Snow Flower and the Secret Fan Summary and Study Guide

Lisa See

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

  • 39-page comprehensive study guide
  • Features 17 chapter summaries and 6 sections of expert analysis
  • Written by a literary scholar with a Master's degree in English Literature
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Snow Flower and the Secret Fan Summary and Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature.  This 39-page guide for “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan” by Lisa See includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 17 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Teng Ai – Mother Love and Wealth and Worth.

Plot Summary

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a frame tale, a story within a story, as told by an eighty-year-old Chinese woman, reflecting on her life and preparing for her death. In the first and last chapter, the narrator Lily reveals that she is dictating the story to Peony, the wife of her grandson, as a form of confession to her friend Snow Flower who is now in the afterworld.

Lily was born to a poor but respectable family in China. At the age of six, a diviner and a matchmaker evaluate her to determine whether she is ready to start preparations and training for a marriage arrangement. The central consideration for matchmaking is whether her feet are of a high quality. The custom of foot-binding requires that, at this early age, girls must have their feet tightly bound and shaped, until the bones break and their feet eventually form into the shape of a lotus flower. This procedure is painful and dangerous, but when done successfully improves girls’ prospects for marriage. The matchmaker and the diviner determine that Lily has the potential to improve her circumstances significantly, if her parents are willing to invest in her training and preparation. As part of this process, the matchmaker arranges for a lautong match for Lily, another girl with the same birth date who will become a lifelong female friend. The conditions for this match require that certain numbers related to the girls’ lives, including date and time of birth, as well as birth order within the family, must match. Madame Wang finds such a match for Lily in Snow Flower.

Snow Flower introduces herself by embroidering a greeting on a fan, which will become the fan both girls use throughout their lives to communicate with one another, using nu shu, the secret women’s writing. During their youth, Lily feels as if she is learning everything from Snow Flower, who comes from a more prestigious and cultured family. When Snow Flower insists that she is learning just as much from Lily about household duties, Lily believes she is just trying to be kind. Yet, as the time of their marriages approaches, Lily begins to suspect that Snow Flower’s situation may not be as privileged as she had first thought. It is only when they are both married that Lily first learns that Snow Flower’s distinguished family has been impoverished because of her father’s addictions. While Lily marries into a prosperous family, Snow Flower marries a butcher, the most despised of professions.

During their childbearing years, Lily enjoys success, giving birth to four boys and one girl. Her in-law family treats her fairly. Her husband is kind to her, although she feels more a sense of duty than love towards him. When she is in her 30s, she and her husband become Master and Lady Lu, heads of their household and their community. Snow Flower, on the other hand, is treated poorly by her mother-in-law and is beaten by her husband. She has three stillborn daughters, and one miscarriage that is the result of her husband’s violence. She gives birth to two sons and a daughter who live beyond birth, but the second son dies in his sleep when he is still a boy. Snow Flower grows increasingly depressed, and this depression gives way to physical weakness.

Lily grows impatient with Snow Flower’s complaints about her life, and her apparent unwillingness to do anything to change her circumstances. She lectures Snow Flower on how she should make peace with her role as a wife and mother, how she should make more effort to please her mother-in-law and husband. She repeats well-known platitudes, rather than expressing true friendship and love to her friend. When she receives word that Snow Flower has found a group of sworn sisters who are willing to hear her complaints, Lily feels betrayed and cuts off all contact with Snow Flower. Furthermore, Lily destroys her friend’s reputation by making all of Snow Flower’s secrets known to the public, in order to make herself look like the victim in the breakup of their friendship.

The two are reunited eight years later, at Snow Flower’s deathbed, when her daughter pleads with Lily to reconcile with her. In those final weeks, Lily remembers her love for her lautong, and they spend their last days together reminiscing, as Lily stays with Snow Flower night and day. After Snow Flower’s death, the three sworn sisters who befriended her explain to Lily how she misunderstood Snow Flower’s message. Filled with a desire to make amends, Lily spends the rest of her life taking care of Snow Flower’s remaining children. She learns that even women in miserable circumstances have significant stories to tell. In her later years, she serves those women by recording their life stories in writing, as they are unable to do so themselves.

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