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Literature / The Kitchen God's Wife

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The Kitchen God's Wife is a novel by Amy Tan, and, like most of her works, is a novel about Chinese-American female identity.
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The first few chapters follow Pearl Brandt, a Chinese-American in San Jose, California, as she describes her "family" - her American husband and two daughters, her mother Winnie, her overbearing Aunt Helen (who is supposedly Winnie's sister-in-law or something; she and Winnie have kept each other's secrets for a long time), and the rest of Helen's family as they prepare for, first, the nth engagement party of Pearl's obnoxious cousin Bao-bao, and then the burial of her Great Aunt Du. Pearl and her family see these obligations as a chore, presumably because Pearl herself is immersed in her American identity. They go anyway, and it's revealed that Pearl has multiple sclerosis (something she has told Helen, but not her own mother). Helen tells her she has a brain tumor and that she refuses to die without Winnie knowing about Pearl's sickness.

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Meanwhile, Helen also tells Winnie that she must tell her estranged daughter her own Dark and Troubled Past herself, or Helen will tell her herself.

At that point, the narrative switches to Winnie's point of view as she details her life to Pearl - her time as a daughter of a wealthy man's lesser wife, how she was sent to her uncle after her mother's disappearance, and the story of how she survived both her first terrible marriage and World War II.


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Tropes:

  • Abortion Fallout Drama:
  • Accomplice by Inaction: Part of Winnie can never forgive Wen Fu's pilot buddies (nor Helen or Auntie Du to an extent) for never standing up for her when they saw how horrifically he abused her right in front of them for years on end.
  • Arranged Marriage: Winnie and Wen Fu's union was negotiated by their families.
  • The Atoner: Jiaguo, Helen's first husband, marries her because he feels he has to atone for her sister's Death by Childbirth, which was partly his fault - it was his child, he refused to acknowledge so, and he knocked her so hard when she tried to confront him that she went into early labor and died.
  • Audience Surrogate: Pearl is the point of view character who is learning about her family's history along with the audience.
  • Ax-Crazy: Wen Fu, emphasized when he threatens the hospital staff with manslaughter while Winnie is recovering from giving birth to their second child.
  • The Beard: The wealthy man Peanut is married off to is heavily implied to be homosexual. She leaves him, however, because she thinks he's a hermaphrodite.
  • Broken Bird: Certainly Winnie at the end of her marriage to Wen Fu, although she gets better.
  • Came Back Wrong: Wen Fu was a horrible person to begin with, but then after army doctors inject him with adrenaline to revive his heart after he gets a serious concussion, he comes back a complete monster.
  • Cassandra Truth: No one believed Winnie about how bad her husband was until they saw it for themselves. Even then, most of them still didn't.
  • Crazy Jealous Guy: Wen Fu flies into a rage whenever he sees Winnie so much as talk to another man, despite running around on her with as many girls as he possibly can.
  • Death of a Child: Not only are Chinese children killed by Japanese soldiers, but every child Winnie conceived while married to Wen Fu died, either in the womb or in early childhood.
  • Deceased Parents Are the Best: Discussed. Winnie has nothing but fond memories of her beautiful and kind mother, but admits she could just be retroactively embellishing them.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: Women are expected to "know their place," and independent-minded young ladies are looked down on, as this was pre-WWII China. Also, no matter how monstrously abusive a husband is, the wife must just grin and bear it.
  • Dirty Coward: Wen Fu, who comes out of war unscathed thanks to not actually doing any fighting - every time they're involved in a battle, Wen Fu flies off and tells the captain he was "trailing a Japanese plane."
  • Dying as Yourself: Winnie's father. After suffering a stroke and being a speechless vegetable for years, he wakes up one morning with a clear mind and tongue, sends Wen Fu on a Wild Goose Chase looking for nonexistent hidden gold in the mansion, and dies.
  • Eye Scream: Wen Fu loses an eye in a jeepney accident.
  • Financial Abuse: On top of all the other way he abuses her, Wen Fu gambles away Winnie's dowry money.
  • Flashback: Winnie telling Pearl her story is done through entire flashback chapters to the past.
  • Foregone Conclusion: Winnie makes it out of the war alive, ditches Wen Fu and marries Jimmy. This is 'foregone' because the Audience Surrogate Pearl is the result of these actions.
  • Fourth Date Marriage: Wen Fu and Winnie, whom she'd known for only a few months before they get married. Also played with with Jimmy and Winnie, they go on all of two dates (excluding the dance at which they met) before they decide they're perfect for each other. It's a while before they marry, though.
  • Framing Device: Winnie tells Pearl her life story.
  • Gold Digger: Wen Fu courts Peanut first, but drops her for Winnie once he learns of Winnie's father's wealth.
  • Glad I Thought of It: Winnie excessively thanks Henry for using his government connections to get her out of jail. In truth, it was all Auntie Du's doing and she just didn't want to disappoint Helen.
  • Hair-Trigger Temper: Wen Fu comes back from his accident with serious anger issues, most of which he takes out on his wife Winnie.
  • He-Man Woman Hater: Wen Fu sees women as little more than objects to pick up, play with for a bit, then throw away, including his own daughter that he lets die.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Winnie and Helen, who have put up with each other for so long that each others' faults barely affect them anymore.
  • Horrible Judge of Character: Winnie berates herself for believing Wen Fu was a decent human being. Played with in that she later admits that she tends to have a good Gut Feeling about people, but she was raised to be such an Extreme Doormat by her Old Aunt that she didn't learn to trust her instincts until it was too late.
  • Hypocrite: Wen Fu cheats on Winnie constantly, but reserves the right to savagely punish her whenever he suspects she might be cheating. Which is all the time.
  • I Have No Son!: Peanut is eventually disowned for leaving her husband and joining Communist revolutionaries, but Old and New Aunt secretly go to visit her anyway.
  • I Was Quite a Looker: Winnie was beautiful when she was young, and has the photo album to prove it. Helen claims she used to be, but Winnie claims she was rather plain and thick-boned even when in her youth.
  • "Just Joking" Justification: Wen Fu hid his Hair-Trigger Temper in public by claiming he was just kidding afterwards, until he Came Back Wrong, and stopped pretending.
  • Karma Houdini: The only comeuppance Wen Fu gets for all his wrongdoings is a box full of donkey dung and humiliation in front of Winnie and Helen. He even dies on Christmas Day.
  • Kick the Dog: Wen Fu likes to kill animals for fun, like the time he went out of his way to run over a train of baby ducks with his car, or shoot a pig that innocently blocked the road to their truck after the farmer who owned him came back to collect him. Wen Fu also hits Yiku when Winnie threatens to leave so hard it's implied she becomes brain-damaged, and refuses to let her get medical treatment when she's dying of dysentery until it's too late.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: Winnie's father, arguably. After mistreating Winnie's mother, sending her away, and marrying her off to what he knows is not a good family, he arguably gets a taste of what he inflicted on her when she and her husband return, and his son-in-law's family blackmail him into "letting" them take over his finances, robbing him blind.
  • Like Parent, Like Child: Winnie eventually learns that Wen Fu got his greed and temper from his mother.
  • Locked Out of the Loop: The only person who doesn't know about Pearl's multiple sclerosis is her own mother Winnie (seeing as Pearl told Auntie Helen, who then told the whole Kwong family).
  • Love at First Sight: Jimmy for Winnie.
    Jimmy: I fell in love with her right from the beginning. As for Winnie—she only fell. But what matters is I caught her.
  • Loving a Shadow: Winnie reflects that she mostly fell for Wen Fu's charming persona, and that she was also so lonely being The Unfavorite she was desperate for any scrap of attention. And then they got married...
  • Luke, I Am Your Father: Wen Fu is Pearl's father, not Jimmy.
  • Maligned Mixed Marriage: Subverted for Pearl and Phil. Winnie had such a miserable first marriage that she doesn't care that Pearl's husband is white, just that he's good to her. It also helps that Winnie and her family all come from a time and place in China when they revered all things Western, including white American men.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: All over the place. Winnie claims there were many instances when Chinese superstition came true right in front of her, but it could have just been a coincidence or her memory playing tricks on her. The most prominent is the fortune teller's prediction of Winnie and Peanut's marriages coming to pass, and when Winnie accidentally dropped a pair of scissors while heavily pregnant and her eternally bouncing baby going stillborn that second.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Wen Fu, exemplified when he manages to obtain control of Winnie's father's estate by telling Winnie's dad that he can get him out of trouble with the Kuomintang.
  • Marital Rape License: Wen Fu does this from the beginning, forcing his wife to say and do things she finds sexually demeaning, and overriding her desire to have No Pregger Sex. Taken Up to Eleven after Wen Fu Came Back Wrong - he "punishes" Winnie for every single damn thing she does that he deems "wrong," and it's savage to say the least.
  • Matchmaker Crush: Winnie develops a crush on Wen Fu while being the go-between for him and Peanut.
  • Meaningful Name: Out of pride, Wen Fu wants Jimmy to name him after someone who changed history forever. Jimmy names him Judas.
  • Mighty Whitey: Slightly played with. Jimmy is explicitly stated to be Chinese (he acts as a translator and a serviceman), but he's American-born and Winnie falls for him.
  • Misery Poker: Peanut is a rather selfish version of it. When Peanut and Winnie meet up years later and commiserate about their unhappy marriages, Peanut claims she got it worst since she saw her rich husband in bed with another man but was otherwise treated nicely by him and her in-laws, brushing off Winnie's attempts to tell her about her own horrific Domestic Abuse.
  • Missing Mom: Even in adulthood, Winnie does not fully understand her mother's disappearance. Her aunts' and uncle's disappearance theories don't help much. It's implied that she abandoned Winnie, though.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Auntie Du and Helen eventually have this reaction when they realize just how bad Wen Fu is, and lament not helping Winnie escape him sooner.
  • Nature vs. Nurture: Winnie muses on this from time to time throughout the novel. Was Wen Fu born evil, or just taught evil values by his family? The book falls firmly on the side of 'Nurture' at the end, with her realizing every child she had by him - Yiku, Danru, and Pearl - is incredibly sweet, so it couldn't be bad blood. He was just a terrible person taught terrible values by a horrible family.
  • Never My Fault: Wen Fu, naturally. Especially heinous when he actively refuses to let his doctor buddy go check on his daughter Yiku when Winnie claims she's dying of dysentery. When Winnie returns holding said dying daughter as proof that she's not exaggerating, Wen Fu furiously berates her for not telling him things had gotten this bad sooner.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero!: The army doctors didn't do Winnie any favors when they revived her abusive husband after he got a serious enough concussion that he Came Back Wrong.
    • Helen convinced her husband not to send Wen Fu to jail after he stole an army car, drove drunk, trashed it and killed a girl he was joy-riding with, ensuring that Winnie remained trapped with his new monstrous temper for several years.
    • Not learning her lesson, Helen again tries to "save" Winnie's marriage by telling Wen Fu where she was when she tried to leave him the first time, condemning Winnie to several more years of horrific abuse.
  • No Pregger Sex: Winnie wanted this the first time she got pregnant, but Wen Fu overrode her objections.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Helen also reveals she knew all along that she had no deadly brain tumor, and only pretended to believe she was dying to strong-arm Winnie into telling Pearl the truth about her life in China, first marriage, and Pearl's conception.
  • Red Right Hand: Following the accident, Wen Fu's missing eye serves to highlight how monstrous he's become.
  • "Rediscovering Roots" Trip: The novel ends with the second-generation immigrant Pearl and her female relatives planning a trip to China, which Pearl thinks is timely as she has just learned about her family's backstory.
  • Reformed, but Not Tamed: Peanut goes from a spoiled brat to a Communist revolutionary. While not as bad as before, Winnie notes she was still a little vain and self-absorbed.
  • Riches to Rags: Winnie's father and his family after the war - moreso after Wen Fu is done with their finances.
  • Sadist: The most terrifying thing about Wen Fu is he gets off on causing pain and misery to other people and animals. Running over baby ducks? Shooting an innocent pig? Can only get off sexually humiliating and abusing his wife and female servants? Yeah, this guy's a piece of work.
  • Secret Secret-Keeper: Helen knew all along that Pearl was Wen Fu's biological daughter. Her making excuses for Wen Fu's awful behavior was her way of trying to keep Winnie from resenting Pearl. The moment she learns that Winnie and Pearl have achieved some common ground, she ditches the act and curses Wen Fu's memory.
  • Self-Serving Memory:
    • Wen Fu is a malevolent version of this. The most outrageous example is repeating that he lost his eye fighting the Japanese so much that Winnie has to point out he lost his eye crashing an army truck he stole to go on a drunken joyride with a mistress.
    • Helen is a more benevolent version. She means well, but Winnie recalls that she tends to remember things in a way that's more flattering to herself. The best example would be honestly believing that she gave her old friend Wan Betty the sewing machine she later used to start a new life, when Winnie remembers that Betty was her friend, and she gave her that sewing machine.
  • The Sociopath: Wen Fu. Especially apparent when Pearl and her group of underground women try to figure out some way to convince Wen Fu to divorce Winnie: The love of a favorite concubine to replace her? Public shame that his wife left him? Use his only son as a bargaining chip? But Winnie has to shoot down every strategy since he doesn't care about anything or anyone but himself; sees women as playthings to discard after a few weeks of fun, doesn't feel any social shame from being publicly abandoned or cuckolded by his wife, and feels nothing for his own son except to keep her from leaving. Winnie sums it up best when she says he is "without feelings, without shame, without remorse."
  • Textual Celebrity Resemblance: The telegraph girl is called "Wan Betty" ("Beautiful Betty") due to her resemblance to Bette Davis.
  • Title Drop: The "Kitchen God" was a man who took his hardworking wife for granted, and, when his mistress drove her away, did nothing to help her. Once she leaves, his fortune (that accumulated thanks to her diligence) dwindles, and he realizes how much better off he was with her, despite all the suffering she went through thanks to him. Winnie subsequently relates her life story to her.
  • The Un-Favourite: Winnie, so much. After her mother disappeared, she was the unfavourite in her wealthy father's household until she was sent to live with her uncle and his two wives. And they still treated her cousin Peanut better.
  • Villainous Lineage: Discussed and defied. Winnie knows Wen Fu and his family are terrible people, but she never blames it on bad genetics. She firmly believes they're terrible people who taught him their terrible values and made him a bad person too. This is part of the reason she never thinks her children by him, including Pearl, are evil.
  • Wartime Wedding: Winnie and Wen Fu get married just before World War II breaks out.
  • What Could Have Been: In-Universe, Winnie often wonders what life would have been like if she did not marry Wen Fu.

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