What is Helen's role in the novel?
Helen proves to be almost like a Shakespearean fool in that she is always joking and always cheerful, and yet kernels of truth come from her throughout the novel. Helen puts the wheels of the novel in motion and is a link between the past and the present, and between Pearl and Winnie.
She is the only person alive that knows Winnie's real story, and she is closest to Winnie in that way. Their relationship in the eyes of the rest of the world is a lie—that is, Helen is not Winnie's sister or sister-in-law, but the truth is that they might as well be sisters, because they are as close. This is not to say that Helen and Winnie do not fight, in fact they have huge fights, as many as true siblings do. Although Helen seems to be a very different person from Winnie, she often serves as a mirror. For example, Winnie is always criticizing Helen's stubbornness, and yet this is a stubbornness that Winnie too possesses.
What is the significance in Winnie having given Pearl a box in which to keep her secrets, for Pearl's tenth birthday?
First of all, this act is important because it shows Winnie passing down her own habit of keeping secrets to her daughter—a habit that her daughter will pick up on and that will create a distance between them. Although Winnie wants to give her daughter something special for her birthday, something that will bring them together, Winnie is giving Pearl something that will work to keep them apart. Pearl will grow up to hide her feelings about her father's death, which causes her mother to misunderstand her actions. She will also hide her own disease of multiple sclerosis from her mother.
Also, at the moment when Winnie had given Pearl the box, Pearl had said, "it's empty." The gift even begins as a misunderstanding. Whereas Winnie sees it as a place to keep treasures, Pearl sees it as an empty space. And still, there is an irony in this gift because later it is what will show mother and daughter to be alike. They have both kept their lost parents in secret hiding places, and they have both been bottling up their anger and sadness. The irony and paradox in all of this is that what keeps them apart is what they have most in common and what they have most in common is what keeps them apart.
How are the female characters in the novel different from the male characters?
The female characters in the novel are the fullest characters. Amy Tan illustrates both their strengths and their faults, whereas the leading male characters are either "good" or "bad," and remain simply one-dimensional throughout. The question that arises out of this observation, however, is whether this fact is fitting to the novel or whether it is simply a flaw in the author's ability to create well-rounded, male characters. There is no one answer to this question. However, it is important to keep in mind that the main characters are women and that the importance of the men lies mostly in how they relate to those main female characters. Therefore, the male characters may be one-dimensional because this is how they are seen through the women. Therefore the characteristic that Tan draws upon in each male figure is the characteristic that has affected Winnie's (the main narrator) life the most. For example, because Wen Fu was so cruel to Winnie, she cannot see him as anything else but a monster. And, similarly, because Jimmy Louie showed her love and salvation, she cannot see him as anything other than "good." Thus, when seen through the eyes of the women, who are the main focus of the novel, the one-dimensionality of the male characters is fitting.
Discuss the significance of cleaning and sweeping in the novel. What does it mean that Winnie comes home to clean her house after Helen tells her she must release her secrets?
Discuss the novel as a feminist text? Is Winnie Louie a feminist? Is Amy Tan?
How did Winnie's mother disappear? Did she commit suicide? Did she simply abandon her marriage? Did she fall ill and die? Does the reader ever have an answer to this question and is the answer to this question important?
Discuss the differences and similarities between Helen's children and Winnie's children. What are their shared experiences? What separates them?
Discuss the role that Phil, Cleo, and Tessa play in the novel.