The opening narrator of the novel, Pearl, is a young woman living in San Jose, California. She is the American-born daughter of a Chinese mother, Winnie Louie and a Chinese-American father, Jimmy Louie. As a result she is raised in a kind of limbo between two worlds, and, by the time we get to know her when she is in her forties, she is more American than Chinese, is married to an American man, has two American girls, and has a sad distance between herself and her mother.
Pearl does not want to attend her cousin's wedding reception because she has no desire to see her family. Her husband is always the only white person at her family functions, and it appears that she feels out of place, even within her own family at times. She is unfamiliar, at the beginning of the novel, with many of the customs of her Chinese heritage and finds herself not understanding the rituals of Auntie Du's Buddhist funeral. And yet, the gap that exists between her and her mother, which symbolizes the gap between herself and her heritage also, saddens her. She is hurt by this gap but has not, until now, attempted to close or bridge this gap. In fact, she keeps secrets from her mother, just as her mother keeps secrets from her. This is not to say that she does not love her mother, because, as the book progresses, we come to the realization that there is in fact a deep love that unites them. What in fact separates the two, more than anything, is that they do not understand each other.
It has been said that Amy Tan has not rounded off the story of Pearl as well as Winnie's and that the character of Pearl is not as three dimensional and full as Winnie. There is, however, a reason for this. It is important that Pearl is the character that does most of the listening in the novel, as Winnie tells the story of her life. This position likens her to us and illustrates that just as Winnie is trying to make her daughter understand Winnie's past and is trying to bring Pearl closer by telling her about her life, so is Amy Tan, as a writer, trying to bring us into her own Chinese-American experience. As Pearl gains understanding, so do we.
Pearl goes through a transformation and a change. At the beginning of the novel, she was still the hesitant fatherless daughter of a Chinese mother who did not want to become involved in the complications of associating with her Chinese family. And yet, even after just one meeting with her mother, Pearl seems to become pensive. After she receives the altar from Auntie Du's will and after her mother has told Cleo and Tess the story of The Kitchen God's Wife, Pearl seems to begin to look at the house differently. When her husband complains about how ugly the house is, Pearl can only say, "Umm." This uncertainty, by the end of the novel, turns into understanding as a connection is forged between her and her mother and between her life and her past.
Winnie talks about Helen in her story almost as much as she talks about herself. Helen is Winnie's best friend, and even though they fight they will be forever linked by bonds of the heart. In fact, it is Helen who brings Winnie and her daughter together by using the pretext of a fictive malignant tumor. Helen wants to see her friend unite with her daughter and does not want to keep anymore secrets. The act of bringing mother and daughter together, and how she goes about doing it, says a great deal about her personality: it says that although she can be sneaky and stubborn, Helen is always trying to make the best of situations, always looking on the brighter side of things, always willing to take a risk. Winnie attributes Helen's happiness in life to luck, but really it may be more a product of her positive outlook.
When Helen and Winnie first meet, Helen has much to learn in the way of manners, and yet Helen possesses a world savvy that evades Winnie. She comes from a poor background where she has learned how to survive and how to make the best of what she has. It is because of their different backgrounds that the two have so much to learn from each other. Helen can be jealous, and she is often wrong, just as she had been jealous of Winnie's servants and wrong about leading Wen Fu to Winnie after having helped her escape. And yet, Helen never means to harm her good friend.
Helen may believe that she is always right, at least in Winnie's opinion of her, but the truth is that Helen is right, many of the times. She can even be called the "wise fool" of the novel. Helen does not seem like much on the surface, but it is because of her that the wheels for the entire novel begin to turn; it is through her that truth is released and understanding reached.
The character of Winnie Louie is the fullest character in the novel since the novel encompasses her entire life from childhood to present. More importantly, she tells her own story, and, in addition, we are privy to not only her own view of the story, but also the vision of how her own daughter sees her. It is because of all of this that Winnie becomes the most multi-dimensional character in the book. Also significant, she is a character that goes through a great many names, symbolically illustrating the changes that occur within her as her life progresses.
Winnie's life begins as the innocent Jiang Weili. To her mother she is Syin ke (heart liver), which is much like saying "my love;" to Auntie Du she is Syuaning, or "little person." To others, like Peanut, she is Weiwei, and still to others she is Jiang Weili or Weili. Later, she is to become Winnie and then Winnie Louie. With every change of name there is a change within her. Winnie begins as a young woman who is optimistic and hopeful, despite the loss of her mother and the hardships she had to endure as a child. She then becomes the wife of Wen Fu, a plight she is too weak to leave behind and yet one in which she is always strong. This contradiction of being "weak and strong" at the same time is exemplified in the book through a chapter titled "Weak and Strong."
When she gets married Winnie knows nothing about sex and is quitenaïve—she has had no one to teach her, and so it is Helen that takes on the motherly role, in this respect. At the same time, Winnie is something of a snob and is not without her faults, being, at times, quite arrogant herself. Having been born to a rich and powerful father, she has status and was raised with manners and a sense of decorum. She has much to learn from others, but she also feels that she has much to teach since she has been educated and can read and write. This is exchange of teaching and learning is illustrated through her relationships with Min and Hulan (Helen).
As the story progresses, Winnie's innocence begins to fade away, and she becomes cynical of the world. And yet, she seems always to be the "little person" that Auntie Du had called her with affection, not at all because of weakness but because she seems to have retained a certain amount of her optimism. Like her own mother, Winnie is always strong-willed, even if, at times, she had failed to stand up to her cruel husband. And, in the end, she is the mother that wants to take away her daughter's suffering and who is optimistic that she will be able to help her and that there will be some way to cure her.
In short, Winnie is like The Kitchen God's Wife who had to endure a great deal of suffering. But Winnie is never a "victim," in fact she is a giving "creator," as is seen at the end through her creation of a new deity, which she gives to her daughter, symbolically offering Pearl her own open ears and heart.