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In the “Two Kinds” chapter of her novel The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan uses a good deal of descriptive language, particularly when discussing physical appearances. This method of writing seems effective for a number of different reasons, including the following:
- Sometimes description can be used to suggest a character’s personality by describing his appearance. Thus, at one point the narrator says of her piano teacher,
He looked very ancient in my eyes. He had lost most of the hair on top of his head and he wore thick glasses and had eyes that always looked tired and sleepy.
Here the opening sentence suggests something, perhaps, about the immature perspective of the narrator, while the remaining sentences imply the unexcited, unexciting character of the piano teacher.
- Sometimes description can be used to create humor, as when the narrator says of the piano teacher’s mother that “She had this peculiar smell like a baby that had done something in its pants.”
- Sometimes description can be used to present a vivid, memorable depiction of someone or something, as if the writer really wants to create a striking picture in our minds. Thus the narrator describes the old woman’s skin by saying that
her fingers felt like a dead person’s, like an old peach I once found in the back of the refrigerator; the skin just slid off the meat when I picked it up.
Here the descriptive phrasing not only gives us a highly memorable image of the old woman’s skin but also suggests the young narrator’s near disgust at touching that skin.
- Later, the narrator describes how she was taught to curtsy before beginning a public piano recital (part of a talent show):
. . . right foot out, touch the rose on the carpet with a pointed foot, sweep to the side, left leg bends, look up and smile.
Here the descriptive details imply a number of things; (1) how well the narrator had learned every detail of the curtsy (even if she had not learned especially well how to play the piano); (2) how artificial the routine was, since every single movement had to be choreographed; (3) how much time was spent practicing a fairly superficial procedure; (4) how concerned the narrator was to make just the right public impression – at least through her curtsying, if not through her piano playing. Later, when the narrator botches even the curtsy (along with her piano performance), we realize that she has done so because we remember the details of the present description.
- A bit later the narrator describes in elaborate detail the performances of the very young students – description designed mainly, in this case, to evoke humor.
- In the next paragraph, the narrator describes the expressions on the faces of each of her relatives, thus swiftly characterizing each personality in turn.
- In the next sentence, the narrator describes her own elaborate costume, as if to suggest the artificiality and pretentiousness of the entire event – an event in which physical appearance seemed as important as actual musical talent.
- In a later paragraph, the narrator describes the successful talent show acts of other performers, thereby emphasizing through contrast her own failure at the piano.
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