By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Scar’ is the story of An-mei Hsu, one of the inset tales included in Amy Tan’s 1989 book The Joy Luck Club. One of the shortest stories in the book, ‘Scar’ is largely plotless, and takes as its focus a Chinese-American woman’s memories of her childhood in China, where she was raised by her grandmother and her mother was considered an outcast because she left her husband for another man.
Although ‘Scar’ doesn’t have a traditional ‘plot’ as such, it might be worth recapping the details of An-mei’s account of her childhood before continuing to an analysis of the story.
‘Scar’: plot summary
An-mei Hsu, a member of the titular Joy Luck Club who plays mah jong with the other women, is in her seventies. The events and details she describes to the rest of the club took place over sixty years before, when she was living in China.
An-mei tells us that, when she was a young girl, her grandmother told her that her mother was a ‘ghost’, because An-mei’s mother could not be spoken of in conversation. An-mei lived with her uncle and aunt, who raised her, along with her little brother; her grandmother, who was known as Popo, also lived with them. Once, when she was sick, Popo told An-mei cautionary tales about little girls who ate too much or who refused to listen to their elders.
On one such occasion, her grandmother also told An-mei that she should never utter her mother’s name, because it would be an insult to An-mei’s (dead) father to do so. An-mei never knew her father, who had died when she was very young: the only image she has of him is the painting that hung in the main hall of the house.
Although An-mei’s brother was happier in the house than she was, when their aunt slapped him for being disrespectful towards a passing funeral procession in the street, and refusing to respect ancestors and family, he changed, accusing their aunt of frightening his and An-mei’s mother away.
Their aunt lost her temper with him and shouted out the truth: it was then that An-mei and her brother learned that their mother had married a man named Wu Tsing and become his second wife. The aunt also spat in An-mei’s brother’s space and told him his mother was a ‘traitor’ to the family’s ancestors. However, An-mei recalls that she imagined her mother may have felt glad to be free of the domineering Popo, her stern husband, and her two unruly children (An-mei and her brother).
An-mei recalls the day her mother came to visit them at the house. She was struck by how much she takes after her mother’s looks. Popo, whose mind was weak with old age and illness, refused to greet her daughter, even as An-mei’s mother extended a hand in reconciliation.
There is something familiar to An-mei about her mother’s voice, even though she cannot remember hearing her before. But she had heard her voice in a dream. When her mother sits down with her daughter and strokes the scar on An-mei’s neck, she remembers the dream she had in which her mother’s voice was heard.
An-mei then remembers that, when she was four years old, her mother had come to the house. An-mei had rushed to greet her mother but had been slapped down by her aunt. Popo had told her that if she left with her mother, who was a ‘concubine’ kept by a married man for sex, she could become like her mother and lose her ‘face’ or good standing among the family and wider community.
Because An-mei is shouting so loudly for her mother, the boiling soup that stands on the table between them spills over, burning An-mei’s neck and creating the scar which her mother touched years later. An-mei is badly hurt and Popo tells her that the family have prepared clothes for her in the event that she dies from her injuries. Even her mother has left and doesn’t appear to care for her daughter any more.
This information helps An-mei to rally and recover, since she wishes to get better so she can find her mother again. It takes her two years for her scar to become pale, and by then she had forgotten her mother.
An-mei’s memories then return to the later encounter with her mother, when she returned to the house and touched her daughter’s scar on her neck. Her mother had changed, but she grew to love her all the same. An-mei’s final memory is of attending Popo’s deathbed and seeing her mother standing the other side of the bed.
Her mother prepared a soup, and cut a piece of flesh from her arm and put it into the soup, in order to try to heal Popo using an old folk remedy. However, the remedy doesn’t work and Popo dies that night. An-mei concludes her narrative by telling us that this is how a daughter honours her mother: by peeling off her skin and that of your mother, and her mother before her, until nothing remains.
The symbolism Amy Tan uses in ‘Scar’ is also significant. An-mei’s mother is described as being tall and white (associating her more with Western ideals of beauty than Chinese), as pale as a goose. This reference harks back to the beginning of the story, where An-mei mentioned that Popo liked to tell her and her brother that they fell out of a ‘stupid goose’ and nobody wanted them. An-mei’s mother is also repeatedly called a ‘ghost’, also suggesting pallor and whiteness.
Rather than symbolising purity in this story (as it often does in literature and art), whiteness in ‘Scar’ represents invisibility and a loss of ‘face’ among the community. When An-mei is almost mortally injured by the boiling hot soup falling on her, Popo tells her that her ‘dying clothes’ have been prepared for her. These, too, are white, associating her not with purity and innocence but with her mother, who is a kind of ‘ghost’ to the family, an ‘unperson’, we might say.
An-mei’s scar is a physical manifestation of her mother: it was caused by her meeting her mother and shouting to her, but as the wound heals, so does An-mei’s memory of her mother, until the memory closes up altogether, like the scar, and becomes pale and indistinct.
‘Scar’ is, in the last analysis, a story about a daughter’s relationship with her mother, but it is not a strong relationship, and An-mei doesn’t ever get to know her mother well. We never learn precisely why she left An-mei’s father and went to live with another man as his second wife (or ‘third concubine’, as Popo would say): all we learn, towards the end of the story, is that she was unhappy with An-mei’s father, and ended up exchanging one unhappiness for another by marrying Wu Tsing.
Yet despite this partial knowledge – or perhaps because of it – An-mei came to love her mother and recognise her ‘own true nature’ in her. There is a sense that An-mei’s true nature is encoded within her ‘bones’ and her DNA, and she is her mother’s daughter in temperament and outlook.
In many ways, ‘Scar’ is a story about daughters more than it is about mothers: that is, the focus is on the ways in which daughters must undergo pain and be physically scarred in order to honour their mothers. Just as An-mei is scarred by the soup when she is calling to her mother, so her mother scars her arm when preparing the soup with which she hopes to treat or cure her ailing mother.
The soup is an old remedy and it fails to do its job, in that it doesn’t save Popo’s life. But one suspects it wasn’t intended to: its real purpose is ritualistic and symbolic. An-mei’s mother was, by scarring herself, attempting to make the emotional scars caused by the rift between her and her mother heal over and cicatrise.