The Kitchen God's Wife: Novel Summary:chp 2-5
Chapter Two, “Grand Auntie Du’s Funeral,” pp. 38-57
Pearl, Phil, and the girls are late for Grand Auntie Du’s funeral because the girls had a fight during breakfast and spoiled Phil’s shirt. Phil wonders if the girls should skip the funeral altogether, but Pearl assures him that it is closed-casket.
When they arrive at the funeral home, Pearl feels like things are slightly unreal. Bao-bao greets them and hands them the traditional candy and spirit money, and none of them is quite sure what to do with this Buddhist custom. The girls want to eat their candy right away; Phil makes jokes about the money. Then Pearl notices that Uncle Henry is videotaping their arrival; in fact, he is videotaping the whole funeral, as if it were a home movie people will watch later.
When Pearl and her family are seated by Winnie, Pearl notices with horror that the funeral is not closed-casket after all. Grand Auntie Du is displayed by a table overflowing with food, with what Pearl thinks of as “farewell provisions for trudging off the heaven.” The burning incense makes the food look on fire, which Cleo thinks is funny until Tessa tells her that “the lady” whose “dinner” is on fire is actually dead. The girls make a commotion, and Pearl feels Winnie watching her, “to see how I will handle it. But I feel paralyzed, helpless, not knowing what to do.” Finally, Phil takes the girls out for ice cream and agrees to meet Pearl in forty-five minutes. Uncle Henry has, of course, videotaped the whole incident.
With the funeral parlor once again restored to order, Pearl turns her attention to Grand Auntie Du. “She is so still,” Pearl thinks, “yet I feel we are all waiting for something to happen, for Grand Auntie suddenly to transform and manifest herself as a ghost.” Pearl remembers how she once thought she saw a ghost coming out of a jack-o-lanterns. Her mother, she recalls, believed Pearl and searched the room for the ghost, but her father simply explained that it was smoke from the candle coming out of the pumpkin’s face. “I was not comforted by his answer,” Pearl says, “because my mother had then stared at me, as if I had betrayed her and made her look a fool. That’s how things were.”
Pearl watches as a Buddhist monk and a nun appear, chanting, and a group of women—new immigrants from China paid to be at the funeral—moan and wail. The funeral is held up momentarily when one of the funeral banners falls off the wall and drapes itself over Grand Auntie Du like “a beauty pageant banner.” Winnie does not find the incident funny, as the others do, and fetches the funeral parlor director to restore the banner.
The funeral continues, and Pearl feels like an imposter, taking part in a Buddhist ritual when she is not Buddhist, and mourning a woman that she hardly knew. Suddenly, however, she is reminded of her own father’s funeral, where she also felt like an imposter. She remembers how she was unable to cry for her father because at the funeral she felt angry that he had turned into a weak, helpless man and was not her strong, funny father anymore. She felt angry that the parent who had found her to be “perfect” was the one who died, and she was left to live with her mother, who did not find her perfect. When Winnie slapped her face for saying that the man in the casket was not her father, Pearl ran away and missed the funeral. And her relationship with Winnie was never the same.
But suddenly, at Grand Auntie Du’s funeral, those tears for her father burst forth. Both Pearl and Winnie are surprised, but both know that Pearl is crying for her father, not Auntie Du.
After the funeral, Pearl tells Auntie Helen that she will not be going to the cemetery burial because she and her family have to get home. Winnie tells Auntie Helen that she does not feel quite well, and the two women converse in Mandarin, which Pearl only partly understands. After Helen drives off, however, Winnie confesses that she feels perfectly fine. “‘I did my duty. I sent Auntie Du to heaven. Now it’s Helen’s duty to put her inside the ground,’” she huffs. She expects Pearl and Phil to take her home before they leave town.
On the way to Winnie’s house, Winnie ignores Phil’s not-so-subtle hints that he has had enough “family” time. She gossips about Helen’s family, quizzes Pearl on her grocery bills, looks sad when Pearl cannot pinpoint when they will see one another again. At last, the Brandts drive off. They do not get far, however, before they turn around; Tessa and Cleo need to go to the bathroom.
Winnie is waiting for them in the yard. She believes they have come back because they realized they forgot about the gift Grand Auntie Du left them in her will. Pearl pretends that is exactly why they returned. While the girls go to the restroom, Winnie serves Pearl an amazingly good tea, which she says Grand Auntie Du gave her when she realized she was dying. The tea cost $100.00 per pound, and Grand Auntie had bought herself three pounds because, she had told Winnie, “‘If I buy myself the cheap tea, then I am saying my whole life has not been worth something better.’” Pearl is surprised that such a frugal woman would buy such a tea. She enjoys marveling over the tea with her mother.
At last all of them follow Winnie to the laundry room, where Grand Auntie’s gift to Pearl resides. It is the Chinese altar for Grand Auntie’s good luck god. The rather elaborate, red lacquer altar resembles a petite stage; the girls think it is a doll house. Winnie translates the altar’s Chinese inscription: “‘All kinds of luck, all that you wish.’” Inside is a picture of a fat, regal man, The Kitchen God.
Winnie tells them the story of The Kitchen God. Pearl finds herself listening to her mother just like she had when she was a child, when she was “still eager to believe everything my mother has to say.”
The Kitchen God, Winnie says, started out as a man whose hard-working wife made him very prosperous. But he took up with a beautiful, greedy woman, who chased the good wife away, led the man into ruin, and left him alone to beg for food and shelter. One day, a woman takes pity upon him. When the man realizes that the woman is his former wife, he is so ashamed that he jumps into the fire and burns up, despite the woman’s attempts to save him. In heaven, the Jade Emperor rewards the man for confessing that he had wronged his good wife. He rewards the man by making him The Kitchen God, responsible for reporting people’s good and bad deeds to the Emperor and deciding who will have good luck and who will not.
Phil jokes that The Kitchen God is a bit like Santa Claus, but Winnie says he is not at all like Santa Claus because he is like a spy, watching everyone, keeping them guessing whether they will get good luck or not each year. Pearl jokes, “‘Well, that’s a pretty inexpensive way to get some luck. Cheaper than the lottery.’”
Winnie surprises them all when she vehemently explains that The Kitchen God is fickle. He sometimes gives bad luck because he wants to. Winnie explains, “‘Then you’re in trouble, nothing you can do about it. Why should I want that kind of person to judge me, a man who cheated his wife? His wife was the good one, not him.”
Pearl wants to know why Grand Auntie would keep such a god, and Winnie says it was just tradition, something she grew up with. But she, Winnie, intends to get Pearl a new god for the altar. She takes The Kitchen God out. Even though Pearl does not believe in such traditions, she is uneasy that Winnie is tampering with this one.
On the drive home, Phil talks about getting rid of the altar after the children tire of playing with it. Pearl does not answer. She has looked in the sack of snacks that Winnie sent along with them and found a picture of her father. She turns towards the window to cry. “I watch the landscape we are drifting by: the reservoir, the rolling foothills, the same houses I’ve passed a hundred times without ever wondering who lives inside. Mile after mile, all of it familiar, yet not, this distance that separates us, me from my mother.”
In Chapter Two, Pearl continues to reveal the great distance that separates her from her mother. Her ironic tone in describing the Buddhist funeral traditions and the behavior of the family, especially the videotaping uncle, show her distance from not only Winnie, but from the world Winnie came from in China. The funeral seems like playacting; the Kitchen God’s alter looks like a doll house. Winnie’s fanciful story about the Kitchen God’s Wife seems just that—a story—until Winnie’s outburst condemning the Kitchen God’s treatment of his wife and the fact that such a man can determine a family’s luck.
Winnie’s outburst and the seriousness with which she regards the Kitchen God’s power unsettle Pearl. As much as she styles herself as a modern woman, Pearl retains seeds of her cultural heritage. Like Winnie, she is superstitious to a point. “I’m not exactly superstitious,” she confesses. “I’ve always been the kind who hates getting chain letters—Mary used to send them to me all the time. And while I never sent the duplicate letters out as instructed, I never threw the originals away either.”
Pearl will not be throwing out the altar after her girls are tired of playing with it. It may be outdated, and it may be weird to American eyes, but it connects Pearl to her heritage. Like her mother, it represents another time, another set of values, that Pearl cannot completely reject, especially now that she is facing a life-threatening disease. A part of Pearl wants to believe in good luck.
Chapter Three, “When Fish are Three Days Old,” pp. 61-73
Winnie, who is now the narrator, contemplates why Helen has always had good luck, while Winnie herself has not. She thinks, for example, about how Helen bought a three-day-old fish to cook for dinner, even though Winnie warned her not to. Yet when Winnie was invited to eat the prepared fish, she was amazed that it was sweet and tender. Winnie herself once bought a beautiful, fresh fish to prepare for her husband, yet her husband ended up getting a fish bone stuck in his throat and had to have emergency surgery. Winnie compares her luck to Helen’s, saying that “Even though Helen is not smart, even though she was born poor, even though she has never been pretty, she has always had luck pour onto her plate, even spill from the mouth of a three-day-old fish.”
Unlike Helen’s, Winnie’s life has always been strewn with bad luck. She has spent a lifetime trying to figure out why she has been so unlucky. She remembers a girl from her school who was engaged to a rich banker’s son, but the son refused to marry her after she was disfigured by smallpox. When Winnie saw the girl many years later, she was married to a grocer and very happy; she told Winnie she was so lucky not to have married the banker’s son after all, because the family later lost all their money and the son committed suicide.
Winnie, on the other hand, thinks about how she turned down her first marriage proposal, to a boy named Lin, simply because her family did not think he was rich enough. And then years later, in America, that same Lin came to a church service conducted by Winnie’s second husband, Jimmy Louie. Lin was now a prosperous doctor with a beautiful wife. And although Winnie loved Jimmy and their life together, she could not help but feel she had made the wrong choice, so long ago, by not marrying Lin. It was the wrong choice because it led to her marry another man instead, a man named Wen, who made her life miserable.
Winnie thinks, too, about how her life has crossed with Helen’s. When Winnie came to America, she thought she was going to be able to start fresh. “I was thinking,” she recalls, “N[sic]obody can chase me here. I could hide mistakes, my regrets, all my sorrows. I could change my fate.”
But then Helen contacted her, begging her to help her come to America. Winnie had to help her because, as Helen reminded her, she owed Helen a debt. So, Winnie told immigration authorities that Helen was her sister, the daughter of one of her father’s five wives. Yet when Helen arrived, she and Winnie concocted a new story, telling everyone that Helen had once been married to Winnie’s brother, Kun, who died young. Winnie could not tell her Christian friends that her father had had multiple wives. Thus, Helen became her “sister-in-law.”
That is just one of the secrets that binds Helen to Winnie. Winnie thinks how she does not particularly like Helen, but “we are closer perhaps than sisters, related by fate, joined by debts. I have kept her secrets. She has kept mine.”
But now, to Winnie’s horror, Helen has decided to tell all of Winnie’s secrets.
In the first two chapters, readers learned that there is more to Winnie than meets the eye. She comes from another time, another country, but what happened to her there? How did she become a manipulative, bossy old woman full of superstitions? How did she let such a rift happen between herself and her daughter, who so obviously wants her approval? Why was she so hard on Pearl?
Winnie’s story, like that of the Kitchen God’s Wife, begins with a bad marriage. It is a story about fate and luck, a story that Winnie has puzzled over for decades, trying to figure out how her life turned out the way it did. She likens it to choosing fish in a tank: “Maybe I made a mistake, such a simple mistake, saying no to one, yes to another, like choosing fish in a tank How can you know which one is good, which is bad, until you have tasted it?”
At the heart of Winnie’s question is the underlying theme of the novel: Does anyone really have control over his or her fate?
Chapter Four, “Long, Long Distance,” pp 74-86
Winnie hears of Helen’s decision to reveal all her secrets after she has eaten the dinner in which Helen turned a three-day-old fish into a succulent fish. Helen begins by chatting about their children, about how her daughter, Mary, recently called long distance—so expensive!—for no reason but to talk. She asks Winnie if Pearl ever calls like that. Winnie sourly answers that when Pearl calls, it is not “long, long distance,” not expensive, but she really thinks how Pearl never calls just to talk to her mother.
Growing tired of the conversation, Winnie gets up to leave, but Helen tells her she has some good news. She rummages in her messy purse until she pulls out a letter. The letter is from Betty Wan, a woman they both knew in China. Betty reports that a man named Wen Fu is died on Christmas Day. Winnie’s mind floods with memories of “that bad man,” and she is indignant that he managed to die on a holy day, and now every time she celebrates Christmas, she will also have to think of him.
Helen chides that Winnie must “‘sweep him out of your mind,” just as people sweep their houses clean for the Chinese New Year, which is approaching. Then Helen goes on to declare that she wishes to sweep her mind clean of all its secrets before she dies, and she believes Winnie must do the same. She tells Winnie that if she will not tell Pearl and her brother, Samuel, about her past, then Helen will do it for her.
Upset by Helen’s threat, as well as the news reminding her of Wen Fu, Winnie goes on a cleaning frenzy at home that last the whole night. In Pearl’s old room, she thinks about all their fights—about makeup, boys, about the beautiful dressing table that Winnie loved and Pearl hated. She discovers Pearl’s old treasure box, and she wonders what she will find if she unlocks it. Afraid, yet also curious, Winnie pries the lock open and examines Pearl’s keepsakes. Among the teenage baubles is a memorial card for her father, with angry black marks surrounding the death date.
Winnie has a revelation, then. She realizes that she was wrong for slapping Pearl at Jimmy’s funeral, wrong for punishing her for not crying. She wants to call Pearl “long, long distance” and say that she now understands how sad Pearl really was.
Winnie moves out to the hallway to vacuum. She notices that under the plastic runner, the carpet is bright, but the carpet not covered by the runner is dirty and stained. She thinks, “And no matter how much I cleaned, it didn’t matter. It would always look this way. Just like this stain from my life. I could never get it out.”
She stays awake all night, thinking of Wen Fu. He died of a bad heart, but she thinks how ironic it is that it was his evil, bad heart that kept him alive all those years. Now she is left with the “bad heart” full of venom for him.
She thinks about Helen’s advice to come clean about the past. She imagines telling Pearl and Samuel that she was married and had children before them, but that she later loved and married their father, Jimmy Louie. But she fears that Pearl will sense that she is holding something back.
The secret that she has held back—from everyone, including Helen—is that Pearl’s real father is Wen Fu, not Jimmy Louie.
Chapter Four continues to set up Winnie’s life story, as well as the reason why that story has been buried under other, made-up stories for so long. Winnie’s past is painful. But Pearl is connected to that past, and so Winnie must tell her the truth. The truth, she imagines, will reveal to Pearl that Winnie has always loved her “the most, more than Samuel, more than all the children I had before. . . .”
At the end of Chapter Four, Winnie sets up Chapter Five, in which her real story begins, in her own words. She says she will call Pearl, “long long distance. Cost doesn’t matter, I will say. I have to tell you something, can’t wait any longer. And then I will start to tell her, not what happened, but why it happened, how it could not be any other way.”
Chapter Five, “Ten Thousand Things,” pp. 87-109
Winnie tells Pearl that she must come to her right away because she is experiencing pain in her heart. Pearl, concerned that her mother is having heart problems, comes right away. Yet when she arrives, Winnie confesses that the pain is in her heart, but it is “the same pain I have had for many years. It comes from keeping everything inside, waiting until it is too late.”
She begins to tell Pearl about her childhood in China. Her sorrows, she believes, began when her mother left her when she was six. She remembers her mother “ten thousand ways”: her long hair, her beautiful face, her delicate voice, yet also her unhappiness and anger with Winnie’s father, for whom she was one of several wives. Her mother spoiled her, and Winnie says she learned from her mother to expect to receive the things she wanted.
She remembered one day in particular, when she overheard her mother arguing with her father. Her mother flung the words “double second” at him, and although Winnie did not know what they meant, she knew they were terrible words that somehow applied to her mother. Shortly after that, her mother and she dressed and went into town, visiting all the shops and having ice cream. Winnie remembers thinking that her mother was teaching her something important, “that my happiness depended on finding an immediate answer to every wish.” Finally, they slip into a movie theater, where Winnie falls asleep. When she wakes up, she sees that her mother is talking to the man next to her.
The next morning, Winnie awakes to find that her mother has vanished. All that is found is her hair, cut off and left behind. Winnie is interrogated by her grandmother and her father, but she has no answers for them. She believes her mother will return for her. But after four days, the family puts out word that her mother has died, to squelch rumors of the scandal she has caused in running away. And Winnie is sent away, to remote Tsungming Island, to live with her uncle and his wives.
Winnie tries to get at the reason for her mother’s behavior. She blames it on her being educated in the Western way, at a convent school, rather than in the traditional Chinese way. But even before that, she was born with two personalities warring inside her: the delicate beauty and the fierce, practical woman. When she fell in love with a young Marxist revolutionary, she was influenced by his tale of a girl who hanged herself by her hair rather than marry an older man. She threatened to kill herself if she was not allowed to marry the revolutionary, but her mother forced her to marry a family friend, Jiang Sao-yen, who already had five wives. When she arrived at Jiang’s household, she discovered that she was the “double second” wife, because the second wife had killed herself. To be in such a position was bad luck, making her the lowest among the wives. Winnie believes that she cut off her hair and “left it for those other wives to fight over” when she ran away.
Winnie says that she has never known why her mother left or what became of her. She has concocted many stories over the years, but in all of them her mother comes back to her, which, of course, is pure fantasy.
Winnie’s obsessions with fate and bad luck now become clearer. Her own mother had bad luck and a bad fate, and her actions caused Winnie to be put on a course for bad luck—that is what Winnie believes.
Already, the information that Winnie was abandoned by her mother puts Winnie in a new light. Because Pearl does not actually appear in this chapter, except as a listener, readers are put in Pearl’s position, understanding more about Winnie now, and wanting to hear what happened to the little girl left behind by her mother. Just as Pearl listened with fascination to the tale of the Kitchen God’s wife, she listens to her own mother’s tale, a tale about old times and old ways—and good and bad luck.