The Youngest Daughter

by Cathy Song
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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 528

In “The Youngest Daughter,” Song, a Hawaii-born daughter of a Korean American father and a Chinese American mother, elaborates upon the universal feminist theme of mother-daughter relationships and puts an Asian American spin on it. Both situation and imagery in Song’s poem have Asian overtones. In traditional Asian families, it is customary for the unmarried daughter to remain with the parents and care for them as they age. In many cases, this will be the youngest daughter’s lot. The title of Song’s poem carries resonances of this social and familial phenomenon, the speaker being the youngest of six siblings. Of Asian provenance, too, are several of the poem’s images and symbols. The ingredients of the women’s meal, for instance, are Asian: tea, rice, gingered fish, and pickled turnip, the last probably being the Japanese daikon, which is blanched white in color like the speaker’s pallid skin. The crane image is also a common Asian symbol that connotes health and longevity, a connotation that Song employs enigmatically at the end of the poem: “As I toast to her health// a thousand cranes curtain the window,/ fly up in a sudden breeze.” Clearly, the daughter longs to take flight from this sick relationship and achieve her freedom. Readers may wonder how she envisions this happening: through her mother’s recovery, her longevity, or her death?

The relationship between mothers and daughters is an enduring theme of much literature written by or about women. Filiality, which shows itself in reverence for one’s parents and respect for one’s elders, is also a cardinal virtue of Confucianism and a widespread subject of writing in East Asia. The Asian overlay to a fundamental element of the human experience gives Song’s situation a special piquancy. The mother-daughter relationship in Song’s poem is depicted through the point of view of the daughter, the speaker of the poem. Through her, Song portrays a complex and rending mix of love and hate, of gratitude and resentment. It is a relationship that sustains and destroys, nourishes and devours, emphasized by the poem’s use of food and gustatory imagery. The mother has brought the daughter into life by giving birth to her, has sustained her by nursing her at the breast, and continues to nurture her by soothing her migraine and preparing her food. However, now that age is taking its course, the women’s roles are reversing. The daughter increasingly plays the role of nurse and caregiver, wheeling her diabetic mother about, bathing her, and companioning her. In this role, the daughter feels trapped, deprived of the freedom to be what she wants, and is keenly aware that her filial duties are atrophying her vital energies. Since it is unlikely that the mother can recover from her thirty-year-old diabetes or arrest the process of aging, the daughter is presumably trapped in her role until her mother’s death can provide a final solution to her filial bondage. Hence the poem’s closing irony and ambiguity are wrought by the daughter’s bitter toast to the mother’s health juxtaposed against the image of the cranes escaping in flight.

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