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.)