Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1270
Rose Hsu Jordan: narrator of this story, daughter of An-mei and George, wife of Ted Jordan; a free-lance production assistant for graphic artists
Ted Jordan: Rose’s husband, a dermatologist
Mrs. Jordan: Ted’s mother
George Hsu: An-mei’s father
Janice, Ruth, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Bing Hsu: Rose’s sisters and brothers
Rose, the narrator, describes a “white leatherette Bible” her mother uses to prop up one leg of a crooked table. After spending more than 20 years on the floor, it is still “clean white.” As she looks at it, Rose wonders how she will tell An-mei that she and Ted are getting a divorce. She knows her mother will insist that she try to save her marriage.
At the beginning of Rose and Ted’s relationship, both mothers object to their dating because of the difference in race. Their parents’ opposition draws them closer together, and they are married just before Ted begins medical school.
Rose and Ted have an unusual relationship: He makes all the decisions because she wants him to. Ted becomes dissatisfied with this arrangement after losing a malpractice suit. He begins to insist that Rose choose. Finally, he tells her he wants a divorce. Rose is devastated.
Rose reflects on her mother’s faith, which An-mei mispronounces as “fate.” Rose wonders whether hope might be all that people can really have, and says the day she started wondering about this was the same day An-mei lost her faith in God.
The story flashes back to the day when Rose, 14, and her family go to the beach. When her father decides to go fishing and her sisters race down the beach, Rose watches her four brothers. The three older boys play together, but Bing, age 4, wanders down the beach. Rose warns him to stay away from the water.
Later Bing walks out on the reef where his father is fishing. As Rose watches, he falls into the water and is never seen again.
The next morning An-mei, who has never driven before, takes Rose back to the reef along with the white Bible, a thermos, and a teacup. An-mei holds the Bible and prays aloud in Chinese for the return of Bing, alive. At the end of her prayer, she waits. Three times she thinks she sees him, but each time “Bing” becomes a mass of seaweed.
An-mei puts the Bible down and takes the thermos and teacup to the edge of the water. She pours sweetened tea from the thermos into the teacup and throws it into the sea, and she adds a blue sapphire ring. For the next hour all they see is seaweed; then An-mei glances down the beach and sees Bing walking toward them. Rose does, too. Or they think they do. He lights a cigarette, and they realize he is a stranger.
Rose wants to leave, but An-mei is undaunted. She believes Bing is in a cave in the reef. She pulls a large inner tube out of the trunk of the car, ties the line from her husband’s fishing pole around it and throws it into the sea, holding on to the pole. She tells Rose that the inner tube will go where Bing is and help him out of the cave and back to them. Eventually the line snaps, and An-mei and Rose scramble to watch it travel across the cove. A wave forces it first against the wall and then into a cavern under the surface. The tube floats in and out several times until finally it comes out “torn and lifeless.” When that happens, An-mei abandons the search.
The story returns to the present. Rose never expected to find Bing that day, and she does not expect to save her marriage. Her mother insists that she must try and leaves Rose alone to think about why. Rose says she had known Bing was in danger and did nothing; she also knew her marriage was in danger and did nothing. In a moment of insight, she realizes that faith balances the loss caused by fate. She thinks that An-mei still pays attention to the loss of Bing. To confirm her suspicions, she takes the Bible out from under the table leg and opens it to find what An-mei wrote in it before she used it to prop up the table leg: Bing’s name appears in pencil on the page marked “Deaths.”
This story returns to the motif of yin and yang, beginning with the title, a reference to the Daoist ideal of two halves balancing to make a whole. Rose and Ted’s relationship is an example of yin and yang gone awry. Instead of balancing the characteristics of both yin and yang in her personality, Rose is entirely yin, always the victim. Ted, on the other hand, is all yang, always the rescuer. Unhealthy though their relationship is, it works until Ted loses the malpractice suit and becomes the one in need. Rose, unaware of how hard he has taken the loss, does not help him. The balance destroyed, their marriage falls apart.
Balance is the key to the theme of this story, suggesting our lives are shaped both by what we control and what we don’t control. Echoing the theme of “The Joy Luck Club,” it suggests that hope is all people really have. Rose says of her own hope, “I was not denying any possibility, good or bad. I was just saying, If there is a choice, dear God or whatever you are, here’s where the odds should be placed.”
When An-mei returns with Rose to the site of Bing’s drowning, she has complete confidence one of her three plans will work. First she uses her Christian faith, holding the white Bible and praying to God.
When Bing does not appear, she turns to her Chinese tradition. Explaining that an ancestor had once stolen sacred water, she throws tea into the sea to “sweeten the temper of the Coiling Dragon.” She also throws in a blue sapphire ring, possibly her most valuable possession, a gift from her mother. When he still does not reappear, An-mei falls back on her nengkan, the powerful self-confidence that has served her family so well in the past. She is convinced her own efforts will succeed where Christian faith and Chinese tradition have failed: the inner tube attached to her husband’s fishing pole will go where Bing is and bring him back. But when the fishing line snaps, she no longer has the “illusion that somehow [she’s] in control.” She and Rose can only watch powerlessly and hopefully as the inner tube is smashed against the cove wall until it is destroyed.
“At that moment, and not until that moment, did she give up,” Rose says, adding, “It made me angry—so blindingly angry—that everything had failed us.”
The story concludes that fate consists of expectation—a positive force, yang—coupled with inattention—a negative force, yin. Those who lose something they love, as An-mei lost Bing and Rose lost Ted, must fill the void, must “pay attention to what [was] lost.” The family Bible’s clean condition tells the reader that An-mei notices it even though she pretends not to. It represents the absent Bing. Bing’s name written “in erasable pencil” in it suggests that An-mei, like Rose, now believes hope is the most a person can have. Rose must pay attention to her marriage, something she acknowledges she has not done, in order to restore the balance in her life. This is her fate.
Unlock This Study Guide Now
Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.
- 30,000+ book summaries
- 20% study tools discount
- Ad-free content
- PDF downloads
- 300,000+ answers
- 5-star customer support