Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1260
Lena St. Clair: Ying-ying’s daughter, 10 years old at the time of this story
Clifford St. Clair: Ying-ying’s husband, Lena’s father
Teresa Sorci and Mrs. Sorci: neighbors in the St. Clairs’ apartment building. Teresa is about 12 years old. Her bedroom is next to Lena’s
The adult Lena narrates this story. As a child she wondered about “the death of a thousand cuts,” in which a condemned man is sliced away little by little until he dies. Her great-grandfather had once ordered someone to die in this manner, and the ghost of the executed man returned and killed him. “Either that,” she says, “or he died of influenza a week later.”
Lena imagines her great-grandfather’s last moments. The ghost appears, saying he thought the worst that could happen to him was this torturous execution. “But I was wrong,” he says. “The worst is on the other side,” meaning the other side of life—death. In her daydream the ghost then drags her great-grandfather from this world through the wall to the other side.
When Lena was five, she fell down the basement stairs. Ying-ying told her to stay out of the basement because an evil man who had lived there thousands of years would impregnate her and eat her family. After that Lena saw danger everywhere with her “Chinese eyes,” she says, “the part of me I got from my mother.”
Communication in the family is poor. Ying-ying warns Lena about dangers all around her, but Lena knows Ying-ying makes things up when challenged. Ying-ying’s English is poor and St. Clair’s Chinese worse, so communication between the parents is tenuous. Sometimes her father makes up what he thinks Ying-ying says. Lena also makes things up to her advantage when translating for either parent.
When Lena is 10, the family moves to North Beach, an Italian neighborhood of San Francisco. Lena adjusts easily to the noise and smells, but Ying-ying has trouble. The house is on a hill so steep that Ying-ying says a person’s life is always rolling backward. She tries to restore balance by rearranging the furniture several times. Her father dismissively claims, “Your mother is just practicing her nesting instincts.” A few days later, a new baby crib in Lena’s room suggests he may be right. Lena notices other, ominous signs, though, and she worries.
Lena hears her neighbors, the Sorcis, shouting at night. Then she hears what sounds like someone being killed with the death of a thousand cuts. The next night she hears it again. She meets the girl she believes to be the victim one day and is surprised that she looks so happy. Lena feels guilty for knowing the truth about her.
One day Suyuan and Canning Woo pick up Lena at school and take her to the hospital to visit her mother. Ying-ying’s baby was born with a severe birth defect and is dead. Ying-ying is incoherent, and St. Clair asks Lena to translate; but her words seem like insanity to Lena, so she makes up a translation.
Ying-ying enters a deep depression, unable to function. St. Clair tries to convince Lena and himself she is just tired, but Lena is frightened. When she hears the Sorcis fighting at night, she is comforted by thinking that someone else’s life is worse than hers.
One evening, however, the doorbell rings and the girl next door, Teresa, walks through the apartment to Lena’s bedroom and climbs out the window. Her mother has kicked her out in one of their arguments. Teresa wants to climb back into her bedroom via the fire escape. When Lena asks if Mrs. Sorci will be angry, Teresa casually says that they fight like this “all the time.”
Later that night Lena hears Teresa and her mother shouting at each other, but this time she also hears the love between them. She lies in her bed and cries, happy to have misjudged them.
That experience brings Lena hope. Her mother is still depressed, but Lena believes it will pass. She envisions a mother being sentenced to the death of a thousand cuts and being told, “It is the only way to save you.” The sword goes up and down, but no harm is done. The mother understands that she has already been through the worst possible. Then the daughter reaches out and pulls her mother back through the wall.
The title “The Voice from the Wall” refers to three parts or voices. The first is the ghost returning from “the other side” for Lena’s great-grandfather. His voice threatens doom. The second voices belong to Teresa Sorci and her mother. They demonstrate love. Finally, Lena herself near the end of the story tries to bring her mother back from the other side of her depression. Hers is a voice of hope. The arguments between Teresa and her mother form an important part of the plot; both the image of the ghost and Lena’s struggle, while more subtle, underscore a theme of dealing with adversity.
When Tan sets the St. Clair family next to the Sorcis, she emphasizes their differences. The St. Clairs, Chinese-Americans, are quiet; the Sorcis, Italian-Americans, are loud. The St. Clairs are gentle with each other; the Sorcis are violent. The St. Clairs communicate almost by guessing; the Sorcis make their thoughts known not only to each other but also to the neighbors. The St. Clairs live in fantasy worlds: Clifford, by making up what he wants his wife to have said; Ying-ying, by retreating into her pain; Lena, by thinking she knows everything about Teresa Sorci. The Sorcis, on the other hand, live without illusions. Teresa tells Lena exactly what her mother is thinking, what she will do, and how she will react. She is also confident of her mother’s love. Strengths and weaknesses exist in both apartments.
The story of the ghost and Lena’s great-grandfather parallels the circumstances surrounding Lena and Ying-ying. Lena envisions the ghost “looking like a smashed vase hastily put back together” when he returns to exact his revenge. She compares her mother’s depression to that kind of death, saying Ying-ying’s fears “devoured her, piece by piece.” Lena’s world is as shattered as both the ghost and her mother. She describes Ying-ying’s despondency as “the worst possible thing,” in part because the stability of her family has been destroyed. While communication has never been a strength in the St. Clair household, Lena usually knew what to expect. Now her mother’s sorrow is a wall she can only dream of penetrating.
This story is one of the best in the novel at transcending the specific circumstances of Chinese women who raise American children. Sometimes funny, sometimes tragic, always complex, the St. Clair family represents every family at one time or another. Clifford St. Clair exemplifies not just an American who speaks minimal Chinese but also every husband who doesn’t try very hard to understand his wife. Ying-ying, in addition to being an immigrant who speaks English poorly, represents every wife who pleases her husband when he’s around and does what she wants when he’s gone. What child hasn’t taken advantage of a parent’s ignorance at one time or another? Lena manipulates the language weaknesses of both her parents to her advantage, one time to gain a metal lunch box, much later to escape a situation beyond her comprehension. The cultural aspects of the characters become secondary in these contexts.
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