A Literary Analysis of The Coffin Tree by Wendy Law-Yone
The Coffin Tree by Wendy Law Yone is the diary of a young Burmese woman, whose comfortable middle-income family is destabilized by a coup, sending her and her brother to exile in America. Meanwhile, the rest of the family remains to battle the elements and die in war. The novel transcends cultural barriers with a wry look at contemporary American customs to create a central character painted with culture shock and deep reflection between the present and past. After the arrival of the duo in the United States where they are taken in by the Lanes, the persona experiences a lot of cultural obstacles, new challenges, and uneasy maturity, which she cannot do. The death of her brother makes her more anxious and in a trouble in this foreign land, but slowly she picks herself up and establishes herself as a young, strong, and independent immigrant, ready to take on life courageously. This essay takes a critical look at the story, highlighting the character creation, literary analysis, and thematic context as framed by Law Yone.
The unnamed girl-brother to Shah-who is the persona as well as the main character of the story. She is sad. She is also very strong and responsible because besides criticizing other people such as her father for his negligence to the family, she fully takes care of her ailing brother until the last minute when he succumbs to a heart attack. She is smart, eloquent, and very insightful (Ho 112). It comes to light after she attempted suicide where she declares that her life is her own responsibility. The reason is that she could be negligent and like her father, to whom she expresses a lot of contempt. Furthermore, she is courageous. After arriving in the US, she is greeted by a lot of issues and goes through culture shock. However, she is quick to determine that her life is personal; hence developing skills and finding a job to kick start her life. Finally, she is honest. It is revealed during her interview for a job, where she says that she hates working because of her laziness, forgetfulness, and lack of any working experience whatsoever. However, she was desperate, which could make her willing to learn (Law-Yone 22). Her honesty lands her the job.
Shan, the brother, is hardworking but weak. He succumbs to depression soon after parting ways with his sister, each in search of greener pastures. He is unable to acclimatize to the American environment due to his immaturity. His sister explains how despite him being ten years older, he is mentally and physically weak. She used to be a better leader than him. Nevertheless, his death becomes a heavy big blow to the main heroine, who ends up being distressed as well and attempts to commit suicide (Law-Yone 22). When reflecting on her life, the persona is critical of how weak her brother is and blames him for some of her tribulations. She expresses how good it would have been for them if he was a bit stronger.
The narrator's father was very smart, which helped him to be appointed at a very early age to work for the kingdom. He is loyal to the regime and remains a dedicated guerrilla worrier after the coup, which destabilizes the country and sends his children to America. However, despite all this bravery, the narrator expresses dislike for his ignorance of the family and the facade, by which he is perceived within the community. The narrator thinks that he blames her for her mother's death during childbirth, which is why he is always beyond her reach. To console herself, she says, "To be rejected by an incontinent seventy-nine-year-old man is not in itself sufficient reason to kill oneself…" (Law-Yone 22). He focuses on Burma so much that he forgets about his family.
The coffin tree symbolizes Shah's impossible dreams, which are only powered by fantasy. His mother is described as a deranged hill woman, while his father, whom he shares with the narrator is absent, idolizing the needs of the kingdom as he is always "so good at impersonating God" (Law-Yone 22). Just like a coffin tree, which grows only to house a dead man, Shah's life is characterized by emptiness, hopelessness, and deprivation. Apart from that, the narrator is heavily hyperbolic in her expressions. Rather than saying her father is a facade to the community, she says that he is "so good at impersonating God" (Law-Yone 22). In addition to that, she is good at reflective thinking, where she can easily create a vivid illusion of the situation back in Burma with just a few reflective phrases. She is a master storyteller, whose competence is further blown up by mystery. The story is filled with suspense, pity, and both beautiful and painful memories of her past life. For example, when she says "…n time I came to see my father in a truer field of vision than was possible through the warping lens of a child's unrequited and unquenched love" (Law-Yone 34). She paints the picture of a girl who had loved her ignorant father immensely until the day when she matured and discovered that her father had deprived her of it.
Culture shock is a major theme in this story. Initially, the girl had been very comfortable living and harnessing the love of her aunts and her dying grandmother, who was always there for her. She was used to her family's ways of life and could never fathom it being any other way. Suddenly, their father commands them to leave for America, where they would switch to the new life and navigate the risks on their own (Johnston et al. 670). Even though she is an adult, she finds it hard to adapt to the western way of living. Her brother dies before mastering it either.
Moreover, the theme of family is evident in the story. To the narrator, the family is the most critical part of her life, defining her past life and partially controlling her current one. Her mother died at a young age, leaving her with an ever-absent father who idolizes the needs of the monarch more than those of his family. However, it is the same Dad who plans a better stay for her in America and remains to fight for his country until his death. When the narrator's brother dies, she is greatly depressed because he was the only family member close to her. The loneliness that proceeds drives her to attempt suicide. She also talks fondly of ageless talks they were having with her aunts and her grandmother about various issues in life, such as family and marriage. They were discussing the village masseur. Family is of great importance in this story.
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Except for those, the theme of emotional solitude is evident in the narration. Although the duo was adopted by a good family, they were never really comfortable until they moved out in search of their own freedom and happiness. She misses her mother, who would have loved her unconditionally (Ho 113). She also lacks a supportive father, whom she needs so much. When the violence drifts her to a far land, the situation is further escalated by her separation from her loving aunts. The final blow is when her brother dies and leaves her alone. The narrator suffers emotional solitude so deep that she attempts to commit suicide to rescue herself from the suffering. It robs her of her job, her happiness, her recently found freedom and everything else she adores. In her reflection at the asylum, the narrator discovers that she should be bold enough to take on life, build new networks, and forge a new life for herself. In a plan to free herself from the past, she says that she intends to "…open myself up by small degrees to the oceanic flood of the past" (Law-Yone 55). Her asylum experience seems to have changed her.
Finally, the issues of women are highlighted in the essay. All responsibilities, positions, and challenges are detailed in her life, making it easy to identify the general obstacles females have to navigate in their lives. First, death takes a toll on them more. However, they are courageous enough to finally shake it off and move on. Secondly, women have to be mature and strong for the rest of the community. Despite the hardships, they have to remain the glue that unites society and ensures its progress. After the death of her mother, the rest of the women in the homestead are left to care for the narrator. This collective responsibility molds her into a mature and responsible young woman. Finally, it is evident that they are destabilized by political unrest at most.
Conclusively, The Coffin Tree by Wendy Law Yone is a social lens highlighting the issue of culture shock, moments, and society, as well as the role of a family. It is fairly critical during this Twenty-first Century as the refugee crisis continues to heighten due to the rise of terrorism and political unrest in various parts of the world. The essay contains a hoard of themes, literary styles, and techniques that are interwoven to communicate her story more effectively. Yone’s greatest success in the novel is exposing the issue of culture in the American context and how immigrants can experience hard times adjusting.
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