"Happiness or misfortune [are] prescribed by heaven, but [their] source comes from ourselves. Happiness can be found in renunciation, and passions lead only to sufferings."
Kim van Kieu, by Nguyen-Du, is a Vietnamese epic poem deeply rooted in Vietnamese and Asian culture and religion. It presents Buddhist themes of renunciation, suffering, and reincarnation, and Confucian ideals of filial sacrifice and duty. What follows is a plot summary and analysis of the book's major themes.
The main character, Kieu, has been condemned as a "torn-boweled girl." In a previous life, Kieu had been filled with passion and she suffered for it. After loving several men and trying to escape the realities into which she was forced, Kieu finally releases herself of passion and becomes a Buddhist nun relieved of her suffering, suffering which was rooted in the very passion that gave her transient pleasure.
Kim van Kieu, known also as Thuy-Kieu, Kieu, Giac-Duyen, and her spiritual name of Trac-Tuyen, begins her life in happy company with her family. When traveling with her sister, she discovers a spirit named Dam-Tien, whose life and accompanying misery eerily resembles what Kieu will experience for the major portion of the novel. Dam-Tien might be a previous incarnation of Thuy-Kieu; she addresses Kieu as "'My eternal sister!'" when she explains to Kieu about how her name has already been inscribed on the "'list of girls with torn bowels.'" Kieu's subsequent commitments to men and to herself, framed by Dam-Tien's words, bring her misery.
Thuy-Kieu takes pleasure in her love with Kim-Trong, a young man who she
promises to marry. By tying herself to the material world she
prepares herself for bitter disappointment and suffering when
separated from her love, as Tam-Hop's words suggest. Kim-Trong, young
himself, understands the principle but not the cause: " 'It blows
today, and it might rain tomorrow ... Happy meetings do not often come
to us in the spring of life.'" Thuy-Kieu refuses to consummate
their love, hinting at the piety that Dam-Tien refers to later in the
book when telling Thuy-Kieu that she has finally been removed from the
list of torn-boweled girls.
To save her family from slavery, Thuy-Kieu sacrifices herself by selling herself to a man who she does not love. She describes the pain of her bonds to Kim-Trong to her sister before she is taken
away: "'My soul still carries the weight of my oaths. I'll
sacrifice my frail body to pay for his love and friendship,'" which indeed she does during her long departure from Kim. Her husband rapes her and then sells her to a brothel.
Twice in the novel, Kieu attempts to commit suicide. This is the first time, when she discovers her husband's plans for her. The second time, she realizes that fate will
not allow her to experience lasting pleasure in the material world.
Both attempts are a method of resigning herself to her fate. Her attempts also show the immense pain
caused by living in her world and trying to love passionately amidst
Kieu feels the pain of passion in the absence of her lover
not only with Kim-Trong, but with her second husband Thuc, and later with her third husband, Tu Hai. Thuc, Kieu's
second love, marries her as his second wife. They have a pleasant time
together, for a while. He has to leave Kieu for the better part of a
year to live with his first wife. His first wife, jealous of Kieu,
arranges for Kieu to become a house slave, embarrassing Thuc and again
confounding Thuy-Kieu's search for happiness.
After more wandering and being sold into slavery again,
Thuy-Kieu meets Tu Hai. The two promise to love one another forever.
After their marriage, Tu Hai leaves Kieu alone in their house for a
long time, leaving her to wonder and worry about her life and her new
husband. Upon his return, Tu Hai's position as a military general
offers Kieu the chance to take revenge for the many instruments of fate
that made her life terrible. Tu Hai helps Kieu execute her enemies. Even after the slight upturn in Kieu's
life, she falls once
again: she innocently betrays Tu Hai, causing him to be defeated in battle.
Thuy-Kieu is not even allowed to mourn Tu Hai's death properly
or live by herself as a widow. A mandarin, Ho-ton-Hien, orders that
she be remarried. Kieu can no longer stand the twists of fate that
scourge her; as the narrator asks, "How could you come to tie the
marriage knot at random in such a way?" Kieu attempts to kill
herself for the second time, after trying to make peace with the world by writing a few poetic verses.
Kieu renounces the world and escapes the fate of her passions
only when she is saved from her second suicide attempt by Giac-Duyen.
Thuy-Kieu's miraculous salvation leads her into a world of religious
piety and renunciation, one for which the ghost-spirit Dam-Tien says Kieu earned her way: "'Selling yourself to save your
father is an act of filial devotion, saving another person is an act
of altruism; you have served your country and your people faithfully.
All these secret merits begin to weigh one ounce heaver than your
fate.'" Kieu realizes that her attempts to find love and live
in the world were futile, and that so far her life "'was spent in
tasting all kinds of bitterness.'"
Kieu knows that after all her sufferings, even when vengeance
is served through her husband Tu-Hai, the suffering
caused by the material world will never cease. Her only escape is to
religion, by becoming a Buddhist nun. She gives up the pleasures of
the flesh, agreeing to marry her first love, Kim, only if he will "'forget the conjugal guitar and lute and replace them by a game of
chess.'" She gives up music--although at points the narrator praises her ability as a performer--saying that "'it was because
of my poor talent that such mournful airs had caused so many
misfortunes in our life.'" When she decides to become a nun
and gives up her material obligations and possessions, Thuy-Kieu
renounces the world of suffering to live a life of peaceful meditation
as a friend of her first love.
Thuy-Kieu's journey takes her from a life like that of
Dam-Tien to one like the Buddhist nun Giac-Duyen. She learns from her
life of suffering that the only way to a better life is through
renunciation. Only when she gives up her ties to the material world
can she stop playing her sad theme---"Cruel Fate"---and escape the
turnings of fortune.
Class lectures at North Carolina State University
Personal experience (reading the novel)