The Kitchen God's Wife
Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
The Difficulties of Bicultural Life
Hyphenated experiences such as the Chinese-American experience always bring issues of identity to the fore. The Kitchen God's Wife is very much about the issues that arise out of the immigrant experience and the generation gap between immigrants and their children. This struggle is mostly illustrated through the character of Pearl, who is American born but is raised in a household with Chinese customs and traditions always coming into play. It is difficult for someone like her to live the space between being fully American and fully Chinese. It seems that she has tried to abandon her Chinese heritage and tries to avoid it at all costs; she does not want to go "home," and she feels a distance from her mother.
Throughout the novel, Winnie remembers instances when Pearl had been hesitant to learn about her Chinese past. For example, when Pearl was studying the Second World War is school and her mother tried to tell her about World War II in China, Pearl had complained that what her mother was talking about was "Chinese History" not "American History." Like this there are many other instances, such as the fact that the pair share different ideas of beauty. Winnie had given her daughter a dresser that she thought was beautiful, just like one she had had a long time ago in China, but Winnie had complained and hated the dresser. Pearl's father was also American-born Chinese but he died when she was so young that she did not have the chance to share her experiences with her or for him to share his similar experiences with her.
Amy Tan, the author of the novel, is giving the reader a version of her own experience as an Asian-American woman growing up in California, living in a house where there was a language barrier and where misunderstandings and miscommunications were common. For example, in the novel, Winnie has a difficult time understanding what her daughter does for a living. Significantly, Pearl works with language as a speech therapist. All of the factors that arise out of a "hyphenated experience" are not all negative because once one learns to accept the mixture and the beauty of living in two cultures on can begin to reap the benefits of understanding, much like in the "happy" ending of Tan's novel.
The Female Struggle in a Patriarchal Society
The role of women in The Kitchen God's Wifeis constantly fluctuating, mostly because the novel spans a great many decades and two different countries. At the beginning of the novel, we are introduced to a modern working woman, Pearl, married to a good husband who shares the responsibilities of house and home with his wife, as is illustrated in his relationship with his children. However, as the novel progresses, we are taken back to another kind of society in which women are seen in a different light.
Winnie was born in a China of Confucian ideals, where women were supposed to be submissive. Strong women are punished and shunned just as Winnie's mother, a "modern Shanghai woman" had been shunned for her opinions and self- determination. One of the only pieces of advice her father ever gives Winnie is that her husband, his opinions and desires, must come before her own. Winnie says over and over again that she wishes she had understood that she had a choice to say "no" to Wen Fu, to be more assertive about her own body and about her own destiny. It is not until Winnie finds herself amidst women that have escaped her husband that she finds herself able to do the same. Winnie struggles throughout her youth with the ideals she has been taught of how to be a "good wife" because these "ideals" have only brought her suffering. It is because of all these contradictions that Winnie says she had been both "weak and strong" at the same time.
Interestingly, upon first meeting Winnie, as Pearl's mother in America, we see her as strong—perhaps this because she has learned from her past mistakes and perhaps it has also to do with a shift in time and place. Once she became Jimmy Louie's wife, she was able to be more of herself, and her life changed from being the mistreated wife of Wen Fu to the strong woman we meet. Winnie has to re-create her ideas about women, just as she re-creates the deity that Auntie Du has left behind and transforms "The Kitchen God's Wife" from a victim into a goddess, an empowered figure.
The Tension Between Fate and Self-Determination
The Kitchen God's Wife plays not only with contemporary issues of self and identity but also with philosophies. The ideas of luck, fate, and destiny are constantly juxtaposed against self-determination, free choice, and will. Winnie talks about luck and claims that Helen, for instance, has been "luckier" than she has been in life. Winnie also talks about a debate she had once had with Jimmy Louie about whether their being together had been fated. And yet, there is also much in the novel having to do with free will and self-made choices. Winnie chooses, for instance, to leave Wen Fu. In fact, Winnie's life is full of choices, and her strength arises out of these choices and out of the fact that she was able to re-create her life in America.
To see Winnie as a creator sheds another symbolic shard of light on the idea of self-determination over the idea of fate. Winnie creates her own deity because she does not feel that any exist that is appropriate enough for her to give as a gift to her daughter. It can be said that these two juxtaposed philosophies exist because there are two cultures that are also juxtaposed in the novel—two cultures that bring with them their own philosophies. Also, philosophies change as people change and as they move. It is difficult to say whether Winnie would have created her own deity in China as Weili. But, it is easy to see how Winnie Louie the Chinese immigrant and mother of Pearl would create her own goddess to bring her daughter "luck," drawing together her past and her present—her two philosophies.
Throughout the novel, Winnie describes moments when she finds herself cleaning away. This cleaning becomes symbolic of cleaning away the past or bad luck. Winnie has tried to "clean away" her past from her memory, but the dust keeps coming through. For example, at the beginning of the novel, when Helen tells Winnie that she must let go of her secrets and tell her daughter the truth, Winnie spends the entire night cleaning. She is cleaning as a sort of ritual in order to forget and "wipe away" what she does not want before her—things that are as difficult and unappealing as dirt.
Names change throughout the novel. Many of the important characters have more than one name, depending on the time and place in which they are. Winnie was once Weili, and Helen was once Hulan. A name change is always emblematic of a change in character, as in a sense of growth, for example. "Weiwei," for example, is more innocent than Winnie Louie, who knows more about the hardships of the world. Also, when Jimmy Louie dons Weili with the name of Winnie, it is very much as if he is offering her a new beginning and baptizing her anew into another world.
Luck comes into the dialogue and ideas of The Kitchen God's Wife constantly. These ideas, as discussed above, in the Theme section, are constantly at odds with the Western ideas of logic and self-determination. Winnie attributes much of her life and the life of others to luck, but at the same time she sees herself as having achieved what she wanted or needed through action and free-will. Winnie is most definitely superstitious, unlike her daughter, and yet, in the end, the superstition and self-determination that has been expressed by the repletion of this motif is perfectly combined when Winnie decides to create her own religious statuette.
When Winnie lives with her aunts, she uses the greenhouse in the "western part" of the house as her hiding place. This greenhouse is symbolic for many reasons. First, it is symbolic of foreign influences on China in the twenties and thirties, because it was where Winnie's uncle had practiced one of his "English hobbies," which was gardening. Soon after the novelty of his new hobby has worn off however, the greenhouse is abandoned and used as a storage room for unwanted possessions. Winnie, while living in her Uncle and Aunts' house, feels unwanted and so she feels at ease among other "unwanted" things. She is also out of place much like "English hobbies" in China.
Furthermore, the greenhouse had once been a place for growth and, even if painful, Winnie does much "growing" of her own in that spot. Also symbolically it is where she can speak to her mother—it is where she finds a painting of her mother. One can even figuratively say that it is where her mother (this painting) "raised her." Thus, the greenhouse carries a great deal of weight and its symbolic power has many branches.
My Secret Treasures Box
My Secret Treasures is the phrase that is written onto the box Winnie gives her daughter as a gift for her tenth birthday, which she finds full years later while cleaning her daughter's old room. Winnie had told her it was a place where she could keep her secrets and her "American" things. In a way, giving her daughter this box is like passing on the tendency to keep a secret life.
The statuette that Winnie creates at the end of the novel is symbolic of her own life and that of the Kitchen God's Wife. It is also representative of the power that Winnie has and that she has given to the character of the Kitchen God's Wife.
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