Summary and Analysis
Rose Hsu Jordan: Without Wood
As a child, Rose believed everything that her mother told her. A timid youngster, she resisted sleep, fearing nightmares. Her mother told her that Old Mr. Chou guarded the door to dreams. One night, she dreamed that she was in Old Mr. Chou's nighttime garden, where he chased her through the garden, shouting, "See what happens when you don't listen to your mother!"
Thirty years later, Rose's mother is still trying to make her daughter listen. They meet at the funeral for China Mary, a mother who has helped many children in the neighborhood. Rose's mother criticizes Rose for being too thin and for confiding in her psychiatrist rather than in her own mother. Later, Rose considers what her mother said. She realizes that she has been feeling confused, caught in a dark fog of conflicting emotions.
Rose has been telling her friends different versions of her break-up with Ted. For example, Rose told Waverly about the physical pain of divorcing Ted; she told Lena that she feels relieved to be free of him. She told her psychiatrist that she wants revenge — yet, despite her vivid descriptions of revenge, her psychiatrist looks bored.
To settle her conflicting emotions, Rose views all the possessions that she and Ted amassed during their marriage. Soon afterward, Ted sends her a check for $10,000, along with the divorce papers. Is Ted trying to trick her into accepting this money as a full settlement? Is he saying that he still loves her? Unable to decide how to handle the check and papers, Rose stuffs them in a drawer. Her mother once explained Rose's penchant for indecision by saying that Rose was "without wood." Lacking this sturdy fiber, Rose bends in all directions — she cannot stand alone, cannot take a stand for herself.
Rose walks in the garden, a once-immaculate assortment of flowers and herbs, now gone wild from neglect. She then goes to bed and stays there for three days. On the fourth day, she has a nightmare about Old Mr. Chou and awakens when her mother calls her on the telephone. Ted phones and presents his demands. Anxious to remarry, he wants the divorce papers signed immediately, and he also wants the house as part of the settlement. Rose breaks into gales of laughter when she realizes that Ted has been having an affair. She invites him to come over that night, with no idea about what she is going to say.
She ends up showing him the overgrown garden. As they walk through the plants, she hands him the unsigned divorce papers and announces that she will not move out of the house. That night, she dreams of her mother and of Old Mr. Chou and his garden. In the garden, she discovers her mother tending a wild sea of weeds that, she boasts, she herself planted.
Vividly, this section describes how Rose finally finds her "voice," her identity, and the ability to trust herself. From early childhood, Mrs. Hsu attempted to teach her daughter to listen to her and, thus, to learn how to listen to herself. But Rose was a timid child, unsure of where to find the truth, and she grew into a timid woman, uncertain of herself and unwilling to make decisions. Eventually, her indecision frustrated her husband, and the couple grew apart. In her mother's words, Rose was "without wood," lacking both strength and substance. She rejected her mother's wisdom and looked to Americans' opinions of her.
This characterization echoes Tan's own rejection of her mother and her heritage. "I felt ashamed of being different and ashamed of feeling that way," Tan said in an interview in the Los Angeles Times. By the time that Tan was an adolescent, she rejected everything Chinese. It was only after she matured that she returned to her heritage, much like her fictional creation, Rose. "It was only later that I discovered there was a serious flaw with the American version," Rose says. "There were too many choices."
Tan uses two important symbols to represent Rose's maturation. The first is the flower and herb garden that Ted had been cultivating. A garden is a traditional symbol for growth and rebirth, and as in the Bible, this garden will serve as a backdrop for betrayal. When Rose and Ted were happily married, Rose loved the house and the manicured garden. She thought that it was an outward manifestation of the healthy flowering of her marriage. It was their Garden of Eden, perfect and without sin. In reality, it was little more than another sign of her husband's obsessive nature. Every weekend, he sorted and pruned the plants, much as he controlled Rose's life. He rejected anything that could not be categorized — like the cutting of aloe vera that Lena gave Rose: There was no room for this stray, single succulent in Ted's garden. Everything had its ordained place in Ted's orderly world view. Like a god, he controlled it all. With Ted's departure, the garden went to ruin, much as Rose's life fell into disarray. The calla lilies languished, the daisies drooped — much like Rose, who felt defeated by the sudden loss of Ted's emotional support. Like the flowers, she was unable to hold up her own head and face the world. Her very name — Rose — reinforced her place within Ted's garden. And, as in the Garden of Eden, there was a snake in Ted's garden: Ted himself. As Rose's mother suspected, Ted has been "doing monkey business" for quite some time. Now he wants a divorce so that he can marry his lover. And Rose would probably have given him, dutifully, what he wanted — had she not strolled into the garden and looked closely at it.
Initially appalled by the clumps of weeds, she rushes to the garden shed for pesticides and weed killers. But this urge doesn't feel right; she has the sense that someone is laughing at her. Rose realizes that she doesn't want to get rid of the weeds. Instead, she goes to call the lawyer — to seek outside help. But this notion is not right either. She suddenly breaks down emotionally and takes to her bed. When she is awakened — significantly, by her mother's call to life — Rose realizes that she can survive without Ted. This is where Tan emphasizes another key symbol, the weeds. Rose is no longer the delicate flower that her name suggests. Now she is a weed — a tough survivor. The weeds in the garden have sprouted up in the patio cracks, anchoring themselves in the side of the house and spreading under the loose shingles. Weeds are strong, Rose realizes — so strong, in fact, that they are capable of burying themselves in the very foundation of a house. When that happens, you have no choice but to pull down the building. Like the weeds, Rose has taken root in the foundation of her home. She has no intention of relinquishing it to Ted. It is hers; he will have to tear it down to get it away from her.
The dream sequence at the chapter's close reinforces this symbol of Rose's newfound identity and strength. In the dream, Rose's mother is walking with Old Mr. Chou through the foggy garden. Notice that Rose is no longer afraid of Old Mr. Chou, her longtime enemy. She now welcomes sleep because she is in touch with her inner self. She is at peace. And her mother is planting weeds! This is an inversion of our expectations. People plant flowers; they pluck weeds. But Rose's mother realizes the strength of weeds. They aren't fragile roses that wither in the glaring sun or driving rain; they are hearty survivors. In the garden, they are already "spilling out over the edges and running wild in every direction." Like them, Rose has taken root. Like the tough weeds, she can now survive life's blows.