A Thousand Years of Good Prayers
Yiyun Li’s Use of Repetition to Define What Love Is
Many authors use different types of form in order to inform content, enhance their stories, and stress the messages that they are trying to get across. Yiyun Li effectively uses this technique in her short story collection, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, by using repetition as a means of informing content. The repetition of the word “promise” in Love in the Marketplace and the concept of empty promises versus kept promises in the Princess of Nebraska creates meaning in these short stories by stressing the need for shared values and a mutual understanding of commitment in order to find belonging and true love, as demonstrated by the characters in these stories.
In Love in the Marketplace, the repetition of the word “promise” throughout Sansan’s character development shows her belief of the essentiality of a mutual understanding of promise and a commitment to keeping promises in order to truly find love, and how love without these essential components cannot be successful. Sansan first falls in love with a man who makes an empty promise to her, which she discovers when he falls in love with another woman. Sansan feels betrayed, but realizes that because her values were different than his, their love would never have been able to succeed. She reflects on this realization, “The fact that they both broke their promises to her, hurtful as it is and it will always be, no longer matters. What remains meaningful is Tu and Min’s marriage vows to each other” (101). This quote shows how much Sansan values promises and knows that because Tu broke his, she can never love him. She has become aware that she does not belong with Tu and will never be able to, because of his lack of understanding of promise.
Later in the story, another usage of the word “promise” is used to show how Sansan is set apart from others, due to her unorthodox views about love in her society. The repetition is also used to continue to emphasize Sansan’s values. When Sansan’s mother is planning an arranged marriage for Sansan because she is desperate for her to find a husband, Sansan explains that she wants “a romance [that] is more than a love story with a man. A promise is a promise, a vow remains a vow…” (104). The context of this quote shows how Sansan has not yet found a sense of belonging, due to her unique ideas about love. In addition, the language of the quote in regard to the repetition of the words “promise” and “vow” emphasizes the extent to which Sansan believes in these words, and the power that they hold to her in her search for true love.
Lastly, the word “promise” is repeated one last time at the end of the short story, which marks a resolution to Sansan’s conflict. When Sansan is at the market, she finds someone who shares her values and understands promise and commitment, which is illustrated in the quote, ““…After all these years, she finally meets someone who understands what a promise is. Crazy as they may seem to the world, they are not alone, and they will always find each other” (110). This quote and the final usage of the word “promise” in this short story show that Sansan finally finds belonging after searching and standing out for so long. In addition, because they both understand promise, she no longer has to fear empty promises, because she believes that those who share her beliefs understand promise and dedication in the same way she does, which will protect them from ever failing to keep promises.
Similar to in Love in the Marketplace, repetition is also used in Princess of Nebraska. The repetition of the concept of empty promises compared to fulfilled promises is used to emphasize the type of environment that true eternal love can be fostered in, which is illustrated though Sasha’s character development. In the beginning of the story, Sasha is betrayed by Yang, who she thought would commit to their relationship and come to America with her. However, he was not actually looking for any sort of commitment, which is demonstrated when Yang says, “An empty promise of a man keeps a woman’s heart full” (73). This quote shows his inability to keep a promise, which will prevent him from ever finding love with Sasha, who values commitment. Due to this misleading promise made by Yang, Sasha is hurt by the repercussions of Yang’s empty promise, similar to Sansan in Love in the Marketplace. This lack of understanding between them causes Sasha to yearn for unconditional love and someone who will reciprocate that love. She expresses her mistake in falling for Yang in the quote, “To her relief and disappointment, Yang seemed to have forgotten the moment when they were so close, so close that they were almost in love” (86). This quote, and especially the word, “disappointment,” shows the persuasiveness of empty promises and Sasha’s sadness because she let Yang manipulate her. However, the word “relief” also shows how Sasha is comforted by the fact that she did not fall in love with Yang, because his ideas about love are so fundamentally different from hers, so their love could never triumph.
Later, in the final passage of the story, the concept of promise is brought up yet again, to provide a potential resolution to Sasha’s conflict of a search for unconditional love that she misleadingly thought Yang could give her. Sasha has the option to keep her baby or get an abortion, and she struggles a lot over what decision she should make: ““Being a mother must be the saddest yet the most hopeful thing in the world, falling into a love that, once started, would never end” (91). This quote shows Sasha’s recognition of the powerful, absolute, everlasting love between mother and child. This love is so strong and encompasses all that Sasha is looking for in love. Although the ending of the story is unclear, the reflective and hopeful tone of this quote suggests that if Sasha keeps the baby, she will have found a resolution to her conflict, because she will have found someone with whom mutual and reciprocal love can exist.
Throughout the two short stories discussed above, Yiyun Li successfully uses the repetition of the theme of promise to help readers go deeper within the text and extract more meaningful lessons from it. She uses the characters Sansan and Sasha to demonstrate the many struggles that come with being in love, but also the strength and power of true love once it is found. By stressing and repeating the idea of promise throughout Love in the Marketplace and the Princess of Nebraska, Li’s interpretation provides an interesting and unique perspective on love and how one’s values about love might inform one’s identity.