The Paper Menagerie

This study guide will help you analyze the short story “The Paper Menagerie” (2016) by Ken Liu. You can also find a summary of the text, as well as inspiration for interpreting it and putting it into perspective

Ken Liu (b. 1976) is an American fantasy and science-fiction author . The short story “The Paper Menagerie” was published in the collection The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories and is the first work of fiction to win all of the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy Awards. 

Excerpt from the study guide:

Jack mainly unleashes his frustration and anger on his mother, whom he starts seeing as an outsider: “ ‘We are not other families.’ I looked at him. Other families don’t have moms who don’t belong”.

During his teenage years, Jack’s desire to fit in makes him stop communicating and physically interacting with his mother altogether. Moreover, he starts believing she is “exaggerated, uncertain, ridiculous, graceless”. Although he is aware of her efforts to please him, he is spiteful and concerned with his “all-American pursuit of happiness”. By rejecting his mother, Jack rejects his Chinese side

During his adult years, Jack’s relationship with his mother does not change, and he is not interested in her even when she is on her deathbed:

My mind was not in the room. It was the middle of the on-campus recruiting season (…) I understood intellectually that it was terrible to think about this while your mother lay dying. But that understanding didn't mean I could change how I felt.

By this point, Jack is alienated from his mother and cannot empathize with her suffering. 

After her death and after rediscovering the origami animals and the letter on the paper tiger, Jack reconnects with his mother and finally understands her life. In the end, Jack is changed and, by reuniting with his origami animals, he is reunited with his mother. The moment when Jack finally embraces the origami animals marks the moment when he embraces his Chinese heritage

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The Paper Menagerie

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