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The Joy Luck Club | Part 3, Chapter 1 : Rice Husband (Lena St. Clair) | Summary

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Summary

Lena St. Clair is on edge during her mother's week-long stay at Lena's overpriced, underdesigned Woodside home. Ying-ying has always had a gift for seeing the misfortunes in her family's future, from the stillbirth of her second child to the death of her husband, and Lena worries what her mother will see in her rocky marriage.

Lena recalls how, when she was a child, her mother told her that Lena's future husband would "have one pock mark" for every grain of rice Lena does not finish. Lena becomes afraid that a neighborhood boy who torments her may be destined to be her husband, which she doesn't want. She begins to leave rice deliberately in her bowl, then stops finishing anything she eats. She secretly hopes that by doing so Arnold will get leprosy, a disfiguring disease, and die. She is shocked when he dies of measles five years later.

Lena and her husband, Harold, have historically split the costs of their relationship, from date nights to vacations to the monthly mortgage payment. The problem is not only that Harold makes a lot more money than Lena but also is the one who decides her income. They met at their previous place of employment. She encouraged him to open his own restaurant design business. They both left the old company to start the new one with Harold at the helm. Years later, however, Lena is still an underling because Harold thinks it "wouldn't be fair" to promote his wife even though her work is what makes the business so successful.

Lena's low status at the office bleeds into her position at home. The fear that Harold would leave her if she wasn't perfect—feelings she shares with the recently separated Rose—has morphed into feelings of indignity. Most of all she worries the ruthless, equal division of financial resources is more important to her husband than their marriage.

Lena has a hard time verbalizing to her mother exactly why she and Harold pay so much attention to how much each person spends, a practice that seems to wound Ying-ying. She wants to know why Harold marks ice cream as a shared expense when Lena hasn't eaten ice cream since she was a teenager. Harold laughs it off, but Lena silently seethes, upset her husband has not noticed such a basic thing about her after so many years of marriage. She unleashes her anger on him after Ying-ying goes to bed. The fight she starts with Harold is "bigger than [she] know[s] how to handle," and she ends up crying because she doesn't know what she wants.

The sound of shattering glass interrupts them. Lena goes upstairs to the guest room to check on Ying-ying. A rickety marble end table Harold made during college has collapsed, and a black vase on top of it is smashed to bits. Ying-ying doesn't apologize, and Lena says she always knew the table would eventually fall. "Then why don't you stop it?" asks Ying-ying.

Analysis

Through her mother's eyes Lena sees everything that is wrong with her life, from her barnlike home to Harold's insistence on maintaining a marital and professional equality that leaves Lena feeling like his inferior. Even though they're supposed to be equals, Harold is blind to her role in his own success, much of which is based on her ideas and input. In turn Lena has convinced herself she needs to be perfect to keep him. Lena's fear of being "exposed as a sham of a woman" is not unusual—according to Rose, it's "common in women like [them]." Rose initially attributes her insecurities to being raised with Chinese humility, then decides it is instead a function of their generation, the baby boomers. "[W]e expect the best," Rose says, "and when we get it we worry that maybe we should have expected more." This idea definitely applies to Lena, who believes Harold is the good husband she deserves yet he lacks something.

Unlike Rose, Lena sees the signs that point to the unhappiness in her marriage. She has inherited her mother's ability to see signs in everything around her and to experience the fear those signs inspire. More than any of the other daughters in The Joy Luck Club, Lena knows the power of superstitions, which became real to her when Arnold Reisman eventually died after Lena wished it so. Just like Ying-ying, Lena "look[s] at all events and all things as relevant, an opportunity to take or avoid." Mothers don't just pass down their wisdom and culture to their daughters, they also pass down their faults and their fears. But Ying-ying wants to help her daughter, not scare her.

What Harold is lacking is evident to Ying-ying. He lives with Lena but doesn't know very much about her, such as the fact she doesn't like ice cream. Nor does he realize the magnitude of her contributions to his business or how her design aesthetic is far different from his. Harold and Lena don't share a life. She simply lives within the boundaries he defines. That's what upsets Ying-ying when she sees the list of expenses on the refrigerator. She has had many misfortunes in her life, and even though she saw them coming "she never did anything to stop them." Like all the mothers in The Joy Luck Club, she wants her daughter's life to be better than her own. Knocking over the table and vase in the guest room likely isn't a mistake—it is Ying-ying's way of alerting Lena to the trouble that lies ahead.
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