A First-Person Narration
The Kitchen God’s Wife is an interesting example of a first-person narrative because of its complexity. The story is told from both Pearl’s and Winnie’s points of view, and Winnie talks about both the past and the present. The structure of the novel, with the mother and daughter as the speakers, suggests indirect communication between the two of them through the reader. Of course, by the end of the novel, this has become direct communication as the two women share the secrets they have hidden from each other.
As Winnie tells her life story to her daughter, she occasionally makes a reference to contemporary life or asks Pearl a question, which reminds the reader that the story is being told by Winnie to her daughter as they sit in Winnie’s kitchen. The tone is confessional and reminiscent of the oral tradition as Winnie relates events of the past with the wisdom of the present. Critics commend Tan’s ability to create unique voices for Pearl and Winnie. When Winnie speaks, her syntax, word choice, and idioms all support the realism of the speaker. In contrast, when Pearl speaks, the text reads just as if a typical American were speaking.
B Roman a Clef
Because Winnie’s story is drawn heavily from Tan’s mother’s life, the inclusion of actual historical events and figures is not surprising. In fact, the historical context is so striking and real, the novel can be considered a roman a clef, which is a novel in which real people and events are presented in a fictional context. Examples of this type of novel include Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind and Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.
There are many real events and people in the novel. Winnie, of course, is based on Daisy Tan, the author’s mother. Wen Fu is based on Daisy’s first husband. The social context of the novel, with its patriarchy and arranged marriages, is an accurate depiction of what life was like in China at that time. The details of the war, from the stories of cities bombed by the Japanese to the character of Claire Chennault, are drawn directly from history.
C Detailed Descriptions
In The Kitchen God’s Wife, Tan includes lots of domestic details and descriptions of landscapes to give the reader a strong sense of the characters’ lives. This serves two purposes: first, it draws the reader into the story and brings the characters and scenes to life; second, it provides much-needed context for Western readers, to whom the characters and their surroundings are unfamiliar. Domestic details include food preparation, the importance of good sewing needles, and the social separation between men and women in the home. At night, the men play cards and smoke while the women attend to household duties or sit quietly. Each time the pilots and their wives move, Tan presents rich descriptions of the landscapes, including ponds, trees, rolling hills, and the darkness of night.
Tan also includes a great deal of sensory detail. This type of detail helps create vivid atmosphere and appeals to the universal experiences of seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting, and smelling. In chapter one, Pearl visits her mother in her flower shop: I open the door and bells jangle. I’m instantly engulfed in the pungent smell of gardenias, a scent I’ve always associated with funeral parlors. The place is dimly lit, with only one fluorescent tube hanging over the cash register.
In this short excerpt, Tan includes sound, smell, and sight, describing fully the experience of walking into the flower shop. Tan also shows how a sensory experience can have an emotional impact, as when Pearl and her family stay at Winnie’s house before Auntie Du’s funeral. Pearl and Winnie have said good night, and Pearl notes, “I hold my breath. There is only silence. And finally, I hear her slippers slowly padding down the hallway, each soft shuffle breaking my heart.” Later, Winnie explains that she can no longer stand the taste of eels because of an experience during the war. She and her group had left Nanking, and as they were enjoying the delicacy of white eels, Nanking was ravaged and its people brutalized. Because of her overwhelming guilt, she can never eat eels again. She wonders in chapter thirteen, “Why do some memories live only in your tongue or in your nose? Why do others always stay in your heart?”
D Literary Devices
Perhaps Tan’s education in English accounts for her use of a wide variety of literary devices. Inventive similes intrigue the reader, as in chapter one, when Pearl thinks, “I’ve always found [funeral] wreaths hideously sad, like decorative lifesavers thrown out too late.” As Winnie tells her story, there are occasional instances of foreshadowing. In chapter eight, she remarks, “Of course, maybe my marriage never really had a chance …. But without the worries Peanut put in my head, maybe I would have found a few moments of happiness before all the truth came out.” Some of the Chinese words are examples of onomatopoeia, such as the fish called the “wah-wah yu,” named for the sound it makes, which resembles a baby crying.