In "Two Kinds," why are "Pleading Child" and "Perfectly Contented" referred to as two halves of the same song?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

We have a tendency to expect the most out of those whom we love the most, and we can be much harder on our loved ones than we are on the general population. That is part of what the Jing-mei realizes in her more mature adulthood as she reflects back...

Unlock
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

We have a tendency to expect the most out of those whom we love the most, and we can be much harder on our loved ones than we are on the general population. That is part of what the Jing-mei realizes in her more mature adulthood as she reflects back on the experience of the piano with her mother.

Jing-mei's mother believes that her daughter is capable of greatness—as much as the other talented children she reads about in Reader's Digest or watches on the Ed Sullivan Show. Finally, she decides to focus her efforts on developing her daughter's piano talents.

Jing-mei is not a willing participant; she is determined not to let her mother "change" her. So she halfheartedly attends lessons, taking advantage of the fact that her piano teacher had neither great hearing nor good sight. It almost becomes a game to her to see how much she can get away with.

Her mother—and the entire audience—realizes the truth at her recital, and afterward when her mother tries to send her back to piano lessons, their conflict comes to a climax when Jing-mei tells her that she wishes she were dead like her mother's other children.

When Jing-mei looks at the two songs in her music books, she sees the "two kinds" of a child that her mother saw in her. On one hand, she was the "pleading child"—a moody song with a relatively short duration. At the same time, her mother was "perfectly contented" in her daughter, especially in the woman she grew to be. This phase of life was longer but had a quicker beat. Jing-mei has served "two kinds" of roles in her mother's life, "play[ing] them both a few times," but these pieces have always part of the same song—her mother's daughter.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

It's ironic, isn't it, that something which can make us so unhappy one moment can make us much happier in another? The piano was the source and symbol of the conflict between Jing-mei and her mother when Jing-mei was a child. Having to practice on it rendered her the "Pleading Child" then, but, as an adult, the gift of the piano renders her "Perfectly Contented." The fact that the two pieces are twin halves of one song makes it seem as though the way we view so many things in life is what makes them seem good or bad to us. It is all a matter of perspective.

Before Jing-mei can recognize her mother's pushing as just the way she showed her daughter how much she loved her, the piano seemed a burden—something designed to hurt her. However, after Jing-mei realizes that her mother always believed in her, no matter what, the piano feels like a trophy: as though she'd won something special. Her perspective changed so that the same thing, the piano, could come to be seen in two different ways, as the pieces symbolize.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

They represent two parts of Jing-Mei's life, which can be roughly divided in half. During the first half, she was very much the "Pleading Child," trying hard to please her mother by becoming a piano prodigy. Things didn't work out so well, however, when Jing-Mei performed disastrously during her big recital, which included a cack-handed rendition of "Pleading Child."

Since then, Jing-Mei has achieved a state of perfect contentment, as she's come to terms with who she really is. No longer under her mother's thumb, Jing-Mei doesn't have to live up to her demanding expectations anymore. Nevertheless, as she looks back upon her life, she realizes that, just as the piano piece "Perfectly Contented" followed on inevitably from "Pleading Child," so too did her present state of contentment arise out of her earlier troubles.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

This is a great question! In this short story we have observed the conflict between Jing-Mei and her mother from its highs to its lows. This of course finds its climax in the piano recital and the bitter argument that happens afterwards. At the end of the story we advance forward a few years to Jing-Mei as an adult, after her, as she puts it, "failing her mother so many times", but each time "asserting my own will, my right to fall short of expectations." It is when her mother gives her the piano that Jing-Mei begins to change in her attitude. She describes the piano using an interesting metaphor, "a shiny trophy", because she had won it on her own terms and not her mother's.

At the end, Jing-Mei receives the piano and she beings to play "Pleading Child" again. The last paragraph is worthy of some serious analysis:

And for the first time, or so it seemed, I noticed the piece on the right-hand side. It was called "Perfectly Contented." I tried to play this one as well. It had a lighter melody but the same flowing rhythm and turned out to be quite easy. "Pleading Child" was shorter but slower; "Perfectly Contented" was longer but faster. And after I played them both a few times, I realised they were two halves of the same song.

Jing-Mei realises that just as these two pieces of music go together inseparably, being "two halves of the same song", so in her life, the stage of "Pleading Child", which interestingly is described as short but slow, is inextricably linked to "Perfectly Contented", which was longer and faster. Jing-Mei, through her childhood was the "Pleading Child", wanting her mother's attention and praise, and now, as an adult, she has reached the stage of being "Perfectly Contented", knowing who she is as an adult and being happy in her identity. However, what she realises is that she can't have one without the other - both are irreplaceable parts of life's journey.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team