The Complexities of Asian-American Identity in the 1970s
Race and identity are central themes that allow the reader to understand the complex experiences of the different members of the Lee family. Firstly, it is necessary to acknowledge the historical context of the novel. The Lees live in a predominantly white community in suburban Ohio during the 1970s. Although interracial marriages were indeed prevalent in American society, the Supreme Court only reversed the ban on interracial marriage in 1967. Thus, the Lee family is an anomaly and the children are made to feel like social outcasts.
Lydia, Nath, and Hannah all struggle with their bi-racial identities. Though they react differently to their distinct racial experiences, the children commonly internalize their feelings of frustration and isolation. Lydia feels an added sense of pressure, as Marilyn and James favor her for her fair complexion. Nath is often the victim of his classmate's racial harassment and is unable to blend in. Hannah, on the other hand, feels invisible. These individual experiences isolate the Lee children from all other members of their family. They feel neither white nor Asian, and are unable to find solace in their parents or in one another.
For James, his Asian identity is the source of continuous conflict. Despite being an accomplished graduate student in the history department, James is discriminated against and ultimately not hired as a professor. In addition, Marilyn's mother refuses to acknowledge James and Marilyn's marriage due to the fact that James is Chinese. Because of these persistent aggressions against his identity, James has an intense fear of not being accepted by others and not being taken seriously. These fears drive him to pressure Lydia to assimilate and conform. James's affair with Louisa, his teaching assistant, symbolizes his attempt to find his own racial identity through another Asian woman.
The Expectations for Women and the Fight Against Gender Discrimination
Throughout her life, Marilyn struggles between balancing her academic ambitions with her expectations as a woman in the mid-20th century. Doris, Marilyn's mother, wants her daughter to be the quintessential housewife. However, Marilyn dreams of going to medical school. While at Radcliffe College, Marilyn is subject to harassment on the basis of sex. When Marilyn falls in love with James and becomes pregnant with Nath, her academic dreams are put on hold. Marilyn grows frustrated that she has fallen into the exact lifestyle that Doris always aspired her to follow.
When Doris dies, Marilyn travels to her home in Virginia to clean out her childhood home. While there, Marilyn is struck by the fact that Doris has not left anything behind. For Marilyn, this symbolizes that Doris has not accomplished anything in her lifetime, and she has no legacy. Marilyn vows never to fall into the same trap as her mother. Upon her return home, Marilyn "disappears" and spends the summer in Toledo taking classes in order to finish her degree. However, while she is away, she realizes she is pregnant with Hannah. Disappointed, she returns home and acknowledges that she will never again be able to return to school. Instead, she displaces her unfulfilled aspirations onto Lydia. She forces Lydia to study physics and chemistry, and she pressures her to pursue a career in medicine. This academic pressure is one of the reasons Lydia feels depressed and suffocated by her family dynamic.
Appearance Versus Reality
Nearly each character in Everything I Never Told Youis overly concerned about their external appearance. After Lydia's death, the Lee family must grapple with the fact that their obsession with the external has prevented them from resolving their internal struggles with insecurity. When Lydia disappears, the Lee family becomes profoundly vulnerable. Their internal vulnerabilities manifest externally, causing them to recognize the disparities between their inner and outer lives.
One example of appearance versus reality throughout the novel is James's assumptions about Lydia. From his perspective, James believes that Lydia is well-liked by her classmates. Similarly, Marilyn is convinced that Lydia has a keen interest in science and aspires to be a doctor. Lydia, overwhelmed by the pressure she feels from her parents, conceals her dissatisfaction and confirms the impression that she is well-adjusted socially and academically. However, in the aftermath of Lydia's death, James and Marilyn must grapple with the unsettling truth that they never knew who their daughter really was.
After Lydia's death, Nath is under the impression that Jack is to blame. After seeing Lydia get into Jack's car after school, Nath believes that the two are in a secret relationship. However, Nath does not know that Jack's "bad boy" persona is a cover-up for his homosexuality. In addition, Lydia fails to realize that Jack's apparent pursuit of her is merely a way to get closer to Nath, his true crush.
The Revelation of Secrets
The title of the novel, Everything I Never Told You, clearly reveals the significance of secrets in the story. Although each member of the Lee family keeps secrets, all secrets are revealed following Lydia's death. Marilyn harbors the secret that she is resentful of her decision to put her career on hold in order to care for her family. James does not tell Marilyn that he feels like he is the sole reason for his children feeling like outcasts. Additionally, he doesn't tell anyone that he is having a secret affair with Louisa, his teaching assistant. Lydia does not tell her parents that she cannot fulfill their expectations. Jack does not tell any members of his community that he is gay.
However, hiding these secrets comes at a cost to those that keep them. Marilyn reaches her tipping point, abandoning her familial responsibilities. James projects his insecurities onto Lydia, forcing her into friendships that she doesn't want. He also is caught in his affair, and is forced to re-evaluate his marriage and his behavior towards his children. Jack, quite literally, gets slapped in the face for not speaking his truth. Most importantly, Lydia's secret interior struggles cause her to feel hopeless and abandoned. In this way, the novel shows how dishonesty ultimately hurts more than the truth.
Experiences that Transcend the Generational Gap
Although each generation represented in the novel attempts to surpass the shortcomings of their parents, they end up falling into the same circumstances as their predecessors. Despite her desire to become a doctor, Marilyn ends up being the quintessential housewife that her own mother, Doris, tried so hard to be. When her life takes a different turn, Marilyn forces Lydia to pursue the career that she herself desires. In the same way that Marilyn felt the need to escape from her predetermined path, Lydia also resents her mother for pigeonholing her into a future she does not want.
James, who lived his entire life feeling on the fringe of society, seeks comfort in an extramarital relationship. Through Louisa, James searches for his Asian identity and imagines what life would have been like if he did not marry a white woman. Although Lydia is disgusted by her father's affair—which she becomes aware of in the days leading up to her death—she also attempts to find herself through engaging in a forbidden romantic relationship. Frustrated with the pressure to be "perfect," Lydia grows closer to Jack as a way to rebel against her "good-girl" identity.
The similarities that unify generations draws upon a key facet of the human experience. By incorporating this theme into her story, Ng highlights that we cannot escape the emotional circumstances of our upbringings, especially if important feelings and insecurities remain unresolved.
Home as a Trap
In many works of literature, the idea of home is associated with comfort, belonging, and camaraderie. However, in Ng's Everything I Never Told You, the idea of the traditional "home" is turned on its head. In the Lee household, each family member leads a unique existence that separates them from one another rather than unifying them. In the novel, Ng contends that home can be suffocating and claustrophobic. Nath, overwhelmed by his home life, turns his attention to outer space and dreams of a life beyond his rural Ohio town. Lydia's entrapped feelings only magnify once Nath flees the nest. Similarly, Marilyn is tied to her home in a way that she never desired. In these ways, home becomes a reminder of unresolved and overwhelming family dynamics rather than a place of solace.
Masculinity remains an important theme throughout the novel. Due to how others perceive his Asian identity, James feels emasculated by those around him. He is not considered a "real man" in the eyes of Doris, and thus his relationship is not respected or validated. Because of the insecurities surrounding his masculine identity, he hopes that his son, Nath, will be the alpha-male James never was. However, when James realizes that Nath is bookish and unpopular, Nath must struggle with the fact that he is not as much of a man as his father hopes him to be.
Nath must come to terms with his masculinity following Lydia's death. In particular, he feels a need to demonstrate his machismo and be the man of the family when James is busy with Louisa. It is interesting that Jack, quite literally, becomes Nath's punching bag. Jack, too, cannot reconcile with his masculine identity. Instead, he chooses to hide his homosexuality by projecting an image as a hyper-masculine, womanizing teenager. Due to Jack's outward appearance and reputation, Nath feels further emasculated. In this way, Jack becomes a perfect target for Nath's pent-up aggression.
Everything I Never Told You Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Everything I Never Told You is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.