Red Sorghum

Through war torn villages and sorghum fields, author Mo Yan depicts the subtle joys and harsh realities of the life of a Chinese family during the Second Sino-Japanese War in his novel, Red Sorghum. The intensity of the challenges and hardships that face this particular family are explored through the vivid imagery and potent diction that Yan employs. One of the core elements of Mo Yan’s Red Sorghum is the use of graphic imagery to capture violence between the Chinese and Japanese soldiers, as well as between Chinese countrymen. This imagery is demonstrated in one of the novel’s early scenes through Yan’s striking diction that gave us details about the slaughter of Uncle Arhat. Arhat, a loyal friend of the story’s main family, is enslaved by the Japanese soldiers to build a highway, and although he escapes, he is later caught and brutally murdered. The narrator describes Uncle Arhat as a “huge skinned frog” that he was “hacked to pieces.” The characterization of Arhat as a frog emphasizes his devolution from humanity as his flesh is stripped away to leaving a bloody and barely human body. The use of onomatopoeia in the word “hacked” creates a sense of the harsh violence that took place at Arhat’s death. The father of the narrator was not able to recognize Arhat for a while when the Japanese brought him to be killed. He is described as “just a strange, bloody creature in human form” and an “inert slab of meat”, adding to the image of Arhat, a broken and pathetic figure awaiting death. Yan also manipulates the reaction of the audience to Arhat’s appearance to intensify this graphic scene. The crowd remains tense as they await Arhat’s death in fear and horror. Arhat’s sorrowful state causes some to fall to the ground, wailing grievously. Even the nearby birds fell silent, setting the stage for the grave. The chapter continues describing the skinning of Uncle Arhat with word choice that paints a gruesome yet clear image of the what’s happening. When Arhat’s “screeches”, it seems like a terrific scream runs through the mind of the reader, as Arhat’s detached skin twitches in the dirt. Animated words are also used in the novel, such as, a vivid impression of Arhat’s “bony frame twitching violently on the rack.” A truly stomach-turning phrase describes Arhat as being “turned into a mass of meaty pulp, his innards churned and roiled, attracting swarms of dancing green flies.” The imagery used to describe this terrifying setting creates a vivid and realistic experience for the reader, as Yan spares no detail in the murder of Uncle Arhat. This blunt style of writing is used to reveal the devolution of Arhat from loyal companion to a butchered and unrecognizable creature. While the death of Arhat brings a shock to the beginning of the novel, the author continues the graphic imagery of violence in one of the closing chapters, called Strange Death. This scene focuses on the rape of Passion, the narrator’s “second grandma”. Passion, who lives with her young daughter in the village, is suddenly grabbed one day by a “dormant and profoundly disturbing terror; she knew that her eyeballs were rolling wildly, and she heard a terrifying shriek erupt from her throat.” This violent fear is brought to us through the imagery that Yan chooses to express in this passage. The connotations surrounding words such as “disturbing”, “terror”, and “shriek” assist in the overwhelming panic that surrounds Passion. The Japanese soldiers who burst into Passion’s home a moment later are villainized by Yan’s likening of their physical image to unpopular animals. The first soldier is characterized by his resemblance to a rat, with his “crafty expression, pointy chin, and black mustache above a pointed mouth” (Yan, 319). This “sly expression”, his resemblance to an animal and his untrustworthiness. portrays this character as vile and devious. Another man is described as a “fat, squirming maggot” and a “slimy toad” as he crawls up onto Passion’s bed (Yan, 320). His facial expression is described as “the savage look of a jackal” (Yan, 321). This provides an image of the house infested with undesirable pests, infecting Passion and her child with their wickedness. Passion’s fear and anger is shown again as the soldiers continue to burst into her house and Little Auntie, her daughter, was “scared witless by the sight of her mother’s mouth distorted with hare on her ash-smeared face” (Yan, 320). This physical expression of anger on Passion’s face further emphasizes the emotion in this scene. Her experience is described in a particularly poignant passage written in second person that reads, “He pressed his savage face up to yours, and you closed your eyes in revulsion. You thought you could feel your three-month-old fetus writhing in your belly, and could hear the desperate screeches of Little Auntie, like a rusty knife being drawn across a whetstone…. Your face was covered with tears, fresh blood, and his thick, sticky slobber. Hot red blood suddenly gushed from your mouth, and a vile stench filled your nostrils.  The squirming fetus in your belly produced waves of liver-rendering, lung-filling pain…Anger festered in your heart, and when the Japanese soldier’s greasy cheeks brushed up against your lips and you made a feeble attempt to bite his face” (Yan, 324). This passage includes especially vibrant words that assert the utter atrocity and barbarity of rape. Yan deliberately chooses words that evoke emotion from his readers and create stirring and graphic scenes that reveal the harsh truth behind real life experiences.

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