Characters, Themes, and Quotes

Main Characters
Additional Characters
Central Themes


  • Lydia Lee – Lydia was the middle daughter of James and Marlyn who died at 16 years old. Although Lydia was an Amerasian, she had the similar blue eyes as her mother, Marlyn. Her cowardly personality, however, looked more parallel with her father, James. When Lydia was young, she lied to Marlyn that she threw out the recipe book of Marlyn’s mother. Marlyn misconceived that Lydia threw out the book because she did not want to be a traditional woman just like Marlyn dreamed before and believed that Lydia wanted to be a doctor. Thus, Marlyn pinned her dream on Lydia. James also imposed his dream, integrating into the surrounding people and becoming a sociable person, to Lydia. In fact, Lydia neither wanted to be a doctor nor became a gregarious girl in her school. Carrying on these regrets from her parents, Lydia felt very stressed.
  • Marlyn Lee – Marlyn was the daughter of Doris Walker, and she was born in Virginia. Marlyn wanted to be a doctor, while her mother was a perfect housewife and a teacher of home economics. Marlyn met her history professor, James, in Harvard University; she quickly fell in love with him. They got married when Marlyn found out that she was pregnant. However, Marlyn did not satisfy with her life after marriage because she realized that she had been far away from her dream. Especially, Doris’s death reminded Marlyn that she did not want to be a perfect housewife like her mother, but she is one now. Thus, Marlyn left her family and continued her bachelor’s degree in Toledo. After finding that she was pregnant with Hannah, she decided to go back to the family and gave up her dream to be a doctor. Marlyn began to pin her dream on Lydia and brought Lydia huge stress. Until Lydia died, Marlyn realized that she never learned what Lydia really dreamed and what Lydia thought.
  • James Lee – James was the son of Chinese immigrants, who worked in the cafeteria of Lloyd Academy. James freely entered this famous school after he passed the entrance exam. Since he was young, James never felt that he was able to blend into American society. He was mocked because his parents worked in the cafeteria of his school and he looked different from the surrounding people as a Chinese American. James never had any friends in his life due to his race, even though he really yearned for being friends with Americans. As a different person to others in the United States, James was hurt in both workplace and family. Thus, James hoped that his children would be popular and blended into American society. After the death of Lydia, James’ cowardice and self-abasement were more obvious. Not only did he fail to take care of the moods of his family, but he also failed to offer help to policemen to verify Lydia’s causes of death. The only thing he did was to cheat with his student, Louisa Chen, who was also a Chinese American, in order to escape from painful reality.
  • Nath LeeNath was the first child of James and Marlyn. He liked to study outer space. As the eldest son, he was never concerned by his parents, even though he was admitted by Harvard University. Nath had a close relationship with his sister, Lydia. Although Nath loved Lydia, he was also jealous of Lydia because she was the focus of their family. When they were young, Nath even pushed Lydia into the lake. As the one who most knew Lydia in the family, Nath felt that Jack, the boy Lydia fell in love with, was related to her death. At the end of the story, Nath unexpectedly learned that Jack was secretly in love with him.
  • Hannah Lee Hannah was the youngest child of James and Marlyn. Hannah was too quiet to be noticed by her parents since she was born. Everyone in their family always forgot the existence of Hannah. She used to hide in every corner at home and steal the “treasures” of her family members. Hannah was acute and had strong insights to surrounding things and people.


  • Jack Wolff – Jack was the most popular student in Lydia’s high school. He developed romantic relationships with lots of girls. When Jack was young, he moved with his mother to the same street as the Lee family. Because Jack was famous for taking the virginity of girls, Nath worried that Lydia spent too much time with Jack every day. Nath always believed that Lydia’s death was related to Jack, but in fact, Jack was the only friend of Lydia before her death. Jack even told Lydia that he secretly loved Nath.

  • Doris Walker – Doris was the mother of Marlyn, and she was a perfect housewife who enjoyed cooking and housework. Doris was also a teacher of home economics at a high school. Doris' last meeting with her daughter was in the wedding of Marlyn and James; she advised Marlyn not to marry James, but Marlyn ignored the persuasion.


  • Louisa Chen – Louisa was a Chinese-American graduating student and a teaching assistant of James. Because they shared the same cultural background, James found the affiliation with her. Thus, after Lydia’s death, James tried to get comfort from Louisa, so they had a sexual relation.


  • Chinese Immigrants – Chinese immigrant is an important topic in Everything I Never Told You. Ng never ends to talk about the immigration problem from James’ parents to James’ children. As the first-generation immigrants to America, James’ parents, as other Chinese immigrants, are not welcomed as European immigrants. The novel states that James’ parents can move to California because they use the pseudonyms and pretend that they are the son of a Chinese immigrant who moves to America very early. When Norwegian, Italian, and Russian immigrants go to Kansas, Nebraska, and Minnesota, most Chinese immigrants move to California. In Chinatown, these Chinese immigrants with pseudonyms are easily exposed, so they try their best to blend into the crowd and avoid being different from others. 
  • Interracial Marriage – The whole novel talks about the marriage between James and Marlyn. As a Chinese American, no one believes that James marries a white girl. Louisa, a Chinese-American teaching assistance of James, even does not cover up her surprise when James mentions his wife. Marlyn’s mother even tries to persuade Marlyn not to marry James because their marriage is illegal at most villages of Virginia in 1958. Ng also describes a white man who marries a black woman in Virginia in the novel. They are arrested after 4 moths of their wedding. This couple fights for legality of their marriage for 4 years, but their marriage was accepted from the court after 8 years. However, their relationship needs more years to be accepted by their family and surrounding people. Some people never even accept them. Ng highlights the dilemma of interracial marriage in Everything I Never Told You.  
  • Family Environment and Education – The stress from family environment and parents’ over-expectations is a primary factor which leads to Lydia’s death. In Everything I Never Told You, no child lived in a healthy family environment. James lived in a family that both of his parents did not have a legal identity in America, so their lives were very cautious. Marlyn was born in a single-parent family, and her mother was a very traditional housewife who hoped that Marlyn would be a woman like her one day. In Lee’s family, Marlyn previously left her husband and children. Nath and Hannah were never taken care from their parents because their parents paid all attention on Lydia, and thus Lydia was very uncomfortable and stressed. The problem of education also existed for many years in Lee’s family. James and Marlyn never considered what Lydia was really interested in and whether her life was happy or not. They just imposed uncompleted dreams of their youth to the poor girl. Until Lydia died, they realized that they had never learned their daughter before. 
  • Feminism – In Everything I Never Told You, Ng depicts Doris, Marlyn’s mother, as a traditional woman which Marlyn never wanted to be. Obviously, Marlyn attempts to fight against the figure of traditional women. She was the only girl who took chemistry class in her high school, and she tried to drop home economics and took classes designated for boys. Besides, Marlyn emphasized to her professor of a physical class that she wanted to be a ‘doctor’, not a ‘nurse’. In the novel, Marlyn tries lots of times to be regarded as equal to men, while others feel that she just wanted to be different. Ng pointed out the inequality women suffered and women’s fighting in the 1940s.


Lydia Lee Quote:


The story––as it emerges from the teachers and the kids at school––is so
obvious. Lydia's quietness, her lack of friends. Her recent sinking grades. And, in truth, the strangeness of her family. A family with no friends, a family of misfits. All this shines so brightly that, in the eyes of the police, Jack falls into shadow. A girl like that and a boy like him, who can have––does have––any girl he wants? It is impossible for them to imagine what Nath knows to be true, let alone what he himself imagines.― Everything I Never Told You, Chapter 5. 



Marilyn Lee Quote:


Marilyn, unaware that her youngest is listening so closely, so longingly, blots her eyes and replaces the diaries on the shelf and makes herself a promise. She will figure out what happened to Lydia. She will find out who is responsible. She will find out what went wrong.― Everything I Never Told You, Chapter 3. 



James Lee Quote:


It was as if America herself was taking him in. It was too much luck. He feared the day the universe would notice he wasn't supposed to have her and take her away. Or that she might suddenly realize her mistake and disappear from his life as suddenly as she had entered. ― Everything I Never Told You, Chapter 2. 



Nath Lee Quote: 


Up there––eighty-five miles high, ninety, ninety-five, the counter said––everything on earth would be invisible. Mothers who disappeared, fathers who didn't love you, kids who mocked you––everything would shrink to pinpoints and vanish. Up there: nothing but stars.― Everything I Never Told You, Chapter 6. 



Hannah Lee Quote:


Marilyn, unaware that her youngest is listening so closely, so longingly, blots her eyes and replaces the diaries on the shelf and makes herself a promise. She will figure out what happened to Lydia. She will find out who is responsible. She will find out what went wrong. Everything I Never Told You, Chapter 3. 



Back to Book Homepage

Huilin Qi ’19

Comments are closed