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Lena St. Clair - The Voice from the Wall
Lena St. Clair is the narrator of this chapter. She is the sheltered and over-protected daughter of Ying-Ying, the narrator from The Moon Lady. Lena recalls how her mother constantly warned her about the dangers in life. Ying-Ying told her not to talk to strangers, warning her about bad men who would take her away and rape her. She also told Lena that a bad man lived in their basement, for she wanted to make certain that Lena did not go down there and hurt herself. Because of her mother’s fearful teachings, Lena admits that she grew up fearing strange men and horrible acts of violence.
Lena also remembers that she was haunted by a story about her grandfather sentencing a man to die. As a child she imagined all kinds of horrible torture that the man endured. Ying-Ying told her daughter that the manner of the man’s death was not important. Lena, however, thought it was very important. If you imagined the worst kinds of things that could happen, the young Lena felt like it could help you to avoid them. Now, however, Ying-Ying’s sinking into madness is the worst thing that could happen to Lena, but she can do nothing to prevent it.
Ying-ying was a war bride, who came to America speaking no English. Since her groom spoke no Chinese, he renamed her Betty, communicated for her, and controlled her life. At immigration, he even subtracted two years from Betty’s age. Lena explains that her mother is still at times unable to speak without her husband’s help.
Ying-Ying has never been really happy in America. When her husband was promoted and moved the family into a new apartment, Ying-Ying did not like it. She complained that it was poorly constructed and that the walls were so thin that she could hear the neighbors fighting. When she lost a baby, her mental state deteriorated even further. She began to talk about another baby she “killed” back in China. In truth, Ying-Ying had been seduced as a young girl. Since she was pregnant, the man married her, but soon deserted her. Her miserable youth has contributed to her madness.
Lena thinks about the neighbors from that childhood apartment. She remembers that the voice from the wall was really an Italian mother and daughter who lived together in fiery and constant conflict. The shouting was so severe at times that Lena thought one of them had killed the other. One day she spoke to the daughter and learned that the outbursts of emotion were actually ties that bound the mother and daughter together. Suddenly, Lena became envious of the dynamic relationship between the Italian mother and daughter. She longed to have the same kind of open interaction and expression with her own mother.
At the end of the section, Lena despairs over her mother’s madness. She longs for a solution and wonders if there is any sacrifice she could make to restore Ying-Ying’s sanity.
Having a Chinese mother and an English-Irish father, Lena is the product of two cultures. She herself is light skinned, like her father, but she has her mother’s slanted eyes. At times she feels like a lost person, not fitting into either culture. Lena longs to be close to her mother, but since she has sunk into madness, she knows the closeness will probably never happen.
Many factors have contributed to the madness of Lena’s mother. While she was a young girl in China, Ying-Ying was seduced by a man. Since she was pregnant, the man married her, but soon deserted her. When Ying-Ying lost the baby, she blamed it on herself. In an effort to erase her past, Ying-Ying comes to America as a war bride. Her husband, who speaks only English, changes her name to Betty and allows the immigration officials to subtract two years from her age. Ying-Ying feels like her true identity has been lost.
Since Ying-Ying cannot speak English, she and her husband never really communicate. Instead, he speaks for her, never allowing her to be herself. As a result, she feels alienated and isolated. When her husband moves her and the family into a new apartment, Ying-Ying hates it. She complains that it is located too far up on a hill and is poorly built. Her dissatisfaction contributes to her madness. Then when she looses a baby, her mental state deteriorates further, for it brings back memories of her horrid past.
The entire chapter highlights the theme of “Appearance vs. Reality.” Ying-Ying, being a frightened woman herself, makes life appear fearful to her young daughter. She warns Lena about talking to strangers and tells her that there is a bad man who hides in their basement. Believing the tales of her mother to be real, Lena grows up fearful of strangers and basements.
The new apartment up on the hill is also filled with the conflict of Appearance vs. Reality. Lena’s father believes he is doing something significant for his family by moving them across the river to a better place. In truth, the apartment contributes to Ying-Ying’s madness; she never likes the place and complains about it constantly. It is also the place where she looses her baby. The apartment also introduces Lena and her mother to the Italian mother and daughter her live next door. Since they constantly scream and fight with each other, it appears that these two women hate one another. In truth, they have a warm, close relationship, one like Lena longs to have with her own mother. It is ironic that the apartment of the next-door neighbors is filled with verbal conflict, but warmed by deep love; in contrast, Lena’s apartment is quite peaceful, but it is totally lacking in love.
Another irony is that Lena would be willing to make a sacrifice to restore her mother’s sanity. She remembers that her grandmother had actually sacrificed a piece of her body to try and restore Popo’s health (as told earlier in the novel). Now Lena wants to do the same for Ying-Ying. Unfortunately, she can think of no way to help her mother; she can only dream that some day she will again be whole.
It is important to notice the use of wind in this chapter. In the last chapter, the wind was seen as a thing of strength. Lindo Jong taught her daughter, Waverly, to harness the wind to give her power. Ying-Ying’s view of the wind is entirely different. She sees the wind, which blows constantly at the top of the hill, as a bad thing. She believes it strips you of your power and sends all your strength down the hill. In truth, Ying-Ying cannot marshal the wind or any other power to give her strength. Stripped of her identity, she has become a broken, mad woman.