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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
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 role of women in The Kitchen God's Wife is 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 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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Kitchen God's Wife!