Fighting for the Self: Casablanca Meets “Love in the Marketplace”

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At its core, “Love in the Marketplace” by Yiyun Li claims that true love cannot exist when essential promises are broken by a partner. Additionally, when these essential promises are compromised, they, in turn, call us to evaluate how essential we consider the promises we make to ourselves. These questions are reflected in Casablanca, a movie that Sansan, the protagonist of the short story, believes to represent authentic love.

Sansan believes in fulfilling promises, especially those we make to our partners, wholeheartedly. Readers learn within the first few pages that Sansan and her childhood best friend, Tu, were engaged to marry until Sansan encouraged him to pretend to marry one of her best friends from college, Min, in order to secure Min’s safety in America. The pair move to the states together and Sansan soon learns in a letter that the couple decided to be together. Sansan, of course, first feels betrayed, but then realizes that their relationship would have never succeeded if Tu cannot keep a promise. She is quick to forgive Min and Tu, abiding by her core belief, when she remarks “what remains meaningful is Tu and Min’s marriage vows to each other” (101). Sansan further convinces herself that Min and Tu are meant for each other as she repeatedly envisions them having sex in vivid detail: renewing their promise to one another again and again (100). While she is hurt by Tu’s actions, she finds it hard to hold Tu’s decision against him because he is still keeping his word to another woman: the marker of true love. She begins to imagine herself as a guardian angel that “blesses and curses them with her forgiveness” (101). Slowly, the sting dulls as Sansan realizes that Tu’s decision “no longer matters” because she won’t allow herself to love a man who, by her own definition, does not love her. Even when Tu and Min divorce ten years later and Tu comes sulking back to Sansan, she cannot see him as anything other than a man who cannot keep his word. A promise is a sort of faith, a brand of hope that begets trust, and Sansan would rather remain unmarried than be with someone who does not recognize this principle. She says this emphatically to her mother, who desperately wishes that she would marry Tu: “A promise is a promise, a vow remains a vow…” (104). In repeating “promise” and “vow,” Sansan is emphasizing how powerful, sacred, and non-negotiable these words are to her.

This belief is reflected in Casablanca, a movie that takes place in France during World War II about a hardened saloon owner named Rick who falls in love with a woman named Ilsa during a time when she believed her husband, Victor, had died in the war. When Ilsa discovers he is, in fact, alive, she abandons Rick (sending him a letter much like the one Tu and Min sent to Sansan notifying her of their new relationship) and returns to Victor. When they meet again many years later, Ilsa tells Rick that she has made a terrible mistake and pleads with him to take her back, but Rick refuses, saying she’s meant to be with Victor. Casablanca is a place where dreams feel tangible despite the war-torn and corrupt environment; immigrants reside there temporarily while they seek documents to fly to America and live out the promise of the American Dream. It’s a place where people place immense value, often as valuable as their lives, on the promises they make to one another: immigrants trust the underground system to secure documents for their travels, the police rely on informants to tell them who they should arrest, and the French unite to protect each other against German invaders. This heavy emphasis on trust leads Rick to feel like he has to repeat “I stick my neck out for nobody” (despite doing otherwise) repeatedly throughout the film. Sansan is mercilessly teased for screening this film countless times in her classroom, even earning the nickname “Casablanca”: an extremely fitting moniker given the place represents extreme hope and belief in one’s self when everyone and everything indicate that you’re delusional. Much like immigrants might stare war in the face and only see the picketed fences that wait for them if they are lucky enough to make it to America, Sansan believes that she will find her true love despite everyone telling her otherwise. Sansan says that Casablanca portrays “all she wants to teach students about life” (95), and the parallels between Rick and Sansan are clear. Rick can’t get over the fact that Ilsa betrayed his trust so blatantly, and genuinely believes that she would be better off keeping her promise to Victor, a man who knows that he was cheated on and loves Ilsa anyway (just as Sansan insists she can no longer love Tu). While living in Casablanca, Rick believes that he is a “master of his fate,” just as Sansan has empowered herself to be. The film is in black and white, and Sansan and Rick both believe that there can only be trust and love, or no trust and no love: a clear delineation between acceptable and unacceptable. Sansan chooses to follow her core beliefs and not compromise for anyone, which echoes Rick’s final words to Ilsa as she boards the plane: “I’m not fighting for anything more except myself.”

But Li is not blinded to the fact that, sometimes, the promises that we make to ourselves and hold closely can have serious consequences. At the end of the novel, Sansan meets a beggar who insists that passerby cut his body with a knife if they want to donate money. Sansan is fascinated, incredulous that she has finally met “someone who understands what a promise is” (110) — pure vulnerability. She takes the knife, studies his “smooth and tanned” body, and “slowly [opens] his flesh with love and tenderness” (110). It is not gruesome, but slow, caring, and matter-of-fact: something that must be done. This man will not take money unless the patron cuts him. In this way, the promise he is keeping to himself is directly and physically causing him pain. Sansan’s promise to herself to reject Tu will welcome judgment from her community, her mother’s disapproval, and loneliness. Sansan’s mother is the best testament of all in keeping a seemingly damaging promise. As a street vendor that sells hard-boiled eggs, she only uses the most expensive spices and tea leaves she can find. Even though this causes her to make less profit, she insists that if she’s telling people she sells the best eggs in the world, she must keep her promise (108). In Casablanca, Rick’s promise to shut people out from his life, especially those who have shattered his trust, sustains his reputation as an unfeeling and unapproachable character. 

“Love in the Marketplace” and Casablanca are stories about how sticking to one simple core value can inform and shape one’s identity. Before cutting into the man’s flesh, Sansan smiles and marvels at the “promise of life”: the assurance that blood will still pulse long after the cuts heal, long after the memory of Tu fades, and, emerging out of the boiling pot, is a once-savory life now infused with the sweet spice of self-confidence and self-assurance.