Conclusion: The Departures and Returns in Small Town Literature

Hey guys!

I’m back, and as planned, this last blog is about the conclusion. However, I find it so hard to make a comprehensive summary to all my interesting findings throughout these six weeks, so I decide to focus on one that interests me most: departures and returns.

Young people choosing to leave the small towns they grew up and explore new lives in big cities is a common theme in most American small town literature, whereas in Chinese small town literature, all protagonists come back to their towns after years’ of wandering outside.

In John Cheever’s The Country Husband, the young man Clayton Thomas tells Francis and Julia that he disapproves Shady Hill’s phony happy and peaceful appearance and its dull changelessness. “So much energy is spent in perpetuating the place—in keeping out undesirables, and so forth—that the only idea of the future anyone has is just more and more commuting trains and more parties. I don’t think that’s healthy. I think people ought to be able to dream big dreams about the future. I think people ought to be able to dream big dreams.” So he decides to take an apartment in New York and find a job there, and like most young people in Shady Hill, he never plans to come back. In Jonathan Franzen’s Corrections, all three Lamberts children have fled their Midwestern hometown St. Jude to east coast’s big cities. They all prefer their current big cities to St. Jude, and the oldest son Gary even hates St. Jude and has tried several times to persuade their parents to sell their old house and move to his city.

In Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, the last story is George Willard’s departure from Winesburg. For Goerge Willard, this departure signifies the end of boyhood and start of manhood. Earlier in the story of Mother, George Willard has told her mother that he wants to go out of the Winesburg. “I don’t know where I shall go or what I shall o but I am going away…I just want to go away and look at people and think.” This is a wish that many young men share in Winesburg, as the train conductor Tom Little states in Departure, that he has seen “a thousand George Willard go out of their towns to the city. It was a commonplace enough incident with him.” However, sadly enough, with so many young men in small towns leaving home and pursuing new lives in big cities, there is not a case of woman leaving the town mentioned throughout the book. As the story Adventure reveals, it seems that women are always the ones who are waiting at home for their men, despite the fact that their men never come back. In Adventure, though Alice expresses her wish that she also wants to work in the city, and that she’d love to go together with her lover Ned Currie, Ned dismisses it dismisses it as silly idea, telling her that “You don’t know what you are talking about.” The gender inequality in workforce was certainly a big issue in the early 20th century America.

In Grace Metalious’ Peyton Place, Allison leaves Peyton Place to work as a writer in New York. Though she goes back home after an unsuccessful love affair with her agent Bradley Holmes, a forty-year-old married man and a father of two kids, this return is more like her reconciliation with her mother and the town she used to hate than a forever stay. she tells herself that it is only temporary and that she will still return to New York to continue her job. The book ends with David, an admirer of Alisson, coming to Peyton Place from New York to look for her, which implies that the happy couple would soon go back to the city together.

In contrast to these American small town literature, the three Chinese books I covered in this research all end with the protagonists returning back to their hometown. In Gu Hua’s A Small Town Called Hibiscus, Qin Shutian comes back home after eight years’ imprisonment to reunite with Hu Yuyin and their eight-year-old son, and the family lives a happily-ever-after life. In Mo Yan’s Big Breast and Wide Hips, after ten years’ tumultuous cultural revolution ended, Jintong returns to Northeast Gaomi Township, where he buries his 95-year-old Mother. And in Mo Yan’s another novel Frog, the narrator Tadpole also moves back to Gaomi with his wife Little Lion after his retirement, and in his 50s in his hometown, he becomes the father of a newborn infant boy.

The theme of departure in American small town literature is concerned with pursing more diverse and exciting city lives and realizing American dreams, whereas the theme of return in Chinese small town literature emphasizes the big transformations that small towns have gone through after the Reform in 1980s, and the happiness of family reunions after all these disastrous years. I’m not clear about the exact causes of this contrast, and I hope to do some further research on it, but one probable reason that I have come up with is Chinese people’s “earth complex.” China is a traditional agricultural country, and since ancient times, people made a living by planting crops and vegetable on lands. Even nowadays, some people even prefer buying and owning land to saving money in banks. It is a long held belief that no matter how far one has gone, one should return to one’s hometown and be buried in their homeland.