The Voice from the Wall Summary and Analysis
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...
(The entire section is 1,260 words.)