The Kitchen God's Wife: Theme Analysis
The Mother-Daughter Bond
One of the main themes of The Kitchen God’s Wife is the emotional and cultural bond between a mother and her daughter.
Pearl makes clear at the beginning of The Kitchen God’s Wife that she feels distant from her mother, Winnie, for a variety of reasons. Although Pearl feels a sense of duty to her mother, she feels no real connection to the traditional Chinese culture to which her mother belongs. Pearl has been raised as an American, and as a teen she rebelled in all the ways American girls do; she felt her mother was too controlling, too strict, too superstitious, too distant. When Winnie slaps her for not crying at her father’s funeral, Pearl feels even more detached from her; that moment seems to define the rift between them. Even when Pearl discovers that she has multiple sclerosis, she feels she cannot tell Winnie this terrible news because Winnie will rant and rave about Fate and Chinese medical remedies and the cause of Pearl’s disease—none of which will help Pearl deal with her fear. Pearl has always somehow felt that she has failed to live up to her mother’s expectations, and this disease is just one more way in which she has failed.
However, once Pearl learns about Winnie’s hard life in China, she feels differently. Winnie’s story reveals to Pearl that her mother is not just a quirky old Chinese woman, but she is someone who has endured incredible pain and hardship and learned the importance of keeping hope alive. Winnie’s superstitions, her high expectations for Pearl, her practicalities—suddenly all those personality facets seem natural, given what Winnie has been through. Pearl is able to see that her mother loves her deeply, and her criticisms were really attempts to keep Pearl from making her same mistakes. Most of all, Pearl is able to see that Winnie can teach her about hope. With Winnie beside her, she can find hope and strength to fight her disease. Pearl finds that her youth and her cultural differences do not need to separate her from her mother.
Fate and Luck
Another theme in The Kitchen God’s Wife is the power of Fate and the presence of luck.
Pearl, at the beginning of the novel, does not put much faith in the old traditions that try to preserve or change one’s luck. For example, she finds the “spirit money” at Auntie Du’s funeral to be silly, while her mother is perfectly serious about it. She accepts her diagnosis of multiple sclerosis simply as something bad that has happened to her, while she knows that Winnie always seeks the origin of one’s troubles and looks for ways to circumvent such troubles.
Winnie, on the other hand, believes that Fate determines one’s life, but that people do have choices that can either make their fate more bearable or less bearable. When one makes a wrong choice, then bad luck ensues. When one makes a good choice, then good luck will ensue. Her whole life, she believes, was a series of bad choices and bad luck—until she found the strength to believe in hope and make choices that could change her luck: leaving Wen Fu, escaping China, marrying Jimmy Louie.
It is Winnie’s powerful belief that a person can hope, a person can change one’s luck, that comforts Pearl the most when she finally confesses her disease to her mother.
Women and Resilience
Winnie’s story centers on the theme of women surviving in a culture that values males over females.
Winnie, as a child, learns very quickly that she has no value because her own mother lost her value when she ran away from Winnie’s father. She discovers that her father does not value her highly when he arranges her marriage to an unscrupulous man, Wen Fu, and gives her a dowry much less than that of his other daughters. Wen Fu, too, teaches Winnie that she exists merely to serve and please her husband. He beats her, rapes her, insults her—yet no one does anything to prevent such treatment because the man has all the power and respect.
Winnie especially hates the story of the Kitchen God’s wife because that wife, like Winnie, tried to be a good woman and a dutiful wife, yet it was her greedy, unfaithful husband who rewarded by being made into a god and given power over peoples’ destinies. Wen Fu was constantly admired and given power; the law was on his side when he accused Winnie of adultery.
Winnie’s story demonstrates that women can be survivors—through war, bad luck, brutal marriages, lost children—and that they do not need men like Wen Fu or the Kitchen God to give them value.
The Importance of Memory
Memory—whether accurate or not—plays an important part in The Kitchen God’s Wife. Memory can color one’s perceptions of others, as Pearl finds out. At the beginning of the novel, she describes her memories of her mother, especially how she slapped Pearl at Jimmy’s funeral. Because of that memory, in which Pearl saw her mother as heartless and unloving, Pearl has always thought her mother was too demanding, too distant. Once Winnie explains why she slapped Pearl—because Pearl said Jimmy was not her father, and Winnie took her meaning literally—Pearl understands the vulnerability and fear behind her mother’s behavior. She sees Winnie in a new light because her memory has new meaning now.
Winnie and Helen seem to disagree on memories. In fact, many of their memories are lies, manufactured to keep the truth hidden. Winnie hates how Helen so willingly mixes up true memories and false ones; she herself remembers things with clarity. But in the end, the memories they share are ones of hope.
Throughout the novel, Winnie must confront the memories that she has kept hidden for so long. When Helen tells her that Wen Fu has died, this news unleashes all the terrible secrets of her life, and she knows that the only way to be rid of their power is to confess them to Pearl. Thus, her story is one long, terrible memory of her life before she came to America. But what she learns from divulging her memories is that they have made her stronger, too. She can now be strong for Pearl, who needs her as she fights her own demons.