Illustration of the profiles of a young woman and an older woman facting away from each other

The Joy Luck Club

by Amy Tan

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The Voice from the Wall Summary

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When Lena St. Clair was a small girl, her mother told her about a beggar her great-grandfather had once sentenced to death by a thousand cuts. The beggar’s ghost came back to take her great-grandfather to the other side. Lena reflects that her mother seems to have been cut into a thousand pieces over time until she became a living ghost.

Lena also recalls her mother trying to hide from her in the basement once and her five-year-old self falling to the floor while her mother told her of a bad man who lived in the basement. Lena developed a habit of seeing “terrible things” with her “Chinese eyes.” She is only half Chinese. Her father is English-Irish, and she often had to translate between her parents, for they failed to understand each other. Mr. St. Clair tended to interpret his wife’s communication, but he rarely got it right.

The family moved to a new, primarily Italian neighborhood, and they lived on the second floor of an apartment building. Lena’s mother was often frightened, and she constantly tried to find a balance by rearranging furniture. Everything about the apartment was wrong. Mr. St. Clair told Lena that her mother was merely “nesting.” Lena realized that her mother was pregnant.

To make room for the crib in Lena’s bedroom, Lena’s bed was moved against the wall. At night, Lena heard a woman and a girl arguing in the neighboring apartment and imagined the girl being beaten and killed. The girl was not dead, however, and Lena saw her as she went to school. The girl merely scowled at Lena.

When Lena’s baby brother died just after birth, Betty St. Clair (as her husband called her) fell apart. She often lay in bed for hours and felt that nothing mattered anymore. Lena continued to listen to the fights next door and wondered which apartment contained the unhappiest family.

One day the girl next door rang the doorbell, introduced herself as Teresa, and walked into Lena’s bedroom. Teresa explained that her mother had kicked her out. Teresa planned to climb across the fire escape into her own room so that her mother would not be able to find her when she went looking. Lena asked Teresa if her mother would be mad, but Teresa responded that she would only pretend to be mad. Later, Lena heard Teresa and her mother laughing and crying and understood that they truly loved each other.

Lena now imagined a girl who was in so much pain from not being seen that she gave her mother a thousand cuts, for it was the only way to save them both. The mother now saw that she had experienced the worst, and the girl pulled her back into life.

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