In 1991, two years after her tremendous success with The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan published The Kitchen God’s Wife. Like many writers whose first books have received spectacular and widespread attention, Tan admits that she was more than a little apprehensive about the critical and popular reception that her second published novel would receive, knowing that reviewers and readers would inevitably be unable to resist comparing the second book with the first. In fact, she points out in ‘‘Angst and the Second Novel,’’ she agonized so much about her second novel that she damaged her health and suffered from debilitating physical discomfort:
I developed literal symptoms of the imagined weight of my task . . . a pain in my neck, which later radiated to my jaw, resulting in constant gnashing, then two cracked teeth and, finally a huge dental bill. The pain then migrated down my back. (5)
Amy Tan did ultimately complete a novel for publication, but only after she had ‘‘deleted hundreds of pages from [her] computer’s memory’’ (7). In fact, she estimates that ‘‘the outtakes must now number close to a thousand pages’’ (6).
Interestingly, The Kitchen God’s Wife was not actually Amy Tan’s second novel; it was, instead, only one of Tan’s numerous attempts to produce another novel after The Joy Luck Club was published. Tan describes the plots of several pieces of fiction that she never completed:
88 pages . . . about the daughter of a scholar, who accidentally kills a magistrate. . . . 56 pages . . . about a Chinese girl orphaned during the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. . . . 95 pages about a young girl . . . in northeast China during the 1930s with her missionary parents. . . . 30 pages about a woman disguised as a man who becomes a sidewalk scribe to the illiterate workers of Chinatown. (‘‘Angst’’ 6)
In all, Amy Tan started—and abandoned—seven potential novels before she completed the eighth ‘‘lucky’’ attempt, which became her highly acclaimed second published novel.
Like Tan’s first novel, The Kitchen God’s Wife addresses the relationship— and the conflicts—between a Chinese immigrant mother (Winnie) and her American-born daughter (Pearl). But the true focus of the novel is less on the mother-daughter dyad and more predominantly on the story of a woman who is born into wealth and position in pre-communist China, endures a degrading arranged marriage and the early deaths of three children, lives through World War II, emigrates to America, and successfully creates a relatively comfortable and stable life for herself in a new country and an alien culture.
The novel opens with Pearl Louie Brandt, a second-generation Chinese American who seems to have all but repudiated her Chinese heritage while embracing her American identity. Dreading her mother’s reaction, Pearl has concealed for seven years the fact that she is afflicted with multiple sclerosis. Her reticence is not born solely out of a desire to protect her mother from an unpleasant shock, but also from the fact that Pearl has deliberately excluded her mother from many arenas of her life. In fact, Pearl rarely visits her mother, whose bossy criticisms and pervasive superstitions have created an emotional and cultural gulf between the two women. When family loyalties and responsibilities obligate Pearl to return to her childhood home to attend a cousin’s engagement party and the funeral of an elderly aunt, she is forced by the circumstances and her proximity to her mother, as well as by her Auntie Helen’s persistent and unsubtle prodding, to confront the reasons for her uncomfortable relationship with her mother. Winnie, in her turn, takes advantage of Pearl’s homecoming to reveal to her daughter her own terrible secrets.
Winnie Louie’s narrative—the life story that she has so carefully withheld from her entire family for decades—is the heart and sinew of The Kitchen God’s Wife. The tale is riveting, both for the astonishing events of Winnie’s life and for the quietly understated way in which she reveals, episode by painful episode, the saga of her psychological journey from being Weili, the young hopeful woman who had dreams of fulfilling her role as a good wife, to becoming Winnie, the brave and indomitable woman who flees China and a deranged ex-husband a scant five days before the communist takeover closed the Chinese border. Along that epic journey from one self to another, Winnie experiences abuse inflicted by a sadistic husband, grief over the deaths of her babies, the brutality of the Japanese war with China, hunger, poverty, homelessness, and the horrors of a countryside ravaged by bombs and fighting. When family events bring Winnie’s daughter, Pearl, home to Chinatown, Winnie finally is presented with the opportunity to tell the story that she has protected for decades, and as Pearl listens to and truly hears her mother’s stories, she arrives at an understanding of why and how Winnie has become the woman she is. Slowly and carefully, mother and daughter begin to build a friendship, a relationship forged in truth and open communication. At the end of the novel, when all secrets have been revealed, Winnie presents Pearl with a statue of The Kitchen God’s Wife, a woman who has no official place in the traditional Chinese pantheon of gods and goddesses, but who has nonetheless quietly, patiently endured so much abuse from her husband and weathered her trials with such grace and dignity that Winnie’s deification of her is as perfectly appropriate as is Winnie’s gift of The Kitchen God’s Wife to Pearl.
The Kitchen God’s Wife involves two plots: a frame story set in the United States and involving primarily Pearl and her mother Winnie, and a central, focal narrative about Winnie’s life as Jiang Weili in China before World War II, during the war, and immediately before her emigration to the United States to become Winnie Louie.
The opening sentence of The Kitchen God’s Wife immediately places the reader in the middle of what appears to be an ongoing debate, as Pearl announces that each time she and her mother have a conversation, Winnie begins ‘‘as if we were already in the middle of an argument’’ (11). Although there is no clearly identifiable conflict between mother and daughter, their relationship is strained, uneasy, characterized by a rift that slowly is widening in a process that neither woman seems able to halt. The novel’s first two chapters, which are narrated by Pearl to an unidentified general audience, introduce the framing plot within which the major narrative is developed. In those early chapters, Pearl details her irritation with her mother’s actions, her frustration with herself for allowing her mother to affect her so negatively, and finally the sudden release of her long-suppressed grief for her father who died a quarter of a century earlier. Pearl also introduces—in addition to herself and her mother—Helen Kwong whose own story intersects with Winnie’s story, and whose decision to reveal long-hidden truths precipitates both Winnie’s epic confession and Pearl’s revelations.
Winnie narrates the next two chapters to herself, as she slowly tries to make sense of sudden new developments in her eventful life. Helen has shared with her a recent letter from a mutual friend in China, announcing that Winnie’s first husband, Wen Fu, has just died. To Helen, the news means one thing—she and Winnie are now free to stop living their shared lie; they can tell the true story of the early years of their friendship. To Winnie, the letter is a jolting and extremely unwelcome reminder of a past that she has kept buried for forty years or more; and Helen’s reaction forces Winnie to make a decision: Pearl must hear the story from her mother and not from Helen. Having made up her mind to tell her daughter about the China years, Winnie telephones Pearl and asks her to come for a visit immediately.
Save for one chapter, Winnie shapes and dominates the rest of the novel with her voice as she recounts to Pearl, episode by episode, celebration after celebration, heartbreak following heartbreak, the story of Jiang Weili. Winnie’s stories are punctuated by brief reminiscences about Pearl’s difficult adolescence, by remarks about Helen, by introspective philosophizing, by rhetorical questions. Again and again, Winnie interrupts her storytelling with homely comments—about the need to go into the kitchen to make more tea, about how she no longer likes to eat celery, about a burned out light bulb—and each remark contributes to the sense that Winnie is sharing these stories with her daughter as they sit companionably sipping tea or move from room to room in Winnie’s home. The juxtaposition of a domestic American scene with the horrific events in the China stories serves to emphasize Winnie’s resilience and to high light the distance and magnitude of her physical, psychological, and emotional journeys.
Pearl speaks only one more time, just before the end of the novel, and right after Winnie’s calm revelation that Wen Fu is Pearl’s father. For Pearl, the news is an unpleasant surprise, but she quickly overcomes her initial shock with the realization of what it must have cost Winnie to relive through storytelling a traumatic past that has lain buried in Winnie’s memory since before Pearl’s birth. Admiration for Winnie invests Pearl with the courage to tell her mother about her own illness. Pearl’s confession immediately gives Winnie something on which to focus in the present. Having divested herself of the baggage of a terrible past, Winnie is now ready to put all of her maternal energies into discovering a way to alleviate her daughter’s distress.
In an epilogue, Winnie and Helen go to a Chinatown shop that specializes in statues of the principal Chinese deities. As her first significant act in her campaign to help Pearl in the fight against the debilitating effects of multiple sclerosis, Winnie is searching for the perfect goddess to install on the traditional altar that Great Auntie Du has left to Pearl. In the final scene between mother and daughter, Winnie proudly presents a new goddess—the Kitchen God’s Wife renamed Lady Sorrowfree, canonized by Winnie to become the divine protector of all women who must endure pain and loneliness.
POINT OF VIEW AND STRUCTURE
Amy Tan allows the main characters in The Kitchen God’s Wife to speak in their own voices, to recount the significant events of their lives as they each remember them, and to structure their life stories according to the requirements of their personal situations and their reasons for narrating the stories. Each woman constructs her own life script as she has understood it, laying bare to scrutiny and criticism the choices she has made and describing without flinching the consequences of those choices. Thus, the novel is fictional autobiography, a woman’s narrative of her life and experiences. Significantly, Amy Tan has said on a number of occasions that The Kitchen God’s Wife is her mother’s story, and indeed, the outlines of the novel and many of the specific details in the text are congruent with the story of Daisy Tan’s life.
Although Pearl speaks first, the major voice in the novel is that of Winnie Louie, a strong and opinionated woman who greatly resembles the mothers of The Joy Luck Club. Like those women, Winnie has lived through the last years of feudal China as well as through the devastation of World War II, and like them she has come to the United States to begin again and to build a new, comfortable life for herself. For decades, her emotional and psychological strength enables her to suppress the story of her past and maintain silence about her terrible fears, but encroaching age and infirmity have combined to create in her the urgent need to tell her story to her only daughter.
Winnie has had a good life with Jimmy Louie in America; she has found a measure of peace and well-being in her adopted country, and she has raised a daughter who is a successful professional. But Winnie’s interior life continues to be disfigured by the secret that she has guarded for over thirty years, and she is growing increasingly conscious that she has little time left in which to set the record straight. For Winnie, the act of storytelling affords a strategy for mediating her past. Breaking her silence, she pieces together into a personal epic the narrative fragments of her hidden past by speaking aloud the milestones of that long-ago existence, and by describing the events that marked her painful passage from toddler to young girl and adolescent to adult woman. Winnie’s voice is that of the survivor, but it also is the voice of a mother who is compelled to share the story of her life with her daughter to give that daughter the strength she needs to confront the problems that threaten to overwhelm her existence.
Ample evidence exists to show that Pearl is the audience for whom and to whom Winnie tells her stories, hoping that somehow Pearl will hear, will understand, and will finally absolve her mother of the emotional crime of concealing the truth. Winnie has concealed a great deal. As a preamble to her life story, she apologizes for not having shared with Pearl the story of her own mother—Pearl’s grandmother—and how she abandoned six-year-old Weili. Admitting at last her reluctance to believe that her mother could and did leave her, Winnie launches into her personal history, forcing herself to begin with her memories of the beautiful mother who disappeared from her life so early. Winnie’s asides indicate that she is at least subliminally aware that Pearl finds her mother embarrassing at times, incomprehensible at others. Immediately after admitting that she was slow to realize that war had come to China, she speculates that Pearl more than likely thinks that her mother must be slow-witted. But Winnie perseveres with her mission. Later, when she confesses that she had an abortion after every pregnancy resulting from rape by her husband, Winnie pleads with Pearl to understand that she did not want to lose those babies, but she could not bear the children of a brute who was simply using her body to satisfy his insatiable sexual urges. Instinctively, Winnie knew that with Wen Fu as a father, a baby’s life would be impossible and painful. Finally, when she re-lives her last dreadful day in China by telling the story of how her former husband raped her for the penultimate time, Winnie concludes her narrative simply by saying that she has never before told anyone—not even her beloved Jimmy—about that final dreadful violation that so nearly destroyed her soul and her will to live. And at that point, she drops her bombshell: nine months after the rape, she gave birth to Pearl in America.
In the second chapter of the novel, Pearl describes how Winnie tells Tessa and Cleo, Pearl’s daughters, the traditional Chinese folktale about how the rich farmer, Zhang, becomes the Kitchen God. According to Winnie’s tale, Zhang squanders all of his considerable wealth on a passionate affair with pretty Lady Li. He forces his wife to cook for his paramour, and when Lady Li chases his wife out of the house, he does not protest or intercede for his wronged wife. When Zhang’s money is gone, Lady Li abandons him. Reduced to beggary, Zhang is taken in by a charitable woman who is—he realizes in horror—his discarded wife! Ashamed of his earlier treatment of his wife, Zhang tries to avoid a confrontation by jumping into the fireplace. He burns to death and his ashes float up the chimney to heaven. In heaven, the Jade Emperor decides that Zhang, who has shown the capacity for shame, should be rewarded with deification. Zhang becomes the Kitchen God, responsible for judging the behavior of mortals each year. During each New Year celebration period, the Kitchen God reports to the Emperor the names of those who should be rewarded with good luck for their exemplary lives, as well as the names of those who deserve bad luck as punishment for having behaved irresponsibly or badly. This folktale provides Amy Tan with the basic narrative outline for her novel by introducing the trope of the abused wife. The Kitchen God’s Wife is a retelling of the Kitchen God’s story—from a contemporary feminist point of view. In the traditional version of the tale, the wife disappears from the narrative after her husband has been elevated to the divine pantheon; but in Tan’s version, Weili, the wife who endures her husband’s abuse and philandering, is rewarded for her forbearance with another chance to experience happiness, and she becomes Winnie, the survivor, the beloved wife of a good man, the mother of an accomplished daughter, and the grandmother of two American children.
In The Kitchen God’s Wife, Amy Tan re-creates the intricately textured world of the Chinese American community, a world that encompasses San Francisco’s alive and bustling Chinatown neighborhoods as well as the China of over half a century earlier, a homeland that exists only in the memories and stories of the older generation. Tan’s settings, richly embellished with cultural and geographical detail, provide the backdrops for the drama of Winnie’s life in China and her subsequent escape to America, as well as for the conflict between Pearl and Winnie, and for the cultural and generational differences that underlie the strained relations between mother and daughter.
Pearl inhabits a landscape that straddles, somewhat uncomfortably, the disparate geographies of Chinatown and mainstream California. The Chinatown of her childhood, also the Chinatown in which her mother still lives, is a place bustling with commerce and activity, with Chinese residents going about their daily business and tourists gawking at what they consider to be ‘‘exotic’’ sights. Among those sights are various Chinese trade associations and family societies, including a business that specialize in sending ancestor memorials to China; a fortune teller; the Sam Fook Trading Company, purveyor of good luck charms, statues of deities guaranteed to bring good luck, and a variety of objects and artifacts essential to traditional Buddhist funerals—spirit money, paper jewelry, and other similar merchandise; the First Chinese Baptist Church; and the Ding Ho Flower Shop, owned and operated by Winnie Louie and her friend Helen. Tourists are not the only Western intrusions into the determinedly Asian streets and neighborhoods. Some of Chinatown’s long-time residents are noticeably Westernized: first-generation immigrants furnish their flats with nubby tweed sofas and videotape their family funerals, while their second-generation American children affect colorful spiky punk hairdos and flaunt their nose rings.
Winnie’s narrative brings to life an exotic, alien China of the 1920s and the 1930s in all of its feudal glory and beauty, and then describes in horrifying detail the brutal tenor of existence in occupied China of World War II. The contrast between the two Chinas focuses attention on and underscores the changes that Weili must undergo as the enclosed worlds of her childhood and adolescence disintegrate around her, giving way to a frightening new China that she does not recognize—the China that she ultimately flees.
Shanghai, the city of Winnie’s early years, is a colorful and wealthy metropolis, reveling in its ties to European culture and its roots in feudal China, basking in its cosmopolitanism and tradition, and caught between the old and the new, between East and West. Home to some of China’s wealthiest businessmen as well as a sizeable European and American community, Shanghai of the 1920s and 1930s is somewhat schizophrenic in its attempts to identify itself to the world as both a traditional Chinese city and a modern Western metropolis. Winnie remembers that her mother took her to the most exclusive Western shops, purveyors of the best that the international community had to offer—from French leather shoes to that quintessentially American treat, the ice cream sundae. They go to the theatre to watch American movies featuring Charlie Chaplin and Fatty Arbuckle. Winnie describes afternoons of sitting in a theatre and watching policemen and cowboys, fire trucks and horses on the screen. Despite the pervasive European and American influences, Shanghai is indelibly Chinese. Winnie tells of watching a man ‘‘spitting a long stream of bean curd paste into a pot of boiling water’’(94), and later noticing that the bean curd paste had metamorphosed into thin noodles. Away from Shanghai, in other cities, in rural areas, and on the island to which Weili goes to live with her uncle’s family, China is still a richly textured ancient culture of festivals and celebrations, matchmakers and go-betweens, and feudal social hierarchies.
Marriage immediately before the outbreak of World War II catapults Weili into unfamiliar and frightening territory, and into a world of deprivation and chaos. And although she is no stranger to pain, her only real prior experience is with the hurtful indifference with which her uncle’s family has treated her, and with the ensuing loneliness that marred her adolescent years. Her new life introduces her to pain in all of its manifestations—physical, emotional, spiritual, and psychological.
For Weili, wartime China is a crowded jumble of temporary housing— mud huts with crumbling walls, planks of wood in a pig shed, an old hotel—and food shortages. Roads are choked with military traffic and with people who have been evacuated from demolished towns and cities. Epidemics of cholera and other contagious diseases ravage the population, and as the war continues, bombing raids become an almost daily occurrence. Chaos in the country is reflected not only in Wen Fu’s disordered mind but also in his hurtling descent into the world of the psychopath, and Weili almost immediately discovers that she has married a monster. As China disintegrates under the Japanese assault, Wen Fu slides into pure brutishness, and the end of the war does nothing to halt his plunge toward evil.
Weili’s salvation comes in the form of an American soldier of Chinese ancestry, a man she meets at an American dance that is held to celebrate a Chinese American victory. The venue for the dance, a paper-bedecked warehouse, is festooned with unfamiliar homemade paper decorations and boasts an object that is completely foreign to Weili, a Christmas tree decked with red ribbons, Christmas cards, strings of popcorn, and cotton balls that are supposed to represent snow. Dozens of young Chinese dance to American music and nibble on the popcorn; they feast on brownies and cheese, and they practice speaking English, trying to twist their tongues around strange sounding words and peculiar sound combinations. For Weili, the setting is almost bizarre, so radically different from anything she has known that she feels out of place in the midst of the alien revelry. But although she does not realize its significance until much later, this foreign dance is the one bright moment in her wartime life; before the evening is over, she meets Jimmy Louie who will be her future.
Caught not only between tradition and innovation but also between East and West, the China of Weili’s early life foreshadows the Chinatown in which Weili—renamed Winnie—raises her daughter, Pearl. As a young girl and later as a young married woman, Weili lives in a culture that has been infiltrated with European and American influences, all of which are eagerly adopted by young people despite the best efforts of their elders to maintain the traditional Chinese way of life. Although as a child, Weili does acquire Western tastes from her young mother, she is transformed into a traditional Chinese woman by the aunt who completes her rearing. Ironically, Pearl—like her second-generation peers in Chinatown—is thoroughly Americanized and very much determined to shed all vestige of a way of life that she and they associate with their old-fashioned and hopelessly unassimilated elders.
Tan’s settings, both past and present, parallel and mirror each other, serving as bridges between Winnie and Pearl, as well as between China and America. Thus, pre-communist Shanghai with its multiple identities and cultural confusions serves to foreshadow the dilemma in which Pearl finds herself, uncomfortably positioned between her Chinese heritage and the idea of an ancestral home—personified in the mother who so ably and unconsciously irritates her—and a thoroughly American way of life that includes a husband, two daughters, a university degree, and a career.
Amy Tan has created characters who embody in a number of ways the cultural dislocations that are so much a part of the novel’s settings. The collision of East and West is evident even in characters who appear only briefly: Winnie’s mother finds it difficult to decide whether to wear a Chinese dress or a Western dress; some years later, during a traditional New Year celebration, Winnie’s cousin Peanut sallies forth robed in an inappropriate but expensive Western coat, with her face heavily made up to resemble a movie star whom Peanut has admired in a foreign beauty magazine. Through their contact with American servicemen during the war, the younger Chinese delightedly acquire English names: a pilot named Jiaguo becomes ‘‘Jock’’ and dozens of giggling girls become ‘‘Donna, Dotty, Patty, Peggy, Sally, Susie, Maggie, Mattie, Jeannie, Judy’’ (305). In the major characters of the novel, however, cultural dissonances and tensions are deeper and more pervasive, and thus more subtly outlined.
Although her story opens the novel, Pearl Louie Brandt is not a particularly interesting woman, and it is quite possible that Amy Tan has deliberately created a less than memorable character to focus major attention on Winnie Louie. Pearl is forty years old, married to a physician named Phil, and reasonably successful in her career as a speech and language clinician. She also is the mother of two daughters, confident Tessa and gentle Cleo. On the surface, Pearl appears to be living the American Dream, but very early in her narrative, her dissatisfaction with life becomes evident. The cause of her discontent, she reveals obliquely, is her problematic relationship with her mother.
About her difficult relationship with Winnie, Pearl remarks that whenever she is forced to spend time in her mother’s company, she feels as though she must constantly be on her guard, ‘‘avoiding land mines’’ (16). Pearl admits that she and Phil have quarreled about her reactions to her mother’s remarks and assumptions, and it is clear that whatever Winnie’s intent might have been at any given time, Pearl has allowed Winnie’s opinions to color her own worldview. On hearing that Pearl has been offered a job over two other candidates, Winnie does not congratulate her daughter, but asks instead why only two other people were interested in the position. Winnie’s caustic criticism exacerbates Pearl’s nagging worry that although she is happy in the position, she might have missed a better and more desirable opportunity. Sadly, Pearl’s slight discomfort with the way her life has turned out colors her narrative— her voice is somewhat querulous, tinged with complaint and not a little regret at missing something she cannot identify.
Several times, Pearl has planned to tell Winnie about the multiple sclerosis that is very slowly eroding Pearl’s physical health, but each time the younger woman begins to broach the subject, her mother interrupts with a long monologue precipitated by one word or phrase in Pearl’s tentative introduction of her news; each time, Pearl allows her mother’s interruption to stem the flow of her confession. And with each foiled attempt to inform her mother, Pearl grows more frustrated and more apprehensive that somehow Winnie will find out from someone else. Perhaps because Pearl’s narration seems to be a long litany of irritations and only partial successes, the novel gets off to a slow start, and does not truly begin to engage the reader until Winnie begins to speak her piece.
Winnie Louie is the dominant character of the novel and its most voluble storyteller, but it is as Jiang Weili that she is tried in the crucible of tradition and experience. Born the daughter of an aristocratic and quite elderly Shanghai businessman and his replacement second wife, Weili spends her childhood as the pampered daughter of a wealthy man who houses his wives in a large, elaborately designed, and ornately furnished dwelling. Although traditional enough to permit himself the luxury of multiple wives, Weili’s father has embraced Western culture sufficiently to provide his second wife—Weili’s mother—with the English biscuits, French gloves and shoes, Hamilton watches, White Russian soap, and Italian cars that she passionately adores.
Weili is only six years old when her mother abruptly and mysteriously disappears from her life. Although Weili manages to piece together from overheard conversations and politely euphemistic explanations a few fragments of information about her mother’s fate, she never fully understands what has become of the mother who spoiled her during those very early years. Weili is sent by her father to live with an uncle and his family, and while they do not mistreat her, they ignore her, making it clear that she is unimportant and unworthy of their affection. Her lonely childhood helps her to hone the skill of silent endurance, a characteristic that will later enable her to conceal her secrets for decades.
At eighteen, Weili marries Wen Fu, a handsome young man who has been described by the matchmaker who approaches her family as the scion of a wealthy clan that runs a thriving import business. Years later, in telling the story of the marriage to Pearl, Winnie remembers that she was happy about the wedding, but not in the way that a new bride would be. She admits that she did not love her new husband even at the beginning of the marriage, but that despite the absence of romance or even friendship in the match, she was happy because marriage for her represented a chance to have a life that was better than her comfortable but emotionally sterile existence at her uncle’s house. In retrospect, she wonders whether she might not also have confused her happiness with love.
That new opportunity for a different kind of life turns out to be the worst fate that could happen to Weili. Not only has her new husband lied about the extent of his family’s assets, but he has also misrepresented himself. His charming manners are a facade—he is a monster at heart. Trapped in a degrading marriage for several years while a war rages around her, Weili endures humiliation, abuse, and even rape at the hands of her husband. She bears three children, all of whom die in infancy or babyhood. Her capacity for stoicism stands her in good stead, and she discovers in herself additional capabilities, including a strong will to live and an urge to fight for her future.
Two characters figure prominently in Winnie’s narrative, and they deserve some scrutiny in the context of their impact on Weili’s life. Wen Fu, the man whom Weili marries at eighteen, embodies the fate that shapes her into a survivor; and Hulan, Weili’s oldest friend, represents the continuity of life and the connection between past and present.
After he marries Weili, Wen Fu develops into such a villainous creature that he is a nearly one-dimensional monster. A number of readers and critics have, in fact, noted that Amy Tan has not populated her fictional world with well-rounded, completely believable male characters. When Weili first meets Wen Fu, he is charming and likeable, and apparently interested in her cousin Peanut, who, in turn, is so intrigued with the handsome young man that she begins meeting him in secret and sending him love notes. On discovering that Weili’s father is far wealthier and more socially prominent than Peanut’s family, Wen Fu immediately drops his clandestine courtship of Peanut and persuades his family to hire a go-between to propose a marriage between him and Weili—and Weili, who is totally unaware of the reason for the proposal but somewhat puzzled by Wen Fu’s sudden interest in her, becomes his wife.
Not long after the wedding, Wen Fu’s concealed psychosis surfaces, and Weili abruptly awakens from her dream of a happy life to the reality of marriage to a dishonest, sadistic bully. Meanwhile, enamored of the glamorous aura surrounding the very few Chinese men who have been trained as pilots, and desirous of joining that elite fraternity, Wen Fu appropriates the educational documents and identity papers belonging to his dead brother—a much more accomplished and capable man—and manages to gain admission, under his brother’s name, to a flight training program. Somehow, he manages to earn his pilot’s wings. He then contrives to spend the war years discovering strategies for evading air combat; thus he survives the war more or less unscathed. Decades later, when Winnie attempts to find words for an accurate portrayal of Wen Fu’s behavior during the war, she uses his own words. According to Winnie’s account, during every air battle, Wen Fu deliberately flew his plane away from the fighting, nonchalantly claiming after the fighting was over that he pursued a Japanese fighter plane as it broke formation. He shrugs, ‘‘Too bad I didn’t catch him’’ (204).
While his actions as a pilot are unconscionable and cowardly, Wen Fu’s behavior as a husband and father is appallingly criminal. He repeatedly rapes his wife and abuses his children, and he is responsible for the death of his daughter, Yiku, when he refuses to send for a physician to see the desperately sick child. Wen Fu’s ultimate act of villainy reverberates years later on another continent. Winnie reveals that just before her escape to America, Wen Fu traced her hiding place, beat her, tore up her divorce papers, and raped her. Pearl was conceived during that rape, and it is the truth of her parentage—the fact that her father is not kindly American Jimmy Louie but brutal Chinese Wen Fu—that she must hear from Winnie.
Winnie’s oldest friend, Hulan (Helen) Kwong, is an important character in Winnie’s story, both in China and in America. When Weili first meets Helen, the latter is married to Jiaguo, one of Wen Fu’s fellow pilots, and despite the women’s radically different personalities—unlike the submissive well-bred Weili, Hulan is a brash, confident young woman from a poor family—they become friends. Hulan’s friendship with Weili becomes a relationship of long standing, dating from their years as young military wives, forced by the war to endure frequent dislocations and deprivations, and continuing to their new lives as immigrants in California’s Chinese diaspora communities. Hulan, like Weili, receives an English name from an American serviceman at a dance toward the end of the war, and when she emigrates to the United States, she adopts the English name permanently. As aging women, Helen and Winnie are inextricably bound together by their uneasily shared secret, and Helen’s ongoing presence in Winnie’s life means that she has a significant impact on Pearl’s life as well. In fact, the fear of dying from a malignant brain tumor prompts Helen into employing emotional blackmail to persuade Pearl to disclose the facts about her illness to her mother, and to force Winnie into revealing her past to her daughter. Reminding Winnie that she has been hiding from the truth for far too long, Helen announces, ‘‘Now you can come out’’ (76).
Several familiar literary devices reappear in The Kitchen God’s Wife, creating in the novel the same sense of place and culture that characterized The Joy Luck Club. Once again, food and dreams constitute major symbol and motif clusters that reinforce the novel’s themes and function as narrative strategies. In addition, Tan focuses attention on three events that, through their representation of life’s milestones, introduce and define the novel’s conflicts and resolution.
Among the most pervasive motifs in The Kitchen God’s Wife is food and the activities that surround its preparation and consumption. In fact, the novel opens and closes with celebratory dinners, and similar feasts and meals mark crucial events in Winnie’s story. Food and its corollaries perform several significant functions: food creates the illusion of verisimilitude through the deployment of singular details that coalesce into striking visual images in the reader’s mind; food serves as a characterization device; and food either links or divides past and present, traditional culture and new culture, one generation with another.
First, through verisimilitude, Amy Tan adeptly uses the imagery of food to transport her readers to the China of Weili’s girlhood. Describing New Year’s preparations at the home of Weili’s aunt and uncle, Tan creates a culinary still life composed of the ingredients for a lavish feast: jars of kitchen staples such as peanut oil, soy sauce, and vinegar; sticky rice cakes stuffed with date paste; a wooden bucket full of fish, still alive and swimming; and ducks and chickens pecking in a courtyard. Details of the food for the New Year meals enhance the sense of celebration that Tan creates through her portrayal of the bustle and activity that pervades the entire household. Life in her uncle’s house instills in Weili the sense that food is both important and symbolic, providing benefits beyond basic sustenance.
As the novel continues to follow Weili through her transition from young girl to young wife, food outlines the cultural and geographical contexts of her life. After Weili is married, she often cooks for Wen Fu and his fellow pilots; and because she fears that some of them might not return after the next air raid, she devotes considerable energy and time to ensuring that the meals are gala affairs featuring special symbolic foods guaranteed to confer certain forms of good luck on the pilots. Her dinners include sun-dried oysters, which are popularly said to bring wealth and fatsai, the black-haired fungus that creates good fortune. Amy Tan uses food images to re-create the city of Nanking where Weili lives for a short time during the war. Strolling through a local market to purchase fresh ingredients for a special meal, Weili is surrounded by dozens of tables and stalls displaying tofu in buckets, yams and turnips in heaps, dried mushrooms in baskets, pans full of seafood, and noodles of many varieties, including egg, rice, and wheat.
Second, food motifs also function to individualize the novel’s characters through descriptions of their food preferences and eating habits. We have noted earlier the fact that Weili’s mother embodies cultural confusion with her wardrobe of Western dresses and Chinese robes. That confusion is further reflected in her gastronomic tastes: she likes English biscuits so much that she keeps a tin on top of her dresser, but she also craves a certain fish called wah-wah yu that she remembers as ‘‘so tender, so delicious . . . [with] scales . . . as soft and sweet as baby leaves’’ (95). Early in her friendship with Hulan, Weili comments that her friend is adept at certain kitchen tasks, but further implies that she has little regard for Hulan’s ability to distinguish subtle and delicate flavors and aromas. Later, Weili criticizes Hulan for enjoying vegetables that have been steamed so long that they are mushy and flavorless. Embedded in Weili’s derogatory remarks is the implication that Hulan is unaccustomed to the nuances of refined Chinese cuisine, but Weili inadvertently also reveals her own need to prove that she is superior to Hulan in birth and breeding. Unlike Hulan, who has rough rural manners, Weili is refined and sophisticated, the product of a privileged upbringing. Weili’s unacknowledged desire to best Hulan is a manifestation of her resentment that Hulan’s husband, Jiaguo, outranks Wen Fu. Weili also believes that only Jiaguo’s intercession has saved Wen Fu from being courtmartialed for his cowardice during air raids and for an accident in which a girl was killed while Wen Fu was driving a military vehicle without a permit. Jiaguo’s assistance means that Weili is forever in his debt—and that of his wife, Hulan.
A third function of food motifs is to represent continuity and to embody the bonds between family members and friends. The engagement party and subsequent wedding of Bao-bao, Helen’s son, are notable for the elaborate meals that mark both occasions. At each dinner, family members and friends of all ages gather around tables loaded with traditional celebratory dishes, and children climb onto the laps of their elders to demand assistance with chopsticks. Interspersed with the jollity and congratulations, Winnie and Helen carry on with what appears to be their habitual behavior at family dinners—arguing about the food, about whether a pork dish might be too salty, or whether a chicken specialty is overcooked. These disagreements are not intended as genuine debates; rather they represent one of the ways through which Winnie and Helen have communicated during the long years of their friendship. Verbal sparring about food and its preparation sustained the women through their wartime experiences, and now, years later in America, they nurture their friendship and reinforce their connections through their discussions about food. Watching as Winnie and Helen make the rounds of the tables, scooping up leftovers from the wedding banquet, and arguing all the while, Pearl muses, ‘‘perhaps it is not arguing. They are remembering together, dreaming together’’ (410).
A fourth function of food is that it highlights the differences between the immigrant generation and their American-born children. In the longstanding culinary rivalry between Winnie and Helen, the women agree that Winnie makes the best jiao-zi, or steamed dumplings, while Helen specializes in chicken dishes. Unfortunately, their daughters, Pearl and Mary, have inherited none of their mothers’ skill with traditional Chinese food; Pearl, in fact, admits to her mother that she never buys tofu, while Mary seems to rely on a variety of casserole recipes to feed her family and friends. The culinary gulf is still more evident in Pearl’s children whose gastronomic point of reference is American fast food. At the engagement dinner, Cleo bursts into tears when she is told that the morsel of food she is chewing is jellyfish, despite Winnie’s attempts to make the jellyfish familiar by suggesting that it tastes like rubber bands. At length, Helen manages to soothe the howling child by proffering some beef that she describes as tasting exactly like hamburgers from McDonald’s. Immediately, Cleo stops weeping and chomps delightedly on the beef, jellyfish forgotten.
Finally, food represents memory, connecting one generation with another, and providing links between past and present, China and the United States. Recalling the day that her mother left her, Winnie tells Pearl that the morning began when a servant delivered Weili’s morning bowl of syen do jang, and perhaps realizing that her American daughter will not recognize the Chinese words, Winnie adds hastily that syen do jang is the salty soy-milk soup that they purchase at a local restaurant, the same soup that Cleo devours without spilling a drop. Embedded in Winnie’s reminiscence is a culinary thread that connects Shanghai and San Francisco, and links six-year-old Weili in the 1920s and three-yearold Cleo in the 1990s. For Winnie especially, certain kinds of food have specific resonances in her memory. When Helen suggests that they try a new restaurant that serves eels fried in hot oil and seasoned with chives, Winnie remembers a war-time dinner with unpleasant associations and refuses to go. Later, she asks Pearl, ‘‘Why do some memories live only on your tongue or in your nose?’’ (235)
Dreams constitute another major motif in The Kitchen God’s Wife, reflecting various characters’ feelings of helplessness in the face of an inexorable fate. Research into dreams has revealed that dreams are related to the emotional and psychological states of the dreamer, embodying through imagery the dreamer’s unspoken conflicts and fears. In the late nineteenth century, Sigmund Freud posited the idea that dreams represent repressed desires and conflicts that cannot find expression during an individual’s waking hours. Transformed into the imagery and symbolism of dreams, those desires and conflicts become more manageable, enabling the dreamer to come to terms with them. Carl Jung in the early twentieth century expanded Freud’s research, describing a ‘‘collective unconscious’’ that encompasses not only individual dreams but also the images, patterns, and symbols shared by dreams with myth, legend, and religious ritual.
Early in The Kitchen God’s Wife, Pearl reveals that although her father has been dead for over two decades, she continues to have vivid nightmares about his final days, a period during which she tried to deny that the father she loved was terminally ill. In her nightmares, she frantically searches for her lost father in hospital wards full of terminally ill patients, finding him at last alone and abandoned on a cot in a corner. As she approaches him in the dream, his tired old face lights up when he realizes that his daughter has finally found him and has come to take him home with her. The nightmares reflect Pearl’s inability to come to terms with the loss of her adored father. At his funeral over twenty years earlier, she had been unable to grieve for her father because she could not accept the fact of his death. Her dry-eyed stoicism had angered Winnie who assumed that Pearl’s silence was proof that the child did not care about her father, and Winnie had slapped Pearl. The estrangement between mother and daughter deepened, and young Pearl was left without a father and without the support of her mother. Now a grown woman with children of her own, Pearl still cannot weep for her father, and thus cannot bring closure to that part of her childhood in which he played a prominent role. In her dreams, he is simply lost and she must find him.
In her story about the worst day of her childhood, Winnie describes her memory of the dream that disturbed her sleep on the night that her mother vanished. The dream is senseless, disjointed, and lacking in narrative form, and when the child awakens, she cannot remember anything except a collection of bizarre images: a weeping fish singing a song about a mouse; a blonde girl trying on French shoes. The most indelible of the images are related to her mother:
My mother’s hair, the way my fingers wove through it only to discover it was not hair . . . but embroidery and jewels. My mother, sitting at her dressing table, combing her hair, crying. (97)
The day before the dream, Weili has overheard her parents arguing in low voices. Her father’s voice makes her want to hide, while her mother’s ‘‘sounded ragged, like good cloth already torn, never able to be mended’’ (92). The overheard argument and her mother’s strange behavior for the rest of the day are clearly manifested in the dream, which suggests a little girl’s attempts to impose some order or structure on a day that has confused and frightened her.
Another dream that Winnie remembers vividly is not her own but that of a pilot named Gan, a young man who confides to Weili the dream that has disturbed his thoughts since he was a young boy during a Tiger year. In that long-ago dream, he saw a ghost who announced that he would come for Gan before the next Tiger year arrived, but that before that happened, Gan would experience nine bad fates. Gan tells Weili that eight of those fates have already happened, and that he has only four months left before the new Tiger year arrives. Gan’s confession to Weili and his obsession with his dream reflect the fear and uncertainty with which the pilots and their wives face each day of the war, and his story of the dream parallels his knowledge of his impending death (the Chinese airplanes were so outdated and unreliable that death was almost certain for their pilots), reinforcing Weili’s feelings of helplessness in the face of a war that seems impossible to win.
Amy Tan signposts her novel with three important family occasions— first an engagement party immediately followed by a funeral, and later a wedding. These are events that denote noteworthy passages through life, representing beginnings and endings, demarcating the temporal boundaries of the family. The novel opens with Bao-bao Kwong’s engagement dinner, which brings together the Kwong and Louie families, an occasion during which seventy-three-year-old Helen Kwong draws Pearl aside into another room—ostensibly so that they can cut the cake— and announces that she, Helen, has been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. ‘‘I am not telling you this so you have to worry,’’ Helen says to the stunned Pearl, adding that she simply wants Pearl to understand why Pearl’s illness can no longer be kept a secret (36). And with that, Helen extracts from Pearl the promise that Winnie will be told about Pearl’s illness. At the funeral for Auntie Du the next day, Pearl, who is already vulnerable from the stress produced by her promise to Helen, is reminded of her father’s funeral at which she was so numbed by grief that she could not weep, claiming (to her mother’s distress), ‘‘That man in there is not my father.’’ Pearl is still unaware that she spoke the truth in her long-ago outburst, and she cannot know that the memory that has been triggered by the sight of Auntie Du in her coffin is inextricably, mystically, tied to Pearl’s promise to Helen as well as to Helen’s cryptic remark that Winnie is concealing a great many secrets. But the memory suddenly allows Pearl to grieve for Jimmy Louie, and she bursts into noisy sobs. Shortly after the funeral, Helen informs Winnie that the time has come for them to reclaim the true stories of their lives, to sweep out of their lives all of the subterfuges and false stories behind which they have hidden their shared past. Demanding that Winnie make an effort to ‘‘tell everyone our true situation, how we met,’’ Helen reasons that she wants everything set to rights before it is too late for either one of them to re-take ownership of the past. ‘‘It matters more to tell the truth,’’ Helen says, adding that neither of them wants to go to the next world with so many lies marring their history (79).
In a sense, both the engagement party and the funeral symbolize beginnings— the party heralds Bao-bao’s intention to start a new family, and the funeral is Auntie Du’s send-off to the next life. In fact, the message on the banner hanging over the coffin makes the prospect of another life very clear with its inscribed hope that Auntie Du’s next life will be long and prosperous. For Winnie and Pearl, the revelations that are inspired by the family gatherings signal a new chapter in their shared history, a new relationship in which they no longer have secrets from each other, and finally a new life in which their destinies are harmoniously joined.
At the end of the novel, after all of the important stories have been told, after Winnie and Pearl have shared their secrets, the Louies and the Kwongs are once again together to celebrate over a meal—this time for Bao-bao’s wedding. At this event that launches Bao-bao’s new family, the newlyweds are not alone in celebrating new beginnings: as Pearl and Winnie revel cautiously in their new and unaccustomed closeness, mother and daughter and Helen plan a trip together to China.
MAJOR THEMES AND ISSUES
In The Joy Luck Club, Tan explores the intricacies of the relationship between mothers and daughters. She continues the exploration in The Kitchen God’s Wife, and as she has done in the earlier novel, she complicates the relationship between mother and daughter by situating them on opposite sides of a great cultural and linguistic divide. In addition, Tan raises questions about the status of women in certain cultural settings. Tan also addresses a number of other important themes and issues, among them cultural dislocations and identity confusions, marriage, the consequences of war, and the nature of friendships.
At the beginning of the novel, Pearl makes it clear that she has a problematic relationship with her mother whom she finds irritating and from whom she keeps her distance, both emotionally and geographically. Winnie is perfectly aware that the separation between herself and her daughter is not an accident of distance; she is aware also that the rift dividing them widened irreversibly on the day of Jimmy Louie’s funeral when Winnie slapped Pearl because the child was unable to weep. Pearl remembers the same day, remembers also her grief that was too deep for tears because she had lost the father for whom she had been ‘‘his ‘perfect Pearl’ . . . not the irritation I always seemed to be with my mother’’ (45). Ironically, Winnie and Pearl are separated by misunderstandings: Pearl believes that her mother has always loved her brother more; Winnie is convinced that Pearl thinks that she was a bad mother; and as time goes on, it seems easier for the two women to attribute their differences to cultural factors.
The cultural contradictions inherent in the relationship between Winnie and Pearl cannot be attributed solely and glibly to the obvious fact that Winnie is an immigrant and Pearl is a second-generation nativeborn American. For Winnie, cultural confusion has always been a component of life, and she has learned to accept it. Young Weili is first exposed to Western culture by a mother whose love for Western adornment makes an impression on the child, who then acquires an early taste for English biscuits. Sent to live with an uncle’s family, Weili immediately notices that her new home has two identities: Old East, built as a one-storied structure with important rooms facing east in the Chinese style, and New West, a two-storied chimneyed building, added when the family became wealthy by trading with foreigners.
As she narrates her story to Pearl, Winnie constantly juxtaposes East and West, always emphasizing the differences between the two. ‘‘Maybe it was 1937 by the Western calendar,’’ she remarks, trying to fix the date of an important event (112). Another time, she makes sure that Pearl understands clearly that the traditional Chinese New Year celebration differs tremendously from the American festivities. Pearl, being American-born and educated, does not have two clear points of reference as her mother does, and Winnie’s constant references to things Chinese frustrate Pearl who complains that her mother can be infuriating with her ‘‘various hypotheses, the way religion, medicine, and superstition all merge with her own beliefs’’ (29). Adding that Winnie is convinced that nothing is ever an accident, Pearl compares Winnie to ‘‘a Chinese version of Freud or worse’’ (29). Because she is so thoroughly a contemporary American woman, Pearl is irked by her mother’s demand that she participate in family traditions that to her are simply burdensome. Winnie, for her part, seems baffled by her inability to approach rapport with her daughter, and her attempts to start conversations end up simply sounding to Pearl like criticism.
What Pearl does not know—and what she discovers by the end of the novel—is that Winnie is a much more complicated individual than her children could possibly have imagined. In fact, Pearl does not truly know her mother or her mother’s story, and until she receives that knowledge, she will continue to misinterpret Winnie’s words and actions as simply the peculiarities of an elderly Chinese woman.
Another theme that is addressed in The Kitchen God’s Wife is the position of women in severely patriarchal cultures. Through Winnie’s story about life as Jiang Weili, Amy Tan explores what it meant to be a woman in Chinese society before and during World War II. Weili is the product of a culture that privileges the Confucian ideal, raising women to be passive and silent in their roles as daughters, wives, and mothers. Her story, which has strong resonances with the old European tale of Patient Griselda, reveals the suffering of a woman whose brutish husband abuses her privately and publicly while the couple’s friends and acquaintances (and, by extension, the entire culture that has shaped them) pretend that nothing is amiss. Most disturbing to Western readers is the fact that Weili’s closest women friends—Hulan and Auntie Du—collude with Weili’s husband in his persecution of his wife. Both women stand silently by when Wen Fu forces Weili into the degrading position of kneeling before him to beg for forgiveness; worse still, both women believe Wen Fu when he promises earnestly that he will be kind to Weili if they reveal to him where she is hiding. Tan seems to be implying that much cultural conditioning can be so thorough and its effects so ingrained that even the members of victimized classes accept their oppression and abuse as a fact of their lives, and they inadvertently perpetuate their own victimization through their passivity and refusal to speak out.
Not until Weili meets the American, Jimmy Louie, is she able to break away from the cultural oppression under which she has lived. As Jimmy’s lover and then later as his wife, she begins to understand that marriage can be the genuine union of two hearts and minds, and not simply an economic merger or a legal institution designed to produce male heirs for the husband’s family. More importantly, Weili learns that marital sex is not always rape and does not have to be painful or degrading. She discovers—to her surprise—that making love with the right man is a joyful experience. Through Jimmy, she is introduced to passionate love and tender affection; with him she finds the happiness that has eluded her for most of her life.
A third theme that Amy Tan addresses in the novel is the construction of identity. As a young woman in pre-war China, Weili must inhabit an identity that has been codified by her culture for centuries. Before she is married, she is the daughter of one of the wealthiest Shanghai tycoons and the niece of the richest man on an island off the coast of Shanghai. After her marriage, she becomes the wife of a pilot in China’s fledgling air force, and later the mother of Yiku and Danru. In each case, she is identified through her role in a traditional relationship. Although Weili is an intelligent and resourceful woman who exhibits an unusual tendency to question the status quo, she engages in that questioning only in her mind. And because her roles are so rigidly defined, she is not confronted with the need to identify to herself who Jiang Weili truly is— until her marriage collapses and she meets and falls in love with Jimmy Louie.
Weili’s transformation begins when Jimmy christens her ‘‘Winnie’’ at the American dance during which he assigns English names to dozens of other young Chinese party goers. Unconnected with either her father or her husband, the new name signals a new woman and a new beginning. By giving permission for Weili to marry Wen Fu, her father has indicated that she means little to him and that he is willing to give her away to a man whom he knows to be a fraud. Wen Fu, through his abuse and infidelity, has already repudiated Weili. All of her children are dead. Weili is, in fact, completely disconnected from her old life, and when she embraces the name ‘‘Winnie,’’ she relinquishes her identity as a woman in Confucian China and steps into a new role as an immigrant woman in America. Winnie is immune to the cultural restrictions that bind Weili, but with that new name and its implied new role come unfamiliar challenges and barriers.
As she begins to rebuild her life in the United States, Winnie soon discovers that she has once again become anonymous. None of her family credentials are important in her adopted country, and in her new life as in the old, she is identified by her relationship to another individual— she is the wife of James Louie, minister, and she is the mother of two American children. While she was in China, her limited English had set her above her peers who knew one or two words at best, but in California, her English sets her apart as a recent immigrant, as marginal and therefore inconsequential. Compounding the linguistic problem is the fact that Winnie has not completely divested herself of her past; she hides from her husband and her daughter a painful secret that affects them both. Her silence on the matter defines her identity in ways that go beyond her immediate family. Because she must keep her counsel about her secret, she is forced to pretend that Helen is her sister-in-law, once married to a mythical brother who died during the war. In some very crucial ways, Winnie’s American identity is a deliberately false construct, an artificial role that limits her almost as definitively as did the submissive roles that she played as Jiang Weili.
Winnie’s anonymity—a form of unstable identity—results from a failure of translation. We have already noted that Weili is intelligent, perceptive, and strong—she has to be to survive the horror of her marriage with her mind and heart intact. As Winnie, she has not lost those qualities; but they have been obscured in the wholesale revision that reinvents Weili as Winnie. With a few strokes of a pen, Jimmy Louie transforms Weili, wife of Wen Fu, into Winnie Louie, wife of American citizen, James Louie. The action creates a necessary fiction, one that will allow Weili to escape China; but unfortunately, instead of translating Weili’s characteristics into an American incarnation, Jimmy inadvertently erases Jiang Weili, replacing her with a newly minted stranger. Thus for most of her American life, Winnie is forced—by the lie that brought her to America, and by her shame about the last degradation she has had to endure—to suppress Weili and the story of her life. Winnie’s condition is similar to that endured by Ying-ying St. Clair in The Joy Luck Club. Both women are reinvented by well-meaning adoring American husbands whose only thought is to get their beloved wives out of China and into the United States. In each case, the reinvention eradicates the evidence of an earlier persona. For Ying-ying, the erasure is more profound; Clifford St. Clair alters his wife’s birth date, transforming her from a woman born in a Tiger year into a stranger born in a Dragon year. Lacking Winnie’s inner fire, Ying-ying simply retreats into herself, becoming a silent ghost-like presence; and because she tells her story in an interior monologue, her reintegration with her self remains incomplete. By contrast, Winnie, at the conclusion of The Kitchen God’s Wife, is whole. By telling her story—speaking aloud the events of Weili’s life, and putting into words Weili’s thoughts and feelings—Winnie is able to effect the translation of Weili into Winnie. Like the best translations, Winnie’s story preserves exactly the essence and rhythms, as well as the underlying structure and aesthetic shape of the original. Winnie has reclaimed herself, but more than that, she has given her daughter a history that Pearl must, in her turn, translate into the story of her own life.
ALTERNATE READING: FEMINIST
Feminist criticism is not a monolithic single approach to literary analysis or a rigidly codified methodology, but rather an attitude that derives from concern about social and cultural attitudes about and toward women. Arlyn Diamond and Lee Edwards point out that whereas feminists subscribe to a shared core of beliefs, feminist criticism—which employs gender as a focal point of literary analysis—‘‘can turn a wide variety of existing techniques to its own ends’’ (xiv). In other words, feminist criticism is interdisciplinary, intradisciplinary, and intercultural, and its purpose is to examine literary and artistic texts through a gendered lens that illuminates the imbalance of power between men and women.
At its most basic, feminist criticism of literature is shaped by its concern with literary representations of gender and power, by its interrogation of a canon that has been shaped not only by predominantly male values but also through the exclusion of the female voice. And despite the variety of methodologies employed by feminist critics, they have in common a number of assumptions and beliefs about culturally inscribed gender roles:
[A]ll feminists, I would argue, would agree that women are not automatically or necessarily inferior to men, that role models for females and males in the current Western societies are inadequate, that equal rights for women are necessary, that it is unclear what by nature either men or women are, that it is a matter for empirical investigation to ascertain what differences follow from the obvious physiological ones, that in these empirical investigations the hypotheses one employs are themselves open to question, revision, or replacement. (9)
Although the feminist movement has had a long history that goes back centuries, feminist criticism first emerged as a field of academic inquiry in the 1960s through the efforts of women who were predominantly of the academic and literary establishment. During the decades that followed, feminist criticism gradually developed through several distinct stages into a discipline.
In its formative years, feminist criticism focused on exposing the misogyny that had been institutionalized in literary study, the exclusion of women from literary history, and the subordination of women in the literary canon. Feminist critics examined the canon, illuminating the gaps in literary history, noting the absence of women as authors and as subjects, and seeking to expose the patriarchal suppression of women’s voices. Early feminist critics argued that literature displayed pervasive narrative patterns that privileged men and devalued women; and they argued further that those patterns had become so entrenched that they reinforced and thus perpetuated the silencing of women.
The second phase of development of feminist criticism involved the discovery or recovery—and reading—of literary texts by women writers whose work had suffered from neglect or the obscurity that accompanies exclusion from the canon. This literary archaeology resulted in the retrieval of thousands of works of major historical and artistic merit, works that had, in fact, been well-received at their first publication but had eventually been erased from literary history through the systematic—if unacknowledged—privileging of the artifacts and productions of a patriarchal culture. In this phase of development, which revealed that women have a coherent and significant literary tradition of their own, feminist critics and literary historians effected important revisions to the literary canon as well as to the study of literature.
In its maturity, feminist criticism has progressed beyond its original demand for recognition of the value of women’s writing, beyond the retrieval of forgotten or neglected texts, to a focus on the basic concepts that underlie literary and cultural analysis. With this focus have come certain demands: that widely accepted cultural and theoretical assumptions about the acts of writing and reading be revised to include female experience; and that literary texts be interrogated to unmask the ways in which gender and sexuality are constructed in and through literature.
Feminist criticism is, therefore, an orientation, a way of reading the world that employs a variety of strategies and theoretical positions. Like cultural criticism to which it is closely related, feminist criticism draws from a wide range of disciplines, fields of study, and approaches, including anthropology, history, linguistics, literary theory, Marxism, psychoanalysis, and sociology.
One way of reading The Kitchen God’s Wife as a feminist text would be to examine the novel as the record of a woman’s journey from silence to full voice through the vehicle of storytelling, a performance that is widely considered to be a female act. In writing Winnie’s life, Amy Tan exposes the layers of silence under which are buried the forgotten stories of women like Winnie—like Tan’s own mother. As Winnie recounts her story in the novel, she shapes and thus reclaims her life, breaking the long silence that has marked her existence since that long-ago day when her mother vanished, never to be mentioned by anyone again.
Feminist critics have noted several kinds of silences, both self-imposed and externally sanctioned. Silence is the absence of voice, of words or phrases, or even topics, that one is forbidden (by discretion or by express injunction) to mention or is forced to avoid. Silence can result from feelings of shame, inadequacy, or unworthiness; from social or cultural conditioning; from the inability to speak a language. Silence also can result from the existence of so many variations of a story that the truth is obscured or remains unsaid. For many women, silence is a strategy for coping—a way to avoid pain or to evade confrontation or dealing with the unpleasant, a technique for negotiating grief, anger, or shame.
The effects of silence on a woman are many and varied: misunderstanding, loneliness and isolation, erasure and invisibility, depression, madness, even death. Silence between women negates the possibility of companionship, friendship, and trust. Silence between mother and daughter deprives both of a shared history and a common emotional language, rendering them virtual strangers. A woman without a voice cannot claim herself or her life; moreover, by not speaking her own story, she allows that story to be constructed by someone else.
The Kitchen God’s Wife is about women’s silences, and about the ways through which women can empower themselves to break those silences. At the center of the novel is the palpable heavy silence between Winnie Louie and her daughter Pearl. For almost forty years, Winnie has not spoken the truth about her life in China, and has, in fact, referred to that life only obliquely and only in the presence of Helen, the friend who has been complicitous in Winnie’s silence. In fact, Helen is also implicated in perpetuating the conspiracy of silence about Pearl’s multiple sclerosis; and ultimately, Helen becomes the catalyst that sends both Winnie and Pearl on the journey toward reclaiming their voices.
Winnie is afflicted with a profound voicelessness. Her silence simultaneously is the product of her upbringing, the consequence of an abusive marriage, and the by-product of her shame. In the company of so many traditionally raised Chinese women of her generation, Winnie has been socialized by her culture into silence:
Women of well-to-do families, whether aristocratic, bureaucratic, or merchant, though often educated and literate, nevertheless lived a generally restricted life fulfilling their prescribed roles of wife, mother, daughter-in-law, and mother-in-law. . . . A woman’s primary tasks were to perform her domestic duties, take care of her husband, children, and elders, and ensure the future of her husband’s lineage by giving birth to male children. (Duke xi)
As an upper-class female in pre-republic China, Weili has been raised according to centuries-old Confucian philosophy, which recognizes three bonds of subordination and loyalty that are fundamental to a properly functioning state: the submission of a minister to the ruling prince, of a son to his father, and of a wife to her husband. Confucius, in fact, dismissed women as similar only to slaves and children. His followers reiterated his philosophy more explicitly in the centuries that followed, suggesting, for instance, that women should be barred from any participation in government, and asserting that education had a negative effect on women, transforming them into bored and discontented individuals who then became unfit wives and mothers (Ling 3).
A young woman like Weili would have been taught to obey the Three Obediences and Four Virtues, a code of conduct that governed Chinese women’s lives from the first century A.D. into the twentieth century:
The Three Obediences enjoined a woman to obey her father before marriage, her husband after marriage, and her eldest son after her husband’s death. The Four Virtues decreed that she be chaste; her conversation courteous and not gossipy; her deportment graceful but not extravagant; her leisure spent in perfecting her needlework and tapestry for beautifying the home. (3)
Implicit in the code is the idea that women should be silent, reticent, retiring, and submissive before the men in their lives. Bound by that code, Jiang Weili diligently schools herself to think only of Wen Fu’s needs and wants regardless of the cost to her body and soul. In her mind, however, she silently, voicelessly questions herself and her actions, wondering what she might have done to deserve her plight.
During the long war years, Weili focuses her energies on fulfilling her obligations as a wife and mother, spending her dowry money on luxury food items to entertain Wen Fu’s friends, submitting to her husband’s rough assaults on her body, enduring his taunts and accusations. At the beginning of the marriage, she shows some of her natural spirit, but after she becomes the object of Wen Fu’s vicious temper too many times, she learns to keep her counsel and say nothing. Winnie tells Pearl about being raised ‘‘never to criticize men or the society they ruled, or Confucius’’ (257). Although she remains silent when their servant girl leaves, Weili is well aware that the girl has been raped repeatedly by Wen Fu; but when Weili hears the news that the girl has died because of a botched abortion, she forgets to be silent and taxes Wen Fu with her knowledge. He responds by beating their six-month-old baby, Yiku, until the child curls up in pain. The traumatized child never learns to speak; in fact, she dies at a year and a half without ever having said a word. Thus Wen Fu renders his daughter voiceless, and her story is unspoken until Winnie breaks her silence decades later. The deaths of Yiku and Danru, Weili’s little son, as well as Mochou who is stillborn, and the babies that Weili forces herself to abort, further silence her; and her final attempt to assert herself only results in Wen Fu’s last and worst assault on her body. So shamed and humiliated is Weili by the time she leaves China that she has been unable to speak of her last dreadful weeks in China, nor has she ever told the full story of her marriage to her daughter.
The silence that cloaks Pearl is not as profound or multifaceted as her mother’s is, but Pearl’s speechlessness is as debilitating as the illness that she conceals from her mother. Unlike Winnie, whose silence obscures the past, Pearl attempts to negate the present. She refuses her cousin Mary’s attempts to be supportive, driving Mary into extreme self-consciousness about words and actions that might suggest that Pearl is not well. Between Pearl and her husband Phil, the silence takes the form of near-denial that she has a degenerative disorder, which they refer to obliquely as her ‘‘medical condition.’’ They do not mention the fact that their new house is a one-story structure with wide hallways that can accommodate a wheelchair if necessary. They speak about her illness in their own private code. And although Pearl has instigated the silence that now surrounds her, she finds it unnerving that Phil can so completely pretend that their life is normal, while she—who desires that normalcy more than he does—frets in silence, unable to articulate her needs or the reasons for her frustrations. ‘‘[Now] I can’t tell him what I really feel . . . the worst part is when I remember . . . that I am living in a limbo land called remission’’ (28). Compounding the isolation that Pearl feels because she can no longer discuss her condition with Phil is her growing disquiet at having kept the secret from her mother for seven years. Pearl’s silence deprives her of the emotional support that she craves from the two people from whom she most needs it. Moreover, she is consumed with guilt because Winnie is the only member of their extended family who remains unaware of the secret and its implications.
Both Winnie and Pearl must reclaim their voices. Because each woman’s silence is an elemental factor of her relationship with the other, they must break their silences together and together they must speak aloud those thoughts and stories that they have concealed for so long. Only as they share their lives with each other will they be able to repair the breach between them that has widened steadily since Jimmy Louie died.
For Winnie, the act of rupturing the silence in which her voice is wrapped is a complicated process because she is doubly voiceless. In her past, in the ancestral Confucian culture of her homeland, she was silenced because of her gender; in her American present, she is silenced by a dominant culture that marginalizes immigrants like her. Winnie’s inability to tell her story is caused not only by the shame that she still carries with her from the disaster of her first marriage, but also by her knowledge that she does not know how to speak like anyone other than an immigrant. Even her thoroughly American daughter unthinkingly contributes to Winnie’s muteness by insisting almost priggishly that Winnie learn to tell her friends that Pearl is a ‘‘speech and language clinician for children with moderate to severe communicative disorders’’ (82). Unable to twist her tongue around the alien polysyllabic terminology, Winnie worries that her daughter will believe her to be unintelligent or slow-witted. Winnie’s fear is a symptom of her powerlessness, which is the most insidiously destructive consequence of her silence; for if the absence of a voice bars access to power, the lack of power, in turn, renders an individual mute.
Storytelling is Winnie’s strategy for revisiting the past to reclaim her voice. Long ago, on the long evacuation from Nanking into the mountains, Weili and Hulan had invented stories to keep their spirits up and to maintain their emotional strength on the grueling journey. Similarly, as Winnie carefully and slowly remembers and then articulates the shaping events of her life, she progresses on the journey toward verbal authority and eloquence. As the author of her story, she has the power to pass on that story to her daughter, and that story becomes an emotional lifeline between mother and daughter. Just as Winnie has shared not only her own life but also that of her mother, so will Pearl, one day, recount Winnie’s stories to Tessa and Cleo, thus ensuring an unbroken link from Winnie’s mother to Winnie’s granddaughters.
As she speaks aloud what is, in essence, her autobiography, Winnie re-shapes her perceptions and analyzes the significance of crucial events, and, in retrospect, she admits to herself that she changed during her marriage. She learned to silence herself. ‘‘Can you imagine how innocent I was?’’ (151), she asks as she concludes the story of her wedding. She tells Pearl that at her wedding she was still dreaming of celebrations and festivities that she would orchestrate, she was fantasizing of happiness with her new husband. Throughout her narrative, Winnie reflects on the transformations that she undergoes at each milestone of that marriage. By the time her second daughter is born, Weili has learned to silence the truth, and when Wen Fu’s bad temper terrifies the baby, Weili dissembles, crooning to the crying child that the belligerent man is a stranger and not the child’s father who is a kind and gentle man. Soon after that incident, on learning what Wen Fu has done to their servant girl, Weili recalls being told as a child never to create a large problem by complaining about a small one, and she pays the servant to leave. To Pearl, Winnie says that she consciously chose silence and inaction: ‘‘I made myself blind [and] . . . deaf’’ (260). If Weili has become outwardly a silent, accepting, uncomplaining wife to Wen Fu, inwardly she is seething. Ordered by him to crouch on the floor and beg for his forgiveness in front of their dinner guests, Weili obeys, but in her mind she wonders why none of the onlookers volunteers to come to her rescue: ‘‘Why do they stand there, as if I were truly wrong?’’ (253). Clearly, Wen Fu—despite his problems—is not solely to blame for Weili’s oppression. She is silenced not only by her husband, but also by the friends who allow him to continue his brutal and dehumanizing treatment of her. Winnie, years later, cannot erase the memory of her friends’ passive participation in her degradation, but as she tells her story, she begins to understand and finally to withhold condemnation, concluding at last that she cannot blame Helen for her seeming complicity with Wen Fu during the war years: ‘‘She was scared. . . . But I still can’t forget’’ (253).
The point, of course, is not that Winnie should forget but that she reclaim the self that has been silenced. Through stories, Winnie re-imagines her past and comes to terms with it, and she relives her traumatic history, transforming it into an allegory of the human spirit’s ability to survive the worst of circumstances. Winnie sees, finally, not only unmitigated tragedy and loss, but also her own resilience and courage and inner strength. Her story is her gift to her daughter; and the three traits that she has uncovered and acknowledged to herself are her enduring legacy to that daughter and her children, Winnie’s grandchildren.
Encouraged by Winnie’s honesty and emboldened by the example of a woman who has triumphed over far more than multiple sclerosis, Pearl finds the courage to share her own secret with her mother. And although, as Robb Forman Dew has noted, ‘‘the consequences the two women endure are simply not equally horrific’’ (9), Pearl’s admission has given Winnie the gift of a new alliance and a new battle—one that they can fight together as friends instead of strangers.
In the last scene of the novel, Winnie presents Pearl with a statue for the little red altar temple that Pearl has inherited from Grand Auntie Du. The statue represents the once-silent and forgiving Kitchen God’s Wife, a woman whom Winnie has canonized as the protector of women who are learning to break their silences. Caroline Ong points out the implications of Winnie’s action:
There is no such deity among the heavenly pantheon: the only recognized goddesses are those with suitable womanly qualities such as Mercy and Love. Winnie is rewriting the ending to a centuries-old legend so that justice can finally be served. (20)
As Pearl weeps, overcome with emotion at the significance of her mother’s gift to her, Winnie’s instructions enjoin the younger woman to speech. Winnie tells Pearl to unburden her soul to The Kitchen God’s Wife, who is prepared to listen and then help. ‘‘She will wash away everything sad with her tears. . . . See her name: Lady Sorrowfree, happiness winning over bitterness, no regrets in this world’’ (415).
The Kitchen God’s Wife. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1991.
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