Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1237
Harold Livotny: Lena’s husband, an architect
Arnold Reisman: a neighbor who was mean to Lena when they were children
Ying-ying is visiting Lena, 36, and her husband, Harold, in their new home in Woodside. Lena worries that Ying-ying will see how precarious their marriage is.
The story flashes back to when Lena was eight. To encourage her to finish her food, Ying-ying told her that her future husband would have a pock mark on his face for every piece of rice she did not eat. Lena immediately thought of Arnold, a neighbor who had small marks about the size of grains of rice on his face and was mean to her. She was frightened she would have to marry him. At Sunday school later that week Lena saw a film about people with leprosy. She thought her mother would say their future spouses had left several meals unfinished. She tried to kill Arnold by not finishing her food, so she wouldn’t have to marry him.
Five years later her father read in the paper one morning that Arnold had died of complications from a case of measles he’d had about the time Lena refused to finish her food. Lena felt responsible for his death, and that night she ate ice cream until she vomited.
The story returns to the present, with Lena observing that people get what they deserve. As evidence she cites her husband, Harold, whom she met eight years earlier at the architectural firm where both worked. They split the bill for working lunches in half, even though Lena’s share was usually less than Harold’s. Later they did the same when they met secretly for dinner. Lena didn’t mind the unfairness.
Later she convinced Harold to start his own firm and offered to help finance it. He would not accept money from her under any business arrangement; instead, he invited her to move in with him and pay him $500 a month rent. Lena accepted, thrilled that they would be living together.
Both of them quit their jobs to work at this new business. Lena encouraged Harold not to give up and came up with some unusual ideas for restaurant designs. Harold used her ideas and became successful. The firm now employs 12 people, one of them Lena. Harold will not promote her, even though she is very good, saying the other employees will think the promotion is just because they are married. Lena feels that trying to keep things equal with Harold is not working any more.
The story returns to the present. Ying-ying looks at a tally of expenses on the refrigerator door, and Lena explains that they split expenses 50-50. Ying-ying notices Harold has put “ice cream” on his list and points out that Lena has never eaten it since Arnold died. She has always paid for half of it, though.
Lena shows Ying-ying to the guest room, a plain room decorated in Harold’s taste. By the bed an unsteady table has a vase of freesias on it. Lena warns Ying-ying about it, then goes downstairs and marks the ice cream off the refrigerator list. She and Harold argue about the way they split expenses until Lena hears the vase in the guest room fall and break. She goes upstairs and sees that the table has collapsed. Lena tells her mother she knew it would happen, and Ying-ying asks her why she didn’t prevent it.
Ying-ying’s closing words to Lena, “Then why you don’t stop it?” complete a motif that runs through this story, chunwang chihan. The phrase literally means, “If the lips are gone, the teeth will be cold.” Figuratively it suggests cause-and-effect relationships for everything that happens.
Referring to events in “The Voice from the Wall,” Lena relates that Ying-ying knew her baby would be born dead, saying the family’s home was built on a hill that was too steep. A Western reader might not see the feng shui cause and effect Ying-ying did, but would see clearly the relationship between Clifford St. Clair’s bacon-and-egg breakfasts and his heart attack and death. The motif resurfaces when Ying-ying encourages Lena to eat by telling her leftover food will cause pock marks on her future husband’s face. At first Lena eats, but later she decides against it. With the logic of an eight-year-old, she thinks this will kill Arnold, a mean neighbor she is afraid of having to marry. When the events surrounding Arnold’s subsequent death appear to indicate she was right, she feels guilty and gorges herself on ice cream. The causes and effects exist only in the minds of the participants but are no less real for it.
Ying-ying criticizes Harold’s table with “Chunwang chihan,” wondering what to do with a table too unsteady for anything but a small vase of flowers. When the table falls, she points out that when the cause is obvious, the effect should be prevented.
This motif underscores the character development of both Harold and Lena. When Ying-ying tells Harold that Lena has “become so thin…you cannot see her,” she is commenting on their marriage. She sees clearly what Lena denies: Harold abuses Lena’s generosity and love when he insists that she pay for half of everything. “As long as we keep the money thing separate,” he insists, “we’ll always be sure of our love for each other.” He uses their financial arrangement to ensure he has his way in every major decision. This pattern is so entrenched in their relationship that Lena does not even know how to articulate it at the end of the story.
Harold thinks Lena is talking about the cat when she brings up the subject of changing the way they manage household expenses. After all, she has gone along with everything up to now. At first it was just meals. Later he didn’t want to accept her financial support for his firm on any businesslike basis such as a loan, which would benefit both equally. Instead, he exploited her by asking her to move in with him so he could start his business with her rent money. He now owns a very successful firm with 12 full-time employees, and Lena has nothing to show for her investment.
This pattern of Harold taking advantage of Lena continued into their marriage. It is present in their prenuptial agreement, in Harold’s refusal to promote Lena even though she deserves it, in the uninviting style of their home, in their vacation plans, and in their day-to-day expenses. Lena has gone along with it, even though she recognizes that something is wrong. She values her contribution too little, afraid Harold might one day see her “as a sham of a woman.” She considers herself lucky that Harold loves her but does not consider that Harold is lucky she loves him.
The wobbly table in the guest room symbolizes the couple. Lena wonders why Harold is proud of its clumsy design. The fragile legs will support their marble burden only as long as nothing jars the table. Similarly, Harold and Lena have a clumsy marriage, Lena often not saying what she is thinking, Harold pretty much getting whatever he wants. It is uneven and unfair, and something as small as a cat or a box of ice cream can shatter the assumptions that support it.
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