April 29, 2016
“A Hieroglyphic World: Shifting Social Codes in The Age of Innocence and The Kitchen God’s Wife”
Towards the beginning of The Age of Innocence, protagonist Newland Archer observes that his upper class sphere of New York aristocracy is “a kind of hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs” (28). Across the ocean and decades later, Winnie, the protagonist of The Kitchen God’s Wife, could have said the same thing about her privileged but tumultuous sphere of twentieth century China. Though the societies portrayed in the two novels feature similar coded speech and choreographed interaction, Winnie and her world shift over time in The Kitchen God’s Wife as they endure war and revolution. Winnie’s life takes her throughout China and, eventually, to the United States where she must adjust her coded language to an English speaking world. This results in a very different tension between Winnie and her daughter than Newland experiences with his children. Newland’s children are products of a generational shift in social standards while Pearl is the product of a completely different culture and language than her mother – and yet it is Winnie who best succeeds in traversing the divide between herself and her offspring.
Even the most intimate of relationships in Winnie’s and Newland’s lives are governed by coded social rituals. The institution of marriage and the scripted courtship rituals surrounding it play a key role in both novels and serve as a case study for the rigidity of their lives. The Age of Innocence documents the strategic calculations Newland and the Welland family must undergo in announcing Newland and May’s engagement. The decision to announce the engagement earlier than planned is intended to distract from and justify that surprise appearance of the scandalous Ellen Olenska at the opera. Throughout the engagement, May, Newland, and their families perform their socially expected roles. When May announces her engagement, “her mother affected the air of parental reluctance considered suitable to the occasion” (14), even though she is quite pleased with the union. Just before the marriage ceremony begins, Newland, “in proof of his eagerness, was expected to expose himself alone to the gaze of the assembled company” (115). Newland performs his eagerness with sincerity throughout the first half of the book, seeking an earlier date for the wedding. Yet his eagerness goes too far and May begins to suspect his motivations aren’t love but doubt about their union (95), showing that even these well-established social codes are imperfect.
Winnie’s engagement and wedding with Wen Fu is similarly scripted. The marriage is arranged between Wen Fu’s family and Winnie’s aunts, uncle, and father, and includes unspoken expectations and calculated exchanges. Winnie’s father is offered a dowry but with the expectation that he return the money on the wedding day and give a dowry of equal size to Winnie. It is also essential for the Wen family to ask for the right amount – too much and Winnie seems unworthy of them, not enough and they seem unworthy of Winnie’s family. Though the script is known to all parties, it still requires careful social calculation to follow – their interactions as they bargain are like a game of poker (175). Winnie shows her own awareness of the codes when she shops for furniture with her aunt, asking for the simplest pieces to show she isn’t greedy, and quickly realizing that the aunt will choose pieces that are “three grades better” (181) to show the family’s wealth and generosity. In both novels, the process of engagement and marriage is an example of a scripted interaction where the players don’t say what they mean but, for the most part, what they say is understood.
These coded interactions are not limited to ceremonies and institutions like marriage but permeate even the most intimate of personal relationships. In The Age of Innocence, Newland is satisfied with how well he and May understand one another through speaking in the same codes and intimations, while he struggles to overcome a barrier of repression with Ellen. In The Kitchen God’s Wife, Winnie’s relationships with her father and with Helen leave much unspoken and are in some ways tainted by a failure to understand.
Newland is optimistic about his relationship with May since, through their socially conditioned hieroglyphic language, “he and she understood each other without a word” (10). Much of this understanding centers around the family’s treatment of Ellen. At the beginning of the novel, both understand the reason for announcing the engagement early, though it is never explicitly stated. Newland is delighted at May’s devotion to “that ritual of ignoring the ‘unpleasant’ in which they had both been brought up” (16). Later, Newland interprets May’s suggestion that he see Ellen while in Washington as communicating layers of meaning; May expresses her understanding of both Ellen’s jeopardized position in the family and the romantically charged nature of her relationship with Newland. Ultimately, her suggestion conveys her “full and explicit approval” (173) that Newland should seek out Ellen, provided he play his already established role in warning her of her transgressions. Later, Newland interprets May’s comment that “perhaps I haven’t judged [Ellen] fairly” (204) to express a hatred for her cousin which she strives to overcome. In both cases, May makes her feelings towards Ellen known without explicitly voicing such ‘unpleasantness,’ and, in the first case, instructs Newland as to the proper course of action without outright saying it, thus using the code to maneuver Newland into an approved course of action. Newland interprets these coded messages, or believes he does, even when a few words express nuances and layers of meaning, showing their unspoken understanding at work.
May’s also demonstrates her skill at social codes when she navigates these codes to secure Newland’s faithfulness. First, she accurately detects Newland’s doubts about their marriage and manages to get the wedding date moved up, informing Ellen before Newland. At the end of the book, she does essentially the same thing, informing Ellen of her pregnancy before Newland so Ellen will return to Europe, out of reach of Newland. Newland learns later from his son that, in the conversation about May’s pregnancy, Newland missed a layer of nuance. May, before she died, told her son that Newland gave up “the thing [he] most wanted” (231) when she asked him to do so. This revelation baffles Newland, who seems to have had no idea what May was asking him or how strategic her decisions were. In this way, the limits of their codes are revealed.
Newland experiences a similar failure of communication with Ellen. Their language alternates between frankness and code as they navigate their socially transgressive but ultimately unfulfilled romance. Though Ellen is frank in her criticisms of New York society, a trait which alienates her from others within the society and shocks Newland, their conversations about their relationship are not so forthright. Their dialogue alternates between direct statements and euphemistic implications in a sort of conversational dance. Often, when they explicitly state their love, the passion boils over into an argument. At the end of part 1, when they first confess their love, Ellen insists that a relationship is impossible, telling Newland “I can’t love you unless I give you up” (112). Later, when Newland brings Ellen to see her grandmother, Ellen makes this point again, asking if she is to be Newland’s mistress, and Newland leaves the carriage in frustration. Yet when they don’t explicitly discuss their emotions, they suffer the opposite problem and an insurmountable distance exists between them. Their reunion in Boston exemplifies these cautious exchanges. Both claim to be in the city on business; Newland pretends to be surprised to encounter Ellen and makes small-talk about her hairstyle. Newland is conscious of this remoteness – “he felt as if he were shouting at her across endless distances” (149) – yet is unsure of how to cross that distance. Even when they speak freely to one another, their shared love is only discussed in implicit terms. Newland asks her when she will return to Europe, “a great hopeless How on earth can I keep you? crying out to her beneath his words” (157). This barely expressed desire is dramatized twice in the book. Newland encounters Ellen on the beach before she leaves New York but decides not to approach her (139). At the end of the novel, he similarly declines to reunite with Ellen, even though May is dead and there is nothing standing in his way. Their use of codes and euphemisms to discuss their relationship functions as an extension of the restrained desire which characterizes their relationship and ultimately keeps them apart.
Winnie’s relationships with her father and Helen are similarly structured around codes and imperfect understanding. Initially, when Winnie sees her father for the first time in twelve years, she views him as a sort of divine figure – he looks like “a god descending from heaven” (171) – and is eager to please him as a worthy daughter. She struggles because she is unsure of the script she is supposed to follow in her interactions with him to convey respect. Even such a question as which snacks she prefers becomes unanswerable. Fortunately, her unassuming answer, “something simple,” wins his approval (173). Winnie is delighted when her father treats her “as if [she] was truly a daughter” (176), calling her by her name (176), ordering the exact refreshments she would have asked for (173), and asking her to sit beside him at the table (179). Winnie gradually becomes more used to the coded language her father wields with skill to explain to her the social role she must fulfill, for example when he teaches her that her opinions matter less than her husband’s by asking her what she thinks of a painting (178). Through lessons and small kindnesses, Winnie’s father expresses his love for her – and Winnie eventually expresses her love for Pearl in similar unspoken ways, such as making the beautiful bouquet for Winnie to bring to Auntie Du’s funeral (19). Later in the book, when Winnie tells her father, ill and no longer able to speak, of her plan to leave Wen Fu, he responds by giving her the gold ingots hidden in the scroll painting. The gift is clearly meant to convey a message though Winnie is unsure how to translate it – approval of her decision, love for her, or merely hope that with Winnie gone Wen Fu will finally leave the household (461). Though coded communication between the two is not always clear, Winnie is always able to gather a basic understanding of her father’s intentions and unvoiced affection for his daughter.
In all of these cases, the social codes, norms, and language cues serve to define the limits of the society. Those who can’t comprehend are granted a different status. This is the fundamental difference between May, who prospers in the society and works within it to her own ends, and Ellen, whose confusion over social cues sets her apart. As she tells Newland, “I don’t speak your language” (86). Her ignorance of social codes and norms lead her to live in a Bohemian neighborhood, socialize with the womanizing Beaufort publicly, and remain naïve when she is treated as a pariah through the mass rejection of the dinner in her honor. Ellen’s ignorance of these codes – in everything from her clothes, her mannerisms and her speech to the company she keeps – mark her as foreign and she is treated as such. Min, the woman who has an affair with Wen Fu, has a similar ignorance of language codes. She enlists Winnie to help her, so Winnie teaches her stock phrases to make her “sound like a lady” (351). Language codes define status in the society, so Min’s different way of speaking marks her as lower on the social hierarchy, outside of the elite order Winnie was raised in. In both novels these divisions offer a sort of security. This security is destroyed rapidly in The Kitchen God’s Wife due to war, but remains constant in The Age of Innocence and explains why the characters value the society so highly. Even Ellen recognizes the comfort offered by the social organization within the society, frequently referring to New York as “heaven” (11).
Though Helen’s personal language code, constructed of frequent lies and a misremembered past, isn’t tied to social structure, it still has a profound influence on the way she interacts with Winnie. Many of Helen’s lies were for survival’s sake; lying about being married to Winnie’s husband was necessary to get into the United States. Winnie is deeply frustrated by Helen’s perceived foolishness though Helen, like May, turns out to be far more cunning than she initially seems. She tells Winnie and Pearl that she believes she is dying not to induce pity but to pressure the two of them to reveal their secrets. Her use of her own social language is thus strategic in order to accomplish an end. Helen’s and Winnie’s shared secrets also unite them; in many ways, they are the only ones who can communicate with one another, forming their own tiny social world. Pearl perceives this when she watches them talk in Mandarin she can’t quite follow after the funeral (52). Yet Winnie is not always able to understand Helen – she is angered by her friend’s maneuvering to force mother and daughter to reveal their secrets – providing yet another example of flawed coded communication.
This euphemistic language is certainly not limited to Winnie’s generation; Phil and Pearl share a relationship in many ways like Newland’s and May’s where they carefully avoid talking about the unpleasant. The couple speak “in code” (24) about Pearl’s illness, which is never referred to by name, only as her “medical condition” (8). Like May and Newland, the couple must navigate a difficult social situation, but Phil and Pearl seem to understand each other fairly well. Pearl has much more trouble communicating with her mother.
The generation gap results largely from Winnie’s immigrant status, and the major cultural differences in how mother and daughter grew up. This distinguishes their relationship from that of Newland and his children, who grew up in the same society following social norms which naturally shifted over time. While Newland ultimately decides to remain within his society and accept his marriage to May instead of pursuing a relationship with Ellen, Winnie actively rejects the social norms. Winnie was conditioned to believe that a woman should be subservient and accept suffering and she internalizes this social role. As she explains to her daughter, she “learned this in the movies […] A woman always had to feel pain, suffer and cry, before she could feel love” (207). The chaos of war removes her from the sheltered world she was used to while raised by her uncle and aunts; the suffering and deaths of her children drive her to despise Wen Fu. With so little to lose, Winnie ultimately rejects these social norms by choosing to leave Wen Fu and marry again, this time for love. Newland has a secure place in his society and doesn’t suffer the same external challenges and personal strife as Winnie; his stakes are much lower so he is more content to accept societal norms.
Winnie is ashamed of the struggles she faced in China and is initially unwilling to share her story with Pearl. This lack of transparency contributes to the misunderstandings between them. For example, Pearl doesn’t understand why Winnie was so upset when Pearl said the body in the coffin at her father’s funeral wasn’t her father, because she doesn’t know she is actually the child of Winnie’s first husband. Without knowledge of her mother’s past financial hardships, her mother’s distress over being overcharged three dollars seems another example of irrationality (16). Some codes are easier to understand – Winnie describes people she dislikes as important and Pearl knows what she means (4), a euphemism Winnie learned from her own mother (106). Yet a comprehension of such small phrases is overshadowed by Pearl’s struggle to understand the social codes Winnie retains from the culture they don’t share. When Winnie complains about taking care of Auntie Du, which should be Helen’s job, Pearl interprets Winnie’s comments literally, and her literal response – a suggestion to tell Helen how she feels – so upsets Winnie that she stops talking to her daughter for two months (6). Pearl is also baffled by Winnie’s preoccupation with fate, product of a culture that places great value on changeable luck. Pearl knows that Winnie will respond to the news of her illness by trying to understand what she could have done to bring on the bad luck. To Winnie, “everything has a reason. Everything could have been prevented” (27). Pearl, born and raised in America, places much more stock in the logic Winnie seems to reject. Because of these various gaps in worldview and language, a barrier exists between the two women who are unable to share their secrets.
The literal language barrier – Pearl has only a basic understanding of Mandarin – along with the cultural one, adds to this difficulty. But Winnie is willing to try. She expresses a sincere desire to share her culture with Pearl and Pearl’s daughters, telling the children stories and feeding them Chinese cuisine. When explaining the legend of the Kitchen God, she uses analogies to American culture. To explain the Kitchen God’s status in the hierarchy of gods, she compares him to “a store manager” (59). The Kitchen God knows when his worshipers have been good or bad, but he’s more FBI than Santa Claus (61). Winnie’s use of the Americanisms to explain Chinese stories demonstrates her place at the cross-section of American and Chinese culture, tasked with translating her experience for her American daughter.
Some words are more difficult to translate than others – and these embody the cultural differences between the two women. When Winnie talks about how she should have been able to prevent bad luck from harming the family, she often uses the term Ying-gai, which Pearl translates as “I should have.” She explains, “To me, Ying-gai meant my mother lived a life of regrets that never faded with time” (27). The term emphasizes Pearl’s and Winnie’s different views of fate – Winnie believes she has the ability to change fate, but not through logical means. This means she blames herself for her husband’s death, as if by merely finding him a different job or hiring a different electrician, she could have kept bad luck from sffecting the family. It also emphasizes how little Pearl knows of her mother’s regrets and the hardships she overcame. In the course of telling her story, Winnie teaches her daughter another word, taonan, which emphasizes their different life experiences. Taonan is a difficult word to translate; it refers to an unthinkable disaster. As Winnie explains to her daughter, “You’re lucky you have never had to experience this. It means terrible danger is coming, not just to you but to many people […] It is a fear that chases you” (260). Winnie explains she has never actually been taonan – she escaped such a fate when she left Nanking before the massacre – but she has been far closer than her daughter. That there is not even a good analog in her daughter’s language emphasizes how different their lives have been. Winnie faced danger and hardship her daughter, growing up in a more stable country away from war and revolution, could never even imagine. This too adds to the barrier between them.
Yet, by telling her story, Winnie is able to traverse this divide and help her daughter understand her experiences. By the end of the novel, the two women have reached an understanding. No such understanding is obtained in The Age of Innocence, even though the divide between Newland and his children is much less severe. The generation of Newland’s children is much more frank and open, less concerned with gossip and scandal. Newland, when Dallas forwardly questions him about his relationship with Ellen, observes that his son “belonged body and soul to the new generation […] it had never been possible to inculcate in him even the rudiments of reserve” (231). The society is more open and accepting; politics, previously an unthinkable occupation, is now popular among the young men. Fanny Beaufort, daughter of an illegitimate affair, is accepted into society without any thought to her past. Newland’s daughter, Mary, is as much a product of society as her mother but she “led a larger life and held more tolerant views” (226). Newland accepts this: “There was good in the new order too” (226). The key difference, Newland observes, is that his son sees “fate not as a master but as an equal” (232). Dallas can pity his father’s life of unfulfilled desires but never truly understand it. By novel’s end, Newland is left alone to contemplate what could have been, and ultimately chooses not to reunite with Ellen, a decision which leaves his son “incredulous” (234). Perhaps because the divide is not as severe, Newland doesn’t make an effort to explain his regrets to his son, but ends the novel content with his solitude.
The Kitchen God’s Wife ends on a very different note. Winnie and Pearl, having revealed their secrets, are together able to speak the same language through the symbol of the Kitchen God’s Wife. Harkening back to the legend of the Kitchen God, Winnie buys Pearl a new statue for Auntie Du’s altar. Due to a factory mistake, the statue bears no name, allowing Winnie to name the statue herself. She identifies the statue as the Kitchen God’s Wife but doesn’t name her that – after all, they’re divorced (531). She is named Sorrowfree, the same name as Winnie’s first child (532), so the statue serves as a symbol of Winnie’s story, a physical embodiment of the past she is now able to share with Pearl. The statue is a sort of analog to Winnie – both women suffered cruel husbands but were able to escape and took a new name. In this way, the statue also indicates Winnie’s freedom from Wen Fu, identified with the Kitchen God (529), who, now that he is dead and no longer a secret from Pearl, can no longer hurt her. The statue and the Chinese medicine Winnie gives to Pearl show her love for her daughter. The fact that Winnie takes care to tell Pearl the statue “understands English” (531) suggests the communication now possible between mother and daughter. They end the novel laughing together, joyous even in their suffering and pain, now that they are able to share their lives and experiences with one another.
The scene also highlights the dynamic nature of both characters and how their language codes are able to evolve. Winnie, in adapting to her many struggles, has a worldview which shifts through the novel, from her unquestioning acceptance of societal norms to her hybrid of Chinese tradition and American experience. Pearl learns more about her mother’s experiences and begins to understand the worldview she found so baffling at the beginning of the novel. That they are able to communicate using the statue as a sort of code represents how far both of them have come in understanding the other and traversing the boundaries of language and culture which separated them. Newland by contrast is more static. Though both novels feature characters participating in heavily coded, often imperfectly understood social interactions within the constraints of a distinct society, Newland’s narrative is different. His is a bittersweet story about a man in thrall to social customs, who sacrifices his own fulfillment for the greater good of family and marital duty, and at the end is ultimately unable to let go of the repression and regret which has characterized his life. The Kitchen God’s Wife uses these language codes as a challenge to its characters, an immigrant novel which ends with the combination of two distinct worlds through Winnie and Pearl – and the stories they are now able to share with one another.