Typical American Characters

Gish Jen

The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Ralph is the first protagonist Jen introduces. He is a likeable, innocent young man who, in striving for success and an American identity, becomes ambitious, irresponsible, moody, and insensitive. He is a dreamer whose imagination often runs unfettered, but he lacks the circumspection and caution that will keep him and his family out of trouble. It is his fascination with success formulas and his adulation of Grover that wreak havoc on the family.

Theresa is a foil to Ralph, a large, straitlaced woman who survives on reserve and caution. Her story “curls from this sad truth: that as much as Ralph, growing up, should have been her, she should have been him.” Innately a leader, she is relegated to third-wheel status in the family. She represents the traditional Chinese value of family devotion, a value that she abandons but to which she ultimately returns. At the same time, she is American, and her puzzled and illicit love for Old Chao is a source of liberation and identity.

Helen, conversely, is a slight, delicate woman with a surprising resourcefulness and knack for adaptation. At first, she is the grounded force that anchors Ralph’s moods and dreams. Yet if she begins her life in America with images from fashion magazines and dreams of suburbia, she ends with an alienation and hopelessness that lead to her corruption. For Helen, marrying Ralph meant “officially accepting what seemed already true—that she had indeed crossed a violent, black ocean; and that it was time to make herself as at home in her exile as she could.” The task turns out to be more difficult than imagined.

Old Chao is portrayed as a generous and well-meaning friend to the family whose involvement in their troubles comes from very human, if not wholly honorable, impulses. Grover Ding, on the other hand, is never fully revealed, to either the Changs or the reader, beyond the fact that he is the charming “imagineer” he appears to be. The other characters, such as Chao’s long-suffering wife Janis, are treated with respect and distance, and the Changs’ daughters Callie and Mona are ever-present reminders of the innocence that their parents are slowly, unwittingly losing.

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Ralph Chang

Ralph Chang, originally known as Yifeng (Intent on the Peak) in China but given the name Ralph (which he discovers means “a kind of dog”) in America. He is a professor of mechanical engineering. He is portrayed as having mediocre talents, pathetic beginnings, and modest aspirations. Ostensibly, he is a male chauvinist. He becomes obsessed with financial success and positive thinking, leading him to open a fried chicken restaurant with the help of a Chinese American businessman (Grover Ding). In the process, he miscalculates and plunges his family into misery. He is an allegorical figure of unbridled freedom and greed.

Theresa Chang

Theresa Chang, Ralph’s sister. She saved Ralph when he was down and out and helped him complete his education. She also made it possible for him to get married, rear some children, and own a house. Having struggled quietly to become a medical doctor, she falls in love with a patient, a married man who happens to be her brother’s colleague. She acquires a larger-than-life stature as she falls victim to her brother’s sanctimonious abuses. She is fond of cats.

Helen Chang

Helen Chang, Ralph’s wife, who was reared in an affluent family in Shanghai. Too intent on conforming to American standards of the good life, she finds herself seduced by Grover Ding, thus incurring the vengeful anger of Ralph when her secret is discovered. Helen epitomizes the desires of a woman and her limits in a world manipulated by men.

Grover Ding

Grover Ding, a Chinese American businessman who was born in the United States. Sly, greedy, and arrogant, he induces Ralph to pursue a business of his own, seduces his wife, and hastens Ralph’s financial ruin by withholding vital information about the restaurant. As the villain of the novel, Grover is the agent of negative change. Grover is also the name that Ralph gives, in commemoration of Grover Ding’s trickery, to a dog he is raising; the dog is trained by Ralph to attack cats.

Henry Chao

Henry Chao, Ralph’s colleague and department chair. He has an ongoing extramarital affair with Theresa and is genuinely concerned about her. Rejuvenating Theresa’s life and enabling her to live for herself rather than merely for others, he can be seen as an agent of positive change.