Study Help Essay Questions


1. Discuss how the legend of the Kitchen God and Auntie Du's table altar relate to the overall structure and story of The Kitchen God's Wife, both at a literal and a symbolic level. Why do you think Tan used the legend as the nominal theme? Illustrate with examples.

2. Amy Tan opens the novel with the engagement banquet of a couple who seem to have little chance of lasting happiness and ends it with their wedding banquet. Why do you think she chose those events as part of the present-day framework for Winnie's story of her past? For your discussion, consider the betrothal of Weili to Wen Fu. Are there any signs in that engagement that the marriage might not be successful?

3. Discuss the kinds of actions and activities that help the female characters of the novel endure privations, terror, loss, and loneliness during the war with Japan. Consider especially Weili, Hulan, Auntie Du, and Peanut. You may also draw upon characters such as Min, San Ma, Wan Betty, Little Yu's mother, New Aunt, Old Aunt, and women prisoners in the Shanghai prison.

4. Using The Kitchen God's Wife as a source of ideas and examples, develop extended definitions of the following: feminism, feminist sisterhood, misogyny, repression, feudal marriage, and family.

5. Using this novel as a model and resource, define, contrast, and illustrate the following literary concepts and devices: historical fiction, saga, legend, framework, oral tradition, protagonist/antagonist, literary foils, irony, satire, and denouement.

6. Analyze the stratification of women in the traditional Chinese community, as presented in The Kitchen God's Wife. Using examples from the novel, show how positions such as the following differ from one another in society and in families: head wife, second wife, foster mother, concubine, servant, daughter, bride-to-be, bride, mother-in-law, illegitimate child, and entertainer.

7. Describe the support system that enables Weili to endure arrest, trial, public humiliation, media slander, and imprisonment. Also discuss how this period of Weili's life illustrates her progress in taking control over her life in contrast with the early years of her marriage.

8. Analyze the complex relationship between Weili/Winnie and Hulan/Helen from its beginning, through the war years, and into the present time. Why has the friendship continued, and even flourished, when the two women seem to be at odds so much of the time? Use examples from the novel.

9. Discuss the contributions to the elucidation and movement of the story provided by the following minor characters: San Ma, Min, Wan Betty, Old Mr. Ma, Mochou, Tessa and Cleo, Gan, and Little Yu's mother.

10. Compare Tan's portrayals of male characters in the novel — for example, Wen Fu, Jimmy Louie, Jiang Sao-yen, Jiaguo, Phil Brandt, Roger Kwong — with her portrayals of female characters. Illustrate with examples from the book.

11. Develop a personality profile of Wen Fu, illustrating his primary traits and motivations with examples from the novel. Include a discussion of how Wen Fu's manipulative behavior leaves him open to crafty plots by others such as Weili, Hulan, Jiang Sao-yen, and Auntie Du. Consider the symbolic significance of when and how he died (at Christmas of heart disease).

12. Analyze the conflicts between examples of these pairs of characters from the novel: wife/husband, mother/daughter, bride/mother-in-law, master/servant, officer/subordinate, and pairs of lovers, siblings, and business partners.

13. Discuss the role in the novel of seemingly incidental events or items such as these: Auntie Du's funeral banner, the Hangchow bathhouse, the Nanking pedicab, Hulan's red skirt, Weili's broken heel, the imperial green jade earrings, mah jong, the box of donkey dung, the wall scroll panels in Jiang's house, ten pairs of silver chopsticks, and airplane tickets.

14. Compose a woman's-eye view of World War II in contrast to the objective reporting of a history book, battlefield journal, or encyclopedia. Discuss the scenes of disorder and uncertainty as seen by women in transit from war zones to safety. Explain the hazards that women in flight contend with — for example, the threat of disease or injury, bad roads, inadequate news of the war effort, impure water supply, limited housing, primitive methods of transportation, infestations of vermin, famine, rationing, cold and exposure to the elements, faltering leadership, hostile insurgents, political upheaval, helplessness, divided loyalties, and inaccessible escape routes.

15. In an article in Glamour, Amy Tan comments that she is aware of the "danger of being cast as a spokesperson." Why might it be difficult for Tan to publish books, stories, and essays featuring feminism, mother/daughter relations, war brides, immigrants, the American Dream, and first-generation Asian Americans without being considered an apologist?

16. Analyze the Communist method of teaching Lu "One Thousand Characters in Ten Days" and Sequoyah's efficient syllabary and literacy program for the Cherokee nation. Explain why a similar program is not possible for the English language.

17. Compare the use of the New Year motif in George Eliot's Silas Marner and Tan's The Kitchen God's Wife. How do Godfrey Cass, Nancy Lammeter, Eppie, and Silas reflect a new beginning similar to the change that alters the mother-daughter relationship in the Louie family? Contrast customs in Raveloe and Lantern Yard with those of Shanghai, Kunming, Tsungming Island, and San Francisco's Chinatown.

18. Relate the destructive familial patterns in The Kitchen God's Wife to similar negative motifs in the Old Testament book of Genesis and in Tsao Hsueh-chin's Dream of the Red Chamber. Mention, for example, coercion, violence, duplicity, tyranny, apathy, selfishness, martyrdom, and patriarchy. Consider Shere Hite's opinions on the lives of women whom, she says, society, religion, and government relegate to subservient roles.

19. Compare Amy Tan's descriptions of the changes that uproot Chinese traditions and power structure with similar alterations in books such as Pearl Buck's The Good Earth, Esther Hautzig's The Endless Steppe, N. Scott Momaday's The Way to Rainy Mountain, Zlata Filipovich's Zlata's Diary, Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind, Theodora Kroeber's Ishi, Elie Wiesel's Night, Jessamyn West's Except for Me and Thee, and Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart.

20. Compare the immigration/first-generation American motifs of The Kitchen God's Wife and The Joy Luck Club with similar situations in books such as Jeanne and James Houston's Farewell to Manzanar, Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima, Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, Gish Jen's Typical American, Laura Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate, Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street, and Henry Roth's Call It Sleep.

21. Compare coping skills of strong female characters, especially Auntie Du, Winnie, and Helen in The Kitchen God's Wife with characters such as Scarlett O'Hara in Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind, Sethe in Toni Morrison's Beloved, Olivia Rivers in Ruth Prawar Jhabvala's Heat and Dust, Celie and Sofia in Alice Walker's The Color Purple, Janie in Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, Yoko and Ko in Yoko Kawashima Watkins' So Far from the Bamboo Grove, Sophie in William Styron's Sophie's Choice, and Sheba in Maya Angelou's poem Now Sheba Sings the Song. Extend this exercise to consider female protagonists in such films as Daughters of the Dust, The Piano, Fried Green Tomatoes, Steel Magnolias, Playing for Time, Julia, Shadowlands, and Places in the Heart.

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