Summary and Analysis
A remarried and pregnant Hulan visits Weili in prison in February 1949. Hulan has asked her new husband, Kuang An, to use his government connections to get Weili released. Two months later, the prison officials free her with no questions, no explanation, except that the document she must sign says "court error." With Auntie Du, who has come to prison to meet her, she returns to the apartment where she, Jimmy, and Danru had lived, and where Hulan, her husband, and Auntie Du now live.
Weili is profuse in her thanks to Kuang. She learns only later from Auntie Du that it wasn't he who obtained her release. Auntie Du herself had won Weili's freedom by telling the authorities that Weili was related to one of the high-ranking Communists about to take over Shanghai. (Hulan never finds out that her husband was not the one who got Weili out of prison.)
Weili sends a telegram to Jimmy in the U.S., and he invites her to come immediately to California as his wife. Weili gets a visa and tickets for three different routes out of China. To get Wen Fu to sign divorce papers again, Weili tricks him and his current "wife" into picking up a package needing signatures of both him and his wife. Before he can possess what he will later discover is a box of donkey dung, he must sign the papers acknowledging that he and Weili were divorced in 1941.
Within days, Wen Fu stalks Weili to her apartment, rapes her at gunpoint, tears up the divorce papers, and takes the tickets, but before he can leave, Hulan interrupts them. Between Weili and Hulan, they force him to remove his trousers, they retrieve the tickets, and they throw his trousers out the window to the street. As he chases after them, he vows Weili will never be through with him.
The next day, Weili is on a plane to California and six days later with Jimmy Louie. Five days after that, the Communists occupy Shanghai — and no one can leave.
About nine months later — maybe a little less — Pearl is born.
In Chapter 25, the narration returns to Pearl's point of view in the present tense, and she suddenly realizes that the terrible Wen Fu may have been her father, although Winnie is not direct about it here.
Pearl then tells her mother about her multiple sclerosis. Although Winnie is furious that Pearl should have to suffer such a disease — perhaps a legacy of Wen Fu, Winnie says — Pearl feels hopeful about herself now that her mother knows.
At Bao-bao's reception, Helen tells Pearl that all three of them — Winnie, Helen, and Pearl — should take a trip to China to obtain Chinese remedies to overcome Pearl's MS.
Chapter 26, the last chapter in the novel, is told in Winnie's voice in current time. Helen admits to Winnie that she knew all along that Wen Fu was a "bad man" and that she knew Winnie was worried Wen Fu might be Pearl's father.
Winnie goes to buy a replacement for the Kitchen God's picture in the little altar — hoping to find a god, perhaps as yet unknown, something more representative of hope and healing. The shop owner sells her an unmarked porcelain statue of a woman seated comfortably in her chair. This female statue will replace the Kitchen God, but she will not be called Mrs. Kitchen God; there will be no reference anymore to the cruel Kitchen God.
Winnie paints a name for the goddess in gold on the bottom. Pearl first sees it when Winnie is offering her some herbal Chinese remedies, and she cries when she realizes it is for her. Winnie tells Pearl that she can talk to the goddess and confide in her: "She will listen. She will wash away everything sad with her tears. She will use her stick to chase away everything bad. See her name: Lady Sorrowfree, happiness winning over bitterness, no regrets in this world."
As the novel comes to a quick close in these three chapters, it helps to put these events against the backdrop of ups and downs in Weili's life and well-being:
- down as a six-year-old girl abandoned by her mother, sent away by her father, and largely ignored by her uncle and aunts who assume responsibility for her upbringing
- up as the bride of an admired pilot and imminent war hero
- down as she experiences Wen Fu's pleasure in her humiliation and abuse
- up as she makes friends who recognize her strengths
- down as Wen Fu brings new shame and betrayals into her life
- up as she has her children
- down as three of them are taken from her
- up as Hulan agrees to help her escape
- down as Hulan betrays her by divulging her hiding place to Wen Fu
- up as she meets Jimmy Louie and later meets him again and plans escape with him
- down as she is arrested, brought to trial on half-truths and lies, and finally imprisoned
- up when she adjusts to her prison life, and when she is released before her two years are complete, and when Jimmy asks her to come immediately to the U.S. as his wife
- down as Wen Fu takes revenge on her trick at the telegraph office by raping her at gunpoint and threatening her emigration
- up when she terrorizes him with his own gun and strips him of his pants, and when she gets on the plane to the United States and Jimmy Louie
- down when she worries that Wen Fu's rape may have resulted not only in the conception of her only living daughter, but also in Pearl's life-threatening illness
- and finally up when she achieves a new level of trust and openness with Pearl, capped by the replacement of the Kitchen God with a goddess: Lady Sorrowfree.
Utilizing skillful control of character and motivation and a return to framework narrative, Tan maintains suspense and continues character development well into the last three chapters. Here are significant revelations about:
- how Weili is actually released from prison and becomes indebted to Hulan's Auntie Du
- the final humiliation of Weili and her modest vengeance on Wen Fu
- how Weili escapes from China
- why there is a question about Pearl's father
- how Pearl finally tells her mother about her multiple sclerosis
- how the emotional distance between Pearl and her mother is bridged
- how Helen has been using a non-existent brain tumor to get sympathy and to press for the sharing of secrets.
The longtime, apparently indestructible friendship between Winnie and Helen still thrives on secrets, as well as on their frequent arguments (usually trivial). Continuing secrets, for example, include: Winnie has never told Helen that it was Auntie Du and not Henry Kwong who got her released from prison; Helen wants Winnie to continue thinking Helen has a brain tumor so she will go with her to China for herbal remedies. Typical arguments in these final chapters include: Winnie's firm refusal of the last scallop offered her by Helen, their differing views of the expense of traveling to China, and why the tea they had in Hangchow was so sweet.
The end of Winnie's story and Pearl's immediate reactions leave a nagging uncertainty which will persist for both Winnie and Pearl: Was Pearl's biological father the despised Wen Fu or the beloved Jimmy Louie? In Chapter 4, Winnie says, "Wen Fu, that bad man, he was Pearl's father." Yet in Chapter 25, after Pearl asks, "Who are you saying was my father?" Winnie rushes to reassure her:
Daddy [Jimmy Louie] was your father. . . . Of course. I would never let that bad man claim you for his daughter. He would never have that from me. . . . Oh, I know what you are thinking. Of course, every baby is born with yin and yang. The yin comes from the woman. The yang comes from the man. When you were born I tried to see whose yang you had. I tried to see your daddy. I would say, Look she has Jimmy Louie's smile. I tried to forget everything else. But inside my heart I saw something else. . . . You looked like Mochou. You looked like Yiku. You looked like Danru, Danru especially. All of them together. All the children I could not keep but could never forget.
Winnie seems ambivalent even as she tries to convince Pearl. Her actions and thoughts in the closing scenes show her still growing and coping with difficult and unforeseen circumstances in her life — perhaps her fate: For example, an assertive, unvanquished Winnie displaces her grief over Pearl's Wen-like yang with new worries about MS, which she sees as an untouchable evil stalking Pearl. In another example, Winnie rips up and burns the grinning Kitchen God — Wen Fu's deified double — and sets out on a quest for a nebulous female quality, an unnamed strength to quell all the smirking Wen Fus who ever neglected, terrorized, and killed their children or intimidated, stalked, and raped women.
To Mrs. Hong, the proprietor's wife at Sam Fook's Trading Company, Winnie admits, "I am looking for a goddess that nobody knows. Maybe she does not yet exist." Winnie purchases a fallible goddess, one that the factory has forgotten to identify. The qualities of the smiling statue are traits that Winnie embraces for herself and for Pearl: comfortable-looking, unworried, wise, innocent, understanding. With her own hand, Winnie inscribes a name on her personal goddess. She is a blend of Mochou and Pearl, Winnie and Helen, Auntie Du and the women in the Shanghai prison and in Peanut's way station for runaway wives. The embodiment of hope and female empowerment, she could only be Lady Sorrowfree.
lox and bagels a popular breakfast combination or snack food, traditionally considered Jewish-American in origin, consisting of paper-thin slices of smoked salmon and a doughnut-shaped roll, often spread with cream cheese and served with pungent capers and fresh onion slices.
oy vay a Yiddish expression of dismay.
costume from Les Misèrables In the original production of the musical based on Victor Hugo's novel, one memorable dress was made of layers of irregular-shaped pieces of filmy fabric, hanging in tatters around the girl's legs.