Carefully choose words to make profound points
Late last year, I re-read James Clavell’s Tai-Pan. In it, he tells a fictionalized story around the founding of Hong Kong by the British, and a cohort of international trading houses, in the mid-1800s. A “Tai-Pan” – a sort of CEO – led each trading house, but one “Tai-Pan” ruled them all through enormous influence, prestige, trading power and force of personality. Dirk Struan, founder and Tai-Pan of The Noble House became “The” Tai-Pan over all the Tai-Pans of the lesser trading houses.
In this article, I will examine the last sentence in the book. I will argue that Clavell writes it carefully and purposefully. In doing so, Clavell makes some potent arguments about the men who say the last line, and about “The” Tai-Pan. In one line, Clavell forcefully summarizes the entire thrust of the novel.
At the end of the book, a colossal typhoon kills Dirk Struan and his Chinese mistress, May-may. Culum Struan, Dirk’s eldest son, learns of his father’s death and walks around the devastated colony in a stupor, figuring out what will happen in the wake of his father’s death. He runs into Aristotle Quance, a painter who provides some comic relief throughout the books and who also possessed enormous respect for Dirk Struan. Upon seeing Culum, Aristotle calls him “Tai-Pan,” meaning “Tai-Pan of the Noble House,” but also “The Tai-Pan,” since Culum’s father had died. That word reverberates through Culum’s mind over the next few pages.
To set the scene, at the very end of the book, Culum faces three people: Orlov, the captain of The Noble House’s ships; Vargas, the chief clerk of The Noble House; and Gordon Chen, Dirk Struan’s son with May-may. Culum, pulling out of his quiescence, gives them each an order. Then the book ends with this line: “Then they said, “Yes, Tai-Pan,” and obeyed.”1
Curiously, after reading the book for the first time, I kept misremembering the line. In my memory, the line went, “Then they said, “Yes, Tai-Pan,” and he was obeyed.” I thought Clavell had written that line in the passive voice – and for a reason. He wanted to convey that these three people were passive in life, when compared to The Tai-Pan.
However, when I re-read the book and the actual last sentence, I reflected further. And in my view, Clavell constructed that sentence deliberately, to make more profound points about The Tai-Pan and the people around him.
First, the men said “Yes, Tai-Pan” in unison. In doing so, the three men become an amalgamation – they become one in their relation to The Tai-Pan. They lose their individuality. In a potent sense, The Tai-Pan becomes the only distinct person. The others only exist in reaction to The Tai-Pan, and only together. Clavell here strongly conveys the power of The Tai-Pan in Hong Kong.
Second, why would Clavell finish the sentence in the active voice? Shouldn’t he convey the point above – that they led complaint lives – by choosing the passive voice? My further reading suggests two reasons. By using the active voice, the men – “they” – become the subject of that clause. Here, Clavell strongly implies that the men are subjects in life. They do not act on their own volition; they only act in obedience to an external force – The Tai-Pan. Then, in using the active voice, Clavell insinuates something even further about the men. He intimates that the men actually take an active role in their obedience. They have become internally, wilfully complicit in their obedience. Such is the force of The Tai-Pan that he compels internal alterations to the characters of the people around him.
Through this one, final sentence, Clavell neatly recapitulates his argument of the entire book: The Tai-Pan possessed gigantic power, rendering others around him insignificant and almost meaningless – except as they related to The Tai-Pan. (As an aside, I also think Clavell intentionally killed Dirk Struan in the typhoon – a historically cataclysmic one. Clavell seems to say no person could destroy The Tai-Pan – only a force of nature could.)
At best my argument involves speculation. Clavell, to the best of my research, never articulated his reasoning for specific word choices in his novels. He died in 1994, before the explosion of the internet. But Clavell enjoyed incredible success in his lifetime, selling more than 20 million copies of his books by the time of his passing. He wrote profoundly memorable characters and strong plotlines. I believe he also wrote superlatively at the level of the individual sentence and the individual word. For writers today, he reminds us of the vigor of a single word, a tense choice, and one sentence.
Clavell, James. Tai-Pan. Kindle Edition, p. 601.
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