Aidan Chaisson Dr. Nic Helms EN 3515.01
3 May 2022
Nguyen Du & Chikamatsu on Love, Marriage, and Capitalism
The 1998 rom-com The Wedding Singer tells the story of Robbie Hart and Julia Sullivan, played respectively by Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore. Robbie is a well-liked local wedding singer who excels at his job, but lives in his sister’s basement due to the job’s meager pay. Julia works as a waitress at the same place Robbie plays weddings. She is engaged to a rich but egotistical businessman named Glenn, who would make a terrible husband despite his wealth. Robbie and Julia spend time together to plan her wedding, gradually falling for each other in the process. Eventually, with help from an old lady, his best friend, and Billy Idol, Robbie stops Julia from marrying Glenn and the two live happily ever after. Albeit a light- hearted film, it addresses the conflicts between love and practicality that arise in pondering the decision to marry someone. While this theme may appear to be wholly a questioning of American values—which, in the film, it is—it is in fact centuries old and universally explored. 19th-century Vietnamese poet Nguyễn Du’s The Tale of Kiều is a powerful example, as is 18th- century Japanese dramatist Chikamatsu Monzaemon’s The Love Suicide at Amijima. These works share perspectives on the confluence of love and marriage while challenging the notion that capitalist ideologies alter the definition of love.
The Tale of Kiều is an epic poem chronicling the life of Thuy Kieu. She is introduced in her early life as the daughter of a middle-class family planning to marry the young, wealthy scholar Kim Trong. Before this can happen, she is forced to offer herself as payment for her father’s debt. She is then bought by a pimp and forced into sex work; freed by a client named Thuc Sinh, who marries her despite being married; enslaved by Sinh’s wife, Lady Hoan, whose ownership she escapes from; taken in by Giac Duyen, a Buddhist nun, then unintentionally sent to another brothel; redeemed by warlord Tu Hai, who she marries and stays with until he is killed during an invasion; found again by Giac Duyen after she escapes down the Chi’en tang River; and finally reunited with Kim Trong, who she marries on condition that they abstain from physical intimacy. Since Kieu’s role as either a courtesan or a wife changes rapidly, the story functions as a criticism of the financially-concerned constraints of marriage.
While the two plainly identifiable roles Kieu assumes are that of either a courtesan or a wife, there are actually three. The third is revealed by distinguishing what type of wife she is. For Kim Trong, she is a girl he fell in love with and would have married normally had she not been trafficked. For Thuc Sinh and Tu Hai, however, she is a courtesan they redeemed and married; in other words, they bought her. For them, she is the 16th-century equivalent to a mail- order bride. The term mail-order bride comes from the marriage brokerage industry, which currently consists of online platforms where men can browse profiles of women from foreign countries; if a man has the means to pay for the service, he can choose a woman to be flown to his country for him to marry. In the United States, the industry was created out of necessity (there were literally too many men and not enough women after Westward Expansion brought thousands of job-seeking immigrants), but changed drastically since its conception:
American marriage brokers [in the 1800s] took advantage of a sexual imbalance in the West, as did the Japanese. During the 1980s and 1990s, many, but not all, online mail-order companies partnered with pornographic Web sites… In the 1800s in the United States, potential brides advertised themselves as hardworking, family oriented, wholesome, Christian, and good at housekeeping (Enss 2005, 28– 31). The level of transactions obviously showed that men on the western frontier valued such attributes. Today, women are usually photographed in lingerie or a swimsuit in a provocative pose. They claim to be educated and to seek husbands who will love them. Most also claim to be Christian and family oriented, so essentially the only thing that they do not share with the potential brides of generations past is the need to advertise themselves as whole- some or sexually conservative in any way. (Merriman 86)
Kieu’s marriages to both Thuc Sinh and Tu Hai are reminiscent of the .com-era mail-order bride industry in that sex is the predominant asset, and money is the way to acquire it. The narrator says of Thuc Sinh, “A long-time enthusiast of Kieu’s beauty, He found his way there and had his card sent in. On his first sight of her bloom face at the blind, He fell in love with each of her traits and styles.” (Du 1279-82). Similarly, the narrator says of Tu Hai, “He’d heard about Kieu’s beauty throughout his trip, And the beauty’s love softened the hero’s will. Thus when he was introduced at the rose-hall, Their glances encountered and their hearts said ‘yes’” (Du 2175-8). The introductory details of both characters emphasize their infatuation with Kieu. Both of their courtships with Kieu likewise focus on their infatuations intensifying with each coital exchange. Thus, Kieu’s experiences with these two husbands portray marriage as matter of the wife providing intimate companionship in exchange for security provided by the husband.
In her third and final marriage to Kim Trong, however, physical intimacy is removed in favor of mutual respect and support. Kim Trong explicitly states this when he tells Kieu “I have been scouring the world for you thus far, Urged by faithful love not by frivolous lust! Fortunately together under one roof, Sex won’t be needed in our marital life!” (Du 3175-8). While Kieu’s other marriages were the product of the husband’s wealth and authority, this one is instead rooted in the fact that the two had fallen equally in love when they were young, and despite the divergence of their paths and statuses, they still view one another as equals. This ending serves as a rebuttal to the previously depicted, commonly-occurring marriages, showing how marriage can be a mutual agreement of commitment to one another rather than a male- dominated exchange of assets.
Chikamatsu’s The Love Suicide at Amijima is a more detailed—and, consequently, markedly darker—story of love, marriage and truth. Set in Osaka, Japan, the play follows Jihei, a paper merchant, husband, and father, as he tries and fails to balance his life with his affair with a prostitute named Koharu. Jihei promises to get her out of the brothel, but as he cannot make enough money to do so, the pair instead makes a pact to commit Shinjū (double-suicide). Jihei’s brother, Magoemon, finds him in the brothel and informs him that his wife Osan, as well as her father, are aware of his affair with Koharu. When Osan confronts him, he convinces her that he does not love Koharu, but they must free her to keep her from killing herself. When Osan gives him a stash of money and agrees to sell all the clothing in the house, her father takes her away from Jihei and insists they divorce. He and Koharu find each other shortly thereafter and fulfill their pact.
Osan and Koharu are two different depictions of women in love. Osan is unwaveringly committed to her role as a wife, and goes to extreme lengths to ensure that Jihei is safe and cared for. Koharu, on the other hand, is unwaveringly committed to their relationship, even at the cost of both their lives. The two can be compared and contrasted through the lens of capitalism- derived relationship ideologies:
Concomitant late capitalist economic ideologies crossed from the public into the private spheres, encouraging “competitive individualism,” increased rationalization, and individual responsibility for constructing one’s own life chances (Duggan 2003; Giddens 1991; Harris 2004:4; Illouz 1997). In this context, the self becomes a compulsory improvement project based on individuals reflexively and actively making informed decisions, with the aim of achieving their full potential (Giddens 1991). Accordingly, Anthony Giddens (1993) argues that the typical relationship is now the pure relationship, based on personal choice versus traditional roles. Intimate pure relationships are based on what Giddens terms confluent love; they will only last as long as the parties involved perceive relationships as providing appropriate levels of self-fulfillment and support of self-actualization for both partners. (Koontz 168)
Osan’s love for Jihei does not fit the above description in that she disregards her own well-being in the name of wifehood. The instance in which she gives Jihei all the clothes in the house to sell supports this, as she says “I think you could raise at least seventy ryō on these clothes. I and the children can get along without finery; but a man with public esteem is everything. So I ask you to take this money and to raise the rest on these clothes, and thus save Koharu from death and keep up your reputation against Tahei” (Chikamatsu 25). Here, she prioritizes her husband’s reputation, as well as his business, far above her own needs as a woman and a mother. Even as Osan states she will help him to help Koharu, she later asserts that “A wife should do everything in her power for her husband” (Chikamatsu 25). The echoes of “Mad Men”-era American misogyny in this statement are uncanny. That said, Osan is a depiction of the “traditional roles” Koontz refers to.
Koharu, conversely, rejects those societal expectations through her words and actions. Firstly, despite her 25-year contract to work as a courtesan, she refuses to work after falling in love with Jihei. More importantly, she refuses to formally marry Jihei out of respect for Osan, and insists that that the two are held equally responsible for their suicides. When her and Jihei plan the act, she says “Should it be reported ‘Face against face, side by side, Jihei and Koharu were found dead’ what would O-San same think of me? Surely she would say in anger, ‘Is not that the way of a faithless wanton to have broken her vow to leave my husband and to have no share in his death and yet to have enticed him to commit suicide beside her. A liar to the end!’ I dread O-san’s scorn, jealousy and resentment more than the reproaches of thousands of others. This alone of all things would trouble my peace in the next world. Therefore kill me here and do you do the deed elsewhere” (Chikamatsu 35-6). By prioritizing equal authority in making their decision—and equal fulfillment in acting on it—Koharu’s love better fits Koontz’ description of independently motivated, mutually dictated love.
While The Tale of Kiều, The Love Suicide at Amijima, and The Wedding Singer are vastly different works, all three communicate the same philosophy: love is a feeling unaffected by material matters, and marriage is too often a material matter. Furthermore, love is characterized by equal commitment, therefore the success of a marriage hinges on the honesty of the love involved.
Chikamatsu, Monzaemon. The Love Suicide at Amijima (Shinjū Ten-no Amijima). Translated by
Asataro Miyamori, In Parentheses Publications, 2000.
Du, Nguyễn. The Tale of Kiều. Translated by Phan Huy, 2013.
Koontz, Amanda, and Lauren Norman. “Happily Ever After? Exploring U.S. Collegiate
Women’s Understandings of Love as Impermanent and Timeless in the Age of Capitalism.” Sociological Perspectives, vol. 62, no. 2, Apr. 2019, pp. 167–85. EBSCOhost, https://doi-org.libproxy.plymouth.edu/10.1177/0731121418763583.
Merriman, Justin S. “Holy Matrimony Plus Shipping and Handling A Libertarian Perspective on the Mail-Order Bride Industry.” Independent Review, vol. 17, no. 1, Summer 2012, pp. 81–93. EBSCOhost, https://search-ebscohost-com.libproxy.plymouth.edu/login.aspx? direct=true&db=aph&AN=76505430&site=ehost-live.