Summary and Analysis
Lindo Jong: The Red Candle
Like earlier chapters, this one also deals with the theme of sacrifice and filial obligations. Earlier, An-mei's mother sacrificially mutilated herself for her mother; here, Lindo submits her life to her parents' plans for her future: "I once sacrificed my life to keep my parents' promise," the chapter begins. Lindo is willing to endure a carping, loveless marriage in order to ensure her parents' honor and prevent them from losing face. Only when she can escape with honor does she leave the doomed relationship with her husband.
Lindo explains that she was betrothed when she was only two years old — to a boy only a year old. By this time, people in cities were already making matches based on love, but Lindo's family was from the country and followed the old ways. When Lindo was twelve years old, the Fen River flooded the plains, ravaging the wheat crop, wrecking the land, and destroying their home. Since there was no insurance in those days, Lindo's family was suddenly penniless. Her father moved all the family members — except Lindo — to Wushi, a town near Shanghai. Lindo stayed behind to live with her future in-laws, the Huangs.
When Lindo arrived at the Huangs' home, she was in awe of the magnificence of their mansion; immediately, she sensed that they were wealthier than her family and that they looked down on her. The Huangs' house, however, was imposing only from the outside; inside, it was unadorned and uncomfortable, with barely enough room for all twenty relatives. There was no celebration when Lindo arrived; she was immediately shown to the servants' quarters.
Determined to honor her parents and prevent them from losing face, Lindo spent the next few years working hard — learning how to cook, sew, and clean — because she had promised her parents that she would be a good wife.
Lindo's monologue to her daughter reinforces Tan's theme of the generation gap. To Lindo and to Chinese women of her generation, it was accepted without question that children would sacrifice everything for their parents' wishes. To the Chinese-American children of today's generation, however, promises and sacrifices have little meaning: Lindo's daughter cannot even honor a simple promise to come to dinner. The girl can offer only feeble excuses. When she was a girl, Lindo had no choice. She had to obey.
Very quickly, Lindo discerned that her future husband, Tyan-yu, was arrogant and spoiled and that her future mother-in-law, Huang Taitai, was cruel and detached. When Lindo turned sixteen, Huang Taitai set the date for the upcoming marriage, planning an elaborate celebration. The Japanese invasion, however, kept nearly all the guests away.
So distraught that she wanted to throw herself into the Fen River, Lindo looked into the mirror and suddenly realized that even though Tyan-yu might own her body, he could never possess her soul. That night, the marriage was not consummated. Tyan-yu fell asleep, and Lindo blew out his end of the tradition-old marriage candle, which was lighted at both ends.
Months passed and Tyan-yu still wouldn't touch Lindo. Relieved, she came to love him like a brother, but he turned against her and lied to his mother, blaming Lindo for their lack of children. Huang Taitai confined Lindo to bed, took away all her jewelry, but still Lindo bore no children. By chance, noticing that a servant girl was pregnant by her boyfriend, Lindo devised a plan to make the Huangs think it was their idea to end the marriage. She awakened the entire house, screaming that in a dream, she saw the wind blow out Tyan-yu's end of the marriage candle: Their marriage was doomed. Furthermore, in her dream she saw that Tyan-yu had impregnated a servant girl and, moreover, that the girl had imperial blood.
Lindo was granted a divorce, Tyan-yu married the servant girl, and Lindo traveled to America. Now, every few years when she has extra money, Lindo buys herself yet another twenty-four-carat gold bracelet, and once a year, she takes off all her gold and thinks about the day that she realized that she could be true to herself — as true and pure as twenty-four-carat gold.
The imagery of gold, which opened this section, ends this section, underscoring Tan's theme of faithfulness to one's best self. The soldier in the movie likens his promise to be faithful to his girlfriend to gold. Yet, "his gold is like yours," Lindo says scornfully to her daughter: "It is only fourteen carats." Lindo is emphasizing that the soldier's promise, like her daughter's, will not be honored. Only twenty-four-carat gold, like a sacred promise, is pure.
By the end of this chapter, the purity of the twenty-four-carat gold parallels the flesh-and-blood imagery of the previous section. As An-mei and her mother had to reach deeply into themselves to find their identities, Lindo likewise has had to look deeply within her soul to find her true worth. She realized that the loveless marriage would not destroy her because only she could access her true identity. The twenty-four-carat bracelets symbolize Lindo's true worth, genuine and inviolate. "I remember the day I finally had a genuine thought and could follow it where it went," she says at the end of the chapter. "That was the day I was a young girl with my face under a red marriage scarf. I promised not to forget myself."
Another key theme in this section is that of appearance versus reality. Outside, the Huangs' home appears to be impressive and spacious; inside, it is cramped and uncomfortable. In the same way, Lindo's marriage to the Huangs' son appears to be a step up in the world for her; in reality, she soon realizes that she is doomed to a life of servitude — until she realizes her true, golden worth.
the village matchmaker came to my family when I was just two years old . . . Many generations ago, most marriages were arranged without the consent of the man and woman involved. The rise of a strong middle class, however, and the growth of democracy gradually brought tolerance for romantic marriages, based on free choice of the partners involved. Nonetheless, arranged marriages are still common in some cultures today, including some Indian cultures and aristocratic families. The most extreme application of the custom of arranged marriages was in pre-revolutionary China; then, a bride and groom often met for the first time on their wedding day.
The candle was a marriage bond that . . . meant I couldn't divorce and I couldn't ever remarry, even if Tyan-yu died. The traditional Asian value placed on marriage is illustrated in the customs surrounding its dissolution. When one partner dies, for example, widowers and widows must often wait a prescribed time before remarrying; they must also wear mourning clothing and perform ceremonial duties for the dead. While many cultures permit divorce, in some societies divorce is uncommon because it requires the repayment of dowries or other monetary or material exchanges in order to prevent the violation of religious laws. In pre-revolutionary China, women were never allowed to remarry, even if their husbands died.
When I turned sixteen on the lunar new year . . . Traditionally, Chinese people reckon their birthdays on the new year. Everyone becomes a year older on the day of the New Year — not on the day they were born. For Chinese people, the year, rather than the month in which a person is born, is important because the Chinese zodiac cycle changes each year.