The main protagonists in the Kitchen God’s Wife by Amy Tan spend several decades fighting each other because of their differences that come from having completely different pasts — Winnie, the mother, being born and brought up in China and her daughter Pearl, living all her life in the United States. However, when they finally begin to listen to each other, they realize that despite their different upbringing, they share more than they ever realized as women and mother and daughter. With changing circumstances, the two are eventually able to begin to open up and peel away the layers that keep them apart.
Basically, this novel is about these women — mother and daughter — who are keeping secrets from one another. Pearl has kept her diagnosis of multiple sclerosis from her mother for seven years. This is not only because she is afraid that Winnie will be very upset, but also because Pearl purposely wants to leave her at arms length. Winnie, in turn, is holding much more back from Pearl, including her mother’s abandonment, abusive husband, babies’ death, and brutal rape, as well as single motherhood, poverty and homelessness (Huntley 80).
Even if these two women were more open, their differences would have created barriers between them. Pearl, due to the death of her father when she was a teenager, has not completely grown up emotionally — despite the fact that she now is a wife and mother, herself. Her trauma has kept part of her from reaching maturity and being more patient and understanding of her mother. As children often do, she has a difficult time tolerating some of Winnie’s personality traits and human quirks. Phil, Pearl’s husband, who gets along well with his mother-in-law, tries to enhance the communication between the two women. He tells Pearl that she is being selfish and life is not always exactly as you want it (15). He is no more successful in bringing the mother and daughter together. In fact, in some ways he worsens the situation by making Pearl more resistant to change. Meanwhile, Winnie’s experiences in the past have made her more negative and less patient overall with life. Whereas once she was a hopeful and happy young woman, she has turned into a much more fearful, superstitious and cautious individual.
Tan faces the communication problem between Winnie and Pearl right from the first sentence in the book. As Pearl says, “Whenever my mother talks to me, she begins the conversation as if we were already in the middle of an argument.” (11). Winnie’s obsessive compulsiveness with sickness and death, which also interrelates with her superstitious nature, is one the habits that bothers Pearl most. This is a primary reason why Pearl does not tell Winnie about her MS. She is afraid that her mother will begin to obsess about her illness and make her even more upset. Pearl says about Winnie: “To this day it drives me crazy, listening to her various hypotheses, the way religion, medicine, and superstition all merge, with her own beliefs. She puts no faith in other people’s logic — to her, logic is a sneaky excuse for tragedies, mistakes, and accidents” (29).
Pearl thinks that her mother’s fixation with illness has to do with cultural differences, especially when Winnie relates the story about the Nine Bad Fates who say that a person is destined to die after eight bad things happen. If the person does not stop the last bad thing from happening, the ninth one will bring death. Winnie truly believes that her husband died, because she did not notice the eight bad things happening to him. She has since lived with this personal guilt, among everything else she is carrying inside of her.
To some extent Winnie’s Chinese cultural past does make her more superstitious. However, her behavior is more because of what Winnie has endured in the past. She was finally having a good life with a new husband and forgetting her earlier traumas when her second husband dies. This would be difficult to accept by almost anyone.
Part of Winnie, however, was afraid of leaving the past totally alone. As she says later in the book about her experiences in China: “Even I was scared my old life would catch up with me. But then China turned off the light, closed the door, told everyone to be quiet. All those people there became ghosts. We could not see them. We could not hear them. So I thought I really could forget everything. Nobody could get out to remind me” (72).
Winnie, in fact, shows what happens when people try to put aside the past, as both she and daughter are doing. They can no longer know fiction from fact — truth from falsehoods. Winnie, unable to actually remember her mother, has contradictory versions of her mother’s image, sometimes believing her to be beautiful, strong, intelligent and from a good family. However, later admitting that “maybe my mother was not pretty at all, and I only want to believe that she was” (120).
That is one of the reasons why Winnie keeps repeating to herself: “Now I no longer know which story is the truth, what was the real reason why she left. They are all the same, all true, all false. So much pain in everyone. I tried to tell myself, the past is gone, nothing to be done, just forget it. That’s what I tried to believe” (130). Because of forgetting what actually transpired in the past, there is no prior foundation to use to remember. Thus, recollection becomes more imaginative and less real. Similarly, Aunt Helen comments about the past regarding Winnie: “She and I have changed the past many times, for many reasons. And sometimes she changes it for me and does not even know what she has done” (69).
Similarly, Pearl is left with only some memories of her father and her mother — mostly negative — and the funeral and how she was slapped. She has forgotten much of the positive aspects about growing up with her mother, because she still holds Winnie accountable for something she could do nothing about. “Traditional Chinese culture measures grief by how loud one cries at the funeral. In time Pearl comes to believe that her mother loves her brother more, and Winnie is convinced that her daughter thinks that she is a bad mother. This strained relationship has kept both mother and daughter from sharing their dark secrets” (Nelson 367).
It is ironic then, at the end of the book both must try to remember all that they can about the past. This will be something that times them together in the future. They will become the memories and journals of each other as they open up and recall the past. That is why Pearl, Winnie’s daughter, complains: “I am laughing, confused, caught in endless circles of lies” (524). The past, paradoxically, is lost in the process of recollection.
When she hears about Wen Fu’s death, Winnie knows that it is finally time to open up and reveal the secrets she has been keeping from Pearl. It is time for both of them to face the ghosts of the past and let their emotions no longer rule over them (Lee 106) Winnie, like her daughter has kept her emotions inside for decades and, like her daughter, it has made her bitter and angry. As she relates her story to Pearl she admits, “Now you see how I once was. I was not always negative-thinking the way you and Helen say. When I was young, I wanted to believe in something good. And when that good thing started to go away, I still wanted to grab it, make it stay” (152). Pearl realizes that is what she has also been doing by not dealing with her father’s death.
Winnie relates the story about Pearl’s boyfriend, Randy, and says, “Although sometimes, even a mother cannot help her daughter, no matter what.” She may be using Randy as the example, but actually Winnie really means that she could not do anything about her husband and Pearl’s father dying. Both of their hearts broke when he died. That is something that Pearl is also going to have to realize. She was not the only one devastated when her father died. Her mother lost just as much, if not more, through this death and has been able to handle it.
Winnie has lived with numerous disappointments and much sadness throughout her life. She was abandoned by her mother and abused by her husband. She also made it alive during the horrors of World War II, in order to come to the United States and once again begin her life, only to lose the man that she loved. As Winnie describes the scene when they met once again: “Yes, yes! Just like that, five years later, our past and future bumping into one another on a strange street in Shanghai. Can you imagine?…I ask you, isn’t that fate meant to be?” Now, Pearl realizes that Winnie’s fatalism is not all negative. That, too, she has not understood about her mother and what keeps her going. Pearl recognizes the strength never left her mother. For the sake of her daughter, she kept on going. Her greatest fault: becoming disillusioned with life. But now, she can perhaps work on those feelings, because she will not be bearing them alone. She will also have Pearl’s strength to help her as she becomes older.
As she tells Pearl her life story, Winnie feels so much weight being lifted off her shoulders. She first apologizes for not having told Pearl about how her grandmother abandoned her six-year-old daughter. This has to be the most difficult thing for Winnie to talk about, since she, like Pearl, did not want to admit things to herself that were too hurtful.
Finally, Winnie relates the rest of the story about the rape by Wen Fu and how Pearl was born nine months later — something wonderful out of something so horrible. Now, because she has heard the entire story, Pearl truly understands where her mother’s anger and fears come from. Now, just as well, Pearl understands why she has her own anger and fears. She also knows that the time has indeed come to tell Winnie about her MS. Pearl’s admission allows Winnie help her daughter, but this time it will be something acceptable.
Later, Aunt Helen also tells a secret to Pearl, which adds levity to the book. For some time, she knew that she had a benign brain tumor. That was her way to unite the stubborn mother and daughter. Winnie had been such as good friend to her that she wanted to give something back in return. This, indeed, was a special gift — her daughter. Likewise, Pearl had the gift of her mother. “Now you are closer, mother and daughter, I can already see this.” This, then is now the secret that Aunt Helen and Pearl will share, but it is a good secret — one that will only bring good things. Pearl laughs and agrees to going to China, but is so confused she does not even know what she is agreeing to.
In the book’s last scene, Winnie gives Pearl a statue for Grand Auntie Du’s little altar temple. The statue stands for the once-silent and forgiving Kitchen God’s Wife, who watches over women who are learning to break their silences. Now Winnie and Pearl, mother and daughter, will find that they actually do not have many differences between them. They share a love for a husband and father. They share the need to learn from and not be angry from the past. They share a future together.
Bloom, Harold. Amy Tan. Philadelphia, PA: Chelsea House, 2001.
Huntley, E.D. Critical Companion. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998.
Lee, Ken-Fang. Cultural Translation and the Exorcist: A Reading of Kingston’s and Tan’s Ghost Stories. Mellus (2004). 29.2
Nelson, Emmanuel S. Asian-American Novelists: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2000: 105+.
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