Study Guide

The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter Quotes

  • Love

    At fourteen I married My Lord you, (7)

    Notice how, at the age of fourteen, the wife considers her husband to be her noble lord. However, as she matures even just over the following year, the wife develops a more sophisticated understanding of the equality and sharing in their relationship.

    Called to, a thousand times, I never looked back. (10)

    At this moment, the wife may be refusing the husband's affections because she's uncomfortable with her new identity as a wife, with a "Lord" for a husband.

    At fifteen I stopped scowling, (11)

    It seems that, now that she's fifteen, a year has passed in which her desires and affections have, let's say, "blossomed."

    I desired my dust to be mingled with yours (12)

    There are two ways to look at this line. The most positive way is to understand that the wife wants to be as united with her husband absolutely—she wants to be united at the molecular level. The more complex way is to see how the wife and husband give up their separate identities to the other person when they're married.

    They hurt me.
    I grow older. (25-26)

    This is a soul-crushing reaction to seeing two butterflies together. Notice how the heartbreaking image makes the wife feel that either time is slipping away, or that she's being worn down by her desire.

  • Isolation

    I played by the front gate, pulling flowers. (2)

    It seems like the speaker was hanging out by the front gate in the hopes that someone would come by, just like she's now sitting in the garden hoping her husband comes back.

    And we went on living in the village of Chokan: (5)

    The notion of a "village," suggests a rural, isolated upbringing for our speaker.

    I never laughed, being bashful. (8)

    The wife's shyness is a form of self-isolation, because she's preventing others from seeing what she enjoys (what would make her laugh) and understanding what she feels.

    Lowering my head, I looked at the wall. (9)

    This is a strange detail about the speaker's strategy of self-isolation, but it speaks to a history of separating herself, even before her husband left.

    Called to, a thousand times, I never looked back. (10)

    If she's shy and ignoring her husband, it may be because she got married to him at the age of fourteen and wasn't ready for it. She could also be asserting her independence within the marriage. In this case, isolation may be a conscious choice.

    You went into far Ku-to-en, (16)

    Wherever the merchant went, it must have been very far away. This loneliness seems to be a constant theme for the wife, but the husband's departure has created a different kind of loneliness. This is a new form of loneliness for her, since she finally let someone in, then he went away.

    The paired butterflies are already yellow with August (23)

    This image reminds the wife of the absence of her lover. The pairing of the two butterflies is like the bond of marriage between the merchant and the speaker, which is why the sight of them causes her pain.

    And I will come to meet you
    As far as Cho-fu-Sa. (29-30)

    The isolation has made the wife willing to travel what must have been weeks in order to see her husband once again, which shouldn't surprise us now that we know her lonely and isolated history.

  • Women and Femininity

    While my hair was still cut straight across my forehead (1)

    Let's assume that this haircut is typical of children in this culture. It's not very stylish, but functional. The haircut also suggests that these children haven't yet reached puberty and fallen into the strict separations between feminine and masculine, so their attraction is innocent puppy love.

    Two small people, without dislike or suspicion. (6)

    Notice how the boy and girl remain neutral in many ways, and are only called "people" rather than "children" or "boy and girl." This emphasizes the purity of their childhood love before adult concerns, like money and loyalty, may have entered the picture.

    At fourteen I married My Lord you. (7)

    Some of you may find this to be sexist, in that the man is portrayed as the lord of this woman, but we should be sensitive to cultural differences and understand that the original poem was written, oh, about 1,300 years ago.

    I never laughed, being bashful. (8)

    Laughing seems to be the typical response to being bashful, but the wife seems to avoid laughing because it draws unwanted attention to her.

    Lowering my head, I looked at the wall. (9)

    The wife lowers her head and looks at the wall to avoid eye contact. Could this be a sign of deference to her husband? Or is she simply being stubborn and ignoring him?

    Called to, a thousand times, I never looked back. (10)

    If she is ignoring her husband, she's either resisting his romantic advances or simply his attempts to get her attention. She's empowered in these moments.

    I desired my dust to be mingled with yours (12)

    The question is, does this mingling mean that the wife loses her own identity in the marriage, or is the "mingling" of dust a deep-felt and equal union between two people?

    Too deep to clear them away! (21)

    Usually we'd like to see a more "can do" attitude from our heroines today, but perhaps this is a metaphorical way of letting her husband know that his absence has a noticeable effect on her day-to-day life.

  • Memory and The Past

    You came by on bamboo stilts, playing horse,
    You walked about my seat, playing with blue plums. (3-4)

    This memory is pretty darn vague despite all its details. It reminds us of those memories of early childhood where one can't remember a lot of context but the details remain vivid. This is a lot like poetry itself, in that you get a bunch of details but still have to use your imagination to fill in other gaps.

    I never laughed, being bashful. (8)

    Don't be so sure that you can rely on the speaker to be totally honest. She might not have laughed because she was angry, afraid, or depressed. We're not totally sure.

    I desired my dust to be mingled with yours (12)

    The wife is using strong and dramatic language (that tends to be associated with pleasant memories) in order make the husband feel the same loss and loneliness that she does.

    At fifteen I stopped scowling, (11)

    The speaker remembers the turning point in their relationship. Perhaps she was conscious of the shift, and so perhaps it was a conscious decision to love her husband.

    You dragged your feet when you went out. (19)

    This is another detail that draws upon the husband's own memory, in case he forgot just how sorry he was to leave her.