Theme of The Refugees
By Pearl S. Buck
We often take one or two key themes out of a story and establish an essential question. The Refugees is definitely about survival and bravery from the refugee point of view, but it is also about the courage of those not directly affected, the courage to step up and make a change.
Pearl S. Buck points out that life is very difficult for refugees and that they encounter many difficulties and barriers in life with bravery. This short story shows the importance of food and hardships in refugees life through various incidents. In the Story we see that the refugees worked for low wages in order to fulfil their needs, and their uncontrollable hunger made them eat the seeds that they kept for planting, and they did whatever they could. The author compares these refugees to dead people who looked so exhausted and faint. Due to the flood, the old man had lost his son and daughter in law. Owing to the flood, refugees’ lives became economically unstable. The refugee’s primary need was to fill their hunger. In this short story, the old man wasn’t aware of the next meal of the day, so he was saving it for future needs. He should have used a silver coin to relieve his hunger. His thinking of saving the silver coin reveals a futuristic vision, and he wants to satisfy the appetite of many for the coming days. Through this, he will rebuild a better future for the refugees.
The other important theme of the story is the importance of humanity. Buck underlines the significance of humanity in his work. Humanity plays a critical role in the lives of all. Buck expresses the word “humanity” through the character, the vendor. The vendor of noodles offered the old man a cup of noodles for the copper coin. Everyone should have the quality that gives strength to the relationship. The old man takes the small bowl of noodles and draws it near his grandson, his only living family member, along with him. After the boy finishes the noodles, the old man licks the few bits that are stuck to the side of the bowl to feed himself.
Outline of the Story
“The Refugees” presents the pathetic tale of those peasants who had to abandon their land due to sudden and unexpected floods. These people even when their land was swamped by floods, tried to defy the natural calamity and stuck to their lands till they exhausted all their provisions and reached the point of starvation. When they were eventually forced to leave their homes, they moved in large number towards the capital city. This city would witness large crowds of these refugees every morning. They were generally greeted with sneers and contempt by the residents of the city who were filled with nervous fears on seeing such a large influx of utterly pauperized people. The refugees would either beg or pull rickshaws or try their hands in other existing unskilled forms of work. The old man in the story is a symbol of courage with which the uprooted people fought the adverse circumstances in which they were placed. His self-respect and his determination to get back to a stage similar to his prosperous past are remarkable and praiseworthy. The old man does not surrender before problems so that he can avoid being a burden on those who treated him as a helpless and pitiable creature. Such men of strong character take pride in themselves and need no pity and sympathy from others. The moral strength and stamina he displays makes us feel proud of humanity and vindicates our faith in man’s capacity to preserve his dignity even in very hard conditions.
Summary of The refugees
The refugees were walking in a city where they were looked upon as an unwelcome crowd who would create many problems for the original residents. This city which was the capital of their country, was just a few hundred miles away from their own lands, but they felt like outsiders here. They had to leave their lands because of sudden and unexpected floods caused by a big breach in the dikes. While walking on the concrete roads these refugees did not look at anything although many things were quite new to them. They were too hungry and weak to take any active interest in new sights and sounds. They were provided shelter in large camps outside the new capital’s city wall.
The refugees would pour in large numbers and usually produced bitterness in city dwellers who would feel disgusted at their sight. Their bitterness was caused by their fear that the presence of these hungry crowds will create many problems for them. This made them hostile and they would often shout rudely at many of the beggars. It also made people merciless in paying smalls fares to rickshaw-pullers. Some of the refugees would pull rickshaw at a much cheaper price and caused competition; some would try their luck in every possible unskilled profession, while others would bend to begging. All this made the city dwellers look upon them as a big nuisance and tended to close their hearts to their suffering.
These refugees had to face penury because of a natural calamity. They were otherwise very proud and self-respecting people and felt ashamed of themselves when they were forced by their helpless condition to take resort to begging. They were tall and strong, wearing clothes made up of dark blue cotton stuff. Their clothes were cut in an old-fashioned way and had long sleeves. Their coats were also long and full. The smocked apron of men had strange, complicated and yet beautiful designs while women had bands on their heads wrapped like kerchief. Every man carried clean and well made clothes and some bedding in two baskets which hung from a pole across his shoulders. There were cooking utensils on each basket but there was no sign of food being cooked in them. A close look at their faces showed that they were homeless, sad and had lost hope of surviving for long, but they bore their difficult situation with patience and courage.
One of the refugees, the last one in the long procession, was an old man who had a wrinkled face and a weak body. Like other refugees, he also carried a load of two baskets – one had a quilt with a cauldron on it while the other had another quilt but no cooking utensil placed on it. He was tired and breathing heavily because the load was quite heavy for the old man. He stopped and after putting his load down, sat down to restore his strength. A passer-by stopped by, felt pity and offered him a bit of money so that the old man could eat noodles and save himself from being starved. But the old man had his dignity and self-respect and did not put his hand out to receive the alms. He told the passer-by that he was not a beggar and had fertile land at home. The passer-by, without paying much attention, dropped the money into the old man’s smocked apron and went away after making a sympathetic comment which also carried a tinge of dry humour.
A vendor was selling noodles close-by. He asked the old man whether he would like to buy a big or small bowl of noodles. The old man saw the two coins and said that one small bowl would be sufficient for him. The vendor felt surprised at this preference for a small bowl even when the old man was very hungry. The vendor prepared a small bowl and after handing it over to the old man waited to see who would eat it.
The old man rose with an effort and with the bowl went to the other basket. The vendor watched the old man pulling the quilt away and noticed a little boy with a sunken face. The old man, with great love and care, lifted up the little child’s head and made him swallow the food. It was his grandson. After covering the little soul affectionately, the old man licked the little bowl and finished even the last trace of food on it. This was his only meal. When the old man returned the bowl to the vendor and ordered nothing more, he reminded the old man that he still had money to buy another bowl to save himself from hunger. The old man, however, declined to buy any more because he wanted to keep the rest of the seed purchase money. He decided to return to his native land, sow seeds and grow crops. He gave more priority to his obligation to grow new crops on his land than to remove his hunger by buying a bowl of noodles for himself with the silver coin he had with him. He added that he would not take care of his own life in an effort to make his grandson’s life easier and healthier. He picked up his load again and began to walk on his old, shaky legs again. The attitude of the old man reveals the integrity and optimism that can keep the peasantry moving even in the most difficult and insufferably painful situation.
The character sketch of The old man in The Refugees
The old was very weak such that his steps were infirm. But he was also hard working and self-respecting person. He had his dignity and never sought help from others. He did neither beg nor extend his hand to receive alms offered to him by the generous passer-by. Looking at him a passerby took pity on him and offers him one silver coin and a copper penny. But the old man had his dignity and self-respect and did not put his hand out to receive the alms. The old man replied “I did not beg of you, we have good land and we have never been starving like this before”. The passer-by, without paying much attention, dropped the money into the old man’s smocked apron and went away after making a sympathetic comment which also carried a tinge of dry humour.This incident shows how self-respecting and morally strong the old man really was.
And their life was filled with conflicts because of flood. Even the seeds he saved for planting, people ate because of hunger. The old man said “Sir we have no seed left even, we have eaten our seed. I told them we cannot eat the seed. But they were young and hungry they ate it.”
The vendor was selling noodles close-by. He asked the old man if he’d like to buy a big or tiny bowl of noodles. The old man saw the two coins and said that one small bowl would be enough for him. The vendor was shocked by this desire for a small bowl even though the old man was really hungry. The vendor prepared a small bowl and, after handing it over to the old man, waited to see who was going to eat it.
The old man rose with an effort and with the bowl went to the other basket. The vendor watched the old man pulling the quilt away and noticed a little boy with a sunken face. The old man, with great love and care, lifted up the little child’s head and made him swallow the food. It was his grandson. After covering the little soul affectionately, the old man licked the little bowl and finished even the last trace of food on it. This was his only meal.
When the old man returned the bowl to the vendor and ordered nothing more, he reminded the old man that he still had money to buy another bowl to save himself from hunger. The old man, however, declined to buy any more because he wanted to keep the rest of the seed purchase money. He decided to return to his native land, sow seeds and grow crops. He gave more priority to his obligation to grow new crops on his land than to remove his hunger by buying a bowl of noodles for himself with the silver coin he had with him. He added that he would not take care of his own life in an effort to make his grandson’s life easier and healthier. He picked up his load again and began to walk on his old, shaky legs again. The attitude of the old man reveals the integrity and optimism that can keep the peasantry moving even in the most difficult and insufferably painful situation.
Question.1. ‘… suddenly and by some unaccountable force…’ What could have forced the refugees to leave their land?
Answer. The refugees were land owning farmers at a place a few hundred miles away from the new capital. They had to leave their land unexpectedly because the river rose and broke its dikes. This resulted in a sudden and unexpected calamity of floods on their lands and they were forced to leave their land at once.
Question 2. Were the refugees really alien to the new capital?
Answer. No, literally they were no foreigners because they were citizens of the country of which the city was the new capital; but as refugees, they were aliens to the new capital. They were being looked down upon and sneered at by the city dwellers. This made them feel as if they were aliens having nothing in common with the city-dwellers. Their desperate condition also made them feel like those who had no interest in the world around them just before their death.
Question 3. Name any two things in the new capital which the refugees had never seen before.
Answer. The refugees were country side people and had never witnessed the new capital. There were numerous things which had they never seen before. They were accustomed only to country roads and fields, but presently they were walking on the concrete sidewalk. Also there were automobiles which they observed for the first time in their lives.
Question 4. Why did the refugees look at nothing and pass as in a dream?
Answer. The refugees belonged to a place which was few hundred miles away from the new capital. They were desperate as they had to abandon their land and homes due to the unexpected floods that ruined them completely. They were strangers and homeless; they were without money and jobs. Their sad and uncertain life made them lost in dreams and hence they paid no heed to anything.
Question 5. ‘Neither did any look at them.’ Why?
Answer. The refugees came in the form of large crowds in the new capital after leaving their homes. But their coming to the city in such large numbers was not liked by the city-dwellers. They were treated as aliens and looked down upon by most of the on-lookers. The people in the city would sneer at them and see in them a threat to their own comforts and needs. They disliked their presence and this attitude of distrust and dislike made them indifferent to their suffering and even killed their natural curiosity in them. They did not show any interest or fellow-feeling and did not even care to look at them.
Question 6. What was the reaction of city dwellers who noticed the refugees?
Answer. The city dwellers treated these refugees as outsiders and disliked their presence. Some of the refugees turned to begging while others tried to get any kind of unskilled work available in the city to earn enough for bare survival. Most of them started pulling rickshaw. The city dwellers, as a result, thought them to be a threat to their livings and life. They developed an attitude of hostility and contempt because of their fear of the adverse effect on their own lives. The beggars were shouted away and the others distrusted and feared.
Question 7. Why did the regular rickshaw-pullers curse the refugees?
Answer. Some of the refugees started begging while others began doing unskilled jobs. Most of them started pulling rickshaws at lower fares than those prevailing before their arrival. This created a situation of cut-throat competition and the already existing rickshaw-pullers had to lower down their charges even if it failed to provide them enough to make their two ends meet. That is why the regular rickshaw pullers cursed the refugees.
Question 8. What showed that the refugees were all from one region?
Answer. The refugees were wearing the same kind of clothes. Their clothes were made of the same dark blue cotton. Their clothes were also made in the same old fashioned way with their shirts having long sleeves and their coats being long and full. They all wore complex and beautifully designed aprons with the same type of folds and knots. They were tall and strong although the women’s feet were bound. They carried two baskets with similar belongings. These were clear indications that they were from the same place.
Question 9. What load did the old man carry in the two baskets on his sling?
Answer. The old man with the wrinkled face carried, like all other refugees, two baskets slung on his shoulders. In one basket there was a quilt with a big cooking utensil placed on it. But unlike most other refugees, the old man had only a quilt in the other basket with no cooking utensil on it. We come to know later on that his little grandson was lying safely in this second basket under the quilt.
Question 10. What money did a man passing by give to the old refugee?
Answer. When the old man sat down to take rest for a while, a kind-hearted man who was passing by stopped by and pitied his hard condition. He offered the tired soul the money he had earned that day. He searched his pocket and brought out a silver coin from there. He hesitated for a while and then added a copper penny to it. He dropped this money in the man’s apron since he did not extend his hand to take it from him. The passer-by then moved on.
Question 11. Why did the old man order only one small bowl of noodles?
Answer. The old man was given a silver coin and a copper penny by a kind-hearted passer-by who wanted to see him eat noodles. But he old man ordered one small bowl of noodles only in order to save the rest of the money. He wanted to buy seeds, sow them in his fields and get crops from them when he returned home. He was a man of strong character who wanted to secure some earning for his grandson. Even though he was very hungry, he did not want to spend silver coin on his own food.
Question 12. What was the old man’s reply when the vendor reminded him: ‘But you have the silver bit’?
Answer. The old man ordered one small bowl of noodles only so that he could save money. When the vendor reminded him that he had a silver coin with which he could order a large bowl of noodles for himself, the old man told him that he would buy seeds with the saved money, sow them in his fields and get crops. The old man wished to regain his earlier prosperous condition in this way.
Question 13. Which line suggests that even the vendor was moved to pity at the sight of the old man?
Answer. The vendor who was selling noodles felt pity and sympathy for the ragged old man who was quite hungry but who even in this desperate condition showed moral courage not to spend the silver coin given to him by a sympathetic passer-by. He was touched by the miserable condition of the old man and said that if he himself was not so poor he would have given a bowl of noodles to him without charging anything for it. He expressed his helplessness and sorrow over the situation by saying that he could not serve noodles to a person who had a silver coin with him.
Question.14 The passer-by’s generosity in giving money to the old man has been termed as ‘bitter heartiness.’ Why?
Answer. Although the passer by was a kind and generous fellow yet there was bitterness in his tone and manner. He, along with other local people, felt a general distrust and fear of the refugees which despite his pity for the old man, he could not fully overcome. Without being asked or begged for he dropped the money into the old man’s smocked apron in this mixed state of mind which has been described by the author as ‘bitter heartiness’ and hurriedly went his way.
Question.15. ‘When he saw the silver, he would not put out his hand.’ What trait of the old man’s personality is reflected by this?
Answer. The old man in “The Refugees” was a self-respecting person. He had his dignity and never sought help from others. He did neither beg nor extend his hand to receive alms offered to him by the generous passer-by. This incident shows how self-respecting and morally strong the old man really was.
Question.1. Is ‘The Refugees’ a didactic story? What message does it convey?
Answer. “The Refugees”, written by Pearl S. Buck is a didactic story with a clear message attached to it. Through the courage and determination with which most of the refugees conduct themselves even under severely trying conditions, the author stresses the need for protecting our self-respect and dignity at all costs. This is very clearly brought out in the story through the example of the old man who is trying his utmost to save his grandson without compromising his self-respect in any way. This old man refused to bow before the adverse circumstances. He had no food and no money yet he neither begged nor extend his hand to receive money from a passer-by who wanted to give it to him out of pity for him. He decided to save the silver coin placed by the passer-by in his apron in order to buy seeds and grow crops in his fields instead of spending it on a bowl of noodles for himself.
The old man is a symbol of struggling humanity. He faces life’s challenges boldly without losing dignity and self-respect. The story underlines the beauty of his determination and optimism which impel him to plan for a better future even when he is placed in a very desperate situation. “The Refugees” teaches us not to give up hope and courageously face adverse circumstances and to look forward to a better future for oneself.
Question.2. Could one call the old refugee man a beggar? Comment.
Answer. No, we cannot call the old man a beggar because he exhibited no signs of a behaviour which would justifiably put him in this category. He was, no doubt, without food and money and had no shelter yet he did not lose his self-respect. He affirmed his dignity by not extending his hand forward for the money offered to him by a passer-by out of a sense of pity for him. He was frail and had to abandon his home and land because of the sudden floods that devastated the village completely. And even in this difficult situation, he showed determination and courage by doing all he could to save his little grandson’s life.
In the new capital city where he had reached along with other people of his village, a passer-by took pity on his condition and dropped money in his apron. The old man told him that he was not a beggar. He added that he had good lands but got ruined because of the unexpected floods. He was not led by the force of hunger and desperation to extend his hand for the alms offered to him by the passer-by. These gestures of the old man are ample indications that he was not a beggar but a proud and self-respecting person who tried to preserve his dignity even in very adverse circumstances.
Question.3. ‘These were men and women of which any nation might have been proud,’ says the narrator about the refugees. Why?
Answer. “The Refugees” by Pearl S. Buck is a pathetic tale of those unfortunate people who became victims of a natural calamity of an unexpected flood. They were farmers who had to abandon their village when the river broke its dikes. They tried to stick to their place till the very last moment. They were tall and strong and stayed by their land until starvation forced them to look for their livelihood elsewhere. They were not ordinary people and had never witnessed degrading poverty in their lives. Even in very adverse circumstances they tried to find work for themselves and most of them did not take resort to begging to save themselves from starvation. Any nation could feel proud of citizens who displayed so much of moral stamina and determination. The old man in the story is a symbol of struggling humanity. Although adverse conditions brought these people to penury and compelled them to do humble jobs in order to earn their living, they did not want to be a burden on others. The old man in the story was a dignified person who had a desire to regain his prosperous past. That is why the writer has said that any nation might have been proud of these people.
Question.4. What are the most important concerns of the old starved man and how does he show them in his behaviour?
Answer. The most important concerns of the old wizened man are to keep his dignity, look after his little grandson and to regain the prosperity that he had lost. He was uncertain of his life in the new capital. Being old and tired, he rested for a while to relax and regain his strength. In the mean time a passer-by felt pity on his miserable condition and offered him some money. The old man did not put out his hand to receive the alms to avoid being called a beggar.
He did order one small bowl of noodles to feed his starving grandson who was the only other survivor in his family. The infant was kept warm and safe in the quilt and fed with utmost love and care. He exhibited little concern for his own self and cared more for his grandson and his lands. He decided to keep the rest of the money to buy seeds with which he could grow crops in his field and bring back his lost prosperity. He did not surrender before life’s difficulties and decided to face the challenges which came up before him boldly. The old man in “The Refugees” is a person with moral stamina and courage. Any nation will feel proud of having citizens like him.
Question.5. Describe the physical and mental condition of the refugees in the new capital.
Answer. The refugees, who were pouring in hordes in the new capital, were victims of a natural calamity. They had lands and homes, but due to unexpected floods, everything got ruined and they had to leave their native land to become refugees in the capital city where they were distrusted and feared by most people. They were wearing the same type of clothing made up of blue cotton stuff. They wore strange, complicated and beautifully designed aprons. They all were tall and strong although the women’s feet were kept bound.
All the refugees were tired and exhausted. The state of prolonged starvation had created a tense situation which prevented them from taking active interest in the new objects they saw in the city. They tried to do diverse jobs to make their two ends meet. Some of them started to beg, some started pulling rickshaw while others tried their hands at any unskilled jobs they could find. They were poor and lived in great camps outside the city wall. They led a miserable life but showed great determination and courage even in these adverse conditions.