New Criticism

Capricious Envy of the Monomythic Boy

Kylie Lingo

Following the timeless story of the Monomyth, the main character of Ken Liu’s “The Paper Menagerie,” Jack, is one rife with flaws just as other protagonists who undergo a hero’s journey. Jack’s story is rooted in the concept of always reaching for something that can never be attained, and the life he will never have, all due to his flaw of envy. Throughout Jack’s story in “The Paper Menagerie,” he unwittingly calls attention to the story’s true meaning; finding solace in the current state of being, rather than trying to go where the grass is greener. This observation changes the moral of “The Paper Menagerie” into a story of how envy is one that ultimately robs the envious of the important things in their life.

The point of view in “The Paper Menagerie” is best classified as first-person limited with a voice that signifies the past tense. The speaker of the story is Jack, his experiences, and his knowledge of the situations at hand, while he narrates the events in his life relating to his mother and what she has done for him growing up. This is all done with a tone of reminiscing, of feeling the guilt of neglect, all for the ways in which Jack treated his mother as he started growing older. “The Paper Menagerie” is one that best falls into the structure of the Monomyth, also known as The Hero’s Journey. According to Kristie Winslow of Grand Valley State University, the Monomyth is a twelve-point storytelling framework that is incredibly flexible (Winslow). Winslow continues to say:

[The Monomyth] has three main parts– the separation, where the hero sets out on his journey, seeking (possibly reluctantly) adventure. Secondly, the initiation, where the majority of the journey happens– the hero arrives. Finally, is the return. The hero has finished whatever they set out to do and has obtained the object (treasure, love, or knowledge). Now he must return home. These are the basic elements of every Hero’s journey (Winslow, An Introduction).

The above passage is an explanation of the entire Monomyth while each of the twelve steps are present within “The Paper Menagerie,” it is still relevant for the narrative itself. Jack’s story starts with living at home and being comforted by his mother’s origami tiger, named Laohu. Jack then continues to say, “I didn’t know this at the time, but Mom’s kind was special. She breathed into them so that they shared her breath, and thus moved with her life. This was her magic” (Liu, 1). Regarding the Monomyth, this establishes an ordinary world, yet when regarding the voice of Jack, it implies that the narrator is a much older Jack than the little boy in the scene. The end of the separation in the understanding of the Hero’s Journey is much later, after Jack has a few altercations with a classmate named Mark. This results in an argument between Jack and his parents, where he demands that his mother only speak English and to cook American foods (Liu). It is after this point that Jack delves into a new world in the attempt to feed his envy to be just American. All so he can pursue the “American Dream” while leaving everything in his life that is Chinese by the wayside.

The initiation stage of the Hero’s Journey is rife with lessons that Jack eventually learns to regret. After pushing away his mom in her entirety just to be like the other kids, he starts pursuing anything that is not related to his heritage. According to Maria Luísa Mackowiak of the Institutional Repository of the Federal Technological University of Paraná, the story of “The Paper Menagerie” is just as much about the sharing of culture as it is about Jack or his mother (Mackowiak). She goes on to say, “The relationship between mother and child highlights the themes related to English and Mandarin Chinese, as well as the transmission of Chinese culture from generation to another, interrupted by family and identity conflicts (Mackowiak, 34).” With this understanding, Jack’s new world, as defined by the Monomyth, is one where he rejects Chinese culture, not just his mother. All due to his envy for the American life that the bullies at school made him want so badly.

After a short time of pushing away his Chinese heritage, Jack comes to his Supreme Ordeal, the death of his mother. “For years she had refused to go to the doctor for the pain inside her that she said was no big deal (Liu, 7).” While it is learned later that Jack’s mother simply thought this pain in her was something she was feeling because her son was rejecting all affection she tried to offer, it became an unintentional turning point for Jack. After returning home, he obtains a box containing his paper menagerie that he had stuffed away in the attic when he had to move to a smaller house. This marks the reward section of the Hero’s Journey. “After surviving, our hero takes possession of the object, typically a treasure, weapon, knowledge, token, or reconciliation (Winslow, The Steps of the Hero’s Journey).” This is the last step of the Initiation phase of the Monomyth.

With the end of Jack’s initiation, he begins to make his return, the final stage of the Hero’s Journey. The final three steps of the Monomyth are: The Road Back, Resurrection, and the Return with the Elixir (Winslow). The road back, which marks the pivoting point between the Hero’s Initiation and the Hero’s Return, is signified with Jack being met with Laohu. After Susan, Jack’s girlfriend, took the cache of origami animals and placed them around their apartment, Laohu finds Jack and growls at him, and starts getting petted by Jack (Liu, 10). This reunion takes place on the Chinese holiday known as Qingming, the Chinese day of remembrance for the dead (Meredith). Traditionally, Qingming is celebrated fifteen days after the Spring Equinox, which according to Anne Meredith, is usually between April 3rd and April 5th. The exact date is determined with the lunar calendar, rather than the traditional Gregorian calendar (Meredith). Being a holiday about death, in “The Paper Menagerie” the holiday of Qingming is noted by Jack’s mother as a day where the spirits return for one day to spend time with their families. With this, the magic which Jack’s mother had blown into the origami animals returns for the day, allowing the animals to bring Jack back into his old, ordinary world with what he has learned.

After Laohu greets Jack again, he unfurls, and exposes a letter written to Jack in Chinese characters. This marks Jack’s resurrection into becoming the original child he was. He rushes to a common location for Chinese tourists and asks anybody if they can translate the letter from his mother (Liu, 10). The letter tells the mother’s tale, from how she became an orphan, to how she ended up becoming a mail-order-bride. She explains that she saw her family in Jack’s features and that seeing him was the happiest moment of her life. She speaks about how she looked forward to teaching her language to Jack. Then she changes her tone to write about how she was losing everything when Jack stopped talking to her (Liu, 11-13). Jack then returns home, with a newfound respect for his mother, too guilty about how he had treated his mother to even look at the woman who helped him translate in the face. He finally realized what his selfish behavior had cost him, when he could have enjoyed the time, he had left with his mother instead.

“The Paper Menagerie” is a story that illustrates how envy is something that can destroy families. Due to his outsider status, and the ways in which individuals such as Mark and the two neighbor women spoke to him, Jack slowly began to resent his mother and the lessons she could offer. Jack’s internal struggles as he makes his way through his hero’s journey gradually shows the degradation of his family’s life, due to his actions in wanting to be like all the other children whom he was around. Yet, only after his mother’s fateful passing, and only when he was truly alone, did he even realize what he had fully thrown away, all due to his capricious envy.

Works Cited

Liu, Ken. “The Paper Menagerie.” THE MAGAZINE OF FANTASY & SCIENCE FICTION, 2011, pp. 64–76.

Mackowiak, Maria Luísa. Uma Leitura Tradutória do Conto “The Paper Menagerie”, de Ken Liu, para o Português Brasileiro [A Translating Reading of the Short Story “The Paper Menagerie”, by Ken Liu, in Brazilian Portuguese]. 2022. Dissertação (Mestrado em Letras) – Universidade Tecnológica Federal do Paraná, Pato Branco, 2022.

Meredith, Anne. “China’s Qingming Festival, Explained.” CLI, 1 Apr. 2022,

Winslow, Kristie. “Subject Guides: The Monomyth (The Hero’s Journey): The Hero’s Journey.” The Hero’s Journey – The Monomyth (The Hero’s Journey) – Subject Guides At, Grand Valley State University, 23 Aug. 2022,



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Beginnings and Endings: A Critical Edition Copyright © 2021 by Liza Long is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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