Summary—Rose Hsu Jordan: “Without Wood”

“A mother is best. A mother knows what is inside you,” she said. . . . “A psyche-atricks will only make you hulihudu, make you see heimongmong.”

See Important Quotations Explained

Rose Hsu Jordan describes finding divorce papers and a ten-thousand-dollar check from her husband, Ted, in her mailbox. Paralyzed with shock and pain, she leaves them in a drawer for two weeks while she tries to decide what to do. She stays in bed for three days, mostly unconscious, with the help of sleeping pills. Finally, she is wakened by a phone call from An-mei, who asks her why she refuses to speak up for herself. Ted calls a few minutes later to ask why she has not yet signed and returned the divorce papers. He announces that he wants the house because he now plans to marry someone else. After the initial shock, Rose laughs and tells him to come to the house to pick up his papers. When he arrives, Rose gives him the papers still unsigned and announces that she will not be leaving the house. She refuses to allow him to uproot her and throw her away.

Summary—Jing-mei Woo: “Best Quality”

A few months before her death, Suyuan cooked a crab dinner for ten people to celebrate the Chinese New Year. As she and Jing-mei shopped together in Chinatown for the ingredients, Suyuan explained that the feistiest crabs are of the best quality; even beggars would reject a crab that has died before being cooked. During the marketing, Suyuan grumbled about the tenants who lived above her in the building she owned. When the couple’s cat disappeared, they accused Suyuan of having poisoned it. Jing-mei wondered whether her mother did poison the cat, but she knew not to question her.

While the two women were choosing crabs, the leg of one of the crabs became detached, and the grocer demanded that Suyuan pay for the creature. Suyuan thus bought eleven instead of ten, stating that the damaged crab would be extra. Back at home, Jing-mei could not bear to watch crabs being cooked, though she knew in her rational mind that the crabs probably lacked brains big enough to realize what was happening to them.

The Jongs and their children attended the dinner. Vincent brought his girlfriend, Lisa, and Waverly brought Rich and Shoshana. Mr. Chong, Jing-mei’s old piano teacher, was also invited. Suyuan had not counted Shoshana when buying the crabs, but Waverly now carefully chose the best crab and gave it to her daughter before choosing the next best two for herself and Rich. The rest of the party continued to pick the best crabs until there were two left, one of which was the crab missing a leg. Jing-mei tried to take the defective crab, but Suyuan insisted she take the better one. Suyuan then sniffed her crab, and took it into the kitchen to throw away, veiling the trip by returning with more seasonings for the table.

Waverly complimented Jing-mei’s haircut and was shocked to learn that Jing-mei still went to her gay stylist. Waverly warned Jing-mei that the stylist might have AIDS and urged her to consider using her own stylist, Mr. Rory, instead. Waverly added that Mr. Rory’s prices might be too high, deliberately referring to Jing-mei’s less successful career. Infuriated, Jing-mei mentioned that Waverly’s law firm had not paid her for some freelance work she had done, writing a publicity brochure, and after several insults from Jing-mei, Waverly replied that her firm had decided not to use Jing-mei’s work, adding that she had only praised the work to Jing-mei because she didn’t want to hurt her feelings. Jing-mei offered to revise the brochure, but Waverly refused, mocking the quality of the work she submitted. Jing-mei cleared the table and retreated to the kitchen, fighting back tears.

After the guests left, Suyuan joined her daughter in the kitchen. Suyuan explained that she did not eat the legless crab because it had died before she cooked it. She teased Jing-mei for choosing the worse of the two remaining crabs, because anyone else would have taken the better one—the “best quality” available. She remarked that Jing-mei’s way of thinking differed from that of most people. She gave Jing-mei a jade pendant, telling her that it was her “life’s importance.” She advised Jing-mei not to listen to Waverly, whose words always “move sideways” like a crab, and explained that Jing-mei could and should move in a different direction. Now, at the time of Jing-mei’s reminiscence, she is cooking dinner for her father. The upstairs tenants’ tomcat jumps onto the windowsill outside, and Jing-mei is relieved to see that her mother didn’t kill it—the cat is alive and well.

Analysis—“Without Wood” & “Best Quality”

As throughout The Joy Luck Club, in these sections we see that a mother’s seemingly paranoid intuitions, groundless hunches, and unwelcome meddling are frequently on target and represent a loving rather than critical mind-set. When Rose first tells An-mei that Ted has sent her a check for ten thousand dollars, An-mei asks if that means he is having an affair; Rose laughs in response to her suggestion. However, she later notices that the garden in her home has gone untended for quite some time: this had been Ted’s task, and he had once shown almost obsessive care for it. Once, Rose’s fortune cookie stated that if a man neglected his garden, he was thinking about pulling up roots. When she talks to Ted on the phone, he tells her that he wants the divorce to move quickly because he wants to remarry and move back into the house—An-mei’s instincts were on target all along. She also seems correct now in urging Rose to take action and not remain passive.

Read more about passivity as a persistent problem for the characters in the novel and what alternative the characters might have.

By refusing to sign the divorce papers quickly, Rose allows herself the time to ponder what she wants and what her marriage means to her. She learns that Ted has been planning to uproot her from his life all along. Once she has the necessary information, Rose decides that she won’t allow Ted to bully her into doing what will best suit him. Her mother has often told her that she lacks “wood”—the element that gives people what we would call a strong backbone, the ability to refuse to give way in the face of hardships or aggression from others. Now, Rose realizes that her mother was right. Yet although Rose now recognizes her excessive indecisiveness, she also sees that Ted’s frequent harangues against her inability to make decisions allowed him to tacitly and unfairly blame her for all the problems in their marriage.

Read more about gender disparities in the novel and how they relate to the motif of sexism.

Jing-mei’s story also deals with superstition blending into wisdom. Again, cultural tensions emerge as a motif. At the beginning of her narrative, Jing-mei describes her first reaction to the “life’s importance” pendant; she had found it garish and unstylish, yet since her mother’s death she has come to realize its meaning. Once symbolizing only a cultural difference between herself and her mother, the pendant has now become a testament to the maternal wisdom and love that Jing-mei once mistook—indeed, perhaps due to cultural differences—for superstition and criticism.

Read more about Suyaun’s pendant as a symbol.

Suyuan asserts that a crab that has died before it is cooked will taste bad and that a missing leg on a crab is a bad sign on the Chinese New Year. Jing-mei seems to find these beliefs silly; yet, at the same time, she exhibits the same admittedly irrational thoughts when she sympathizes with the boiling crabs. Moreover, Suyuan’s seemingly illogical conceptual linkages between the crabs and the women’s lives later prove rather insightful: while she seems to display a certain foolishness in drawing causal connections between the crabs’ fate and human fate, she proves her insight when she later draws a metaphorical connection between a crab’s movement and the way Waverly conducts her life, always looking sideways out of the corner of her eye at potential competitors, making jabs at people while veiling them as innocent comments.

When Suyuan gives Jing-mei the jade pendant, Jing-mei thinks that the gift is meant merely as a sign of sympathy after her humiliating interchange with Waverly. But Suyuan explains the meaning of the gift: she has worn the pendant against her skin; now Jing-mei can wear it, too, and absorb from it Suyuan’s love. Suyuan presents the pendant to Jing-mei at this moment not out of pity but out of pride: she has ceased to measure Jing-mei against Waverly, having recognized the fundamental differences in their personalities and their motivations. Jing-mei’s behavior during dinner shed light on these differences: while everyone else at the table chooses his or her crab in a spirit of selfishness and competition, Jing-mei chooses the worse of the two remaining crabs because she wants her mother to enjoy the better one. Suyuan recognizes the flip side to what she had always seen as Jing-mei’s lack of ambition—her humility and modesty, which can often translate into generosity and selflessness. At times, this is the “best quality” one can have. Suyuan acknowledges and celebrates this aspect of her daughter with the gift of the pendant.