On the night that the sister-in-law was to give birth, the villagers stormed their house, dressed to scare. After slaughtering the animals, they swarmed the house and destroyed everything they could find. They stole what they had not ruined before leaving. That night, the sister-in-law gave birth amid the mess from the raid. The next morning, the narrator’s mother found her and her newborn baby drowned in the family well. At the end of the story, we learn its intended moral. The mother tells her daughter, “Now that you have started to menstruate, what happened to her could happen to you. Don’t humiliate us. You wouldn’t like to be forgotten as if you had never been born. The villagers are watchful.” She is warning her daughter against promiscuity and against shaming her family.
Now we hear the narrator’s voice. She explains that her mother usually invoked stories from her homeland of China to teach life lessons. The narrator and her generation, by contrast, were first-generation Chinese-Americans. They had to navigate two cultures in order to form a unique identity. Because the narrator is forbidden to ask about her aunt, she fills in the gaps in the story with her imagination. In her first version of the story, she says her aunt was a rape victim because “women in the old China did not choose [with whom to have sex].” She vilifies not only the rapist but all the village men because, she asserts, they victimized women as a rule: “The other man was not, after all, much different from her husband. They both gave orders; she followed. ‘If you tell your family, I’ll beat you. I’ll kill you. Be here again next week.” To make matters worse, the aunt would not have been able to hide from her rapist because the village was small; he may have been a vendor she had to visit daily. Her fear must have been constant and inescapable. The narrator considers the ways in which Chinese culture alienates those who have erred. Her own parents used to talk about an “outcast table,” where family members who had shamed the family had to eat alone.
The narrator puts aside her rape theory to imagine her aunt as a freely sexual woman, who groomed herself carefully in order to attract attention from men. She pictures her aunt drawing stares from all the village men, longing for a lover, and dying in silence to protect her baby’s father. Her actions would have threatened the village’s tradition of pairing couples from birth in order to ensure stability and conformity. The aunt’s adultery was a deviation, but it was considered “a crime” because the village was going through hard times. By giving birth to an illegitimate child—an outcast—the aunt had robbed the village of a legitimate person who would grow up to “feed the old and the dead” and “look after the family.”
The narrator imagines the end of her aunt’s life. Her family cursed her after the raid, yelling, “Ghost! Dead ghost! Ghost! You’ve never been born.” She gave birth alone in a pigsty, her newborn child a “little ghost,” an outcast like its mother. The protagonist explains that her aunt showed her child love and mercy by drowning it along