From The Gates of Paradise: The Anthology of Erotic Short Fiction
Taiwanese writer Li Ang is most famous for her 1983 novella The Butcher’s Wife; her novels and stories address issues of gender politics in China, casting a critical light on a society that represses and curtails women’s desires and renders women subservient to the dominant patriarchal dictates. The 1987 story “Curvaceous Dolls” is a strange, dreamlike tale about a woman’s psychosexual struggles in the face of sanctioned attitudes toward female sexuality that are utterly incapable of fulfilling her in any meaningful way.
From the opening sentence of the story it is clearly implied that the woman has homosexual impulses: “She had yearned for a doll – a curvaceous doll – ever since she was a little girl.” The word “doll” is of course a slang term for a woman, and if there were any question as to what “curvaceous” might refer to, the story clarifies this in short order.
The woman is obsessed with female breasts. This obsession has its origins in childhood; when she was a girl, her mother died, and she has since developed an association between the motherly act of breastfeeding and a sense of security and sanctuary. This idea is largely repressed in her during the early stages of her adulthood: she marries her husband and is attracted by the “solace and warmth” she finds when leaning into his chest. Her epiphany occurs on a bus ride to a doctor her husband has convinced her to see because of troubling dreams the woman has been having. On the crowded bus, someone brushes up against the woman:
Glancing up, she saw a pair of full breasts, whose drooping outline she could make out under the woman’s blouse. Her interest aroused, she began to paint a series of mental pictures, imagining the breasts as having nipples like overripe strawberries oozing liquid, as though waiting for the greedy mouth of a child. Suddenly, she felt a powerful urge to lean up against those full breasts, which were sure to be warm and comforting, and could offer her the sanctuary she needed.
The “sanctuary she needed” is, importantly, something her husband cannot provide any longer. The woman has become estranged from her husband as a result of his derisive response to her story about a makeshift doll she fashioned for herself as a child – an early and failed attempt to supply herself with the “curvaceous doll” she desires. There is a certain irony in the fact that her husband is the instrument by which the woman begins to explore her own innate desires: it is his disparaging laughter that prompts her disturbed sleep, and it is his insistence that she visit a doctor that results in her revelation on the public transit bus.
As her reveries deepen, she remembers two other dolls – one of clay and one of wood – with ever more realistic carved breasts; she recalls suckling the artificial female forms as an early means of acting out her innermost impulses. In the early part of the story, the woman remains conflicted about her desires and will not commit to leaving her husband. Instead, she fantasizes about the possibility of him growing breasts that she can nuzzle in the way she did her mother’s as a child, and those of the dolls as she developed sexually.
The story is broken into two parts; in the second part, the woman abandons her fantasy about her husband growing breasts in favour of a determination to have a baby, which she can suckle herself. Her idea is that the feel of a child’s fondling hands and voracious mouth on her nipples will take the place of her own desire to do likewise to someone else. Significantly, the reverie about her husband developing breasts and the impulse to bear a child both buy into the patriarchal social structure: both require the husband as the central agent of their fulfillment.
This unconscious realization perhaps lies behind the dreams the woman starts having about a sort of demonic figure with fangs and pale green eyes – easily the story’s most puzzling aspect. Though it is likely that the pale green eyes – “filled with cruelty and the destructive lust of a wild animal” and that leave her feeling “defiled” – are representative of the repressive societal structures that refuse to allow her the freedom to indulge her desires in her own way and according to her own rules.
By the end of the story, she has decided to return to her childhood home, against her husband’s wishes, to pursue whatever it is she is in need of. Having made her decision, the story provides yet another bizarre fantasy, but in this one there are objects resembling “two dead breasts” that rub up against her and a meandering stream of clammy white liquid that approaches her mouth but that she refuses to swallow. Earlier scenes in the story have focused on the symbolic importance of mother’s milk to the woman; here the fact that she imagines dead breasts and refuses to swallow the liquid might perhaps indicate that she has abandoned her subconscious torment and is willing to pursue her desires in the light of day. The clammy white liquid could also be associated symbolically with semen; her refusal to ingest it a repudiation of her husband and all the things he stands for.
Li Ang’s story is Freudian and somewhat surreal in its approach: the dreamlike aspects remain oblique and resistant to easy explication. What is clear is that by the end of the story the woman has found a way out of the stifling societal strictures she has been suffering under. “Work hard at it, no matter how long it takes and someday it will happen to you,” her husband tells her. “Maybe,” she thinks in response, “but not if I go about it your way. I have to do it my own way.”