Conflict of Generations in Smoke Signals and “Two Kinds”admin / January 18, 2019
Conflict of generations is a phenomenon in human relations that has existed as long as people live on the earth. Misunderstanding between the young and the old result from a vast variety of reasons, and the search for the suitable resolution of generation conflicts has been one of the topics attracting not only practical psychologists but creative minds as well.
“How do we forgive our fathers?” is the question asked by one of the characters in Chris Eyre’s movie Smoke Signals, and in search of the answer to it one may also turn to the short story “Two Kinds” by Amy Tan. The way the characters of both the movie and the short story forgive their parents for painful experiences of their childhood is through forgiveness, understanding, and acceptance of their parents the way they are.
The almost week-long journey of the main character in Smoke Signals, Victor, to collect the belongings of his deceased father, Arnold, may be seen as a symbolic depiction of the long spiritual way he covered to forgive Arnold for leaving his family. Obviously addressing the young generation with the message of understanding and reconciliation, the movie is set in a form of narration that highlights the key stages in the process of accepting the father’s mistakes.
One of the most efficient rhetoric strategies employed in Smoke Signals for showing the connections between the past and the present conflicts within Victor’s soul is the narrative technique of flashback. Reminiscences of the fire scene serve both to show Arnold’s mistake of striking the fatal fire and to demonstrate his dedication to correcting his mistakes and saving the baby from that fire. A symbolic parallel can be drawn between the fire scenes and the scenes where Arnold drinks heavily and mistreats his wife and son.
The destructive impulse of maltreatment scenes is compensated by the constructive idea of rescuing the baby from the fire. A parallel idea to the latter is Arnold’s eternal desire to come back to his family and save it from the destructive fire of disruption. Thus the key message of balance between the good and evil is delivered through the techniques of flashback, symbolism, and parallel ideas.
In order to realize the complex ways of the tensions between generations, it is demonstrative to turn to another example of generation conflict in “Two Kinds”, a short story by Amy Tan. The main character of the story, a Chinese immigrant girl called Jing-Mei, is pressured into becoming a prodigy by her mother who believes that anything is possible in America.
The spheres where Jing-Mei should excel are chosen by her mother quite haphazardly, on the basis of articles about prodigies she reads in popular magazines. Jing-Mei is hurt by the fact that her personal desires and interests are not reckoned with, and protests first latently by sabotaging piano lessons and then openly by confronting her mother and wishing she had never been born if she is not respected (Tan 186). Her mother never mentions playing the piano after that incident.
However, she gives Jing-Mei a piano for her thirteenth birthday and still believes the girl could become a genius if she wanted. Jing-Mei had not played it until after her mother’s death, and it is only then that she understands how good her mother actually meant.
As it is obvious both from the film and from the short story, conflicts between generations emerge due to lack of insight into the true motifs that cause parents’ actions. The way Victor sees his father is quite limited: in his son’s perception Arnold is represented as a violent man mistreating his wife and son. This image of his father is revealed by Victor in a conversation with his friend Thomas: “Did you know that my father was the one that set your parent’s house on fire? Did you know that my father beat my mother? Did you know that my father beat me too?” (Smoke Signals). Victor’s aversion to the way his father gave up his family is seen in the way he is reluctant to go for Arnold’s ashes and belongings.
The authoritarian way Jing-Mei’s mother treats her in choosing the ways her daughter should shape her future is the cause of the girl’s rebellion. Having experienced a number of failures in becoming a prodigy, Jing-Mei does not receive any emotional support from her mother. Tired of cramming for unrealistic achievements, Jing-Mei realizes that her mother wants to see someone else in her, and not the simple girl she actually is.
This understanding of rejection of her true self by her own mother is the reason for Jing-Mei’s protest against such hurting of her self-esteem: “I won’t let her change me, I promised myself. I won’t be what I’m not” (Tan 182). In her resolute confrontation, Jing-Mei becomes withdrawn and does not see the true reasons for her mother’s attempts at making her successful.
The way to resolving the generation conflict is through gradual realization of the motifs behind the parents’ behavior. In case with Victor, this realization and ultimate forgiveness come through learning about the real life circumstances that provoked Arnold’s behavior. Victor’s friend Thomas attempts to reveal other, more positive and humane sides of Arnold to his son embittered by Arnold’s betrayal of his family.
Thomas turns out to have understood Arnold’s tragedy much deeper than Arnold’s own son: “All I know is that when your father left your mother, he lost you too” (Smoke Signals). Additionally, Victor gets the opportunity to learn about the way his father felt from Suzie, the girl who has witnessed Arnold’s final years.
Suzie tells of the real reasons why the fatal fire emerged on 4th July when Thomas’ parents perished. The burden of fault for their deaths had haunted Arnold his whole life and led to his alcoholism and family disruption. Gradual understanding of his father’s motives for drinking helps Victor accept the situation and forgive Arnold.
The situation of misunderstanding between Jing-Mei and her mother continues long after the open confrontation. The girl confesses she “failed her [mother] many times, each time asserting [her own] will, [her] right to fall short of expectations” (Tan 186). The moment of understanding comes unexpectedly, as Jing-Mei returns to her parents’ home in order to arrange things after her mother dies. The piano she received for her birthday stands as a reminder of her mother’s ambitions, and Jing-Mei had it tuned “for purely sentimental reasons” (Tan 187).
However, as she sits down to play a long-forgotten piece, she realizes that actually playing the piano was not that difficult and she could easily manage it, had she taken enough effort. Hampering her true talent, her mother’s authoritarian attitude was simply a wrong strategy to let the girl develop her natural talent, and the only reasons her mother appeared so misunderstanding and distant was the national tradition of parent diktat over their children.
As it becomes apparent from the movie and the short story, conflicts between generations result from misunderstanding of the true motifs inspiring parents’ action. The key to harmony among the generations lie therefore in attempting to realize the background of each other’s ideas.
Smoke Signals. Dir. Chris Eyre. Perf. Adam Beach, Evan Adams, Gary Farmer, and Irene Bedard. ShadowCatcher Entertainment, 1998. Film.
Tan, Amy. “Two Kinds.” Literature: An Introduction to Reading and Writing. Ed. Edgar V. Roberts. 4th compact ed. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2008. 180–187. Print.