Lena St. Clair has put her mother in the guest bedroom, the smallest room in the house. Mrs. St. Clair is upset because her daughter does not understand that the guest bedroom should be the best one in the house. To Mrs. St. Clair, her daughter's house looks as though it will break into pieces.
Mrs. St. Clair recalls that she was a wild girl in her youth. Her mother said that she would bring shame to their house, but Ying-ying disregarded these warnings. Her family was one of the richest in Wushi, but the wealth meant little to young Ying-ying. She played on the street with a priceless jade jar, treating it like a toy. When she was sixteen, her aunt married. After the festivities, a male friend of the family humiliated Ying-ying by plunging a knife into a watermelon, a crude symbol suggesting the loss of virginity. Six months later, Ying-ying married this man and fully understood his cruel taunt.
The night of her aunt's wedding was also important to Ying-ying because it was then that she first began to know about things before they happened. It was then that she knew that she would marry the crude man who plunged the knife into the watermelon. Ironically, after they were married, Ying-ying began to love him. It happened one afternoon when he said that she had tiger eyes. Soon afterward, she became pregnant — and discovered that her husband had left her for an opera singer. She had an abortion, and in her grief, she went to live with a second cousin's family. They were terribly poor, but she stayed ten years amid the squalor. Then she moved to the city and became a shop girl. There, she met Clifford St. Clair; she knew at once that they would marry. For four years, he courted her, buying her little trinkets, which meant nothing to her when she set them against the riches she had known. But, nonetheless, she saved the baubles because she knew that she would marry St. Clair. One day, she received a letter saying that her husband was dead, and she decided to let St. Clair marry her. On the day that her daughter was born, she brought out the trinkets he had given her. He adored her, but she loved him only as a ghost would love, without feeling. She had lost her chi, her spirit.
To regain her spirit, Ying-ying is going to confront her past. This pain will free her spirit so she can cut her daughter's spirit free. Like a tiger, Ying-ying sits and waits for her daughter.
The Joy Luck Club has been lavishly praised for its literary techniques. One of the most successful aspects of Tan's techniques is her use of multiple points of view. Notice how Tan retells each story from the mothers' and daughters' points of view. This interweaving of viewpoints underscores the difficulty that the mothers and daughters have communicating with one another. How could they fully understand each other when each is getting only half the story? Shifting viewpoints also serves to unify the book, develop themes, and heighten reality.
This story alludes to Lena St. Clair's "Rice Husband." There, the narrator is Lena. She opens her story with a description of her mother's ability to see things before they happen. This foreshadows Ying-ying's discovery of Lena's misery. Like Ying-ying, Lena has become a ghost. Both women are suffering from a secret sorrow — the same sorrow. They have made miserable marriages. Ying-ying lost her beloved first husband to another woman and was able to love her second husband only after he died. Lena has subordinated her spirit to her husband and bitterly resents his domination.
Ying-ying sees her daughter's misery; Lena's husband Harold does not. Lena is similarly blind to the reality of her mother. She has no idea of her mother's past. She does not suspect that her mother was once married to another man; she has no inkling that her mother had an abortion. She believes that her father rescued her mother from a poor village; she never imagines that her mother was raised in great wealth. She sees only a frail old lady, not a vigorous, clever tiger. Both stories end the same way, with the poorly balanced table, a symbol of their lives, crashing to the floor.
The symbolism of this story reinforces the theme of appearance and reality. Lena appears to be happy, but she is miserable. Ying-ying appears to be a frail old lady, but she is really a tiger. The tiger itself is a symbol of duality. The gold and black creature has two sides. The gold side represents its fierce heart; the black side, its cunning and stealth. Like a tiger, Ying-ying appears to be asleep when she is awake. She "has one eye asleep, the other open and watching." Notice how the clever naming of Ying-ying's second husband also emphasizes duality. The "St." appears to be a martyr, rescuing his poor wife from a wretched life of misery. Yet it was Ying-ying who decided that it was time to marry — not St. Clair.
Even the symbol of the knife and watermelon suggests duality. Ying-ying's first husband plunged the knife into the watermelon to make a crass joke about her virginity. Later, the same symbol represents her abortion.
The other primary theme of this section is that strength lies in confronting the past. That is what Lena has begun to do in "Rice Husband," as she evaluates her life with Harold. She realizes that she has sold herself short, that she deserves far better than she has gotten. Here, Ying-ying determines to gather the threads of her past and use them as tools to cut her spirit loose. When she has once again regained her chi, her spirit, she can penetrate her daughter's hide and cut her tiger spirit loose. Ying-ying is aware that there will be a struggle, but she is confident that she can win. Freeing her daughter's strength will be her legacy.
Tan uses humor to relieve the seriousness of these themes. For example, Ying-ying calls her son-in-law "Arty-tecky" for "architect." Lena laughs at the mispronunciation; the reader laughs because we know that Lena and Harold are indeed "arty." They are shallow people taken in by trends. They pay far too much money for "hand-bleached floors" and "marbleized walls." Ying-ying's comments about "so-so security" are also humorous. The social security payments are really "so-so," for they do not provide enough money for her security.