In The Third Dumpster, Gish Jen uses the contrast of dialogue and thought—direct method—to provide complexity to her characters, which in turn makes them interesting. Goodwin and Morehouse Lee are unemployed, ex-contractor brothers doing their best to fix up an extremely run-down house that they acquired for free so that their parents might have a more easily navigable home to live in. An important theme that keeps this story moving forward is the fact that the Lees are a Chinese family, and despite the parents having lived in America for 50+ years, the Chinese traditions are still extremely important to them.
This detail provides the motivation for the story itself, as the Lee brothers had attempted to fix their parents up in an old folk’s home but were unsuccessful due to the “Western food,” which provided enough of a reason for the Lee parents to decline the option. With this premise at the forefront, the Lee brothers appear to be extremely patient and loving children who will stop at nothing to give their parents the comfort and safety of a new, ranch-style home. As the story progresses, however, it becomes clear through a number of thoughts presented that these boys aren’t as angelic as they first seem to be.
By the second page, suspicions are definitely aroused about the boys’ mission. Despite being in a recession, one that has clearly affected them personally, they are still moving forward with the house flipping process, even stooping to the level of illegally dumping asbestos-ridden debris into a dumpster that belongs to another construction site. They hire illegal Guatemalans for cheap labor, endangering their health. They complete the electrical wiring of the house without being certified in that department, hinting that their parents might not really be that safe in their new house.
At one point the question is posed from brother to brother, “What choice do we have?” On the last page of the story, the answer is given in a thought that neither son will speak, “you guys could come live with me.” Leading up to this point, Jen has done a clean job of depicting reasons why the Lee brothers would not want to extend this offer to their parents; for example, the berating imaginary dialogue filled with disapproval from their parents. It seems both boys have struggled to escape this treatment in their adult lives and perhaps had successfully done so until their parents’ age became an unavoidable issue.
Even in the last couple paragraphs of the story, Jen contrasts Morehouse’s thoughts with the dialogue he might have with his mother, “nodding and nodding” at her remarks, “even as he went on building.” While there is a lot more to analyze within this story, I think it is a great example of using contrasting thought vs. dialogue to create complex characters, difficult situations, and a very believable conundrum for the family presented.
Word Count: 485