Without Wood Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1264

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Old Mr. Chou: the Chinese equivalent of the Sandman

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Summary
When Rose was little, she had bad dreams. In one of them, she fell through a hole in Old Mr. Chou’s floor into a garden. When he shouted at her, she began to run through fields of surrealistic flowers until she came upon sandboxes, each containing a new doll. An-mei told Old Mr. Chou that she knew which one Rose would select, so Rose deliberately chose a different one. An-mei shouted, “Stop her!” and Rose ran off, followed by Old Mr. Chou, who told her she should listen to her mother. When Rose told her the dream, An-mei laughed and said Rose should ignore Old Mr. Chou and just listen to her; Rose protests that even Old Mr. Chou listens to her.

The story jumps to the present. Rose meets An-mei at a funeral one month after telling her that she and Ted are getting a divorce. An-mei talks during most of the service, telling Rose she is too thin, asking her if she has money, asking her why Ted has sent a check, deciding that Ted “is doing monkey business with someone else.” Rose disagrees with the last statement. An-mei asks why Rose can talk to a psychiatrist, but not to her, about her problems. She says a mother knows what is inside her children and that psychiatrists “only make you hulihudu, make you see heimongmong.” The English equivalents are “confused” and “dark fog.” The terms mean the sensation of being frightened and in the dark while trying to find the way. That is how she has felt lately, because she has been talking to everyone but Ted.

Ted sends divorce papers for her to sign and a check to help her out until the settlement. Rose is hurt because the pen he used to write the check was her gift to him last Christmas. He had promised he would only use it for “important things.” Rose doesn’t know what to do, so she puts the papers and the check “in a drawer where I kept store coupons which I never threw away and which I never used either.”

Just before she pulls the papers out of the drawer to sign them, she thinks about how much she loves her house. She remembers that Ted used to pay careful attention to the garden. As she looks at it through a window, she notices that the garden has been neglected and wonders when Ted stopped working in it. She remembers a fortune she once read from a cookie: “When a husband stops paying attention to the garden, he’s thinking of pulling up roots.”

Three days later Ted calls. He is annoyed that Rose hasn’t cashed his check or signed the papers and threatens to have them formally served. He wants the house; he wants to get remarried. Rose is stunned. She asks Ted to come over the next day, promising him the papers.

The next day she shows him the overgrown garden and says she likes it that way. She gives him his papers, and he offers to let her live in the house 30 days until she finds someplace else to live. Rose says she’s staying in the house and that her lawyer will be serving him with papers. She has not signed his.

Rose tells Ted, “You can’t just pull me out of your life and throw me away.” She sees by his expression that he is hulihudu and that her words have power. That night she dreams that she is in the garden with Old Mr. Chou and her mother. It is foggy, and they are planting something in the planter boxes. When she walks closer, she can see freshly planted weeds “below the heimongmong, all along the ground…spilling out over the edges, running wild in every direction.”

Analysis
Rose, who never had to make a decision before, now finds herself facing several. Amy Tan uses the situation to develop two intertwining themes. The first might be stated simply as “Listen to your mother.” The second theme affirms the value of Chinese thinking in a multicultural society. The common denominator for the themes is An-mei.

The title refers to the Chinese belief that people consisted of fire, water, earth, metal, and wood. An imbalance of even one element could have serious consequences, as suggested in “The Red Candle,” when the matchmaker says Lindo was unable to conceive because she had too much metal. In “The Joy Luck Club” Jing-mei says that An-mei had too little wood and was therefore unable to think for herself. In this story An-mei states that Rose has no wood, and, in an irony apparent only to the reader, confides that she herself almost became that way once. An-mei uses the analogy of a tree and a weed to explain the difference between having and not having wood and promises that a girl who listens to her mother will be strong.

“I used to believe everything my mother said,” Rose says in the opening line of the story, “even when I didn’t know what she meant.” The children of immigrant parents usually reject their parents’ culture and adopt the ways of the new country as they try to assimilate, and Rose fits the pattern. Forced to choose between American ways and Chinese ways, Rose chooses the American ways almost every time. “It was only later that I discovered there was a serious flaw with the American version,” Rose asserts. “There were too many choices, so it was easy to get confused and pick the wrong thing.” Again Rose fits the pattern of immigrants’ children not appreciating their parents’ culture until they are older.

An-mei suspects Ted is having an affair when she learns he has sent Rose a check. Rose finds the idea laughable at the time, but later she discovers her mother was right. At that point she abandons her American ideas in favor of her mother’s Chinese ideas, decides she will speak to Ted, and invites him over. She retrieves the divorce papers from the drawer where she puts things she can’t decide about, and finds her voice: “You can’t just pull me out of your life and throw me away.”

Rose’s remark alludes to An-mei’s analogy. She will not allow Ted to treat her like a weed. She has listened to her mother and has wood now. Ted is confused, hulihudu, by the power of her words; and Rose is pleased. Once the power of her mother’s words had shaped her life, but Rose finally has power in words of her own. The incident underscores the twin themes.

The weeds in the garden represent Rose. An-mei’s earlier description of weeds “running along the ground until someone pulls you out and throws you away” foreshadows Ted’s intentions. Rose notices some weeds that have worked their way into cracks in the patio and under loose shingles and can’t be pulled out without structural damage. The image suggests that Rose herself won’t be discarded easily. She tells Ted she likes the garden overgrown and wild. Her defiance suggests her new strength.

The fog of the garden that afternoon parallels the hulihudu, confusion, Rose sees in Ted’s face after this announcement. It returns in Rose’s final dream, where planter boxes replace sandboxes and lovingly tended weeds “below the heimongmong” replace the dolls of her first dream. This image suggests that Rose can accept herself as she is.

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