Experiencing pain and suffering is linked early on to the simple fact of being female. A girl is expected to undergo the painful process of foot binding starting around age six. While tiny bound feet are considered attractive, the pain a girl experiences during the binding process is also supposed to prepare her to endure the emotionally wrought experience of "marrying out" and leaving one's natal home, and then the physical pain of childbirth. Further, a girl is told from birth that she's worthless unless she can eventually bear sons, adding another layer of psychological trauma. The persistence and acceptance of this suffering carries Lily and Snow Flower through their lives, creating a cycle of violence from which the characters never truly escape, even as adults.
The novel describes the process of foot binding in excruciating and horrifying detail, the physical aspects of which are only made worse by the fact that the process of binding is commonly performed by a girl's own mother as an act of love. Further, despite regular mention of the pain of childbirth, the pain from bound feet is the only pain ever described in such detail. This indicates that while a woman's life is guaranteed to be full of pain, it is this first experience of pain that is truly transformative and allows a girl to become a woman. Notably, this process isn't just a normal part of life for girls; it's something that's deeply desired. Even though the process is extremely painful and very dangerous, Lily wants to have golden lily feet, and even as a small child she understands that this process is the key to her future. Further, as Mama and Aunt's decision to continue the process when Third Sister's bound feet become septic indicates, it's considered better to die from foot binding than live as a crippled, "big-footed" girl. Because of this, the cycle continues for two more generations over the course of the novel. Lily binds not just her own daughter's feet but also the feet of Snow Flower's granddaughter, heralding both of them into adulthood.
The sad fate of being a woman is addressed again as a young woman undergoes the rituals of marriage. A bride isn't allowed to eat for the ten days of marriage ceremonies, and much of the singing and chanting during the ceremonies speaks of sadness at leaving one's natal home. While Lily suffers all the normal emotions about getting married, the extent of her suffering pales in comparison to what Snow Flower must undergo because of her family situation and Snow Flower’s husband's lowly profession as a butcher. While both girls experience similar trauma at the process of becoming married women, the rest of Snow Flower’s married life is even more traumatic as she faces stillbirths, miscarriages, domestic violence, and finally cancer. Further, the way in which Lily makes sense of and engages with Snow Flower's miserable lot in life indicates that while it's certainly sad, Lily doesn't find it exceptional or worthy of special consideration. Essentially, Lily accepts Snow Flower's fate as something normal and expected of womanhood, thereby refusing to accept the intensity of Snow Flower's grief and sadness and denying Snow Flower the comfort and sympathy she desperately craved.
Lily's coming of age is tied directly to her process of becoming Lady Lu, the most powerful woman in her county. This process of becoming follows neatly the process of deterioration that her laotong relationship with Snow Flower experiences. Lily's final step towards becoming Lady Lu comes when she experiences the pain of ending her friendship with Snow Flower. By humiliating snow Flower publicly, Lily is then admired by other women for exposing Snow Flower's uncouth actions, raising her status as the whistleblower. Through the same action, however, Lily violates the laotong contract, which effectively denies her Snow Flower's love. In this way, Lily's coming of age comes about because of her rejection of love.
The pain described in the novel creates an intense and almost grotesque reading experience, presenting the idea that physical and emotional pain are necessary parts of growing up, becoming an adult, and especially for Snow Flower, being female.
Pain, Suffering, and Coming of Age ThemeTracker
Pain, Suffering, and Coming of Age 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.
For us, the pain didn't lessen. How could it? But we learned the most important lesson for all women: that we must obey for our own good.
"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."
"My mother bound my feet—and me to the chair—even tighter the next time."
"You can't fight your fate," I said. "It is predestined."
"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.
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?
"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...
So much of what happened reminded me of the didactic story that Aunt used to chant about the girl who had three brothers. I now understand that we learned those songs and stories not just to teach us how to behave but because we would be living out variations of them over and over again throughout our lives.