Relationships, Sexuality, and Gender in the Short Story in English

Mary Loh, MA (National University of Singapore)

A casualty of a rapidly developing society is always human relationships. The urbanisation of Singaporean society has at the same time increased the sense of individuality and the sense of isolation. To break out from these silences, people strive even harder to connect with each other. The search for love forms the thematic basis for a number of short stories in Singapore. Characters, lonely and alienated from the rest of society, spend futile time chasing after illusions of love. Chan in "The Ships in the Harbour, The Cars on the Street" (The Sun In Her Eyes) is trapped in a world circumscribed by routine, his life one long drawn-out yawn, from which there is no escape except through romantic fantasies.

Marriages are not a solution to the problem of loneliness. At the heart of the problem are intrinsic differences between men and women and the lack of communication between them. In "What My Wife Reads in the Newspapers and What I Read, are Two Different Things" and "Count Your Blessings" (The Newspaper Editor & Other Stories), Rebecca Chua suggests that the problems are fundamental. The half-frustrated tone of the husbands complaining that their wives do not understand them satirises the traditional expectation that wives are to serve their men submissively and consequently the women are not required to be terribly intelligent. This conservative position reflects a traditional society's view of women.

The rapid change occurred, however, when larger numbers of women entered the workforce. Women began to have greater access to higher education, competed with men on almost equal footing for jobs, and had the privilege of choice of whether to marry or have children. Yet women found it difficult to come to terms with these changes because they had been tied to the yoke of tradition for so long. Consequently, women in the short story were either domesticated subservient slaves to their family's needs or characterised as brash or loud. The modern women is often satirised. In "Gretchen's Choice" Baratham is a swinging single who flaunts her sexual liberty.

The sexual revolution of the sixties reached Singapore late and it wasn't until the early seventies that the island's women began to swing. The swingers included the brilliant and the benighted, the committed and the confused, the arrogant and the asinine and several so mixed up they defied classification. The various and contradictory assortment of individuals had one feature in common; a total lack of insight. Gretchen was typical of the group.

The tension between the modern and the traditional perception of women is also enacted in the strife that is depicted between women and their mothers-in-law. In many of the stories of Catherine Lim for example, the presence of the mother-in-law is a threat, and her interfering ways are resented. At the same time, one recognises that the watchword for the traditional woman is Duty while the modern woman is more concerned for the fulfilment of Self, beyond the needs of others. The fact that the modern woman is painted in such an unflattering light indicates that the society has yet to come to terms with the changing role of women.

This discussion on the shift in sexual politics is also particular relevant to the discussion of the hero figure in the Singapore short story. The male characters in Singapore short stories generally seem 'lost' and disempowered, in search of direction in their lives. It is as if the rules of the game had been changed and the players are still on the field. Husbands are depicted as irresponsible, given to vices such as drinking and gambling. In "Listen, Thomas, Though I Shan't Say a Word", a woman is trapped in marriage to an insensitive inveterate gambler who treats her shoddily. Fathers are either extremely dictatorial or ineffectual. In "The Father", a bad-tempered drunkard kills his child in an alcoholic rage. The father in Wong Swee Hoon's "The Chicken-Slayer" physically and psychologically abuses his son who later grows up to be a serial killer.

While it is true that the short story is drawn to what Frank O'Connor calls the "submerged population", the anti-heroic character of men is given focus time and again. Mr Phua, who has been badly treated all his life by his employers, is given an opportunity to speak out in "The Brief Rebellion of Mr Phua". However, the moment passes without him seizing the opportunity because he is cowardly and afraid.

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