Everything I Never Told You | Study Guide

Celeste Ng

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Course Hero, "Everything I Never Told You Study Guide," August 16, 2019, accessed October 28, 2021, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Everything-I-Never-Told-You/.

Everything I Never Told You | Themes


Expectation and Loneliness

Every character in Everything I Never Told You struggles under the weight of expectations. James faces stereotypes about his race. Marilyn fights gender expectations. The three Lee children struggle with parental expectations. When James and Marilyn marry, Marilyn's mother voices her belief that the union will fail because James is Asian. The expectation that he isn't "man enough" for Marilyn weighs heavily on James throughout their marriage. The pressure ultimately pushes him into an extramarital affair with his Asian assistant, Louisa, with whom he feels no expectation other than to be himself.

Expectations, in turn, lead to loneliness. James's children feel the same sense of cultural isolation their father does, although Nath arguably feels it most painfully. Neither he nor Lydia have any friends at school, but Nath's fellow students openly bully him at the swimming pool, taunting him during a game by saying "Chink can't find China." Nath's social isolation parallels his family experience. With all of his parents' attention focused on Lydia, Nath feels as if no one cares about his success. The same could be said of Hannah, who lives as a forgotten child in Lydia's shadow. Lydia, in turn, feels so overwhelmed by her parents' expectations for her that she literally kills herself trying to change her life.

Marilyn struggles with society's gender expectations. As a woman, society expects her to be a happy wife, mother, and homemaker. Marilyn longs to pursue her academic and scientific dreams, but domesticity continues to pull her back home. Twice, Marilyn leaves her studies because she's pregnant—first with Nath, when she marries James, and later with Hannah, after she attempts to abandon family life and restart her studies. Even within academia, Marilyn is viewed as less intelligent, capable, or promising than her male counterparts, simply because she is a woman. Because no one, not even James, understands Marilyn's desire to become a doctor, she feels hopeless and alone. She must engage in small rebellions, like her refusal to cook, to gain a sense of control.

Identity and Reinvention

All the characters in Everything I Never Told You lack a sense of identity and try to either invent an identity or reinvent themselves in a new way. This can most clearly be seen in Lydia's painful life and ultimate death. Her parents seek to fulfill their thwarted ambitions through their golden child. For James, this means raising a perfectly adjusted, popular "American" teenager. For Marilyn, this means raising the brilliant doctor she herself failed to become. Lydia dislikes both of these forced identities, but she cannot bring herself to tell her parents the truth: in reality, she has no friends, flounders in school, and longs to leave her small town. When Lydia attempts to reclaim her identity by swimming in the lake, she drowns, the water symbolizing the weight of her parents' expectations.

Marilyn Lee is the daughter of a home economics teacher in a time when a domestic role for women was the norm. Marilyn attempts to reinvent her own identity by failing home economics and putting her academic energy into math and science, and to everyone's surprise, she succeeds. But the pull of domestic life and childcare drags Marilyn from her dreams twice. As a result, she spends her entire life as an outsider, unable to embrace her chosen identity.

James Lee faces many of the same issues. He is American nationally, and he identifies as American culturally, having divorced himself from his Chinese heritage during his school years. He becomes "hyper-American" by studying American history; marrying a blonde, blue-eyed woman; and rejecting Chinese cultural markers such as language and food. He cannot hide his appearance, however, and therefore never feels like he belongs. Only in his affair with Louisa, one of the few other Asians in Middlewood, does James allow himself to identify as Chinese American. He speaks Chinese for the first time in 40 years, and he eats the same steamed buns his mother made him as a child. By the end of the novel, both James and Marilyn have made a tenuous truce and accepted each other's true identities, flaws and all, creating a sense of belonging that neither had previously felt in their marriage.

Nathan and Hannah also have trouble with their sense of self. Of the three Lee children, they are the ones who look the most Asian. They are the ones stopped in a grocery store and asked if they are Chinese because of the shape of their eyes. Nathan, however—unlike Lydia—doesn't have the added weight of their parents' expectations clouding his sense of identity. He focuses on college as a way to get away and put on a "new skin," as he thinks when he tries on a new shirt. The narrator suggests his new identity at the end of the story: he becomes an astronaut and he might also be gay.

Hannah, in contrast, doesn't have any sense of self. The fact that she can read Faulkner or that through her keen powers of observation she knows far more family secrets than a 10-year-old should doesn't give her any sense of power. She spends her time at home either hiding or quietly longing for affection. After her parents finally realize how much Hannah needs them, her fragile ego has a chance to grow. At the novel's end the narrator describes how she begins to "stand a little straighter" and "speak a bit clearer."

Secrets and Silence

The characters in Everything I Never Told You feel isolated and misunderstood because no one speaks honestly with each other. Perpetually concerned with appearances, characters stay silent when they should speak up or create secrets to hide the truth. This theme is clear in the story line of the police investigation. Hannah tells no one that she saw Lydia leave the house the night she disappeared. Similarly, Nath fails to share his theories about Lydia's disappearance with the police because he doesn't want people judging Lydia for spending time with Jack. Nath doesn't want to betray Lydia's constructed identity, so he fails to tell his parents the truth: she was struggling in school and had no friends.

Nath's silence protected his own identity as well. For example, he never told anyone about his plans to apply to Harvard, nor did he tell anyone (or, perhaps, admit to himself) that he might be gay. At the same time, James hides his affair, Marilyn hides her deep unhappiness, Hannah hides her stealing, and Jack hides his love for Nath.

The author carefully develops fear as the motivation for the characters' inability to communicate. Lydia, for example, longs to tell her mother that she doesn't want to be a doctor, but the fear of her mother abandoning the family prevents her from doing so. Similarly, James longs to speak honestly with his children, Nath in particular, but he fears he will look weak in front of them. Hannah won't admit that she saw Lydia slip out the night she went to the lake and drowned because the others will think she let Lydia "just walk away." The end of the novel fills readers with hope for the Lee family as they overcome their fears and embrace honesty and affection.

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