Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Sea Glass is at once an ethnic novel and a novel of initiation. Craig Chin must grow up and find his place in the society around him—and he must do so as a Chinese, as an American, and as a Chinese American. The events of the book unfold so as to assure his success on all counts. Ironically, the only major obstacle to this attainment is his father, the person who would help him most because he truly loves him. To the credit of the author, Craig’s problems are never really derived from the youth’s Chinese ancestry (as the father would seemingly have it) or from the American society at large (as Uncle Quail would have it). Rather, the problems are primarily at home in the heart of the father who would dictate that his son become a sports hero whatever the cost.

Such thinking is not localized with Craig Chin’s parents. The attempt to relive within the lives of children that which was not achieved by the parents is common to human nature. Sadly, Craig must become the worst of an American (that is, a disrespectful youth who would scream at his father and throw something of a tantrum) in order to make this point to his father.

The chief literary device used by the novelist is that of metaphor. Yep takes the commonplace knowledge that “life is a game” and shows human tensions and conflicts to be a series of ongoing “plays”—here, ones which are off the field. The real games in the story are the ones between father and son, between Uncle Quail and Craig, between Kenyon and Craig.

The overriding metaphor and symbol of the novel are indicated by the title. Life is like an ocean, and people as individuals are like broken pieces of glass. Persons can, in time, be shaped by the forces of nature and society into something smooth and beautiful—something like “sea glass.”