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Power, Matriarchy, and Domestic Space in "Two Kinds"

(Short Stories for Students)

When Jing-mei's mother shouts at her daughter and demands her complete obedience toward the end of Tan's short story, ‘‘Two Kinds,’’ she is defending her power over the only territory to which she can lay claim, the domestic sphere. Cut off from her native China by distance and political upheaval, yet distanced from surrounding American culture by language and other cultural barriers, the mother in the story makes a fortress of her home and uses it as a base of operations for deploying her matriarchal power over the life and destiny of her child.

Because her daughter has absorbed American ideas about individuality and self-determination, she has different expectations about gender and domestic space. In short, she is more likely to expect the household to be the site of nurturing instead of coercion, a place where her singularity is celebrated rather than bent to external standards of conformity.

The rise of the women's novel in nineteenth-century American literature was accompanied by the idea of women's sphere. Though some used the notion of a specified female territory—both literal and figurative—as an argument for excluding woman from public life, many readers of popular women's literature eagerly embraced a world view that celebrated their domestic lives.

Domestic fiction did more than depict the lives of housewives, however, as feminist critics have pointed out; in fact, it helped carve out an autonomous realm where women could exert influence on their lives and on the lives of their loved ones.

Generally speaking, the form this influence took was the opposite of the means of influence that prevailed in the masculine sphere. Women's sphere was characterized by moderation, moral certainty, piety, and above all, nurturing. It was the duty of every woman to keep the pressures and vulgarities of the outside (masculine) world from crossing the threshold into the haven of the home.

This is the tradition of women's literature within and against which Tan places her stories of mothers and daughters. In ‘‘Two Kinds’’ the domestic space is most certainly in the mother's control. Her dominance over the space is so complete, in fact, that the narrator barely mentions that her father also lives there.

Unlike traditional domestic space in American literature, Jing-mei's mother uses her realm not as a refuge from the machinations of the larger world, but as a kind of home base from which to interpret that world and launch her attacks on it. She gathers information assiduously, collecting magazines from other people's homes and studying them diligently, ‘‘searching for stories about remarkable children.’’

She also learns from television, and becomes fixated on the image of the little Chinese girl performing on the Ed Sullivan Show. The narrator describes how her mother ‘‘seemed entranced by the music, a frenzied little piano piece with a mesmerizing quality, which alternated between quick, playful passages and teasing, lilting ones.’’

In this image, Jing-mei's mother has found the ideal model for her daughter: exceptional but not unattainably remarkable. ‘‘Just like you,’’ she says to her daughter, ‘‘Not the best.’’ The difference between the girl on television and the girl in the living room watching television is merely effort. Jing-mei could be the girl on television if only she would try.

The mother exercises matriarchal power in the domestic space that she controls. But unlike traditional uses of domestic space in the American women's novel, the mother is not interested in excluding influences from the outside or public world. Unfortunately, since she lacks cultural fluency in American ways, she does not have the critical apparatus to evaluate or interpret the messages she receives. As a consequence, she accepts with neither skepticism nor cynicism that ‘‘you could be anything you wanted to be in America.’’

According to Jing-mei, her mother has a whole litany of things "you" could...

(The entire section is 5,729 words.)