Veronica Zuniga talks point of view and theme rhyme in Can Xue’s “The Child who Raised Poisonous Snakes”

Can Xue’s “The Child who Raised Poisonous Snakes,” deals with mysterious child Sha-yuan, who raises baby snakes in a paranormal way his parents and the narrator find hard to understand. The story implies that bad health comes from the lack of acceptance of the unordinary—Sha-yuan’s mother looks wan and sallow, and almost bald, and his father looks old and can’t stop blinking one eye, whenever they struggle to restrain their son’s odd behavior, such as raising baby snakes in the shelter.

The story is written in first person peripheral point of view—in which the narrator is only a supporting character who introduces the protagonist. Therefore, the story’s point of view invites us to observe the protagonist Sha-yuan—his gestures, his attitude, his behavior, the situations around him—without insight on the narrator’s life. We never find out who the narrator is; from his visits and observations we get the idea that he may be a child psychologist. Even if he expresses what’s in his mind, his thoughts only revolve around the protagonist. “I did not believe the matter was as simple as that. I felt vaguely the falseness in Sha-yuan’s smile,” comments the narrator after the fact that Sha-yuan agrees with his mother’s act of killing snakes. “Listening to them, I became perplexed also,” says the narrator after the mother questions Sha-yuan’s real existence, “what was Sha-yuan, after all? I pondered hard…” As we can see, this point of view limits the narrator’s perception to the matter of Sha-yuan’s existence.

First person peripheral point of view works for this story because the effect is to hold the audience in speculation next to the narrator. We don’t know anything about Sha-yuan’s existence, all we can do is to observe him and speculate about him together with the narrator. “On the one hand, he seemed to pity those little snakes, but on the other hand, he instigated his parents to slaughter them. Nobody can figure out such contradictions,” ponders the narrator. Conversely, third person point of view—limited or omniscient—would be able to answer this question and reveal the protagonist’s secrets; therefore, ruin the purpose of the story which is to make Sha-yuan a mysterious character.

On another note, I would like to talk about the story’s structure: it’s much like that of oral tradition in its repetition of situations. In Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Italo Calvino argues that oral narration “leaves out unnecessary details but stresses repetition” (35). Can Xue’s short story employs the repetition of various situations: the mother’s repetitive killing of the snakes, the constant visits to the air-raid shelter, the decay of Sha-yuan’s parents’ health (first they look ill—old and worn out, then they look healthy—young and happy, and then at the end of the story they have a decease called cardiac arteriosclerosis) and lastly, Sha-yuan’s physical appearance (first he looks slender, then rounder, then thin again). In this way the narrative follows a rhythmical pattern. Calvino says that “just as in poems and songs the rhymes help to create the rhythm, so in prose narrative there are events that rhyme” (35). The events in Can Xue’s story rhyme like the patterns of the waves—they arise and disappear to later reappear.

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