The Kitchen God's Wife : Essay Q&A
1-Tan uses Pearl’s point of view at both the beginning and near the end of the novel. Why is Pearl’s point of view important in the novel?
Pearl’s point of view is important because it both anchors and deepens the emotional impact of Winnie’s story.
Pearl’s point of view at the beginning of the novel allows readers to see Winnie as they themselves might see her, as a quirky, cranky old Chinese woman. Although Pearl feels some duty to her mother, she does not share her superstitions or traditions. She has a modern, American point of view; to her eyes, Winnie is old fashioned and tiresome. As a daughter, Pearl feels that she is more sophisticated than her mother, but she also feels that her mother sees her as a failure, especially as a mother to her own unruly daughters. She makes assumptions about Winnie that readers, caught in Pearl’s point of view, share.
Pearl’s point of view at the end of the novel, however, has been influenced by Winnie’s narrative. She sees her mother differently after hearing her harrowing life story, and she understands the fears behind Winnie’s superstitions and strict parenting style. That Winnie has revealed her deepest secrets allows Pearl to reveal her secrets in turn, and the bond between mother and daughter deepens. Readers, too, see Winnie differently; she is no longer a stereotype of an old Chinese woman, but she is a woman with depth and wisdom.
On a practical level, Tan uses Pearl’s point of view to anchor Winnie’s story, to give Winnie an audience that needs to hear and understand her. Otherwise, her story alone would just be a sad, but stirring story of one woman’s triumph over hardship. Instead, because the story is told to Pearl, the story becomes a pathway for Winnie to show her love for her daughter. It becomes a story for daughters everywhere, a story that links women from generation to generation.
How is Winnie’s storytelling like that of someone telling a fairytale? Why would Tan make Winnie’s story similar to a fairytale?
Winnie’s story has all the basics of a fairytale—a young, powerless princess waits for a prince to rescue her from a terrible prison—but the reality of her tale makes clear that a woman’s life is rarely a fairytale.
Winnie begins her tale with a once-upon-a-time quality; once, there was a young, high-born girl who felt that the anything was possible, until her mother left her and shattered her world. With incredible detail, Winnie describes her life in her father’s house contrasted to the life she lived after he banished her, a life like that of a neglected stepchild. She reveals that she has the sensibilities of a princess: she is polite, accomplished, sensitive to beauty, kind. The old China that she describes for Pearl seems otherworldly, even barbaric, and populated with cruel creatures such as Wen Fu and his mother. There are witchlike characters, such as the fortune teller, and omens, such as the fallen scissors. She is tricked, much like innocent girls in fairytales are tricked, into marrying a man who turns out to be anything but a prince.
When Winnie meets Jimmy Louie, she describes him much like a prince. He is tall, polished, intelligent, and most of all, he is a gentleman. They dance, like a couple at a ball, and Winnie thinks the moment is magical. When she meets him again in Shanghai and they fall in love, she believes she has finally found someone who will rescue her from her nightmares.
But it is not really Jimmy who rescues Winnie. It is Winnie herself, with help from Auntie Du. In this respect, Winnie’s tale is not a fairytale but a reality tale. In reality, princes do not always come along; sometimes, women must engineer their own escapes, and this is what Winnie does, first by consulting Peanut and then by leaving Wen Fu. Even when she is imprisoned, Jimmy is powerless to save her. Auntie Du, like a practical, real-world godmother, arranges her release. In this real-life fairytale, women are the strong ones.
By making Winnie’s story like that of a fairytale, Tan actually makes her tale brutally real. Her tale seems to say, “Yes, bad things happen. Yes, evil people do exist. But hope is real, too. And with hope you are armed to defeat anything.”
Why, according to Winnie, has her life been filled with such bad luck?
Winnie believes that Fate determines the course of one’s life, but she also believes that people can make choices that influence that course for good or bad.
Winnie tells Pearl that she was born with good luck, but when her mother made the choice to leave her, she was plunged into a life of bad luck. Throughout most of her story, she describes her life as a chain of cause and effect events that seem to be out of her hands. Her mother’s abandonment started the chain that led to her bad marriage that lead to her children’s deaths that led to her imprisonment. Other events, such as World War II, are also out of her hands.
However, Winnie also believes that some things are in one’s own hands. Her life story has taught her that. When she looks back, she sees that some of the choices she made—or could have made—brought her bad luck. She sees if she had not let Peanut draw her away from the fortune teller, she might have changed her bad fortune. If she had been smarter and stood up for herself, rather than being urged to marry Wen Fu, she might have married someone else. Slowly, Winnie comes to realize that the choices she makes—the chances she dares to take—can alter her fate. She tells Pearl that “chance is the first step you take,” as in her decision to seek Peanut in Shanghai, and that “luck is what comes after,” such as when she reconnects with Jimmy on her way to see Peanut. The biggest chance Winnie takes, when she refuses to apologize to Wen Fu in order to avoid jail, leads to her biggest bit of luck: she eventually gets to America and marries Jimmy. In that way, she took her fate into her own hands.
Winnie concludes that her bad luck was a mixture of Fate and bad choices on her part, and once she had the courage to take chances and seek a better life for herself, her luck changed.
How is the Kitchen God’s wife an important symbol in the novel?
The Kitchen God’s wife symbolizes women whose value is solely determined by men. Winnie draws many parallels between her own life and that of the Kitchen God’s wife. The Kitchen God’s wife was hardworking and dutiful—a good wife—yet her husband cast her out for another, lesser woman. Then, when he simply confessed his wrongdoing, he was rewarded by being made into a god. The wife received no reward for her work or her kindness whatsoever.
When Winnie first married, she believed what she had been taught: good wives make sacrifices to make their husbands happy. She cooked and cleaned and made her body available to Wen Fu, but she was not valued for her hard work and sacrifices. Instead, she was punished and made even more miserable, while Wen Fu was allowed to prosper from his lies and cruelty. Even those who witness Wen Fu’s depravity and brutality will not come to Winnie’s defense. Like the Kitchen God, Wen Fu is rewarded for his behavior, while Winnie’s goodness goes unrecognized.
Winnie never lets Wen Fu convince her that she has no value, however. She finds the strength to assert her own value, to leave him and to seek a man who appreciates her. She becomes what the Kitchen God’s wife is not: a woman who does not need a man to tell her what her value is. For this reason, she will not place the Kitchen God’s wife in Pearl’s alter. Instead, she creates Lady Sorrowfree, a woman who stands for a woman’s compassion and strength.
Near the end of the novel, Pearl says, “. . . it is enough to remember—all the things you thought you had forgotten but were never forgotten, all the hopes that can still be found.” Why is memory key torepairing Pearl’s and Winnie’s relationship as mother and daughter?
The relationship between Pearl and Winnie has been colored by memories, and until those memories are sorted through and clarified, their relationship falters.
Pearl’s attitude towards her mother is colored mainly by her memory of being slapped by her mother at her father’s funeral. That slap signified for Pearl all her failures, all her separateness from her mother. She felt that Winnie was always watching for her to slip up—and always ready to punish her if she did. She felt that she was never good enough in Winnie’s eyes.
When Winnie reveals her memories of her harrowing life in China, however, those memories clarify Pearl’s memories. Pearl learns about Wen Fu, and she learns that Winnie has always been afraid that Pearl was Wen Fu’s daughter and had perhaps inherited his bad character. Pearl understands that Winnie has always been on the watch for Wen Fu’s temper and cruelty in Pearl. She also understands that the slap was motivated not by Winnie’s disappointment in Pearl, but by her own fears that Pearl had somehow learned that Jimmy was not her real father. Pearl realizes that her overprotective mother was just trying to make sure she did not make the same mistakes as Winnie did, such as choosing the wrong kind of man to marry or giving herself to someone too cheaply.
In The Kitchen God’s Wife, memories shape realities. Helen’s realities are shaped by false memories, while Winnie’s are shaped by memories that are all too real. Pearl’s view of her mother is shaped by her memories of her mother. But it is the sharing of memories that brings women together. Memories are legacies passed down from generation to generation. They offer wisdom, understanding, and hope.