Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Amy Tan’s “Two Kinds”

In Amy Tan's "Two Kinds" the mother and the daughter show how through generations a relationship of understanding can be lost when traditions, dreams, and pride do not take into account individuality. By applying the concepts of Julia Kristeva and other feminist thought, one can analyze the discourse Tan uses in the story and its connection to basic feminist principles. Jing-mei and her mother understand a symbolic language, however their semiotic language is very different. In fact up on realizing Jing-mei's "failure" to be a prodigy it causes her to reject that symbolic language and a double barrier is created to a healthy relationship with one another. By analytically approaching literature with psychoanalytical concepts, French feminists hoped to concretize some of the ways in which a patriarchal society manifest their system of power through literature. To put it more concretely, the story of "Two Kinds" seems to submit to an underlying attempt to resist the notion of male heroism, feminine confinement and other societal shackles that are put on the role of women in society. Jing-mei yearns for a sense of identity that is her own. She doesn't quite know what that is, however she knows its not what her mother wants her to be. Her rejection of an imposed identity relates to a space that is not allotted to her, which is needed in order to "find" herself. Her mother seems to be her antagonists creating the confinement.

    By targeting language French feminists were able to centralize the psychoanalytical concepts on discourse and its fusion with perpetuating androcentrism. In, A Practical Introduction to Literary Theory and Criticism, author M. Keith Booker relays Hélène Cixous , Luce Irgaray, and Julia Kristeva among the most prominent in French feminist critical analysis to examine discourse and it association. If one looks at literature as being derivative of society this might give a basis to the argument that the dysfunction of society could have a literary by-product in its literature. In Tan's story this can relate to how the manifestation of this inconsiderate competition between the two mothers is a direct result of an aggressive patriarchal society. Although this tool in literature has been used for the continual perpetuation of that dysfunction, it also gives those that are oppressed by that dysfunction a tool to focus on, take apart and utilize to counteract its function.

    As one might have already guessed, the two main characters are Jing-mei and her mother. Even though it was mentioned earlier that the mother seems to be the antagonist to Jing-mei, I believe that they both represent the protagonists in the story. Other characters such as Auntie Lindo and Waverly truly represent the root of the antagonist factor. The story begins with Jing-mei's arrival at the rejection stage of being the much wanted prodigy that her mother conjures for her. First the narrator dives into the heart of the issue with the mother's irrefutable belief that in America anything is possible. She goes further to bring in the antagonist factor when she mentions, "What does Auntie Lindo know? Her daughter , she is only best tricky." (pg. 1222, Charters) Already the mother has set up a false notion and uses connotative language that suggests a need to be this prodigy for reasons of pride and competition. The false notion that I find most destructive to Jing-mei's character is that no matter how high the bar is set, being an American gives you that inhumane ability to jump over it.

    To continue on with the point of this antagonist factor, the reader must play close attention to the narrator's resistance of it. "…after seeing my mother's disappointed face once again, something inside of me began to die…I made high-pitched noises like a crazed animal, trying to scratch out the face in the mirror…I saw what seemed to be the prodigy side of me…The girl staring back at me was angry and powerful…I won't be what I'm not." Cutting out the important semiotic language that is unique to feminist discourse, this passage exemplifies some of the main principles that Kristeva and Cixous target in the feminist analytical approach. Booker defines this semiotic language as "language that relies not on the direct expression of preexisting meaning, but on the creation of emotional impressions and effects, though sound, rhythm, and related techniques." (pg. 486, Booker) The narrator is defining the term prodigy as a unique sense of self, a powerful force within her character. The symbolic language, apparent to Jing-mei's mother, relates the term "prodigy" as something defined by a patriarchal society that decides what a feminine prodigy should be. The tension becomes apparent to the reader in this stage of the story, as well as, a sense of unique ideology of the feminist idea of heroism.

    Two elements give a solid argument to the idea of feminine heroism. One element is the fight that Jing-mei puts out to resist a notion of her own identity being imposed on her. This has an obvious denotation to feminine resistance in movements for equal rights. However, I feel the second element is much more complex and is connotative to the internalized struggle that feminist movements also struggle against. Through Kristeva's ideas of a symbolic order we understand how masculine thought has infiltrated itself into the relationship between the mother and daughter, with a dormant male presence in the actual story itself. Cixous takes this principle further in discussing, "the masculine emphasis on ownership, related to a fear of castration, results in a libidinal economy of give and take in which giving is always associated with debt and nothing is to be given without the expectation of something in return…Similarly the male author insists on having his name attached to his text, on receiving credit for his work, because 'if a man spends and is spent, it's on condition that his power returns.'" (pg. 92, Booker) This concept is related to the need for men to be continually given recognition for their literary works throughout history, whereas, women have not needed such recognition because they don't are not as accustomed with this masculine concept. To tie this back to Tan's story, the mother perpetuates this masculine ideology through a dialogue with Auntie Lindo after church one Sunday. Although the denotation of competition is obvious, the connotative language the two use suggests a need to compensate the hard work they put in to raise their daughters to be recognized through their daughter's achievements.

    Jing-mei is attempting to define a character of her own, however, because of the imposition of the mother she finds no such space in the relationship with her mother. Her mother does not recognize the imposition of her masculine ideologies and only wants what's best for her daughter. The mother has strived for the best after the hardship of losing everyone and everything back in China, and sees no reason that her daughter should be exempt from being the best. The conflict of semiotic language is in a way reconciled by the connotative gesture of giving the piano to Jing-mei on her thirtieth birthday. Something that I found inspiring in this story was the line, "I saw the offer as a sign of forgiveness, a tremendous burden removed…it made me feel proud, as if it were a shiny trophy I had won back." (pg. 1229, Charters) This reaffirmed for me an underlining theme, which was not to be the best to anyone else, but for her mother to see Jing-mei as a unique prodigy that was just as viable and not to be compared with anyone else. From a feminist perspective Jing-mei and her mother's character gives way to an important feminist concept: "Feminist literary criticism focuses on the relationship between literature and patriarch biases in society and on the potential role that literature can play in overcoming biases…literature plays a central role in the development of social attitudes toward women and of women's attitudes towards themselves." (pg. 89, Booker)

    On first attempting to understand the relationship between the title and the theme of the story, I thought the author explicitly made it clear in the lines, "Only two kinds of daughters…Those who are obedient and those that follow their own mind!" After paying particular attention to detail and language, with a feminist perspective in mind, I realized that the two kinds were in fact these two types of daughters, however the story's purpose was not to define Jing-mei as either kind. The story portrayed how, because of these two kinds, the mother and daughter had a difficult relationship and were only reconciled when they found this gray area which they could communicate with one another. That these "two kinds" were not be seen as a black and white issue, but as an issue of fusion in order to understand one another. Only in this mode could the relationship have some reconciliation.








Booker, M. Keith A Practical Introduction to Literary Theory and Criticism Longman Publishers USA, 1996


Charters, Ann The Story and Its Writer An Introduction to Short Fiction Seventh Edition Bedford/St. Martin's, 2007

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