Lit. NotesShort Story

Amy Tan’s stylistic techniques in “The Voice from the Wall”.

The story deals with the theme of mother-daughter relationships and the narrator is Ying-Ying’s daughter Lena.  She tells a childhood story of how she and her mother, having Chinese heritage, look deeper into the dangers and outcomes of situations. While describing the mother-daughter relationship and the theme of cultural alienation the writer has used various techniques. Some of the techniques used in the story are discussed here.

Use of Personification

Amy Tan uses many techniques to enhance the story. One of them is personification which is used when Lena said she saw “lightning had eyes and searched to strike down on little children” and the monkey rings would “send a swinging child hurtling through space.” When Lena sensed that her mother wasn’t happy and talking about the baby it was like a foreshadowing that something bad was going to happen to the baby. The description of the baby was great imagery. Words like screaming, clinging, and steaming conveyed a sense of terror and pain in the scene.


The story relates to the opening allegory because Lena’s mother warns Lena about what she shouldn’t do and the dangerous consequences of those actions. In the opening allegory, a mother threatens her daughter to listen using the book of The Twenty-Six Malignant Gates. Lena’s mother told Lena to “not walk in any direction but to school and back home” just like how the mother in the opening allegory warned her daughter not to ride her bicycle around the corner. Both daughters question why the warnings of their mothers and argue about the reasons. This is how the chapter is very similar to the opening allegory of a mother’s influence and warnings.

Use of Imagery

Imagery is another literary device that Amy Tan uses in “A voice from the Wall”. When she describes the man that Lena’s great-grandfather, and how he looked when he was a ghost, she says that he looked “like a smashed vase hastily put back together.” Though somewhat gruesome, it gives us an idea of just how the man was killed and why he would want to come back and haunt Lena’s great-grandfather. She also uses imagery when Ying-ying is describing her still-born son, how “his body slipped out and he lay on the table, steaming with life.”

Not only does the writer successfully describe the morbid scenes with great detail, but every part makes us feel as if we are part of it. She even uses onomatopoeia to stress the meanings of specific things such as at the end of this chapter when Lena imagines the girl telling her mom that the only way to save her was to die the death of a thousand cuts. “The mother accepted this and closed her eyes. The sword came down and sliced back and forth, up and down, whish! Whish! Whish! And the mother screamed and shouted, cried out in terror and pain”.

From this, we can see the actual murder happening, or better yet, the wild imagination Lena had from what she heard through the wall. Afterward, when Lena sees the girl who was beaten, in person; Tan describes her as being “quite happy, [while] her two brown braids bounced jauntily in rhythm to her walk.” The girl wears nice clean clothing, with no scars on her skin; obviously, we can see she hides the pain that she goes through.

The Use of Flashbacks

Amy Tan uses flashbacks to show Lena’s struggle to remain American. In the first flashback, Lena is revealed to be half-Chinese and half-Irish and although people think she looks like her father, she can’t help but try to make her Chinese eyes look rounder. It helps to enhance by making it signify a conscious loss in heritage because Lena wants to get rid of her Chinese half.


Tan uses symbolism throughout the story. We can say that the wall between Lena St. Clair’s bedroom and the family next door’s is a sign of a barrier between the families. Because the wall is always there, she can never fully understand what is going on next door, the same goes for the language barrier that the St. Clairs have. Lena is always translating for her mother to those around her, including her own father, which is strange. The wall between Lena and her family is that her mother, Ying-ying is unable to communicate clearly her thoughts and beliefs to a daughter who, in a sense, refuses to accept her mother the way she is. Lena explains her mother’s immigration to America with the few details her mother has shared with her. Ying-ying feels the home she has in San Francisco is unbalanced and Lena refuses to understand, or possibly just simply cannot, because of the cultural barrier (“wall”) that they share.

Another example of symbolism is when Clifford named Ying Ying Betty St. Clair and puts down the wrong birth year for her when he did her immigration pictures. In America, putting down the wrong birth year may not be such a big deal but in China, it changes what animal you are. Like lena says, Ying Ying “lost her name and became a Dragon instead of a Tiger”. This means that she has lost her identity when she is put in America. Also, she was categorized as a “Displaced Person” in the migration categories which also represents her position in America. She doesn’t belong and America and feels “displaced”.

Indirect Characterization

Amy Tan uses some indirect characterization to describe Betty St. Claire’s character and her protective personality. The scene where they are walking in the street next to the homeless woman and the one where they’re in the market portrays how her mother acts and the warm, defensive quality that she has for Lena. The fabricated stories that Lena’s mother told her daughter was her way of trying to teach her daughter of the many dangerous and wild stuff that could happen to her if she isn’t careful enough and it also shows how greatly concerned, she is for her daughter’s safety.

Powerful Diction

Amy Tan uses a lot of word choices and similes in the story. “So, my father would put words in her mouth.” It means that when her mother couldn’t speak, he would try to feed her words, so she would have something to say. This was pretty strange because though you cannot literally put words inside people’s mouths, it portrayed how she would have something to say after someone else helped her with the replies. “After the baby died, my mother fell apart, not all at once, but piece by piece, like plates falling off a shelf one by one”. 

This really explained how she fell apart and how upset she was with the tragedy. Plates falling off one by one really shows how bad it was because it’s almost the same as saying they were crashing all over the places piece by piece with broken glass. Amy Tan’s word choice is very powerful because it let the reader see and feel how bad it actually was for Lena St. Clair’s mother.

One adjective to describe the relationship between Lena and her mother is “telepathic “. Even as Lena said to herself, “even as a young child, I could sense the unspoken terrors that surrounded our house, the ones that chased my mother until she hid in a secret dark corner of her mind, “she is able to connect with her mother’s feelings and “sixth sense.”

Also, Lena is able to literally translate her mother’s thoughts and words, thus being able to understand her in multiple ways.

The Use of Foreshadowing

Another writing technique that Amy Tan uses is foreshadowing. The fact that Lena’s mother acted in a strange manner after the incident with the red-faced Chinese man suggested that something bad was going to happen in the future. Also, Ying-ying, or Betty, constantly rearranged furniture and things around the house means that something is wrong and she has to take action even if it seems odd from Lena’s point of view. Finally, the fact that Ying-ying repeatedly bumped her stomach on things when she was pregnant signified that maybe the baby would have some complications during birth.


The irony is used when Lena discovered that perhaps the other girl may not have such a bad life after all. When Teresa sneaked back in and her mother thought that she got hurt she became really worried. They hugged each other and cried in happiness. It was not really the reaction that Lena was expecting. She thought that this would be the last day Teresa would be alive. It was suspenseful.

To sum up we can say that Amy Tan has used various techniques to describe the life of those people who experience alienation in another society.

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