Q: Critically examine the thematic concern in Amy Tan’s “The Voice from the Wall”.
Lena’s social situation almost allegorizes that of the other daughters, translating unsuccessfully, and sometimes unfaithfully, between their Chinese parent’s world and the American world. As they perform this negotiation, the third kind of thing is created, neither Chinese nor American (at least as they understand "American” as an alien culture and language). Lena’s problem is intensified by her mother’s deeply scarred personality and her father’s speaking only rudimentary Chinese. Throughout the tale, we see images of things falling which echo Ying-Ying’s fall from the floating pavilion in "The Moon Lady,” and people trying unsuccessfully to prevent the fall. Lena becomes the guardian of her mother’s terrible secret, but it remains to be seen whether it will make her stronger or destroy her. The "wall” is used metaphorically to signify death, dreaming, and identity, itself. How do the "walls” of our personalities affect our capacity to feel others’ feelings, and to remain in touch with our parents?
The Senses of Belonging
The story “The Voice from the Wall” relates to belonging as it is about Lena’s mother who is Chinese and how she moved to America with Lena’s father who is English-Irish. It describes how she adapted to her new environment. Lena’s mother still finds it difficult to belong in her environment as there is a language barrier that stops her from expressing herself to others which prevents her from belonging as she is unable to socialize and interact with others. Lena’s mother cannot speak English very well which affects her interaction with others, even her husband. People struggle to understand her which affects Lena’s mother’s ability to express her opinion and ideas. In order to belong, people need to share a common interest which is expressed by sharing perspectives, experiences, desires, etc. Without this ability to share values people are unable to belong, therefore they feel insecure, isolated, displaced, and excluded.
Again the narrator has made it clear that Betty St. Clair does not belong to her new environment by describing Betty’s body language in a photo as she seemed displaced and awkward. Also, the narrator says,
"….she has on an ankle-length Chinese dress…wearing a westernized suit jacket…”
She describes what Betty was wearing and how her traditional clothing made her seem out of place or an outcast. The imagery was used in order to compose a picture for the reader to imagine Betty wearing her traditional Chinese dress with the suit jacket to show how she felt out of place as her identity was changed in order for her to belong to her new environment.
The Relationship within the Family
The mother’s relationship with Lena was different to her relationship with her husband as she has a stronger connection with her daughter as Lena is able to understand Chinese. The language barrier Lena’s mother has with her husband restricts her from expressing herself. The mother couldn’t communicate completely to her husband as she was unable to speak English. The narrator says "…she spoke in moods and gestures, looks and silences…” The narrator continues by saying "…so my father would put words in her mouth.” which suggests that Lena’s father predicted what her mother was trying to say. A strong relationship is one that has effective communication to express ideas and opinions and the narrator suggests that Lena’s parents lacked this communication in their relationship. The mother’s relationship with Lena is stronger as she was able to understand her mother as the narrator says "…my mother would speak Chinese…I could understand the words perfectly…” this understanding helped Lena and her mother maintain a steady relationship.
Traditional Chinese Culture vs. Modern World
This story points out the contrast between traditional Chinese culture and the modern mechanical world. Ying-Ying belongs to the past where customs and traditions play an important part of life. She had always lived together with members of a huge family, where people lived truthfully and shared their joys and sorrows. In contrast, Lena’s world is fashionable, modern, and mechanical; but her family life is hollow and meaningless. Waverly tries to stand up to Harold and express her true feelings, but since she lacks self-confidence, she cannot convince her insensitive husband of the mechanical nature of their existence. Lacking the strength to bring about change in herself or her situation, Waverly can only disintegrate into tears. Ironically, her traditional Chinese mother sees the problem and advises her daughter to fix the situation, even if it means divorce.
Appearance vs. Reality
The story highlights the theme of “Appearance vs. Reality.” Ying-Ying, being a frightened woman herself, makes life appear fearful to her young daughter. She warns Lena about talking to strangers and tells her that there is a bad man who hides in their basement. Believing the tales of her mother to be real, Lena grows up fearful of strangers and basements.
The new apartment up on the hill is also filled with the conflict of Appearance vs. Reality. Lena’s father believes he is doing something significant for his family by moving them across the river to a better place. In truth, the apartment contributes to Ying-Ying’s madness; she never likes the place and complains about it constantly. It is also the place where she loses her baby. The apartment also introduces Lena and her mother to the Italian mother and daughter who live next door. Since they constantly scream and fight with each other, it appears that these two women hate one another. In truth, they have a warm, close relationship; one like Lena longs to have with her own mother. It is ironic that the apartment of the next-door neighbors is filled with verbal conflict, but warmed by deep love; in contrast, Lena’s apartment is quite peaceful, but it is totally lacking in love.
Lena St. Clair’s narration in “The Voice from the Wall.‟ Even as a very young child, she was worried about all the unspoken terrors. These terrors she felt chased her mother and devoured her until she disappeared and became a ghost. Her mother told her stories like how her great grandfather had been killed by a ghost, how her future would be destroyed if she lingered after school, and how she would be caught by bad men. It seemed that her mother knew everything and was always right. “I knew my mother made up anything to warn me, to help me avoid some unknown danger. My mother saw danger in everything, even in other Chinese people”.
It was only as she grew up and started life on her own that she could comprehend the wisdom of her mother’s words. She later understood that her mother was just helping her on the right path by inducing fear about the wrong things in life.
The mothers shared the story of the family history and their lives, and the daughters who resented the mother’s expectations and values slowly grasped the personal histories of the cultural heritage. In the mixed culture, it became imperative for the daughter to understand her family history and her mother’s life story in order to find her identity and voice. The conflict between mother and daughter is also considered constructive as it helps in the separation of the daughter from her mother. The daughters, who had segregated themselves from the companionship of their mothers, broke the myths they had made and moved from resistance to acquiescence, accepting the rich legacy handed forth. The end of the relationship is the victory of this alliance in a patriarchal society.
We can understand that no matter what the mother is doing, she is actually trying to protect her daughter and help her get away from danger and difficulties. For example, Ying-Ying told Lena must not go in any direction but only school and back home to avoid any dangers. And we should often express our thoughts to our mothers. Although thinking about the worst possible thing which might happen can help us to avoid it, having a positive attitude is important too because if you are always concerned about danger, life will be a tragedy and may lead you to paranoia. Communicating with family members is a good way to express your feelings. We cannot keep all the secrets in our hearts, but we have to share them with the ones we trust, like our family members and friends. They will always give us the best advice so that we may make the right decision and will not regret it afterward.