The Proximity Effect: Agency and Isolation in Eileen Chang's "Love in a Fallen City"

Keru Cai

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This paper offers a new way of understanding how Eileen Chang represents the experience of gender by means of material objects and details in her fiction. Chang deploys the logic of metonymy to direct narrative attention at concrete details which are spatially adjacent to her characters. With Georg Lukács's Theory of the Novel as a theoretical touchstone, I show that Chang does this in order to demonstrate that only by means of oblique descriptions can the author or the characters themselves communicate the subtleties of subjective experience, in particular the modern predicaments of alienated isolation and limited agency. I call this descriptive technique the proximity effect, for Chang uses that which is physically proximate to illustrate interiority, and these objects become like proxies for the characters themselves. In Chang's fiction, when a woman is unable to wrestle with world-historical forces, she attempts to regain some control by acting upon small, graspable objects in her immediate surroundings; and when subjective experience cannot be directly conveyed from one mind to another, the individual relies upon proximate objects to mediate interpersonal connection. This difficulty and obliqueness in communicating interiority apply both to her characters and to Chang herself as a Benjaminian storyteller figure.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)59-84
Number of pages26
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 1 2022

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Cultural Studies
  • Literature and Literary Theory


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