Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
In The Kitchen God’s Wife, Auntie Helen confronts her friend Winnie, who has secrets, and Winnie’s married daughter Pearl, who has multiple sclerosis but is afraid to face her mother. Helen announces that they must confide in each other or she, who is dying of a “B nine” brain tumor, will tell everything. Winnie agrees and summons her estranged daughter.
Winnie’s mother, born into wealth and educated in a missionary school, had met a young revolutionary and threatened to swallow gold if her family did not allow them to marry. Instead, she was made second wife to her grandfather’s friend. Winnie remembers living with her mother until she was six, when her mother suddenly died or disappeared; she is never sure which. The child was sent away to relatives.
After a few years, a young man, Wen Fu, became interested in her cousin Peanut, but Winnie was a better marriage prospect because of her father’s wealth, so the Wens chose her. Though she did not love Wen Fu, she hoped for a better life. Instead, the greedy Wen family seized her dowry and sold it or used it for themselves. When Wen Fu began to brutalize and humiliate her, she was not angry: “This was China. A woman had no right to be angry.”
In 1937, Wen Fu joined the Kuomintang army under his dead brother’s name in order to qualify for an American-staffed flight school. There, Winnie met Helen, wife of another officer. Although popular with other pilots, Wen Fu enjoyed playing sadistic games. He was never injured in their bombing missions because, a coward, he always flew the other way.
As the Japanese army invaded China, pregnant Winnie was sent south to Kunming, where her first child was stillborn. After Wen Fu stole a jeep to impress...
(The entire section is 720 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
The Kitchen God’s Wife is about a mother and daughter who have mutually reinforcing secrets. Their inability to communicate is based partially on their different backgrounds. The mother was reared in China and emigrated to California later in life, while her daughter was born and reared in the United States. In the beginning, the story is told by the daughter, Pearl, who has informed everyone but her mother that she has multiple sclerosis. Pearl is afraid that her mother, Winnie, will get overexcited by the news. Pearl feels especially guilty about covering up the information because she believes that her mother would never hide anything from her.
Most of the story, however, is given in the voice of the mother, whose Chinese name is Jiang Weili (in Chinese, the family name is given first). Out of an unrealistic fear of her former husband Wen Fu’s reappearance—especially unrealistic since he is in China and she in California—Weili has never told her daughter anything but generalities about her first marriage. Now that Wen Fu has died, she tells her story, in the process revealing certain long-veiled circumstances of Pearl’s nativity.
When Weili is six years old, her mother deserts the family, bringing shame on the house. Weili is sent to live in her uncle’s residence so that she will not be a constant reminder of her mother’s betrayal. In her new home, she plays second fiddle to her uncle’s children, which is particularly galling in relation to Peanut, the daughter, who is Weili’s junior by a year. Thus, Weili jumps at the chance to marry Wen Fu, a local boy who begins by romancing Peanut but who switches matrimonial targets when he learns that Weili is from the richer branch of the family.
At the time of the couple’s marriage, China is in a skirmishing war with Japan, and the newlyweds pack off to live at the Chinese Air Force Academy, where Wen Fu is a pilot. As she lives with him, Weili...
(The entire section is 799 words.)
Summary (Identities & Issues in Literature)
The Kitchen God’s Wife, Amy Tan’s second novel, is concerned with a young, Americanized Chinese American woman’s quest to accept her heritage, and in so doing accept her family, especially her mother. The first section of the novel, told from the daughter Pearl’s point of view, concerns Pearl’s difficult relationship with her mother, Winnie. Pearl perceives Winnie only as an old, unfashionable woman with trivial concerns. Pearl is troubled by a secret that she believes she cannot tell her mother. Pearl has been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, but dreads her mother’s reaction, her reproaches, her list of ways Pearl could have prevented her disease.
Pearl comes to recognize that her mother has secrets of her own, which Winnie finally decides to share with her daughter. Most of the novel, which is also the part that has received the most critical praise, is Winnie’s first-person account of her childhood. The reader discovers along with Pearl that her mother has not always been the penny-pinching part-owner of a dingy, outdated florist’s shop. Instead, Winnie has had a life of tragedy and adventure before immigrating to the United States. She lived another life in China, complete with another husband and three long-dead children. Winnie’s mother disappeared when Winnie was a child, leaving her with her father and his other wives, who promptly sent her to live with an uncle. That uncle married her to Wen Fu, a sadistic, adulterous...
(The entire section is 432 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Since the death of Jimmy Louie, the father of Pearl Louie Brandt, Pearl and her mother, Winnie Louis, have had a difficult relationship, and Pearl has not told her mother about her struggle with multiple sclerosis. Winnie’s friend Helen Kwong tells Pearl that she knows about her multiple sclerosis and threatens to reveal it to Winnie if Pearl does not disclose it herself by the Chinese New Year.
Helen’s aunt, Grand Auntie Du, soon dies, leaving Pearl an altar to the Kitchen God. Because Pearl has never heard of the Kitchen God, Winnie tells her his story. She explains that the Kitchen God was once a rich man with a hard-working wife. However, he had abandoned his wife and wasted all the money. Finally reduced to a beggar, the man received charity from a kind woman, only to learn she was his wronged wife. Embarrassed, he jumped into a fire and burned to death. As a reward for admitting that he had been wrong, the Jade Emperor asked him to spy on families and report whether they deserve good luck or bad. Winnie expresses distaste for the Kitchen God and removes him from the altar, promising she will replace him with a more appropriate god.
A few days later, Helen gives Winnie some news: Winnie’s first husband, Wen Fu, has died. Seeing this as an opportunity to tell the truth about the past, Helen gives Winnie the same ultimatum she had given to Pearl, telling her to share her secrets with her daughter. Winnie initially resists, but after some thought she invites Pearl to her house and tells her life story.
In 1925, Winnie is a young Chinese girl named Jiang Weili. After her mother runs away, Weili’s wealthy father sends her away to live with her uncle and aunts. Several years later, at a public play, Weili and her cousin Peanut meet a confident, charismatic man named Wen Fu, who arranges a marriage with Weili. Weili’s father bestows upon her a dowry of money and furniture that will belong to her alone; it also will be the only money she receives for the rest of her life.
Wen Fu is a pilot in the air force, so he and Weili must move to Hangzhou so that he can fight the invading Japanese. Wen Fu begins to abuse Weili, raping and humiliating her every night. Weili also meets and becomes friends with Hulan (Helen), who is married to Long Jiaguo, a vice captain. As World War II begins, the pilots...
(The entire section is 960 words.)