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The Joy Luck Club | Part 2, Chapter 2 : The Voice from the Wall (Lena St. Clair) | Summary

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Summary

Lena St. Clair spends most of her childhood in fear of the unknown. What's really lurking in the pitch-black basement? What danger hides in plain sight on the playground? What tragedy will befall the constantly feuding mother and daughter next door? Most of all Lena worries about her mother. Ying-ying is married to a white man who speaks very little Chinese, and they live in a part of town dominated by a different dialect than the one Ying-ying speaks. Lena is one of the only people with whom she can communicate, so only Lena knows of her mother's great unhappiness and personal fears. Even at a young age Lena is aware of "the unspoken terrors that surrounded [their] house" that slowly eat away at Ying-ying's sense of self, and these influence Lena's own fears.

Ying-ying becomes even more withdrawn from her family after a miscarriage. The entire pregnancy seems strange to 10-year-old Lena, who notices her mother often forgets she is pregnant. When she remembers, Ying-ying doesn't seem excited about it. She instead focuses on how everything seems "out of balance," from the arrangement of the furniture in the house to the position of the apartment building on a downward slope. Following the miscarriage, Ying-ying withdraws even further from her husband and daughter. She stays in bed for days at a time, and according to Lena, "It was as if she had died and become a living ghost." Lena's father doesn't know what to do to help his wife, and worry constantly gnaws at Lena.

The distant relationship between Lena and her mother is the complete opposite of the mother-daughter relationship Lena hears through her bedroom wall. Mrs. Sorci and her daughter, Teresa, fight every night, and Lena's convinced one of them will soon be beaten to death. One day Teresa shows up at Lena's door unbidden, walks through the apartment, and climbs out Lena's window. Teresa's mother had locked her out of the apartment, so Teresa decided to get back at her by climbing back into her own bedroom so her mother will not be able to find her. Lena listens through the wall that night, worried about the fight that is sure to come. Instead she hears shouts of happiness, laughter, and love as mother and daughter make up. This gives Lena hope that she will be able to pull her own mother "through the wall" of her unhappiness.

Analysis

The Ying-ying Lena knows is very different from the way Ying-ying views herself. In her memories she is a boisterous tiger girl, dancing, laughing, and running wild through her family's impressive home. Yet by the time she arrives in America she has become reserved, hesitant, and afraid. Her fierce, brave tiger spirit has been depleted, as represented by her husband's inadvertent change of her birth year from 1914, the Year of the Tiger, to 1916, the Year of the Dragon. Something has changed within her. Though Lena was also born in the Year of the Tiger, there is no evidence of it in her personality—she is just as frightened and worried as her mother. The reader later learns how much Ying-ying regrets this change in her own personality, particularly because of its negative effect on her daughter.

Lena has a hard time understanding her mother's worries, not because of their language barrier—Lena knows Chinese but doesn't speak it fluently—but because of their cultural differences. Ying-ying believes deeply in the idea of feng shui, a Chinese philosophy about balancing elements of the physical environment in order to attain the maximum amount of positive chi, or life force. Lena thinks her mother's warnings about being out of balance are "Chinese nonsense," but she is more like Ying-ying than she cares to recognize. Ying-ying, who often says she has "known a thing before it happens," sees despair in the layout of their home and the positioning of their apartment building, while Lena sees a sorrowful end for the baby in her mother's womb based on Ying-ying's unusual behavior. Instead of passing on her tiger spirit, Ying-ying's constant cautions have attuned Lena to the dangers hiding in plain sight others neglect to see, making Lena perpetually fearful.

At this point in the book neither the reader nor Lena know much about Ying-ying's life before she came to China, but there are clues sprinkled throughout Part 2, Chapter 2. Ying-ying is always warning Lena about bad men who will impregnate her then kill her, or otherwise ruin her life. When Ying-ying miscarries, she says "how I had given no thought to killing my other son," which is an indication that she once had an abortion. Ying-ying says this in Chinese, so only Lena understands her words. Lena's father doesn't know anything about his wife's past, but Lena is starting to get an inkling that it wasn't good, which further darkens the situation and Lena's mindset.

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