By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Voice from the Wall’ is a story from Amy Tan’s 1989 novel The Joy Luck Club. The story is narrated by Lena St. Clair, the daughter of a Chinese mother and an Anglo-Irish father living in California.
Before we offer an analysis of Tan’s story, and explain why the story has the title ‘The Voice from the Wall’, it might be worth recapping the story’s plot.
‘The Voice from the Wall’: plot summary
Lena St. Clair (Chinese name Annh) is the daughter of a Chinese mother and an Anglo-Irish father. Her father was working for the US immigration authorities when he met Lena’s mother, a Chinese immigrant fleeing a terrible life she’d had back in China. On her immigration papers, he crossed out her given name, Gu Ying-ying, and renamed her Betty St. Clair.
Lena begins her story by recounting the man her grandfather had had executed in a particularly violent way some seventy years ago, back in China, via a method known as the death by a thousand cuts. She had heard that the ghost of the dead man visited her grandfather and dragged him through the wall into hell, but Lena’s mother claims that her grandfather died of influenza in his bed.
Lena’s mother is anxious to keep her daughter safe from all dangers at all times, and so tells her daughter horror stories about what will happen if she isn’t careful. For example, she would not allow Lena to walk anywhere on her own except for directly to and from school. In particular, Lena’s mother invents terrible stories involving her daughter having unwanted babies and ruining her life as a result.
Shortly after the family move to San Francisco after Lena’s father is promoted at work, a Chinese man rushes towards Lena and her mother in the street, and has to be restrained by two men. Lena’s mother is visibly shaken by this incident, and begins rearranging everything in their apartment to try to redress the imbalance in their lives.
Then, when a crib appears in her bedroom, Lena realises that her mother is pregnant. The noises Lena hears from the neighbouring apartments, which she had previously found soothing, now sound to Lena like a mother killing her daughter, much as Lena’s grandfather had executed the man back in China. However, every day the girl in the neighbouring apartment is still alive.
When her mother has the baby, it is stillborn. She babbles semi-incoherently to Lena about killing her previous son, and seeing her stillborn baby’s head rise up from the table and see right through its mother, as if it could discover her deepest, darkest secrets. However, to spare her father hurt, Lena glosses over this when imparting the conversation to him.
After the loss of her baby, Lena’s mother is not the same, becoming withdrawn from the family and crying at random times of the day. Lena is comforted by the fact that the girl being shouted at and abused by her mother in the apartment next door has a worse life than her own.
One day, when the girl from next door rings their doorbell, she tells Lena her name is Teresa before stepping into their apartment and through to Lena’s bedroom. She tells her that her mother has thrown her out, and Teresa is going to climb back into her own bedroom via the fire escape outside Lena’s window. She thinks her mother will worried when her daughter can’t be found, and then be relieved to discover her daughter is back home safe and well after all.
Sure enough, that night Lena hears Teresa and her mother laughing and crying with ‘love’ next door. And Lena realises that Teresa’s reconciliation with her mother offers the seeds of hope regarding her own mother. The story ends with her imagining a girl standing up to her mother, performing the death by a thousand cuts on her in order to save the mother from herself, and to pull her back through the wall.
‘The Voice from the Wall’: analysis
Like many of the stories in The Joy Luck Club, perhaps most famously ‘Two Kinds’ and ‘Rules of the Game’, ‘The Voice from the Wall’ is about a daughter’s relationship with her mother. But in this story, Tan also throws greater emphasis on a mother’s anxious wish to protect her daughter from danger. This turns out to be founded partly on projection, however: the emotionally fragile mother of the story is trying desperately to protect herself.
Lena’s mother, who is renamed Betty by Lena’s father upon her arrival in the United States, suffers from a deep sense of alienation and displacement following her forced emigration from China to America. There is a sense that she feels out of place and she passes this suspicion, which is almost like a sixth sense, onto her daughter, who notes that she has inherited her mother’s ‘eyes’, or way of seeing the world.
This explains why, whenever she feels endangered or disoriented by events, Betty takes to moving things around in their new apartment, as if trying to restore a sense of cosmic balance to their home – and, by extension, their lives. This is an ancient Chinese idea, known as feng shui, but Betty’s condition is also personal and psychological, founded on past upheaval in her life: not only her move from one country and culture to a very different one, but also the killing of her past child, which she reveals to Lena following the stillbirth of her son.
But Amy Tan does not give us all the details to Betty’s past. In having the story narrated in the first person by her daughter, and in making Betty unwilling (unable?) to discuss her past with anyone, aporias or gaps are created which we can only fill with conjecture and surmise. Who was this other son who she talks about killing? Although we may suggest this hints at an abortion, perhaps of an unwanted child she conceived back in China before coming to America to start her new life, this is only conjecture.
Indeed, given the dark imagery she summons when talking to her daughter – such as the warnings about men violating her and putting ‘five babies’ in her, as well as the comment about killing a baby and its body being discovered in the garbage can – it’s perhaps more likely not that Betty had her ‘other son’ aborted but that he gave birth to it and then abandoned it, narrowly avoiding prison.
Indeed, ‘The Voice from the Wall’ is filled with visceral and violent imagery: dead babies, predatory men (that red-faced Chinese man who approaches Betty and Lena lustfully in the street), and the repeated symbolism of the ‘death by a thousand cuts’, an image which has haunted and fascinated Lena in equal measure ever since she heard the story about her grandfather putting the beggar to death.
But at the end of ‘The Voice from the Wall’, there is a suggestion that such imagery can be used to remake people, and even perhaps heal old wounds. Lena imagines a daughter fighting back against her mother, as she sees Teresa getting the better of her mother in order to be reconciled with her, but this ‘death by a thousand cuts’ is designed to drag her mother back from the other side, from the private hell she is inhabiting.
In other words, we might say that Lena appropriates the image that began the story, of her grandfather being dragged through the wall into hell by the ghost of the beggar he had killed. His influenza-inspired ravings as he lies on his deathbed obviously prefigure Betty’s manic outburst following the loss of her son, but they also establish the importance of walls, boundaries, and thresholds in the story.
This symbolism is present elsewhere, such as in Teresa’s transgression of her apartment boundaries (by climbing back into her bedroom via the fire escape) or in the things that Lena hears through the walls of the apartment. These liminal spaces end up joining different worlds and different lives rather than keeping them apart. The final boundary or ‘wall’ is one of communication, and Lena’s difficulty in conversing with, or knowing, her mother.