Feathers from a Thousand Li Away, Vignette Summary and Analysis
A young woman leaves China to come to America. She brings with her a swan she plans to give to the daughter she will have someday, a daughter whose life will be much better than hers. Once they arrive in America, though, immigration officials take the swan away from her, leaving her only a feather.
As the vignette concludes, the woman has grown old. She has a daughter but has never given her the feather because she wants to be able to explain her “good intentions” in “perfect American English.”
This vignette focuses on the mother’s actions when she was young and their effects later. Both the woman and the daughter are archetypes, or patterns, of the characters in the rest of the novel. Readers often try to identify the woman in the vignette as Suyuan, the mother in the next story, but she is not. The four stories in this section also focus on the mothers when they were young. As the novel progresses, the reader will see these events affect both mother and daughter later.
The swan is a symbol of the mother. In the first paragraph, the vendor says the swan was “a duck that stretched its neck”; in the second paragraph both swan and mother “[stretch] their necks toward America.” The swan is described as “a creature that became more than what was hoped for,” suggesting that the mother’s life in America will be better than she had hoped for in China. When immigration officials confiscate the swan, Tan describes the mother as “fluttering her arms” like flapping wings.
The feather represents the mother’s “good intentions.” She wants to give her daughter part of herself, but she hesitates, waiting until she can explain herself “in perfect American English.” The fact that the woman is now old suggests that day will never come, the explanation will never be given, and the daughter will never understand exactly what her mother intended.
The giving of gifts forms a motif throughout this novel. As you read, pay attention to how often gifts are given and whether they are appreciated.