Summary and Analysis Lena St. Clair: The Voice from the Wall


When she was a child, Lena St. Clair often wondered about a beggar whom her grandfather had sentenced to die in the worst possible way. She imagines all sorts of gruesome torture. Appalled by her interest in violence, her mother said that the way he died didn't matter. Lena thinks that it matters very much because knowing the worst that can happen to you can help you avoid it. The worst thing that happens to Lena is her mother's descent into madness.

Lena traces her mother's madness to a basement in their house in Oakland, California. As a child, Lena broke through a barricaded door and fell headlong into the cellar. To prevent Lena from going into the basement again, her mother told her that a bad man lived down there. After this incident, Lena began to see fantastic, horrible things everywhere.

Lena's mother came to America after World War II as a war bride. At the immigration center, Lena's father renamed his wife "Betty" St. Clair, and two years were subtracted from her age. She looks fearful in the photo of her taken that day, an emotion that remained with her. She cautions Lena about strangers and sees danger in even the most harmless events. Lena's father refuses to learn to speak Chinese, and Mrs. St. Clair cannot learn English. As a result, they have a great deal of trouble communicating. Lena's father puts words into his wife's mouth, but Lena finds out what her mother is really thinking about when they are alone together.

Lena is ten years old when her father is promoted. To mark his success, he moves the family across the bay to San Francisco, where they take an apartment at the top of a steep hill. Mrs. St. Clair is not happy with the apartment, and an encounter with a drunken man upsets her even more. She feels that this apartment is "not balanced" and that all their good luck will vanish. She discovers that she is pregnant, but even this news cannot lift her mood. Meanwhile, Lena listens through the wall to an Italian mother and daughter, Mrs. Sorci and Teresa, arguing and fighting in the adjacent apartment. Their arguments sound so violent that Lena believes that the mother has probably killed her daughter. When she glimpses the daughter a few days later, however, she can't believe that the girl looks so unscathed.

Soon afterward, Mrs. St. Clair loses the baby that she is carrymg. In her grief, she cries out about another son whom she thinks that she apparently killed. She then begins to lose her already-fragile grip on reality.

One night, the girl next door knocks on the door of Lena's apartment. Her mother, she says, has kicked her out. She uses the St. Clairs' fire escape to sneak back into her bedroom, and later that night, Lena hears the Italian girl and her mother screaming at each other again. She is astonished when she hears them reconcile and fall into each other's arms with love. Lena dreams of saving her mother from madness.

The theme of heritage is especially important in this section, as Lena explores the dual nature of her identity. The product of an English-Irish father and a Chinese mother, she is a combination of two cultures. Although her pale coloring makes her seem Caucasian, her eyes are unmistakably Chinese. Her nature, like her appearance, straddles two cultures. "I saw these things with my Chinese eyes, the part of me I got from my mother," she says. Like the beggar's death, there are two versions of reality here — Chinese and American. Imaginative, even horrifying visions haunt her; however, her dual vision enables her to maintain her own sanity while watching her mother slide into madness.

When Gu Ying-ying came to America, she was declared a Displaced Person because the immigration officials could not categorize her. Her name was changed to Betty St. Clair, and her birth was postdated by two years. This misclassification is a symbol for her new status: Stripped of her Chinese identity, she is, literally, a displaced person, adrift in an alien land. With the erasure of her identity, she has no place in the world. She cannot even communicate with her husband, a well-meaning but insensitive man who refuses to learn Chinese and insists that his wife learn English. When she is unable to communicate, he puts words into her mouth. In effect, he denies her the ability to communicate, and eventually, she descends into madness as a way of dealing with her isolation and loneliness.

The new apartment is a case in point. In an ironic comment, St. Clair announces that his family is "moving up in the world." He imagines this move to be "a move up" in a figurative and literal sense. His new job commands a greater salary, thus enabling him to afford a better home for his family. The family moves up the socioeconomic ladder, and the new apartment is literally perched on the top of a steep hill. The family lives higher up than they were before, but Mrs. St. Clair dislikes the apartment from the start. It is positioned badly, against Chinese nature. "This house was built too steep," she says, "and a bad wind from the top blows all your strength back down the hill." The wind imagery, central to the previous section, recurs here. In "Rules of the Game," the wind symbolized something that could be harnessed to fuel great power. Here, it represents a loss of power. Mrs. St. Clair cannot marshall "invisible strength"; it was taken from her along with her identity. In a vain attempt to realign the family's luck, she rearranges the furniture. Her attempt is a failure, and soon afterward, she loses the baby.

Note Mrs. St. Clair's obsession with rape, birth, and death. In the beginning of the section, she cautions Lena that the bad man in the basement will "plant five babies in her" and then devour her. Later, as she and Lena walk down the street, she cautions Lena to avoid strangers, who will snatch her and "make [her] have a baby." "And then," she adds, "when they find this baby in a garbage can, then what can be done?" The drunken Chinese man who nearly assaults Mrs. St. Clair whispers salaciously of sex. When she loses her baby son, she moans, "I had given no thought to killing my other son!" This utterance tells us that there is a great deal more behind her madness. Something happened in China — something that she cannot express, something which lies hidden behind her agony.

The squabbling between Mrs. Sorci and Teresa is an ironic counterpoint to Lena and her mother's miseries. Lena envies them their battles, their ability to voice their feelings, their love. She wishes that her mother would rant and scream — anything but retreat into the invisible wall of madness. She cries with joy when she realizes the strength of the bond that clasps the feuding Mrs. Sorci and her daughter.

At the end of this section, Lena dreams of a sacrifice that will bring her mother back to sanity. Her dream echoes An-mei Hsu's explanation of her mother's blood sacrifice in "Scar." To save Popo, the daughter slices a section of her arm into the broth. "Even when I was young," the narrator says, "I could see the pain of the flesh and the worth of the pain." Here, the sacrifice is futile. Horribly painful, it yields no blood nor any shredded flesh. Lena can only dream of its ability to pull her mother through the wall of madness.