Jiang Weili (Winnie), who tells most of the story, is a woman who, it is said, combines weakness and strength. Plucked out of her home and placed in her uncle’s house when her mother deserts the family, she grows up taught to defer to her uncle’s children. Yet her first years with her mother, who spoiled her, have given her an ineradicable sense of self-worth. When Weili makes a poor marriage to Wen Fu, she at first acts docilely, putting up with his abuse. Her repression of her better instincts in this relationship acts as one of the book’s sharper critiques of the man-as-master ideology of old China. Later, Weili revolts and escapes her first marriage. At the time of the story’s telling, it is her past that separates her from her daughter; Weili does not want to reveal her history, which would show her weaknesses. Eventually, however, Weili unburdens herself and draws her daughter to her in the process.
Wen Fu, Weili’s first husband, is the villain of the piece. He seems to have little but the most superficial qualities, such as surface good humor and bravado, to recommend him. At bottom, he is a domestic tyrant, gambler, and womanizer. Although Tan makes him unsympathetic, she does allow the reader to glimpse some of the bases for his cruelty. He is obsessed with his status as a “war hero,” yet he is not a hero but a drunken coward; his self-esteem is therefore rooted in self-deception. His character can be taken as symbolic of the...
(The entire section is 572 words.)
Winnie Louie, or Jiang Weiwei, the protagonist and principal narrator, the daughter of a wealthy Shanghai cloth merchant and his second wife. Her mother abandons her when she is six years old. Winnie leaves her home to live on Tsunming Island for almost twelve years with her paternal uncle’s family. After an arranged marriage to a young man named Wen Fu, she and her pilot-husband at first move ahead of the advancing Japanese army and then live for seven years in Kunming. Unhappy with her brutal treatment by a cruel, self-centered man, Winnie runs away, but she is picked up by the police and put in prison for more than a year because Wen Fu accuses her of being responsible for the death of their son, who was the victim of an epidemic. Later released, Winnie escapes to America, where she marries Jimmy Louie and has two children, Samuel and Pearl.
Jimmy Louie, the second husband of the protagonist. He is an American-born Chinese minister, deceased for twenty-five years at the novel’s opening. He met his future wife during the first year of her marriage and a second time, seven years later, when he encouraged her to leave her abusive husband and provided the means for escape by putting her name on his passport and sending her money for an airplane ticket.
Wen Fu, a Chinese air force pilot and first husband of the protagonist. From his entrance into the...
(The entire section is 501 words.)