The Tale of Kieu is one of the most important works of Vietnamese literature, and it is an exciting object of study and analysis. Throughout the poem, Kieu faces many different circumstances, including prostitution, poverty, slavery, rape, mental health issues, and more. The focus of the story is mostly on the main character’s journey and her development. However, since most of these circumstances were created and influenced by other characters in the poem, it is essential to consider the role of all people whom Kieu meets.
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Since the plot of the poem spans over fifteen years, readers can analyze the characters at different points in time, which offers more information about them than a single appearance. Additionally, the setting and plot of The Tale of Kieu provide an excellent opportunity for exploring various themes and concepts. The misfortunes faced by Kieu during these fifteen years place the notions of morality and immorality at the forefront of the story. The Cambridge English Dictionary defines morality as “a set of personal or social standards for good or bad behavior and character” (“Morality”). The definition suggests that morality is mostly subjective and cannot be measured easily.
However, when judging whether a character is moral or immoral, considering their character, as well as their behaviors, can provide a solution. The different situations portrayed in the poem highlight both moral and immoral natures and actions of the different characters. Giac Duyen is one of the most kind-hearted characters in the play, and she helps Kieu to overcome her circumstances and get a happy ending. Hence, the in-depth analysis of this character suggests that Giac Duyen is moral.
Before considering the arguments supporting the central claim of the paper, it is essential to acknowledge why some people might not agree with this thesis and believe that Giac Duyen is immoral. Despite the overall kind nature of the character and her spiritual devotion, there are some instances that could be interpreted as signs of immorality. First of all, Giac Duyen harbors Kieu and helps her despite the fact that the young woman stole from Lady Hoan’s estate.
The first meeting of the two characters occurs after Kieu runs away from Hoan, who forced her to work as a slave, and seeks shelter in a Buddhist temple. Giac Duyen allows Kieu to stay in the temple because Kieu assures that here teacher will come to collect her soon. At this point, it can be argued that the nun had no knowledge about Kieu’s real situation and the fact that she had stolen property on her, and thus this behavior cannot be considered immoral. Still, when Giac Duyen finds out about Kieu’s past and the fact that she is, in reality, a thief and a liar, she does not take any steps to return Kieu and the stolen belongings to Lady Hoan.
This occurs when a visitor notes that the silver gong and the gold bell look like they belong to Lady Hoan. Du acknowledges Giac Duyen’s mixed feelings following the revelation: “Truth unveiled, Giac Duyen shook with trepidation,/Hesitating between fear and compassion” (2073-2074). Still, Giac Duyen decides to help Kieu in her dangerous situation. The second argument for the nun’s immorality is that she sends Kieu to Bac, who turns out to be a brothel owner.
As a result, Kieu is subjected to prostitution again, marking another turn in her difficult journey. Some people might argue that Giac Duyen knew about the nature of Bac’s business and sent Kieu to her knowingly. However, this appears to be incorrect because Bac is introduced as a woman “who used to visit the shrine with offerings” (Du 2082). This suggests that Giac Duyen did not know about the brothel and believed Bac to be a trustworthy rich woman who could help. Thus, the intentions behind the nun’s actions were kind; she wanted to save Kieu from being pursued by Lady Hoan. The consequences of this action are not sufficient to establish the character’s lack of morality.
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In order to show why the thesis is correct despite the aforementioned claims, it is essential to consider both dimensions of morality, as evident in Giac Duyen’s character. Based on the definition used as a framework here, the nature of her character should be considered first to determine whether she is a good or a bad person based on social standards. The repeated interactions between Kieu and Giac Duyen suggest that the latter possesses many qualities that are considered to be ‘good.’
Compassion is one of the most prominent of them, and this quality of the nun is established on her first appearance in the poem. When Kieu comes to seek shelter in the temple, Du writes, “Seeing the girl in her brown Buddhist garment,/ Giac Duyen, the chief nun, at once felt compassion” (2039-2040). Compassion is an integral part of the modern definition of morality since it predicts people’s caring and thoughtful actions toward others. The second quality that is evident in Giac Duyen’s character is trustworthiness. This is particularly apparent in her interactions with the prophetess, when she inquires about Kieu’s fate: “What a girl complete with piety and goodness!/Why a fate replete with woes, griefs, and distress?” (Du 2653-2654).
The inquiry follows Kieu’s request that she made earlier when parting with Giac Duyen. At that time, the nun promised to ask the prophetess about the girl’s fate, and she complied with her promise later on in the poem. The fact that the character stays true to her word is an essential indication of her trustworthiness in general. It also shows another quality of Giac Duyen, which is genuine care about other people’s wellbeing. Care is different from compassion, as it involves not just feeling but also acting in ways that help others. When Giac Duyen protects Kieu, asks about her fate, and fulfills her role by saving Kieu in the final parts of the poem, she is presented as a caring person.
Caring is considered to be a good quality that indicates the morality of one’s character because it helps people to connect with one another and build strong relationships. For spiritual people such as Giac Duyen, care is even more critical since it assists them in fulfilling their purpose by helping others. In addition to the qualities of compassion, care, and trustworthiness, Giac Duyen also possesses the virtue of honesty. On various instances within the poem, it becomes clear to readers that the nun speaks her mind and does not hide the truth from others. For example, upon hearing of Kieu’s misfortunes and the fact that she possesses stolen property, Giac Duyen communicates her concerns openly.
She says to Kieu, “Here the Buddha’s gate is always wide open;/I just fear of unexpected happenings,/That’ll drive you into regretful misfortune!” (Du 2076-2078). The nun’s openness about the connection between her fate and Kieu’s is another example of her honesty. This quality corresponds with the social standards of morality because people who lie or conceal the truth put other people’s feelings at risk. People who speak honestly, on the contrary, are more likely to fit in with the standards of moral behavior because they consider others’ feelings and act in accordance with social values.
Another aspect of the definition of morality is one’s behaviors and actions. Here, considering both the intentions of the character’s behaviors and the nature of their actions could help to draw a distinction between morality and immorality. There are two primary behaviors to be considered in Giac Duyen’s case because her appearances in the poem are highly limited. Firstly, Giac Duyen helps Kieu on their first encounter, both by providing food and shelter and by sending her to Bac.
The nun’s intentions, in both cases, were to help the girl in a difficult situation. Giac Duyen lets Kieu stay in the temple and work because she was afraid for her safety: “But for fear of your loneliness on the road,/Stay here a few days to wait for my elder” (Du 2051-2052). She also sends Kieu to Bac thinking that it would be safer for the girl there. The nature of Giac Duyen’s behaviors in both cases is caring and helpful, which corresponds with the socially acceptable notion of ‘good’ behavior, thus contributing to the morality of the character as a whole.
The other behavior that has to be considered is the nun’s concern with Kieu’s fate, which translates into action as she tries to help the woman. This line of behavior is particularly apparent in Giac Duyen’s second encounter with the prophetess and the actions following it. In the poem, the nun learns from Tam Hop that Kieu will throw herself into a river trying to end her life: “On the turbulent currents of tough water,/She threw herself as a prey before sharks’ mouths” (Du 2671-2672).
Upon finding out, Giac Duyen attempts to override Kieu’s fate by setting up a residence near the river, hiring two fishermen for help, and waiting to save Kieu from the water. The character’s intentions here are thoroughly positive because she is driven by her concern for Kieu’s fate and the desire to help the young woman. The nature of the actions is also moral since they are aimed at helping a person in need and supporting them in recovering from negative events.
Overall, the plot of The Tale of Kieu offers an excellent opportunity for readers to examine the concepts of morality and immorality as represented in different characters. Based on the definition of morality, it is essential to consider both the character’s qualities and their behaviors to reach a verdict. In analyzing the character of Giac Duyen, it is evident that she portrays the qualities of compassion, trustworthiness, care, and honesty, which are highly valued in society and correspond with moral standards.
Additionally, the nun’s behaviors are good in nature and driven by genuine, positive intentions to help others in need. Encountering such a moral character undoubtedly plays a crucial role in Kieu’s fate, thus leading the character to a happier life in the end.
Du, Nguyen. The Tale of Kieu. Translated by Phan Huy, 2013. WordPress. Web.
“Morality.” Cambridge English Dictionary, 2020. Web.