In the first few pages of the novel, Lily, at eighty years old, explains to the reader that the story to follow is a story about love and the different forms that love can take. She explains that she has spent her entire life craving love that, as a woman, she's undeserving of receiving. This sets love up as a major motivator throughout the novel, as well as creates a dichotomy between love as a natural emotion and something contracted or earned.
Lily's desire for love stems from the fact that as a woman, her society deems her unworthy and undeserving of love. However, this idea is complicated by nu shu (women's secret writing) phrases that indicate that fathers do feel love for their daughters, Lily's interpretation of what she deems "mother love," and the existence of contracted friendships between women in the form of sworn sisterhoods and laotong relationships. The existence of the contracted friendships in particular offers the possibility that women are worthy of receiving love from someone, but that someone must be from outside her natal or married family.
The idea that women shouldn't expect love or respect from their married families in particular is reinforced time and again. Lily's mother-in-law goes so far as to attempt to forbid Lily from communicating with Snow Flower, while Snow Flower experiences regular violence and abuse from her husband both and her mother-in-law. However, despite the abuses women experience in their married homes, they're still expected to love their new families and care for their mothers-in-law above all else. This introduces the idea that even if the word "love" is used to describe it, an in-law relationship is truly a relationship of obligation and expectation rather than emotional investment. This idea of obligated love then extends to the emotions a woman is supposed to feel towards her own children. While they are the key to a woman's worth, even the sought-after sons are raised to inhabit a different world than their mothers. This makes a close relationship with a son impossible, while daughters are raised specifically to expect the same sort of distant or cruel relationships in her own future husband's family.
Amidst the emotionally absent relationships that fill the novel, Lily and Snow Flower's laotong relationship stands as an example of what was supposed to be true love and care between the two. However, Lily is unable to escape what she's internalized about relationships being transactional and in turn, destroys her relationship with Snow Flower. Throughout their relationship, Lily views Snow Flower's love as something to be earned through good deeds and kindness, rather than as something that should be given freely. Similarly, rather than give her own love to Snow Flower freely when Snow Flower needs it most, Lily angrily holds onto the thoughts that Snow Flower is undeserving of her love. Thus, despite the fact that a laotong relationship is supposed to provide friendship and companionship for life, Lily isn't able to break her habit of viewing love as earned and as a transaction until it's too late. In this way, the novel champions the idea that while true love can indeed begin to make up for previous grievances (Lily uses her power later to help Snow Flower's children and grandchildren in an attempt to atone for neglecting Snow Flower in life), true caring and friendship must be given without question or justification. While Lily likely didn't have the power to save Snow Flower from cancer, she certainly had the power to make Snow Flower's last several years happier and more comfortable.
Love and Family ThemeTracker
Love and Family Quotes in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
For my entire life I longed for love. I knew it was not right for me—as a girl and later as a woman—to want or expect it, but I did, and this unjustified desire has been at the root of every problem I have experienced in my life.
"A true lady lets no ugliness into her life," she repeated again and again, drilling the words into me. "Only through pain will you have beauty. Only through suffering will you find peace. I wrap, I bind, but you will have the reward."
"I would rather keep her on this earth unmarried than lose her forever."
"Then she would have no purpose and no value," Aunt reasoned. "Your mother love tells you this is no future."
"You married out," Mama said, in a way that seemed oddly detached. "You go to another village. Your mother-in-law is cruel. Your husband doesn't care for you. We wish you would never leave, but every daughter marries away. Everyone agrees. Everyone goes along with it. You can cry and beg to come home, we can grieve that you have gone, but you—and we—have no choice. The old saying makes this very clear: 'if a daughter doesn't marry out, she's not valuable; if fire doesn't raze the mountain, the land will not be fertile.'"
Anyone who tells you that the Yao people never care for their daughters is lying. We may be worthless. We may be raised for another family. But often we are loved and cherished, despite our natal families' best efforts not to have feelings for us. Why else in our secret writing do you see phrases like "I was a pearl in my father's palm" so frequently? Maybe as parents we try not to care. I tried not to care about my daughter, but what could I do? She nursed at my breast like my sons had, she cried her tears in my lap, and she honored me by becoming a good and talented woman fluent in nu shu. Uncle's pearl was gone from him forever.
And in our local dialect, the word for wife is the same as the word for guest. For the rest of my life I would be merely a guest in my husband's home—not the kind you treat with special meals, gifts of affection, or soft beds, but the kind who is forever viewed as a foreigner, alien and suspect.
As I came to the end, I added a few new sentiments. "Don't express misery where others can see you. Don't let sobbing build. Don't give ill-mannered people a reason to make fun of you or your family. Follow the rules. Smooth your anxious brow. We will be old sames forever."
We could not write anything too negative about our circumstances. This was tricky, since the very form of a married woman's letter needed to include the usual complaints—that we were pathetic, powerless, worked to the bone, homesick, and sad. We were supposed to speak directly about our feelings without appearing ungrateful, no-account, or unfilial.
Sons are the foundation of a woman's self. They give a woman her identity, as well as dignity, protection, and economic value... sons are a woman's crowning glory.
With her bold act, I realized the true purpose of our secret writing. It was not to compose girlish notes to each other or even to introduce us to the women in our husbands' families. It was to give us a voice. Our nu shu was a means for our bound feet to carry us to each other, for our thoughts to fly across the fields as Snow Flower had written.
Certainly Snow Flower would say something on his behalf. He was the first son after all. But my old same did not love the boy the way she should have.
The butcher's brokenhearted question was one that appeared in many nu shu stories and songs. I glanced at the faces of the other women around the fire and saw their unspoken question: Could a man—this butcher—feel the same despair and sadness that we women feel when we lose a child?
And then the strangest thing happened. An image of my mother came to my mind. I remembered that as a child I'd wanted her to love me. I'd thought if I did everything she asked during my footbinding, I would earn her affection.
"We might expect this loss of affection from our husbands—they have a right, and we are only women—but to endure this from another woman, who by her very sex has experienced much cruelty just by living, is merciless."
I thought I would never forgive Snow Flower, but instead of dwelling on that my mind tumbled with the realization that my laotong's womb had betrayed her again and that the tumor inside her must have been growing for many years. I had a duty to care...
As girls we are told that we are useless branches, because we will not carry on our natal family names but only the names of the families we marry out to, if we are lucky enough to bear sons. In this way, a woman belongs to her husband's family forever, whether she is alive or dead. All of this is true, and yet these days my contentment comes from knowing that Snow Flower's and my blood will soon rule the house of Lu.