In The Kitchen God's Wife, Amy Tan has so expertly combined many diverse literary elements that they become individually transparent to the reader, who becomes caught up in the events and the lives of its characters. The reader is a little like a hungry diner tasting for the first time the product of an elaborate recipe with a unique and haunting taste that cannot be traced to its many individual ingredients. Tan's "literary ingredients" include structural framework, point of view, and voice; Chinese culture; Chinese history; humor; and figures of speech and other stylistic tools.
Structural Framework, Point of View, and Voice
Concerning the first category of ingredients, Tan's use of the first-person singular voice is hardly unique in literature, especially in the narration of personal experiences. However, Tan employs the first-person voice in unique ways that facilitate the structural framework of the novel: The heart of the novel (Chapters 5 through 24) is Winnie Louie's first-person narration of her life story to her daughter, Pearl, including digressions and comments. This technique exemplifies the traditional literary form of confession, a self-told revelation of one's life and philosophy often intended as a psychological release from guilt and blame through introspection, explanation, and rationalization, blended with the narration of events. Winnie attempts to free herself of the burden of being an abandoned child, a battered wife during wartime, a mother terminating unwanted pregnancies through abortion, a jailed prisoner, and a runaway wife, hoping to convince Pearl that adult choices made under duress — often just trying to stay alive and preserve some spiritual and emotional wholeness-transcend morality. Winnie's confession, by virtue of its honesty and vigor, indicates that she is neither timid nor contrite in her efforts to gain Pearl's understanding and acceptance, as well as to put her own life into perspective from the vantage point of her age.
Winnie's narrative follows in a rich literary tradition; for example, consider the story told by Jane Pittman, a participant in the Louisiana civil rights movement and title character in Ernest Gaines' fictional The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, and that of Jack Crabb, the bi-national spokesman and picaresque participant at the Battle of Little Big Horn in Thomas Berger's Little Big Man. Winnie speaks not only from her own experience, but often represents the ongoing experiences of others: pilots pitted against a superior enemy air force, wives doomed to wait and hope, refugees relying on shreds of rumor for their compass needle, and noncombatants who must choose an allegiance in chancy times. Winnie's voice accommodates views and ideas of her mother, Helen, Auntie Du, Min, Peanut, Jimmy Louie, even Wen Fu and other characters, but the controlling vision is always Winnie's.
This confession of Winnie's past is set within the framework of present-day events and concerns, still narrated in first person, but with a difference. One of the central issues of the novel is the emotional distance between Winnie and her daughter, Pearl, both of whom are entrenched in secrets that each of them withholds from the other. Tan shifts point of view between the two women to highlight this psychological separation: In the first two chapters, Pearl introduces the present-day circumstances, including her concern about the multiple sclerosis she hides from her mother. Pearl narrates this not only in first person, but in present tense, giving immediacy and urgency to the opening of the novel. Her first-person voice returns again immediately after her mother completes her confession (Chapter 25). In Chapters 3 and 4, Winnie leads up to her confession in first person, past tense, and returns to the same voice and tense in Chapter 26. Significantly, Winnie's final words of the novel, as if spoken to Pearl, are in present tense.
Remarkably the events which set in motion the story's structure are precipitated by neither of the two principals — Winnie or Pearl — but by a third party, Helen, Winnie's argumentative and opinionated foil. By manipulating her own secrets and threatening to "tell all" in the interest of clearing the air as part of the Chinese New Year tradition, Helen is the agent who brings Winnie and Pearl face to face in order for them to share secrets and bridge the emotional distance between them. Helen functions as a kind of insider deus ex machina.
Amy Tan's Chinese-American heritage bubbles to the surface so naturally that the reader gradually becomes suffused in Chinese lore, like the fragrance given off by the green tea leaves that cover the floor of the women's bathhouse in Hangchow while they wash and relax in hot water. Examples of Chinese culture that contribute substantially to the story include:
- the rituals and celebrations of the Chinese New Year
- accepted roles for women in society and in the family
- polygamy as a feudal custom
- dowry for a bride
- acceptability of concubines
- the manner of opening presents
- yin/yang energies
- curses, fates, good luck, bad luck
- fortune telling
- table-top altars to household gods
- Chinese zodiac and astrology
- Chinese numerology
- Buddhist ceremonies and related ideas, especially about death
- Chinese foods and eating customs
Tan's smooth integration of a particular culture into her storyline has many significant literary counterparts, even if we limit our view to regional, historical, and ethnic cultures within the United States — for example, Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind, Toni Morrison's Beloved, Richard Wright's Native Son, John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, and any of Tony Hillerman's detective novels.
Just as Tan has immersed the reader in cultural lore, she has also plunged the reader into the maelstrom of modern Chinese history, not the most familiar locale or period of world history for American readers. Her storyline is woven tightly through the events of internal political infighting between Nationalists and Communists, as well as the center-stage imperialist actions of the Japanese.
(Key events are listed in the earlier section of these Notes titled Chronology of Historical and Fictional Events.) Direct references as well as allusions are made to such significant elements in Chinese history as:
- the history of the Kuomintang, beginning in patriotism and valor and deteriorating over the years into corruption and brutality
- the history of communism in China, in much the reverse pattern — beginning haltingly and, amidst suppression and disdain, gradually growing into strength and dedicated leadership
- the power of the warlords during periods of weak central government
- the assistance and influence of the United States in China, including the unusual relationship between Claire Chennault and the Nationalist government, represented by Chiang Kai-shek
- the Nationalists' own accidental bombing of Shanghai, as well as later bombings by the Japanese of Shanghai, Nanking, Kunming, and many other cities
- the gradual encroachment of the Japanese territorial takeovers, requiring moves not only of the Chinese air bases, but also of the Nationalist seat of government
- the importance of the Burma Road, and the result of the British in closing it temporarily at a crucial time
- the Japanese occupation of Shanghai and their recruiting of collaborators
- the Nationalist abandonment of mainland China for a final stand on Formosa (Taiwan) as the Communists establish the People's Republic of China on the mainland.
The history Tan did not mention is as noteworthy as what she included. For example, Weili as a young Shanghai schoolgirl must have learned something of the Japanese encroachments in northern China that preceded the Chinese declaration of war against Japan in 1937. However, she may not have been aware of the parallel invasions of territory by the Germans in Europe that preceded the declaration of World War II in 1939. Weili makes no mention of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, which brought the U.S. into the war, or the use of the U.S. atom bomb to end the war, although she celebrates the defeat of the Japanese, without mentioning why they surrendered. The absence of information about such major foreign incidents in the stories of participants illustrates that, to those directly involved in their own survival, distant events do not seem significant and may not even be known.
Amy Tan's depiction of the effects of the Chinese-Japanese War on fictional characters belongs to a long and respected tradition of works written by authors who, without firsthand knowledge, intensify for the reader the realities of war by placing imaginary victims in the midst of real disasters of war. In this way, they create for the reader scenes which become immediate and tangible with dust, fear, shrieks of pain, and the smell of death. Fiction thus allows us to experience the stampede at Antietam, firebombs over Dresden, cries of the wounded whom Napoleon deserted on his flight from Moscow, and the rain of Patriot missiles during the Persian Gulf War. This tradition is further illustrated in such novels as The Red Badge of Courage (Stephen Crane), The Persian Boy (Mary Renault), Fallen Angels (Walter Dean Myers), and Gone with the Wind (Margaret Mitchell).
Like these forerunners, Tan relies on research and secondhand descriptions to create fictitious firsthand accounts of fear and panic. In this novel, Weili/Winnie identifies this terrible mental state by the Chinese word taonan — the loss of logic, hope, and sanity preceding flight from looming destruction. In the life-threatening moment when thinking equates with self-preservation, Hulan makes choices like those that save Crane's Henry Fleming, Renault's Bagoas, Myers' green recruits in Vietnam, and Mitchell's Scarlett O'Hara. For Hulan, staying alive during the bombardment of Nanking means carrying a stout stick and clubbing anyone who threatens to steal her purloined pedicab, with which she rescues Winnie from trampling, or worse.
In the style of Randall Jarrell's poignant five-line poem "Death of the Ball Turret Gunner," Tan identifies with the false detachment experienced by the Kuomintang airman. She even manages to find a shred of hope for the barbarous Wen Fu, who luxuriates in clouds as his fighter plane mounts to the skies. In a somber mood, she visualizes how planes loaded with bombs violate all nature, including human life, by focusing on isolated limbs and debris in the wake of a Japanese bombing of the Kunming marketplace, and by describing the deathbed agony of Gan, Winnie's "ghost lover," who is disemboweled as a result of air combat.
Conrad Richter's novel The Light in the Forest depicts the homeless True Son, an innocent victim, reared by the Lenni Lenape, who suffers post-war trauma after being returned to a hostile family and community. Similar in its empathy, Tan's novel pictures Winnie as a septuagenarian quailing at the squawk of a smoke alarm as though her abusive husband had returned from the afterlife to degrade and torment her. As Jimmy Louie surmises, tenuous human relations that are fraught with shortages of food, fear of invasion, makeshift living arrangements, and separation from family are likely to snap under the strain of protracted war.
The success of such fictionalized war images derives from the author's ability to reduce thousands of maimed bodies, burned-out buildings, collapsed governmental structures, ruined dreams, and shattered relationships to a handful of realistic characters surrounded by glimpses of the walking wounded — the widowed Wan Bettys, the poorly supplied Jiaguos, tattered evacuees from targeted cities, and unburied remains of noncombatants whose lives end during an accidental bombing of an unsuspecting city.
More powerful than statistical records, chronicles, histories, logbooks, film clips, and journalistic reportage, the fictional mode allows the reader to experience a miniaturized story of struggle that personalizes war. Ken Burns' recounting of the American Civil War, both in print and on video, provides comprehensive information and insights from numerous points of view; in contrast, by focusing on Winnie, Tan presents the reader an experience in a cruel war from the perspective of a single life.
Lest the reader be overwhelmed and horrified by unrelieved accounts of suffering or deprivation, Tan allows two of her main characters — Winnie and Helen — to survive many troublesome circumstances with humor, both intentional and unintentional. Winnie's humor is usually gentle, frequently subtle, sometimes unknowing. For example, Winnie comments about agreeing to an arranged marriage: "And suddenly someone came knocking at my door — and he was charming, a reason to dream about a better life. What else could I do? I let him in."
Winnie's telephone conversation with Pearl in Chapter 1 illustrates her accidental humor:
- Pearl learns from her mother about Auntie Du's death: "What was it?" Pearl asks. "A stroke?" Her mother answers, "A bus."
- Winnie (who co-owns a flower shop with Helen) says of Auntie Du, "She was a good lady. Fourteen wreaths already," adding in a whisper, "Of course, we are giving everyone twenty-percent discount."
- Pearl's husband Phil tries to tell Winnie that his family will stay in a motel when they visit. Winnie says, "Why waste money that way? You can stay at my house, plenty of rooms." Phil says, "No, no, really. It's too much trouble. Really." And Winnie replies, "Trouble for who?"
Helen's humorous comments or retorts often have a bite to them, more a reflection of her lack of education in manners than of any malice or criticism. Commenting on a newcomer to Jimmy's church, Helen says, "He's a doctor, but he only put a five-dollar bill in the offering tray."
When Winnie is critical of Helen's purchase of a fish that is not fresh, she asks Helen, "Ai, do you know what happens when fish are three days old?" Helen immediately replies, "They swim out to sea."
And when Helen refers to the new business of their mutual friend, Wan Betty, she makes an approving appraisal with: "A clothing shop. Ladies' things, all discount."
Figures of Speech and Other Stylistic Tools
A student of language both as reader and professional writer, Amy Tan demonstrates her own gift of integrating literary tools such as figures of speech and other stylistic tools so well that they become a natural part of her writing. Sprinkled throughout the narrative, her usages can dazzle the reader when the occasion calls for a skilled turn of phrase. Several examples are illustrated below.
Everyone in the family has been calling him Bao-bao ever since he was a baby, which is what baobao means, "precious baby."
It is the altar for Grand Auntie's good-luck god, the Chinese crèche.
. . . the way she could peel an apple all in one long curly piece so that it lay on my hand like a flat yellow snake.
I had seen many moving pictures before with my mother, all silent: Charlie Chaplin, the fatty man, policemen and fire engines, the cowboys running their racehorses in a circle.
He who pats the horse's ass deserves the dung of a donkey.
When the tree dies, the grass underneath withers.
She always called me syin ke, a nickname, two words that mean "heart liver," the part of the body that looks like a tiny heart.
But when she turned around, she held out her hand to me and said, "Tang jie" — sugar sister, the friendly name we sometimes used for one another when we were younger.
dialect and idiom
"Hey, Phil, bro'," Bao-bao calls, pouring more champagne.
And later I heard that "cat's ears" was only a local expression for wonton soup.
When servants tell you there's a ghost, it means something is wrong and they are not in the position to tell you why.
These girls were called "roadside wives," and every few steps, it seemed, I passed one standing in front of a three-stool restaurant, or a wine shop only as wide as a door, or a steep stairway leading to a second-story teahouse.
Of course, the next morning we heard what really happened.
I could not make just one choice, I had to make two: Let me live. Let my father die.
The cloth holding all this in was thin, had never had hot water poured over it to tighten the threads.
Steamed fish doesn't taste good the next day.
He is not Santa Claus. More like a spy — FBI agent, CIA, Mafia, worse than IRS, that kind of person!
She pulled out an orange and put that on the table, then two bags of airline peanuts, restaurant toothpicks, her extra wallet for tricking robbers. She turned the purse sideways and spilled out all sorts of other junk in case a war breaks out and we have to run away like the old days: two short candles, her American naturalization papers in a plastic pouch, her Chinese passport from forty years ago, one small motel soap, one washcloth, one pair each of knee-high stockings and nylon panties, still brand-new.
The tail of the dragon was nudging Peanut, and he turned out to be Wen Fu.
Just like a dragon whose tail had been stepped on. She did not know how to hide her feelings the way I did.
This was the mock play the village people put on every year on the last day, the same old tradition.
She was the senior wife, the one who approved the spending of household money.
She said that a woman-body built its own nest once a month.
Now that I remember it, that was when our friendship took on four splits and five cracks.
The old revolutionaries, the new revolutionaries, the Kuomintang and the Communists, the warlords, the bandits, and the students — gwah! gwah! gwah! — everybody squabbling, like old roosters claiming the same sunrise.
It was a rare little fish, called wah-wah yu, because it cried just like a baby — wah-wah! — and it could wave its arms and legs.
I was not worried, because I could feel it swimming inside of me, turning its body around, pushing with its feet, rolling its head.
She was tearing it away — my protective shell, my anger, my deepest fears, my despair.
It was his bad heart that kept him alive! And now I was the one left with a bad heart.
Two? Only two people wanted that job?
Each time hope failed for someone else, I made a promise, promise after promise.
I watched my daughter open her mouth wide like a baby bird, and my mother dropped the morsel in.
Unfortunately Helen's mind wanders everywhere, like a cow following grass wherever its mouth goes.