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Character Analysis in The River Merchant's Wife: A Letter

The narrator of the poem is characterized as a lonely, isolated woman who longs for the return of her husband. We learn that she was very young at the time of her marriage (although this was typical of arranged marriages when Li Po wrote his original poem.) She reflects back on her bashful disposition when she was first married and wonders why she would have ever wanted to be separated from him. As such, the narrator depicts herself as a loving and faithful wife who writes a letter reminding her husband of her commitment and devotion.

Character Analysis Examples in The River Merchant's Wife: A Letter:

Text of the Poem

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"At sixteen you departed..."   (Text of the Poem)

The speaker never explicitly states her husband's reasons for leaving. Pound's title, "The River Merchant's Wife," suggests that he left for work, but the original title doesn't, and Li Po gives no direct indication of the husband's profession, except that he's frequently on the river. Given that this departure immediately follows the speaker's question about distance, she might be wondering why her husband left, and if he loves her as much as she loves him.

"being bashful..."   (Text of the Poem)

Notice the speaker's shyness when she interacts with her new husband. Given that they were friends before this, it's a little strange that she's uncomfortable. Perhaps, as was often the case in 8th century China, this marriage was arranged for her by her parents, and though she loved her friend dearly, she wasn't prepared for this change in the nature of their relationship.

"without dislike or suspicion..."   (Text of the Poem)

From this line, we can assume that the speaker equates childhood with a kind of innocence corruptible by time. She's aware that adults are far more prone to dislike and suspicion, and that they will likely fall victim to these same troubles, but is both wise enough and sensitive enough to enjoy her innocence while she has it; whether it lasts, readers may never know for sure.

"on bamboo stilts, playing horse..."   (Text of the Poem)

Though these lines describe two kids playing happily in a yard, they also introduce an important power differential: the speaker, a female, stays low to the ground, inadvertently positioning herself as an inferior to her friend, the boy on bamboo stilts. When he walks around her on stilts, he draws a circle around her and marks his territory.

"still cut straight across my forehead..."   (Text of the Poem)

Notice how the speaker uses the word "still" in combination with the description of the haircut to indicate both her age at the time and the fact that some time has passed. While bangs are more commonly styled for girls than for boys, this is not an inherently gendered haircut, and if not for the title a reader wouldn't have definitive proof of the speaker's gender until the second stanza of the poem.

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