (probably not) well-meaning teachers tried to instill in me an appreciation for such classics as The Scarlet Letter, where we all agreed, wholeheartedly and humorlessly, that the fucking letter on the woman’s chest was a symbol of stuff. Whoop.
I am not a fan of Nathaniel Hawthorne because I think he’s heavy-handed and bad, and subsequently made me feel, from fourteen years of age and onward, that symbols are best used in literature when the reader hardly knows they’re there. Otherwise they’re these unwieldy, cumbersome things taking up the bulk of the text screaming HEY, I’M A SYMBOL.
Fast forward to yesterday, when I was traipsing around online and stumbled upon Ken Liu’s “Paper Menagerie,” a short story that won the Hugo, the Nebula, and the World Fantasy Award. And then I was like, “oh, symbolism in literature is great and super poignant, I get it.”
So, first you should go read the story. It’s online here. Go.
Back? Can you read this analysis through the tears you’re no doubt crying? Great. And if you didn’t read it and then you read this essay and you’re mad I ruined it, you have no one to blame but yourself. I gave you the link, dammit!!
“Paper Menagerie” is told from the first-person perspective of Jack. Jack is raised by a white Connecticut man and a mother from China: his father had “picked Mom out of a catalog.”
For a Hugo/Nebula winner, this story is light on the fantasy/sci-fi, incorporating magic in a natural, gentle, and ambiguous way. Jack’s mother saves scraps of paper. The magic: she shapes them into animals, then breathes life into them so that they play and caper with Jack when he’s a young child. The animals are alive.
Eventually, Jack grows older and the paper animals lose their appeal. The living, breathing paper tiger he loves becomes just a toy to him. A toy that’s actually not as cool as his American friends’ plastic toys with blaring lights and sound effects. Jack grows distant from his mother as he ages, exposed to his xenophobic classmates and the pressure of conforming to white, homogeneous Americanism. He is unable to relate with her, ashamed of her difficulty in speaking English, and generally made uncomfortable by her otherness within a culture that is cruel to anything other. He stops playing with the paper menagerie, his rejection of the animals symbolic of his gradual distancing from his mother and her culture.
Mother and son drift apart.
So far, the paper animals stand for several distinct but related concepts. They’re certainly symbols of childhood and innocence, and the love between mother and child that’s so tangible it takes form. They symbolize aspects of Jack’s mother: her otherness, her distinct culture, her magic.
Later on, after his mother’s death following their vast emotional distance from one another, he finds the paper menagerie she’d made for him when he was young. Laohu, his favorite paper tiger, still contains its initial magic. And even when the paper tiger crumbles, as material objects of love do, he finds a note inside the paper from his mother, written in her native Chinese dialect.
“The animals will stop moving when I stop breathing. But if I write to you with all my heart, I’ll leave a little of myself behind on this paper, in these words. Then, if you think of me on Qingming, when the spirits of the departed are allowed to visit their families, you’ll make the parts of myself I leave behind come alive too.”
(That’s about where I started crying)
In this note, inscribed inside the abandoned animals, we see just how intertwined the menagerie is with his mother’s culture, how symbolic is her act of collecting scraps of paper (memories, recollections, experiences) and shaping them in her new world (with a son, in America) into a tangible and cohesive reminder of what she’d left behind (her homeland) and who she is now (a mother).
“Sigulu is famous for its zhezhi papercraft, and my mother taught me how to make paper animals and give them life. This was practical magic in the life of the village. We made paper birds to chase grasshoppers away from the fields, and paper tigers to keep away the mice. For Chinese New Year my friends and I made red paper dragons. I’ll never forget the sight of all those little dragons zooming across the sky overhead, holding up strings of exploding firecrackers to scare away all the bad memories of the past year.”
So the paper animals represent all these things: innocence, childhood, heritage, home. But by the end of the story we see that they’re a symbol of something besides childhood innocence, beyond heritage, something so profound it’s difficult to convey without symbolism: the force and power of a mother’s love; the forgiveness and acceptance woven into the relationship – words scribbled on the inside of a paper tiger. The note she writes inside the paper encapsulates all the love she’s held, all the love she poured into him and into the paper menagerie she built for him. It also offers Jack her own childhood story, giving him the chance for understanding and redemption. It’s an incredible gift.
Jack’s mother never surrenders the closeness she once shared with her son. She simply wraps it up, tender and safe, within a paper tiger – a symbol of a mother’s love past death.
This is a simple short story with a simple message, and that message is carried throughout the story on the back of the paper menagerie, a neat bit of unsucky symbolism that gives the narrative its cohesion and force.
Side note: am I the only person who hates Nathaniel Hawthorne? I consulted the Urban Dictionary entry on The Scarlet Letter and felt vindicated (also scandalized, the LANGUAGE in that entry) but… am I being unfair? Did boring high school English teachers just totally demolish my appreciation for an (I’m sure) perfectly wonderful author?