“A Hieroglyphic World: Shifting Social Codes in The Age of Innocence and The Kitchen God’s Wife”
Thesis: The societies of aristocratic New York and upper-class China as put forth in the two novels show similar social codes which establish divisions between those within the social sphere and those without. Kitchen sees these cultural codes – and the perspective of the protagonist, Winnie – shift due to external factors, the cultural codes and worldview of Innocence and its protagonist remains static.
Codes of Behavior within the Society:
Age of Innocence
Family determines status (30-31) and is understood as the principle way to organize life
Family used to police and enforce social norms: “The individual is nearly always sacrificed to what is supposed to be the collective interest” (73). See the family’s punishment of ellen in chapter 26. They also reinforce conformity; Mingott matriarch observes about her family: “not one of them wants to be different” (99).
- Codes of Language
May and Newland have an understanding beyond language: “he and she understood each other without a world” (10). Later, Newland and his son reflect negatively on this lack of communication (231).
“They all lived in a kind of hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought” (28). This is key, literalism is rejected in favor
Speaking in stock phrases: Newland and May’s stilted conversation in chapter 10 and his ability to predict the pattern of prediction in the same chapter, his eventual frustration with May by chapter 30 when he can predict her comments about the poetry he reads her.
Ellen is ostracized because of her inability to speak this societal language (mentioned in chapter 15).
Even Ellen ends up operating under code; her conversation with Newland in chapter 24 is loaded with hidden meanings
- Codes of Behavior
Newland’s concern with what is and what isn’t the thing / the way to behave (2), taste (8)
Ritualized ways of interacting with art – the opera scene in the first two chapters
Courtship is carefully choreographed with “the air of parental reluctance” (14) and a certain script to follow. Again at the beginning of chapter 19.
“Ritual of avoiding the ‘unpleasant’ (16)
The purpose of these codes is security, as Ellen perceives: “I want to feel cared for and safe” (47)
The society enforces these norms:
Kitchen God’s Wife
- Family dynamic
Life is organized around family. Power dynamic between Winnie’s mother and the other wives, Winnie and Peanut with Peanut receiving favorable treatment
Rituals of courtship
Winnie is initially accepting of this order.
- Codes of Language
Speaking in stock phrases – Winnie teaches these phrases to Min.
When she meets her father for the first time in many years, Winnie is uncomfortable because she is not sure what script to follow
Understanding between Winnie and her aunt when they are picking out furniture for her dowry
Comparison: Existence of external factors like war, continuing shifts in power, etc. make Winnie’s world less stable and dissolve the social conventions she was born with. She is very privileged throughout but her quality of life changes dramatically from childhood to her eventual imprisonment. There are also strong counter-culture forces – Peanut eventually becomes a communist and helps Winnie escape her marriage – which contribute to Winnie’s eventual rejection of social convention. These outside forces don’t exist in Innocence, so society and protagonist remain more static, despite Newland’s doubts.
Codes of Behavior between the Society and Outsiders:
Age of Innocence
Upper crust’s distaste for the “new people” and desire to reinforce societal divides (1)
- Ellen’s status as outsider
Ellen immediately makes her status clear by refusing to follow social codes (her comments on the van der Luydens ph. 48) but also being ignorant of them ()
This establishes her ‘otherness’: “It’s hopeless to expect people who are accustomed to the European courts to trouble themselves with our little Republican distinctions” (58).
- Winsett’s status as outsider
Ellen spends some time living in a neighborhood of people who (like Winsett) do not endorse the NY social structure: this ‘others’ them as well (65).
Winsett’s unwillingness to engage with the social structure – one of the “clever people” who refuse to “frequent the fashionable (79).
He shows his ignorance by urging Newland to go into politics in chapter 14
(Similar to the eccentricity and precarious status of professor Sillerton in chapter 22)
- Foreign vs. NY
Comparisons throughout as Ellen, used to the European way, struggles to cope with the NY way
Difference in standards of engagement – New Yorkers fear being to overeager – in chapter 21
Kitchen God’s Wife
- Hulan’s status as outsider
Hulan is marked to Winnie as an outsider by her lack of social graces
She compensates in other skills which Winnie learns to respect
- Min’s status as outsider
Winnie and Min have a fairly even exchange of information. Winnie by this point has learned to value things not cherished by her society. She values Min’s dancing and singing, meanwhile teaches her how to write and have the appearance of refinery
- Jimmy’s status as outsider
Different conceptions of ‘destiny/fate’
Jimmy’s status as American and his ability to speak English marks him as foreign, a subject of both fascination (by the girls) and suspicion (by the press)
Comparison: Divisions between insiders and outsiders function much the same in both books and serve similar purposes. In Kitchen, the divides are about class, while in Innocence the divides are stricter, applying to class, culture of origin, etc. and even serve to keep to ‘other’ some people born into the society. The divides are less degraded in Innocence than in Kitchen. Both Winnie and Newland learn from people outside their social world (Hulan, Min, and Jimmy for Winnie; Ellen and Winsett for Newland), Winnie embraces their ideals much more than Newland does.
Creation of Generation Gaps:
Age of Innocence:
- Difference between Archer and his children
Archeology and politics are acceptable pursuits while they were unthinkable before (224)
Different between May’s life and the life of her daughter Mary’s – Mary is essentially the same, just the product of a different era (226)
It is not a scandal for Newland’s son to marry the child of a scandal
Society receives Fanny Beaufort much different than they did May, indicative of a cultural shift in what is acceptable (228)
Kitchen God’s Wife
- Difference between Winnie and Pearl
Winnie’s complaint about caring for Auntie Du is not sincere; when Pearl interprets it as such, Winnie is offended and cut’s Pearl off
Winnie attempts to bridge these communication barriers through her pop culture / American culture references
Winnie successfully does bridge the communication gap through eventual openness with Pearl and through sharing the Lady Sorrowfree statue with her, which is filled with unspoken significance. Effectively finding a middle ground
- Winnie and her grandchildren
Winnie wants to share her cultural history with her grandchildren, telling them stories, giving them the shrine from Auntie Du
Comparison: Winnie struggles but does make a conscious attempt to bridge the generational divide and connect again with Pearl. Newland does not share the same struggle to communicate with his children; perhaps because of his own doubts, he is less inclined to defend his world to his children. He acknowledges there are many benefits to their new way of life but stops short of embracing it himself.
Contrast Between Winnie and Archer – Winnie as Dynamic, Archer as Static
Compare the final scenes; how the two characters deal with the generation gap
Newland doubts the value of the societal system (as he tells Ellen: “You gave me my first glimpse of real life…156) but ultimately chooses to stay within it by marrying May and not running off with Ellen. His decision not to reunite with Ellen at the end of the novel suggests an overall contentment with his choice. Innocence sees this as neutral, sad but understandable.
Winnie does reject societal values by divorcing Wen Fu, despite the discouragement of her family and Hulan, and (almost) eloping with Jimmy. Kitchen judges this as a positive action.
Ultimately, Innocence is a story of very gradual change in a society where only the subsequent generations experience a shift in attitude and the generation itself remains the same. In Kitchen, the society shifts both dramatically within the generation and between generations, due to external factors of war and immigration.
***Not all of the examples in the outline will go into the essay, this is largely a list of examples I can draw upon in my analysis
A great outline, with a fascinating pattern of comparison already emerging. To give this pattern an even sharper edge, you might want to highlight a basic difference between The Age of Innocence and The Kitchen God’s Wife: while the former focuses exclusively on the hermetically sealed world of upper-class New York, the latter is divided between two locations, each with its own code of language and code of conduct. San Francisco Chinatown in the 1980s is not entirely separate from World War II China, but it is not an exact replica either. Since The Kitchen God’s Wife is very much structured by the relation between China and the U.S., this is also a great way to explore the structural difference between Tan’s novel and Wharton’s, amidst their shared interest in hieroglyphic worlds.
Hey Sara! This is honestly such a fantastic outline; you covered basically everything I thought of as I read through it. I really don’t think you need anything else, but maybe just something that could be interesting to think about: what are the consequences of departing from the code in each novel? Age of Innocence presents a much safer world (one might even say a bubble) than The Kitchen God’s Wife does–one would think the repercussions in the former would be less drastic. Yet, we see far more code-breaking in the latter. Is this just due to the inevitable change that comes with war and the other externalities you mentioned? Or is it possible that there is somehow a more intense fear of code-breaking in The Age of Innocence than in The Kitchen God’s Wife, for whatever reason? (I’m really not sure, it’s just some food for thought)