Amy Tan | Critical Essay by Judith Caesar

This literature criticism consists of approximately 16 pages of analysis & critique of Amy Tan.
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Critical Essay by Judith Caesar

SOURCE: "Patriarchy, Imperialism, and Knowledge in The Kitchen God's Wife," in North Dakota Quarterly, Vol. 62, No. 4, Fall, 1994–1995, pp. 164-74.

In the following essay, Caesar states, "By making us question the validity of American knowledge and the 'otherness' of what Americans consider foreign [in The Kitchen God's Wife, Amy Tan has helped to enlarge the American narrative."]

If, as Jean-Francois Lyotard says, a "master narrative" is required to legitimate artistic expression, for the past thirty years the legitimizing narrative of mainstream American literary realism has been the quest for personal fulfillment. The increasingly stagnant, if not outright polluted, mainstream has produced novel after novel concerning the mid-life crises (and sometimes accompanying marital infidelities) of self-centered American men, with even the once rich Jewish and Southern literary traditions now given over to novels like Bernard Malamud's Dubin's Lives, Walker Percy's The Second Coming, and Reynolds Price's Blue Calhoun, all concerning a middle-aged (and in the first two instances, wealthy) white man's discontent. All are a far cry from the writers' earlier ethical and philosophical concerns. The consideration of the reflective person's stance toward questions of political and social justice, central to the 19th- and early 20th-century novel from Charles Dickens' Bleak House to Ernest Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls, seems to have become limited to experimental postmodern novels (E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime, Thomas Pynchon's Vineland) and to the kinds of essays on domestic politics, international affairs, and human rights that appear in The New Yorker, Harpers', and The Nation. Worse, American literary realism's concentration on the purely personal has led to a delegitimation of other experience, namely, the experience of introspective and articulate people who have lived lives devastated by social and political forces outside their control. These people are relegated to inarticulate images on the television screen—in Sarajevo, in Somalia, in the Middle East, in Thailand, and in China. These people, then, whose real stories and histories remain untold to the American public, become less "real" than many of the characters who populate American literary fiction.

In this context, it is very significant that the supposedly "popular" novels of minority American women—Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Maxine Hong Kingston, Louise Erdrich, and now Amy Tan—seem to be reaching a larger audience than much mainstream literary realism. In part, this is because all five can create such an engaging and often witty surface and because all seem to deal with the popular topics of TV talk shows: spouse abuse, recovering from divorce, finding one's roots, etc. And of course all are hyphenated Americans of some sort, a fact which engages the curiosity of readers who do not share the writers' backgrounds. (Chicana and Native American writers like Sandra Cisneros and Leslie Silko, who use more experimental techniques and deal with a wider range of subject matter, have yet to reach the Waldenbooks reader.)

Yet Tan, for one, does much more than articulate popular media issues. She causes us to question the very basis of how we know what we know. She creates her own narrative by seeming to affirm popular American assumptions in the formula of the popular novel and then undermining that very narrative in a complex political allegory that questions the basic American (indeed Western) concepts of truth and rationality.

In keeping with this subtly deceptive plan, The Kitchen God's Wife seems at first like a lively but somewhat clichéd popular novel, a modern pseudo-feminist retelling of the folklore story of the abused wife (patient Griselda in the West, the kitchen god's wife in the East) who wins her husband's love by passing all his tests or his remorse by her generosity of spirit. What makes it modern is that the abused wife is angry at her ill treatment and seemingly "finds herself" in that anger. The women, moreover, are the "good guys" while the men seem quite unrelievedly evil, with the exception of the male rescuer. It seems, in short, to be a type of formula novel which provides women readers with clear heroines, heroes, and villains, all without disrupting the Gothic romance's illusion of rescue by "the right man." Jiang Weili, the narrator of the central three-fourths of the novel, endures the most horrifying abuse from her brutal husband, Wen Fu, while traditional Chinese society not only fails to intervene but colludes in her victimization. The only twist seems to be that instead of winning her husband's love, Weili is rescued by a handsome prince, in this case, Jimmy Louie, a Chinese-American soldier who marries her and takes her back to the United States. In fact, one can see the novel as a rather smug indictment of the misery of women in traditional Chinese society in contrast to American society's enlightened feminism. Moreover, the story that frames the story, that of Jiang Weili's daughter Pearl and her relationship with her mother, seems like yet another story about returning to one's roots to discover some less complicated identity. In short, there seems little here to challenge conventional American thinking.

Yet nothing in the novel is as it seems. Certainly, in the beginning, nothing is as it seems to Weili's American-born daughter Pearl, who narrates the opening chapters of the novel and embodies the American sensibility in all its directness and in all its limitations. Like well-meaning Americans in China, Pearl makes cultural gaffes in dealing with the older Chinese-American community and even with her mother because she doesn't seem to understand the differences between outer display and actual feeling or the realm of implied meanings that are so much a part of Chinese tradition. Thus, at the funeral of elderly Grand Auntie Du which opens the novel, Pearl sees a group of sobbing women in threadbare padded jackets and takes them for recent immigrants from China, Grand Auntie Du's "real friends," when in fact they are Vietnamese professional mourners. Worse, with all the confidence of American pop psychology, Pearl advises her mother to speak frankly to her contemporary, Auntie Helen, about her feelings that Auntie Helen should be sharing more in Grand Auntie Du's care. Pearl says,

"Why don't you just tell Auntie Helen how you feel and stop complaining?" This is what Phil [Pearl's Anglo husband] had suggested I say, a perfectly reasonable way to get my mother to realize what was making her miserable so she could finally take positive action.

Of course, Pearl doesn't realize that her mother is quietly boasting to Pearl about her own dutifulness and implying that more could be expected of Pearl as well. Thus, Pearl is shocked when her mother is so profoundly offended that she will barely speak to her for a month.

She knows her mother as Winnie Louie, her American name, her kindly but often inexplicably crotchety mother to whom she is bound by sometimes tiresome traditions that don't seem to apply to other Americans. She doesn't realize until the end of the novel that her mother is also Jiang Weili, a woman brought up in China who has survived both a disastrous marriage and the invasion and occupation of her country by a brutal enemy army. And because she doesn't know who her mother is, Pearl also doesn't know that she herself is not the daughter of the kindly Jimmy Louie but of Wen Fu, the brutal first husband. This is but one of the novel's pattern of multiple and mistaken identities that suggests the ambiguity of all knowledge and the incompleteness of the official (legitimate) narrative.

In particular, the novel explores the incompleteness of the American narrative, an incompleteness that comes from a refusal to see the validity of the knowledge of other cultures or of the experiences of people who are not Americans. Pearl, with her confident American knowledge of the way things are, her faulty Mandarin, and her imperviousness to implied meanings, misses much of what is going on beneath the surface, although she is sensitive enough sometimes to realize that there are some things she doesn't understand: "… apparently, there's a lot I don't know about my mother and Auntie Helen," she thinks at one point. Since the bulk of the novel is Weili's story, it would seem that one of the purposes of having Pearl as the initial narrator is not only to contrast the American sensibility with the Chinese, but to alert the American reader to the subtext beneath Jiang Weili's story as well. Although the reader would first identify with the American, Pearl, it is very clear that Pearl doesn't know all that needs to be known.

Weili's story is also much more than it would first seem to an American reader. Most obviously, Jiang Weili's is the story of a progressively more violent and degrading marriage set against the backdrop of the Japanese invasion of China. Weili is married off to a man of a socially "suitable" family, although both her father and her aunts and uncles clearly have a sense of the man's flawed character. Because they know something of his deceptiveness, if not his outright cruelty, they marry Weili to him and not her favored cousin, nicknamed Peanut, who had wanted to marry her. Wen Fu proves to be a sexual sadist who delights in humiliation games, a liar who uses his dead brother's diplomas to become an officer in the Nationalist air force (another confused identity), and a coward who manages to save his own life throughout the war by deserting his fellow pilots whenever they encounter Japanese aircraft. Because of Wen Fu's social position, however, no one acknowledges any of these failings.

As the war continues and the Nationalist army flees from Shanghai to Nanjing and finally to Kunming, so Wen Fu degenerates. He refuses to leave a card game to get a doctor for his sick daughter, and then he publicly blames Weili when the child dies. He brings a concubine into the house and then discards her when she becomes pregnant. He forces Weili to "admit" publicly to being a prostitute, despite her very obvious fidelity. He is the enemy of whatever is life-affirming and generous (Weili's maternal responses to save her child, her sisterly desire to help the ignorant concubine) disguised as patriarchal morality. Throughout all of this abuse, no one interferes; in fact, when Weili tries to run away from Wen Fu, her friends Hulan (later Helen) and Auntie Du tell him her hiding place. The increasing viciousness of Wen Fu parallels the increasing closeness of the Japanese army, so that by the time Weili has run away and been brought back to a still more degraded life, the Japanese are bombing Kunming.

The parallel between the victimization of Weili and the Japanese conquest of China is further emphasized by the fact that old Jiang, Weili's father, has collaborated with the Japanese, betraying his country in the same way he betrayed his daughter. His pattern of ineffectual resistance and subsequent capitulation, moreover, continues throughout the novel. He throws a teacup against a priceless painting to show that he would rather destroy China's heritage than betray it—and then accedes to Japanese demands; in Shanghai, when both he and Weili are Wen Fu's victims, he gives Weili the money with which to leave Wen Fu—and then is too ill to help her when Wen Fu accuses her of theft and has her imprisoned.

Even at this level of the political allegory, however, there is little in equating Chinese patriarchy with Japanese expansionism and imperialism that would discomfort or challenge an American reader. It is still "those people" who have done these terrible things, not "us." Yet it is not so comforting if one carries the political allegory to its logical conclusions. Weili's victimization couldn't have taken place if Chinese society had not condoned it to such an extent that even her best friends didn't want to blemish their reputations by helping her escape—at least until the very end of the novel, when they try to get her out of jail (ineffectually, it turns out) by saying that they had witnessed her divorce. These friends, who later join her in the United States, are not all that different from the United States itself, which, as Tan points out, helped to keep the Japanese war machine running by supplying the Japanese with oil and scrap metal all through the 1930s and later helped China only after the United States itself was under attack. Hulan thinks that she freed Weili through her second husband's influence with the Nationalist government; in fact, it is Weili's cousin Peanut, now a communist cadre who runs a shelter for abused wives, who gets Weili out of prison because Nationalist officials in charge of Weili's case fear reprisals from the communists. If Weili is China, then it is a communist who helps to liberate her, although the liberation is far from complete.

Moreover, if we interpret the novel as a fairly literal political allegory, there is yet another disturbing implication. Wen Fu is never punished. When Weili finally gets word of his death, she learns that he has died an old man, surrounded by his family and respected by his community—the very definition of a righteous man's proper death in Chinese tradition. In contrast, Weili's good husband Jimmy Louie dies relatively young and in great pain, seemingly denied by Pearl, the daughter whom he raised. The pain and prematurity of Jimmy's death is one reason it so haunts Weili. Weili, furthermore, is eking out a living in a foreign country (America), widowed and at least, as the book opens, culturally estranged from her children. One could see this as paralleling the fact that all the former imperial powers—Japan among them—are both more prosperous and more respected than their former victims. To cite the most literal sort of example, the Western media tends to blame the human rights abuses and the political unrest in China and the rest of the former colonial world on the ideological systems that ejected the colonial powers, not on the after-effects of imperialism itself. And the crimes of imperialism did go unpunished. The war crimes trials after World War II focused on the Japanese abuse of western POWs, not on the Japanese imprisonment and massacre of millions of Chinese civilians.

One reason for Tan's equation of imperialism and patriarchy is essentially rhetorical. It is easier for an American audience to sympathize with the victims of patriarchy than with the victims of imperialism. Many American women have been the victims of patriarchy, after all, while very few have been the victims of imperialism. We have not had our country invaded and occupied by a foreign army or had laws imposed on us by people who didn't know our language or culture—except, of course, for Native Americans. The type of suffering Weili endures, moreover, is primarily emotional and psychological rather than physical. She is humiliated and exploited; she cannot even complain about her plight. But she is not being starved, beaten, or tortured at a time when millions of her countrymen (and women) were, as Weili herself points out. Weili's suffering is that of a middle-class woman married to a bully. An American reader can identify with this, at least to some degree; and once one has done this, one can begin to get a sense of the type of suffering that Tan suggests only metaphorically or seemingly incidentally—the Nanjing massacre, for instance. Then other events fit into place. Weili and Wen Fu's children die, one the direct victim of Wen Fu's neglect, two the indirect victims of the Japanese. Tan's presentation helps to legitimize a narrative of suffering otherwise so far outside the American experience that it could seem beyond our capacity for empathy.

But there are more complex philosophical reasons for linking imperialism and patriarchy. For one thing, they both shape the "legitimate" printed narratives of Weili's story. To the Shanghai press covering Weili's case, Wen Fu is a war hero whose wife has been seduced and corrupted by a lecherous American. In this patriarchal narrative, Weili wants to escape Wen Fu not because she has been abused, but because she is "crazy for American sex." This is as true as the printed leaflets the Japanese drop on Nanjing, explaining that civilians will not be harmed.

Behind these official narratives is the assumption that some people's suffering is more significant than other people's sufferings. The Chinese historian Szuma Chien once ironically remarked that some deaths are as heavy as Mount Tai, while others are lighter than a feather—that is, in official versions of events. Thus, the honor of men is more important than the dignity of women, and the deaths of ordinary Chinese simply aren't important at all. This assumption isn't merely Oriental, moreover, since it underlies the current American narrative that the personal emotional crisis of an American is the only suffering interesting enough to write about. The official narratives are used to ignore or justify the sufferings of the powerless.

Consequently, all the official facts in Tan's novel are questionable. Weili's divorce is officially valid when Wen Fu holds a gun to her head and makes her sign the paper, but it can be made invalid by her ex-husband's tearing up the paper. What is a divorce and what does it mean under those circumstances? Weili can be "officially" a thief for taking the gold her father gave her, and then later be "officially" innocent when her imprisonment is termed an "error of the court." Even Pearl's official American knowledge that World War II began with the bombing of Pearl Harbor is questionable, since, as Weili points out, it began for China with the Japanese invasion of Manchuria. (Or did it begin even earlier, with the German concession of the Shantung peninsula to the Japanese?) The Western narrative is at best an incomplete truth. When does a divorce or a war begin or end?

The narrative structure of the novel also suggests the problematic nature of truth. As Edward Said has pointed out in Culture and Imperialism, the narrative structure of the classic 19th-century realistic novel, with its omniscient narrator or reliable first-person narrator, helped to underscore the idea of an authoritative and "correct" version of events. Despite the polyphonic narrations of the high modernist novel, the 20th-century popular novel has generally preserved the 19th-century technique, as has much of contemporary literary realism. The modernist novel, moreover, focuses on the psychological and philosophical implications of competing narratives (Mrs. Dalloway, As I Lay Dying, etc.), not on their political implication. Much contemporary fiction thus tends to confirm the value of Americanness over foreignness, a kind of contemporary imperialism. (Think, for example, of Cormac McCarthy's National Book Award-winning All the Pretty Horses in which the good guys are all American men and the bad guys either Mexican or female. Consider how different it would be if any of the Mexican or women characters gave their version of events.) In contrast, Tan has two narrators and three versions of events—Pearl's, Weili's, and Hulan's, all of which seem credible in some respects.

While Tan's use of a polyphonic narrative is significant in itself, perhaps more significant is who speaks. Through much of the novel, after all, it is an elderly Chinese immigrant whose syntax and word choice reflect the patterns of Chinese-accented English, a speech pattern marginalized and mocked by contemporary mainstream American society. Tan helps to give this voice a validity and dignity in the same way that Walker and Morrison have helped to legitimize African American speech. She has made the sufferings of those who speak in this voice "as heavy as Mount Tai."

The details of the novel confirm both the validity of these Chinese women's experience and the subjective nature of truth. What Hulan remembers is different from what Weili remembers, yet Hulan's insights are given sudden credibility when she tells Pearl, "You know how she [Weili] is, very hard to thank …," and we realize how very true this is of both Weili and Pearl. Just as Pearl rejects her "cousin" Mary's comforting casseroles when Mary learns of Pearl's illness, Weili would indeed be repelled by the idea of being indebted to Hulan in any way. We also realize the extent to which Hulan's behavior, which Weili had interpreted as simply contrary and obstructive, was well intended. What is interesting here is that in personal relationships, unlike political ones, conflicting versions of the truth are not necessarily divisive, since neither version is used as a means of control or suppression. Thus even the quarrels between Winnie (once Weili) and Helen (once Hulan) are not precisely quarrels at all. Pearl observes,

I watch them continue to argue, although perhaps it is not arguing. They are remembering together, dreaming together.

Tan also contradicts this idea of a rational Western truth through the pattern of double and shifting identities of her characters and by her clear indications that the commonly accepted criteria for determining identity are sometimes irrelevant. Tan shows a world of multiple and contradictory truths, truth as a series of Chinese boxes, not a unitary truth to be "discovered" in the Western sense. Tan's is not even a Western "postmodernist" truth of multiple linear narratives, but of contradictory truths and partial truths intermixed in layers of meaning. Through the contradictions in Winnie's (Weili's) character, we see that a complete person can be both large-spirited and petty, loving and distant. Indeed, self-knowledge consists of acknowledging these seemingly contradictory traits. At one point Weili tells Pearl,

I have told you about the early days of my marriage so you can understand why I became strong and weak at the same time. Maybe according to your American mind, you cannot be both, that would be a contradiction. But according to my life, I had to be both.

The simultaneous existence of these opposites is indeed very different from what our American minds tell us is rational, and thus it calls into question the validity of that rationality.

Moreover, none of the characters is precisely what they seem, even concerning the most common determiner of identity, family relationships. Consider, for instance, the ways in which the characters seem to be related but aren't. Pearl calls Hulan "auntie" and thinks of Hulan's children Bao-Bao and Mary as her cousins. Indeed, Winnie and Helen, with all their feuding and tenderness, act like sisters. And Pearl is as exasperated and yet connected to the "cousins" as she would be with any blood relative, a relationship Tan underscores by using them as foils to Pearl. Pearl has believed the "official version" that Helen is the widow of Winnie's younger brother, but she learns very early in her mother's story that Helen is "merely" a person she has known ever since her youth.

Thus it is not surprising that Pearl's discovery of her parentage, her "real identity" does not have the significance the episode's placement in the novel would seem to grant it. Finally, the great climatic revelation that Wen Fu is Pearl's "real" father seems to be irrelevant after all. It is the pattern formed by all the revelations leading up to it that is important. That Jimmy Louie is Pearl's "real" father is simply one more item in the list of things that seems true, isn't true, and finally is in a larger sense as true as any of the novel's other ambiguous truths. And on the level of character, it doesn't matter either. Pearl is not at all like Wen Fu, as Winnie points out. Ancestry and blood relationship finally do not matter very much—a very non-Chinese idea in a very non-American narrative.

Meaning and truth exist in layers, and what is true on the surface is contradicted by another truth underneath, which is in turn contradicted by a third layer. And all are "true." We see this kind of paradox even in the names of minor characters. Pearl's cousin Roger is named Bao-Bao, "precious baby," because his parents were so happy to finally have a child, but the nickname sticks as he grows up because it becomes a sarcastic description of his superficial and immature behavior. The only one of the Chinese-American characters to have a Chinese name, he speaks like a cartoon of an American and gets married and divorced as carelessly as a character in a Woody Allen comedy. Is it then because he is so American that he is so superficial? In fact, in his self-centeredness and sexual inconstancy, he seems like a comic and relatively benign version of Wen Fu. He's a beloved precious baby who has become a spoiled precious baby whose faults are equally American and Chinese.

In this context, it is not surprising that nationality doesn't matter very much in determining the identity of both Weili and Pearl either. It merely determines their modes of expression. Pearl is very much an American version of Weili. Like Weili, she is a concerned and loving mother, she faces difficulties (her multiple sclerosis, for example) with such stoicism that she cuts herself off from both her husband and her mother, she is witty and critical, and she is willing to let things be understood without spelling them out. Yet in her manners and beliefs, she is an American. When, at the end, she accepts her mother's herbal cures and the offering to Lady Sorrowfree, she does so as an acceptance of her mother's solicitude, not her beliefs. She hasn't found a "Chinese identity" in the way the characters in Song of Solomon and The Color Purple find an African identity; instead she has found a closer relationship with her mother and an insight into the seemingly conflicting layers of reality in the world around her, beginning with the multiple identities of her mother and the Chinese "relatives" whom she thought she knew. Personal identity, like both personal and political truth, is many-layered and elusive, something accepted rather than discovered.

Under the outward layer of a highly readable popular novel, Tan has written an extremely complex postmodern literary novel that challenges the dominant narratives of contemporary American society, particularly our ideas of who matters and who does not, of whose version is "true" and whose is not, and indeed of how one can find what is true. Through the voices of characters like Weili and Hulan, Tan presents a world in which complex and intelligent people must find a way of accommodating hostile political and social forces against which they are powerless to rebel—a type of suffering from which most American readers have been sheltered. Thus, Tan verifies the reality of a world outside the American experience as nevertheless part of the human experience and questions the sense of entitlement and cultural superiority that allows Americans to dismiss the sufferings of foreigners. This sense of entitlement, the idea that "our" deaths are as heavy as Mount Tai and "their" deaths are light as feathers underlies the callousness of all imperial narratives—the novels of contemporary America, as well as narratives of the Imperial China of which Szuma Chien wrote and of patriarchal China and Imperial Japan, of which Jiang Weili speaks. By making us question the validity of American knowledge and the "otherness" of what Americans consider foreign, Amy Tan has helped to enlarge the American narrative.

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