Critical Analysis of Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club

With the publication of her first novel, The Joy Luck Club, in 1988, Amy Tan (born February 19, 1952) became a household name. The book was a tremendous critical and commercial success from the beginning. Before the end of its first year, it had been named a selection for both the Book-of-the-Month Club and the Quality Paperback Club; foreign rights had been sold for Italy, France, Japan, Sweden, and Israel; serial rights went to the Atlantic magazine, Ladies Home Journal, and San Francisco Focus; and audio rights had been purchased by Dove.

The majority of reviews of The Joy Luck Club were strongly positive. Publishers Weekly called the novel ‘‘intensely poetic, startlingly imaginative and moving,’’ describing it as ‘‘on the order of Maxine Hong Kingston’s work, but more accessible, its Oriental orientation an irresistible magnet . . . a major achievement’’ (66). From the Times Educational Supplement came the following: ‘‘Amy Tan . . . is marvelously alert to the rich ambivalence in her material. With the delicacy of a butterfly she touches on matter that is ineradicable and profound’’ (19). Even less ebullient reviews acknowledged the fact that Tan’s novel ‘‘strikes deep roots’’ (Pollard 44) and that readers ‘‘cannot help being charmed, however, by the sharpness of observation . . . and, finally, the universality of Tan’s themes’’ (Koenig 82).

Amy Tan (Todd France/Corbis)

Structured as a series of personal narratives about eight women—four pairs of mothers and daughters—The Joy Luck Club chronicles the lives of its protagonists and traces the connections between the multiple cultures through which the women must negotiate their lives. The club of the title—a mah-jong-and-investment group formed by four Chinese immigrant women in the late 1940s—has met for over thirty years, and the novel opens shortly after the death of founding member Suyuan Woo. To correct an imbalance of players and to fill the empty East corner left by Suyuan at the mah-jong table, the three remaining members have asked her daughter, Jing-mei, to join them as her mother’s replacement.

Significant differences are evident between the novel’s two groups of women. Born in China and veterans of tremendous hardship and tragedy, the aging but still feisty mothers daily negotiate the significant events of their current lives through a minefield of memories of their youth in China, through stories of the pride and misery that marked their lives before their immigration to America. As immigrants, they have had to make significant changes in their lives; they have been forced to unpack their personal archives of pain and loss and to reassess their ambitions. Although outwardly they are well established in their new lives, the mothers never assimilate entirely; they never acquire fluent English, never relinquish the rituals and ceremonies of their pasts, and never forget their Chinese years. Their English-speaking daughters, by contrast, are thoroughly and indelibly American by birth, by education, and by inclination, their narratives turning on cross-cultural confusions, generational conflict, and questions of self and identity. Driven by resentment as well as fear of maternal disapproval, the daughters dismiss their mothers as Old World fossils, and they do not attempt to conceal their irritation with their mothers’ stories about life in China. As the mothers struggle to imbue their daughters with a sense of Chinese tradition, the daughters in their turn wrestle with the need to reconcile their American lives and careers with the impossible and incomprehensible (to them) expectations of their mothers whose values remain rooted in China. The result is alienation and finally silence between mothers and daughters, exacerbated by an almost unbridgeable gulf between generations. The barriers between the women do not come down until the daughters learn to listen—truly listen—to their mothers’ stories and begin to come to terms with the links between those stories and their own lives.

May 1956: The Tan family in front of their rented apartment in Oakland. From left to right, Ms. Tan’s mother, Daisy; brother, John Jr.; Ms. Tan, age 4; her older brother, Peter; and her father, John/Achievement.org

PLOT DEVELOPMENT

Amy Tan did not originally intend The Joy Luck Club to be a novel. The proposal that Tan had written and that Sandra Dijkstra had sold to Putnam was for a collection of short stories. The idea that the book might be a novel apparently did not occur to Tan until the publisher began planning the marketing strategy for the book. Thus the plot of Joy Luck develops through connections between stories, unfolding vignette by vignette, episode by episode, one anecdote or reminiscence at a time as the alternating and intertwined narratives of seven women who represent the immigrant generation and their American-born daughters. Providing continuity, coherence, and connection among the seven voices are the narratives of Jing-mei Woo, whose first appearance provides both context and background for the personal stories that follow.

Jing-mei’s first narrative introduces the issues on which the novel focuses: the struggle for control between mothers and daughters; the daughters’ bids for independent lives; the mothers’ attempts to understand the dynamics of life in the New World and somehow to blend the best of their Old World culture with a new way of life that they do not comprehend. In subsequent chapters, Jing-mei more than any other narrator save Rose Hsu, reveals the connections between the narrators. In Jing-mei, the mothers’ dreams and the daughters’ concerns intersect; through Jing-mei’s stories, all of the other stories find a context and an anchoring landscape.

The death of Suyuan Woo before the novel opens allows Amy Tan to show how The Joy Luck Club is forced to include in its ranks a member of the next generation. Jing-mei is catapulted into becoming the uneasy representative of the American-born daughters in a social ritual that is one of their mothers’ last true links with a lost way of life on another continent. With Suyuan’s death, the Joy Luck aunties are confronted with their own mortality, as well as with the fact that their daughters have grown into strangers. Suyuan has not had the opportunity to complete the account of her life story to Jing-mei, but the aunties still have time. In the weeks following Suyuan’s death, each woman finds the power and the voice to speak the shaping events of her life to her daughter, and to acknowledge her pain and disappointment at her lack of rapport with her daughter; and each daughter in turn manages to articulate to herself—if not to her mother—the questions with which she wrestles, the frustrations she has been unable to voice, the small epiphanies that occur to her as she begins to understand her mother. And as each woman speaks, she contributes another layer to the palimpsest that is the novel’s plot; she adds her voice to the collective narrative that drives the novel’s forward motion.

NARRATIVE STRUCTURE

The Joy Luck Club essentially is episodic, with sections and chapters focusing on different protagonists whose individual stories create within the novel a series of climaxes that build toward the final narrative in which the stories come together. In the hands of a master storyteller like Tan, the episodic structure highlights the conflicts in the novel through a variety of structural devices: a changing, shifting focal point; clear relationships between cause and effect across time and great distance; cliffhangers and false resolutions and denouements that create suspense and tension. Each narrative stands alone, complete and self-contained, yet each narrative also is an essential pattern in the complex tapestry of the novel.

Tan has constructed her novel as a series of sixteen interlocking and interrelated narratives divided into four sections with four stories in a section. Each section is prefaced with a short fable or narrative proverb or vignette in which is distilled the essence of the stories that comprise the book; books and chapters are introduced with symbolic titles—pithy phrases, poetic words. Except for Suyuan who dies before the novel opens and Jing-mei whose voice opens two sections and closes two others, each character tells two stories about significant events or turning points in her life. ‘‘Feathers from a Thousand Li Away’’ reveals the mothers’ early lives in distant China and describes the experiences that motivated their emigration to America. ‘‘Twenty-Six Malignant Gates,’’ comprised of the daughters’ stories, focuses on the emotional pain of their childhoods and their discontent as adults who are still unable to comprehend what their mothers want from them. ‘‘American Translation’’ continues the daughters’ stories, foregrounding the American-born generation’s struggle to accept their immigrant mothers as contemporary women instead of as outdated relics of a long-vanished alien way of life. And finally, all of the stories come together, West meets East, and mothers and daughters achieve a fragile detente in ‘‘Queen Mother of the Western Skies.’’ Significantly, the two outer sections containing the mothers’ stories enclose—and embrace—the two inner sections that testify to the daughters’ emotional turmoil and their deep-seated fear that no matter what they accomplish, their mothers will find the achievements inadequate. Each section of the novel represents a definitive moment in four Chinese women’s experiences as immigrants, or a significant stage in those women’s relationships with their Americanborn daughters.

Jing-mei Woo, who tells the first story, introduces and elaborates the framing story that links all of the narratives. Structurally, her narratives lend shape and continuity to the novel, linking two generations of women. She alone of the eight women speaks four times, once in each section. Her voice opens the novel, introduces the dramatis personae, describes The Joy Luck Club, and sets in motion a series of crucial actions, revelations, and confessions; and, fittingly, she tells the concluding story in which rifts are healed and antagonists reconciled. Most important, she speaks for both herself and her recently deceased mother, and by telling Suyuan’s story, by becoming, in fact, her mother’s voice, Jing-mei bridges the chasm that divides the mothers from the daughters.

Jing-mei’s description of The Joy Luck Club, its founding and long history, clarifies the connections among the novel’s eight protagonists. For over three decades, the four members of the club have met in each others’ homes to feast on Chinese dishes and play mah-jong. After the club decides to begin investing in selected stocks, the members’ husbands and brothers join the regular meetings to enjoy the food and to participate in the financial discussions—but the mah-jong table is reserved strictly for the women. Throughout the club’s long existence, the American-born daughters have by their own choice remained peripheral to the activity, attending meetings with their parents, dining on their mothers’ specialty dishes, reluctantly babysitting the younger children, and silently criticizing their mothers for wearing traditional Chinese finery that is so elaborate as to be unfit for everyday Chinatown garb and too alien and unusual to pass for mainstream American party clothes.

Although the novel has seven speakers, no sense of fragmentation is evident. In fact, the clearest division is a simple bifurcation that separates one generation from another, mothers from daughters, a dislocation that is mirrored in the novel’s structure that separates the mothers’ stories from those of the daughters. Each generation is connected with the other by family ties and a shared racial identity; and each generation is estranged from the other through age and culture. Between the generations looms a series of nearly insurmountable barriers—time, experience, values, language—and the effect of the division is an image of antagonists poised for battle.

A powerful fable introduces the first section and thus the entire novel. In this tale, a duck who has ambitions to become a goose stretches out its neck so far that it turns into a swan—a bird that is too beautiful to be eaten. A woman purchases the swan, and together woman and bird travel across the ocean toward America and the woman’s dreams. During the journey, the woman promises herself that life will be beautiful and different when she reaches her destination. In her dreams, once she is in America, she will bear a daughter who will resemble her physically but who will experience life far differently than she has. Unlike the woman, her daughter will never face discrimination or prejudice because she will be raised speaking only perfect American English. More important, the daughter will be privileged to have a life that is so rich in the advantages that America has to offer that she will always be ‘‘too full to swallow any sorrow’’ (17). Ultimately, the woman hopes to present her daughter with the swan—a gift that will be significant because the bird has exceeded its own ambitions and achieved a goal far greater than it had hoped to attain.

When the woman arrives in America, immigration officials confiscate her swan, leaving her only with a single feather as a reminder of the graceful companion that shared her journey, and obliterating her memory of why she has come to America. Eventually, the woman’s dream is partially fulfilled: her daughter grows up speaking perfect English and ‘‘swallowing more Coca-Cola than sorrow’’ (17). But the rest of the dream remains elusive. Despite her desire and her diligence, the woman is unable to master English, and lacking a common tongue, mother and daughter find it difficult if not impossible to communicate with each other. In her old age, the mother is mute; linguistically, she is barred from telling the story of the duck-turned-swan, unable to present her daughter with the gift of the precious feather, yet still waiting patiently and now hopelessly for what now appears to be an impossibility—the magical day when she will have the ability to speak with her daughter in perfect American English.

The tale of the woman and the swan is a poignantly ironic introduction to the narratives that comprise the novel. In those stories are embedded the dreams and ambitions of immigrant women who have braved the unknown and travelled across oceans in the quest for a better life with limitless opportunities for their daughters. But the narratives prove only that daughters who can speak perfect American English and have never experienced genuine tragedy are strangers to their mothers whose Chinese tongues stumble over English words that they have never learned to pronounce. Unable to share with their daughters the stories of their own lives, the mothers must themselves swallow the sorrow and loneliness that their more fortunate daughters will never understand.

Regardless of the identity of the narrator, each of Joy Luck’s stories demonstrates the impact of the past on the present, reinforcing the notion that personal history shapes an individual’s cultural identity and attitudes about the world. The mothers’ lives are the consequences of difficult childhoods, war, poverty, starvation, and—in the case of Ying-ying St. Clair who alone had a privileged upbringing—a single traumatic childhood experience. Moreover, three of the mothers were married in their teens, two of them to men who did not appreciate them and one to a good man who was killed in the war; and one had children from her first marriage. For good or for ill, in a variety of ways, personal histories become the foundation on which the mothers build their new lives in America. In each story, the impact of the past on the present is clearly demonstrated. Each mother’s Chinese past influences her American present; each daughter feels the impact of her own childhood on her adult life; and each mother’s past affects her daughter’s present. To complicate the equation, each mother has been influenced by her own mother’s life. The past stretches back generation after generation, and— ironically—moves forward as well into the unseen future.

The mothers’ stories have a number of common elements: dramatic recollections of girlhood and young womanhood in China, bewildered accounts of attempts to raise daughters in America, and almost dauntingly high expectations for their daughters. Likewise, the daughters’ narratives display similarities: descriptions of their inability to meet their mothers’ expectations, questions about the place of Chinese culture in their solidly American lives, and ignorance of the personal forces and private demons that drive their mothers. David Denby has pointed out that ‘‘each story centers on a moment of creation or self-destruction in a woman’s life, the moment when her identity becomes fixed forever’’ (64). He is describing the film version of The Joy Luck Club, but his analysis applies equally well to the novel.

At the end of the novel, Jing-mei’s concluding narrative functions in a number of ways as a paradigm for the other narrators’ stories that need resolution. In traveling to China to meet her twin half-sisters—the now-grown babies for whom Suyuan had searched for almost forty years—Jing-mei brings closure and resolution to her mother’s story as well as to her own. For Jing-mei, the journey is an epiphany and a discovery of self: finally aware of her mother’s meaning, she is able to give voice to Suyuan’s story as well as to the story that they share as mother and daughter. The Joy Luck aunties, whose gift of a generous check has sent Jing-mei on her pilgrimage to China, are well aware of the significance of the journey for her and for themselves. They beg her to tell her half-sisters about Suyuan—how she was able to create a full and rewarding life for herself in America, how she raised a family and gained success in her own way. The aunties encourage Jing-mei to make Suyuan come alive for her other daughters through narrative, through descriptions of her hopes and dreams, through re-creations of stories that she once told Jing-mei. Their words reveal their own dreams that in time their own daughters will, like Jing-mei, also remember and recount the stories their mothers have told.

In a Guangzhou hotel early in the visit to China, Jing-mei asks her father to recount to her the rest of the story of the twin baby girls, the story that Suyuan had not had the opportunity to finish telling her. During that late night conversation, Jing-mei also learns that her Chinese name—the name that her mother gave her when she was born, the name that she once repudiated in favor of the more American sounding June— represents her mother’s past and present, losses and hopes. Jing-mei means ‘‘younger sister who [is] supposed to be the essence of the others’’ (281). For Suyuan, her American daughter would be the replacement child who would enable Suyuan to bear the loss of the twins. In going to China, then, to meet her older sisters, Jing-mei reconciles Suyuan’s two lives, two cultures, two countries; she reconciles her self with her mother; and she gives the aunties the hope that they, too, will be reconciled with their daughters.

Amy Tan/Achievement.org

POINT OF VIEW

The stories that stitch together the fabric of The Joy Luck Club are told by first-person narrators, by the individuals to whom those stories happened. Each narrator performs as both protagonist and peripheral observer— the central figure in her own story, and a supporting character in others’ stories—thus providing the novel with a richly textured collective point of view not generally possible with a single character who functions simply as the sole narrator. Like all first-person narrators, how ever, each Joy Luck storyteller has the predictable limitations of all human beings, and her knowledge is therefore limited to what she has directly experienced and seen—what she can realistically know. Being human, first-person narrators can be unreliable, and they can misinterpret events, withhold information, editorialize, and inadvertently mislead. After Suyuan’s death, Jing-mei recalls that she and her mother frequently misunderstood each other; they each interpreted the other’s meaning so differently that Jing-mei heard far less than her mother meant while Suyuan tended to invest what she heard with considerably more significance than her daughter ever intended.

Addressing their stories to their daughters, the mothers remain aware that their words are falling on indifferent ears; nevertheless, they persevere, hoping that a fragment of thought or a phrase will resonate in the heart of a daughter who will cherish the nugget of wisdom and pass it on to her own daughter. ‘‘It’s too late to change you,’’ Lindo Jong says to Waverly, adding that the only reason for the advice is concern for Waverly’s child who might grow to adulthood knowing nothing of her double cultural heritage (49). The mothers’ stories are carefully selected from vast reservoirs of memories and offered to the daughters as gifts of the heart, offerings of the soul, talismans to help the younger women confront their problems, secure in the knowledge that they have the strength of mothers, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers behind them. The mothers occasionally speak only in their minds, formulating questions, answers, thoughts that they cannot express to their daughters; but Ying-ying alone of the mothers speaks to herself only, having long since lost all rapport with her daughter who at birth ‘‘sprang from [her] like a slippery fish and has been swimming away ever since’’ (242). Yingying’s narratives, addressed to herself, reveal a woman in the process of rediscovering her self after decades of numbness caused by early pain. Not until she has reclaimed her past and her spirit will she be able to speak openly about her first disastrous marriage to a daughter who is suffering through the pain of a failed marriage.

None of the daughters speaks directly to her mother through her story. These second-generation Chinese-American women are convinced that their mothers are irrevocably disappointed in them; and certain that nothing they do will ever win maternal approval or praise—and they are hesitant to confess to their mothers the stories of their insecurities, their failed relationships, their fears about the future. In their narratives— shaped as internal monologues—the daughters document the emotional and psychological conflicts with which they wrestle daily, and they give voice to their emotional estrangement from their mothers to whom they dare not say what is truly in their hearts.

The sixteen stories that comprise the four sections have a cumulative power that underscores the tragedy of the women’s misunderstandings and highlights the comedy in the familial relationships that bind them one to another. But those sixteen stories also demonstrate the power of memory and the imagination to preserve the past or to reshape it. Early in the novel, as she attempts to recall everything that Suyuan has said about the original Joy Luck Club, Jing-mei acknowledges the fictionality of her mother’s stories, saying that she had always believed her mother’s tales about the war years in Kweilin to be little more than some sort of Chinese fairy tale because the conclusion differed slightly with each retelling, and the story constantly expanded and became more elaborate with time. Thus, Jing-mei is surprised when one evening, Suyuan tells the Kweilin story again, but with a completely different ending that bears no resemblance to the earlier versions. That new ending turns out to be the truth—as much of the truth as Suyuan believes Jing-mei can understand at that point in their relationship. And because Suyuan dies before she is able to retell the story with its complete and unaltered conclusion, Jing-mei must go to China to discover how the Kweilin story really ends (a conclusion that Suyuan has been denied), and to learn about the hidden years of Suyuan’s life.

CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT

At the heart of The Joy Luck Club are the four mothers whose lives are the sites of the intersection of past and present, China and America, mother and daughter. Having fled from China in the 1940s and created good lives for themselves in an alien land, these women are, nevertheless, still more Chinese than they are American. They share a common concern that their daughters, now grown to womanhood knowing little about their mothers or their mothers’ homeland, will have nothing of the ancestral homeland and culture to pass on to their children. Concealing her emotions behind an unsentimental and no-nonsense facade, each mother has a story that she longs to share with her daughter—and each tale reveals the trauma of a long-ago pivotal event that transformed a naive young girl into a self-directed woman who has learned to rely on and trust only herself.

Initially, Jing-mei gives the impression that her Joy Luck aunties are nearly indistinguishable, generic, elderly Chinese immigrants. Describing their dress at her first club meeting as a mah-jong player, she creates the picture of three aging women wearing nearly identical outfits of pants, brightly colored print blouses, and athletic shoes. And indeed, as has already been mentioned, strong similarities do exist among the women of that generation: they all have lived painful and tragic lives in China and have come to the United States for a second chance at life; they are ambitious for their children and completely baffled by the daughters in whom they have put all of their hopes.

Suyuan Woo appears in the novel as an absence, as the subject of her daughter’s first narrative. During World War II, Suyuan is forced to leave her twin baby girls beside a road in the hope that someone stronger than she will find them and care for them. In their clothes, she has concealed money and jewelry along with their names and the address of Suyuan’s family home. She collapses shortly thereafter, and while in the hospital she learns that her husband is dead. Later marrying a man whom she meets while she is ill, Suyuan and her new husband search for the babies but discover only that her home has been obliterated by the Japanese bombs and that there is no trace of the babies. In 1949, the couple emigrate to the United States where their daughter Jing-mei is born. Although for years she continues to search for her twin daughters by writing to friends in China, Suyuan never sees the twins again, and lives out the rest of her life feeling the absence of those babies and desperately attempting to discover their fate.

An-mei Hsu introduces herself through her reminiscence about a grandmother who refuses to tell An-mei about her mother who has gone away, leaving the child in the grandmother’s care. When the grandmother falls ill, An-mei’s mother returns to care for her, but the grandmother dies, and An-mei goes to live with her mother in Tientsin. Gradually and indirectly, An-mei discovers that her mother has been forced to become a rich man’s concubine and to bear him a son who is taken away to be raised by the man’s most powerful wife. Carefully timing her act to bring the greatest possible benefit to her children, Anmei’s mother commits suicide, and the rich man, fearful of her ghost, promises to raise An-mei as his own child.

Lindo Jong is betrothed to Tyan-yu, a neighbor’s son, when she is two years old, goes to live with her future in-laws at twelve, and is married at sixteen. The marriage is a disaster from the beginning: few guests attend the wedding because of the war, her immature husband does not desire her, and her mother-in-law’s demands for a grandchild escalate. Craftily playing on her in-laws’ superstitions, Lindo maneuvers the family into releasing her from the marriage and providing her with sufficient money to emigrate to America to build a new life for herself. In her adopted country, she marries Tin Jong and bears three children, including her daughter Waverly.

Ying-ying St. Clair grows up wealthy, surrounded with luxury, and spoiled. At sixteen she enters an arranged marriage. She falls in love with her husband, only to discover after she becomes pregnant that he is a womanizer. When he leaves her for an opera singer, she has an abortion and then exiles herself to an existence with poor relations for ten years. Clifford St. Clair ardently courts Ying-ying for four years, but she refuses to accept his proposal of marriage until after she hears that her former husband is dead. To her surprise, Ying-ying loses a part of herself with the death of the man she has loved: ‘‘I willing gave up my chi,’’ she says, referring to her spirit, her essential self, her personality and distinctive identity. Significantly, Ying-ying is the only narrator who speaks solely to herself, recounting the story of her life in an interior monologue through which she seeks to rediscover her chi and reconnect with the woman she once was.

Doggedly clinging to their memories of life in China even as they adapt to American culture, the mothers deliberately remain suspended between two worlds and two cultures, embracing—as they believe—the best of each world and creating a new way of life that they hope to pass on as their legacy to their children. But Lindo Jong speaks for all of the mothers when she recalls wistfully that she once dreamed of giving her children the best of their two heritages: ‘‘American circumstances and Chinese character.’’ And she adds sadly, ‘‘How could I know these two things do not mix?’’ (254). As they grow older, the mothers grow more and more aware that they have—despite their best efforts—raised completely Westernized children. The ancestral culture has proved to be almost powerless against the domination of the culture of the New World.

The daughters are noticeably more American than Chinese despite their clearly Asian features, and since childhood, they deliberately have attempted to cultivate American ways and repudiate much of their Chinese heritage. Now adults, they have no patience with their elderly mothers whose daily communication still is conducted in Chinese and whose English at best remains a fractured version of the American lingua franca. The daughters yearn for an Americanization that they can neither define nor describe. More than anything else, they are unhappy and unfulfilled; for some reason, they often feel inferior to their mothers and unworthy of the maternal ambitions that have defined and in some cases scarred their childhood and adolescent years.

Jing-mei Woo, known as June among her contemporaries, is thirty-six years old and still entrapped by her mother’s long-ago dream of an accomplished and famous daughter. As a child she was forced to study the piano because her mother wanted to have a talented child about whom to brag, but after a disastrous talent show performance and an angry exchange of words between mother and daughter, Jing-mei never again touches the piano. Still, her mother’s disappointment follows her into adulthood, and Jing-mei continues to dwell on what she considers to be her failures—she was never a straight-A student, she did not attend Stanford University, she dropped out of school without earning her baccalaureate degree. Now that Suyuan is gone, Jing-mei no longer has a chance to win her mother’s approval or to live up to her mother’s expectations. Worse than that, she has never developed the courage to speak with her mother about her own need to decide on a course of action for herself, and she has never asked Suyuan why her ambitions for her daughter were so grand that Jing-mei could never be successful. Now in her late thirties, Jing-mei continues to be paralyzed by tremendous doubts about her abilities; she is insecure and unsure of her worth as a person.

Waverly Jong is Jing-mei’s opposite: a childhood success and a brash, confident young woman on her way to the top. As a child, she becomes famous as ‘‘Chinatown’s Littlest Chinese Chess Champion.’’ As an adult, she is a tax lawyer and the mother of four-year-old Shoshana—and she is loved by kind, romantic Rich Schields. Yet Waverly is unhappy: she fears her mother’s penchant for negative commentary and dismissive remarks about issues and concerns of great importance to Waverly—and anticipating her mother’s criticism, she cannot seem to summon the courage or the words to announce the plans for her impending marriage to Rich.

After several years of marriage, Lena St. Clair is angry and bitter. She has helped her husband, Harold, establish a successful architectural firm, but she feels that he has never valued her contributions to the partnership or the marriage—and she finds herself groping for ways to describe their problems that are so complicated and deeply rooted that she cannot articulate them. In her heart, Lena is convinced that somehow she deserves her dysfunctional marriage to Harold because a chance remark from her mother years before had led the young Lena to hate a neighbor boy so much that she wished him dead. To Lena, Harold represents etribution, a punishment with which she must live to atone for teenage hatred.

Rose Hsu Jordan, the only one of the daughters who has taken her husband’s name, is a timid uncertain woman whose fifteen-year marriage to Ted Jordan ends abruptly when he leaves her. Her indecisiveness— the result of childhood nightmares brought on by her mother’s stories—paralyzes her, and she finds it nearly impossible to make decisions related to the divorce.

Despite their superficial differences, the daughters share a common and significant characteristic: whether they have listened carefully when their mothers spoke about the past, their childhoods have been shaped by their mothers, deeply marked by their mother’s stories. At some subconscious level, the daughters recognize their mothers’ influence and understand the strength of the bonds that link them to their mothers. Resenting their inability to break away completely from what they perceive to be maternal control, they distance themselves from their mothers by withholding information about their personal lives, by living as far away from Chinatown as they can afford, and by marrying out of the Chinese community.

Ying-ying St. Clair plaintively articulates the cultural separation between herself and her daughter Lena: ‘‘All her life I have watched her as though from another shore’’ (274). Ying-ying’s allusion to the ocean separating mother and daughter is not just a figure of speech but an essential truth about all of the mothers and their daughters. Emotionally, the mothers are still in pre-war China on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, whereas to their American-born daughters, China is a foreign country that they have never seen and about which they know little. China, for the younger women, merely is a shadowy setting of their mothers’ stories, an intangible geography for narratives that have—in their telling—taken on the aura of dark fairy tales.

Amy Tan poses for a portrait at her home in Sausalito, CA Tuesday, October 29, 2013. (Michael Short)

SETTING

Although Jing-mei’s framework narrative is set in California in the 1980s, The Joy Luck Club takes in considerable temporal and geographical territory, from post-feudal China to war-time China, to the America of the 1950s, to modern China under communist domination. But setting in Tan’s novel represents far more than a simple series of locations for significant events; setting in Joy Luck provides an atmospheric backdrop that emphasizes the sense of cultural disjunction that pervades the stories.

A Brief History of Chinese Novels

China as it appears in stories told by the mothers is a mysterious country, feudal and oppressive, yet strangely beautiful and colorful. Old China is first mentioned in a story that Jing-mei remembers hearing her mother tell. In that story, Suyuan describes Kweilin, a region famous for its beauty, a place that has been immortalized in silk paintings and poetry. Jing-mei remembers dreaming of jagged mountains rising above a winding river bordered by green mossy banks, and she recalls that when she finally saw Kweilin, she realized that her dreams were paltry imaginings that in no way resembled the magic beauty of the real mountains and river. Ying-ying’s childhood also is spent in that dream China, which she recreates through images of porcelain and jade, lanterns in the trees and garden pavilions. The Moon Festival that is central to her narrative is a blur of gaudily decorated boats on a lake, servants preparing baskets of food, the sound of cicadas and crickets and frogs, the Moon Lady’s wailing song rising into the night over the music of flutes and drums. By contrast, Lindo’s China is a feudal society, seen through the eyes of a girl from a family of modest means. When she goes to live with her future in-laws in their huge compound with many courtyards and houses with several levels, Lindo becomes a glorified servant as she is put to work learning how to cook, do the laundry, mend torn clothing, even clean chamber pots. As the child of a rich man’s concubine, Anmei lives in Ying-ying’s world of luxury and comfort, but because of her mother’s position, she is marginal to the household and is thus able to view objectively the domestic hierarchy that excludes her and her mother, and she remains aware—as Lindo does—that she is an outsider.

Perhaps because they are recreated through memory, the Chinese settings seem slightly unreal, very much like artfully planned and executed stage settings. This sense of careful design enhances Tan’s portrayal of traditional China with its rigidly structured hierarchies and social structures, its codified rituals, and its established protocols governing the lives of its people. By contrast, the American settings pulse with life, energy, and chaos. Whereas in China, the Joy Luck mothers had centuries of established convention dictating their behavior, America’s cultural practices are strange and unfathomable—and these women, who have left China specifically for the chance to start afresh in a new country far from the stultifying tradition of the old, find themselves reverting to the familiar customs of their faraway homeland. Barred for a variety of reasons from achieving the dreams of success that brought them to America, the mothers transfer their ambitions to their daughters in whom they hope to combine the best of Chinese and American culture. On those daughters, who grow up in Chinatown but attend American schools, rest the hopes of their immigrant mothers.

In the novel—as in reality—Chinatown combines elements of the ancestral homeland that the mothers have left with the essence of America, the country in which they have created new lives. Tan’s Chinatown is the bustling landscape of the Chinese immigrant community, a mosaic of sights and sounds, a concatenation of aromas and flavors that bring to life a place that simultaneously is American and exotic. In this Chinatown are a medicinal herb shop, the Ping Yuen Fish Market and the China Gem Company, Hong Sing’s cafe with a menu in Chinese only, a printing business that produces traditional gold-embossed wedding invitations and festive red celebration banners.

Within the homes of the Joy Luck Club members, the distinctly Chinese atmosphere is evoked in odors. The Hsus’ house is permeated with the lingering odors of countless Chinese meals prepared in the inadequate kitchen, with the stale memories of once fragrant smells now faintly masked by the inevitable film of grease resulting from years of frying and saute´ing. Waverly Jong recalls growing up in a small flat located on the floor above a Chinese bakery that specialized in a variety of delicacies intended for dim sum. She remembers that every morning the aroma of fried sesame balls and curried chicken pastries wafted into the Jong flat from the bakery below.

Although Chinatown is—as its name suggests—an outpost of the old country set incongruously in the heart of California, the distinctly Chinese ambiance is punctuated by intrusions of Western culture. Dominating weekend activities in Chinatown is the First Chinese Baptist Church, the setting for the annual neighborhood Christmas party at which local children are given gifts donated by parishioners of churches outside Chinatown. Also in Chinatown are several American institutions: a McDonald’s restaurant with a large sign flaunting Chinese characters that unaccountably represent the words, ‘‘wheat,’’ ‘‘east,’’ and ‘‘building’’; the Bank of America; Pacific Telephone; and a fortune-cookie factory.

From their earliest years, the children of Chinatown are aware that they live on the border between two worlds. They suck on Life Savers candy while waiting for their dinners of steamed dumplings, they learn to play the piano from elderly Chinese immigrants who teach them selections by Grieg and Schumann, and they attend church-sponsored Christmas parties that feature a Chinese man in a paper and cotton Santa Claus costume. Perhaps tiring of the constant need to negotiate their way between two seemingly irreconcilable cultures, after they become adults the children choose the American way of life and discard their childhood Chinese names. Leaving behind their old ethnic neighborhoods, they take up residence in Victorian houses in white districts like Russian Hill and Ashbury Heights, or they move out into the country, into trendy converted barns with postmodern details—structures that bear no resemblance to the crowded walk-up Chinatown apartments of their childhoods.

Amy Tan with Academy delegates at the 1998 Achievement Summit in Jackson Hole, Wyoming/Achievement.org

LITERARY DEVICES

To create texts that both tell stories and permit readers to construct meaning, novelists rely on a wide range of literary devices that function as individual elements or signs of a highly compressed and densely sensual literary language. Among the most common of these devices are symbols (which can be objects, persons, places, events, among others), icons, allusions, image clusters, motifs, archetypes, and linguistic patterns— all of which, in a work of fiction, contribute to the texture and richness of the work by engaging a reader’s senses along with the reader’s mind.

The Joy Luck Club is dense with symbols and allusions, and interwoven with icons and motifs, that involve the Joy Luck Club, food, and the Chinese language and Chinese-English patois, as well as mirrors, celebrations and events, home interiors, and dreams. Through these devices, Tan explores the layers of the palimpsest that is her text, her narrative of the immigrant experience in America, her exploration of the bond between mother and daughter.

A crucially important symbol in the novel is The Joy Luck Club with its mah-jong table as a centerpiece that links past and present, and codifies place and identity for club members. During the war years in Japanese-occupied China, Suyuan Woo had founded the first incarnation of the club for herself and a handful of other young women, all refugees from the relentlessly advancing Japanese army. While it existed, the club was a gesture of defiance that allowed the women to briefly forget the terrors and privations of wartime China by meeting weekly to celebrate the fact that they were still alive and to play mah-jong seriously. Remembering always that a war was laying waste to the China of their girlhoods, and constantly aware that giving in to despair was tantamount to wishing for everything that was already gone, Suyuan and her friends held the war at bay by using the meager food supplies to prepare symbolic dishes that were traditionally credited with bringing good fortune. Feasting on the carefully prepared delicacies and then gathering around Suyuan’s special mah-jong table, they played and talked and shared stories about happier times before the war. The fate of the original Joy Luck Club is unclear; whenever Suyuan told Jing-mei the story of the club, she changed the ending. But ultimately, the club is impotent against the juggernaut of war, and when the fighting and the bloodshed finally end, Suyuan finds herself widowed and childless.

When, in 1949, Suyuan forms the new Joy Luck Club in San Francisco, she recreates a memory, a reminder of her indomitable younger self, and provides herself with a link to the life that she has left, with the homeland that she will never see again. For three decades, she and her fellow immigrants, An-Mei Hsu, Lindo Jong, and Ying-ying St. Clair, meet to play mah-jong, indulge in a cooking rivalry, and tell stories—the same stories about China repeated over and over until those stories take on the outlines of myth and legend.

As important as The Joy Luck Club is to the immigrant mothers, their daughters find its existence perplexing and embarrassing. Jing-mei points out that as a child she considered the club to be some sort of shameful Chinese secret society, on a par with the Ku Klux Klan or the clandestine dances of television Indians preparing for battle. None of the other daughters mention the club or their mothers’ participation in it; but only through the intervention of The Joy Luck Club aunties are the daughters, represented by Jing-Mei, able finally to hear their mothers’ stories, to reconcile the two disparate worlds of their heritage, and to receive symbolically the gift of the swan feather. When Jing-mei takes her mother’s place on the East side of the mah-jong table, she begins her journey east—to China where the stories began—and through her the circle of mothers and daughters is closed and completed.

Food imagery plays a significant role in each separate narrative of the novel, linking past and present and future, bonding families and generations, expressing community—and providing a linguistic code that facilitates the retrieval of personal histories from oblivion. Food allows mothers to communicate with their daughters in a common language; food is an emotional homeland for both generations.

From the first narrative, Tan establishes the links between generations and between families through food. As Jing-mei readies herself to become a member of The Joy Luck Club, she recalls that her mother had been scheduled to host the meeting that Jing-mei is about to attend. Because Lindo Jong had served red bean soup at a previous club dinner, Suyuan, in the spirit of the culinary rivalry between the club members, had intended to prepare black sesame-seed soup for the club members. Although the club’s purpose is to play mah-jong and to discuss the group’s investments, the activity at the center of club meetings is eating, communal dining accompanied by storytelling and good-natured arguing. When, at the end of the novel, Jing-mei finally visits the country of her mother’s birth, another symbolic meal brings her father’s family together. For their first meal together, Jing-mei, her father, and his ancient aunt and her family dine on hamburgers, french fries, and apple pie with ice cream. Jing-mei’s first dinner in China is American fast food, provided by room service.

Food imagery enables the mothers to find words to describe their history. When Lindo Jong tells the story of her first unfortunate marriage, her account is larded with references to food: she meets her betrothed at a red-egg ceremony celebrating his naming; she is relegated to the kitchen to chop vegetables when she goes to live with her in-laws; she learns to cook Tyan-yu’s favorite dishes. After the wedding, Lindo personally sees to her husband’s breakfast every morning and cooks a special eight-ingredient tonic soup for his mother’s evening meal. Ying-ying St. Clair’s memory of a Moon Festival celebration of her childhood is similarly laced with food references. Interspersed with Ying-ying’s narration of the events of the picnic are explicit descriptions of the food that has been packed by the servants for the picnic meal: sticky rice cakes wrapped in lotus leaves; luxury fruits like apples, pomegranates, and pears; and a selection of preserved meats and vegetables. These descriptions are juxtaposed with her recollection of a woman cleaning fish, butchering chickens, and cooking freshwater eels. Although Ying-ying now lives in California, the foods of her Chinese childhood are integral elements of the story of her life.

For An-mei Hsu, food is a reminder of pain that she associates with her grandmother whom she called Popo. As a four-year-old child, Anmei is badly scalded on her neck when a pot of steaming soup tips off a table onto her, and Popo nurses her through the nights of pain by pouring water to soothe the burned skin so that little An-mei can go to sleep. Another memory takes her to Popo’s deathbed beside which Anmei’s mother is concocting a special restorative soup with herbs and medicines. As the child watches, her mother cuts a piece of flesh from her own arm and drops the piece into the soup, invoking an ancient magical charm in an attempt to heal the dying Popo. Forever after, Anmei considers her mother’s action to be an example of the proper way for a woman to honor her mother.

Because food can be so culturally specific, it functions to emphasize differences between generations, between cultures. When Waverly brings her fiance´ Rich to dinner at her parents’ home, his unawareness of the nuances of behavior required by the Jongs’ culture is revealed in his performance at the dinner table. ‘‘I couldn’t save him’’ (177), laments Waverly before she proceeds to outline his mistakes: he drinks too much of the wine that he has brought to the teetotaling Jongs; he helps himself to generous portions of shrimp before anyone else has had a bite; he does not taste politely every dish that is offered; and he pours soy sauce liberally over a special dish on which Lindo Jong prides herself. Sadly, although Waverly knows that Rich has appalled her parents and possibly offended their sensibilities, Rich believes that he has done well, and when he and Waverly return to their apartment, he crows delightedly that he and her parents have certainly impressed each other favorably. Like Rich, Waverly’s daughter, Shoshana, reveals her ignorance of Chinese culture and polite behavior at the dinner table. Invited to a special New Year crab feast at the Woos’ house, Shoshana waits until Waverly has carefully selected for her the largest, plumpest crab on the platter before whining to the assembled dinner guests that she hates crab.

The crucial role played by language—a third significant narrative device— is introduced early in The Joy Luck Club, embedded in the fable about the swan that serves as prologue to the first section of the novel. Integral to the fable is the woman’s dream of a daughter whose only language is perfect American English; but equally central is the woman’s silence because she has not mastered English. As Jing-mei points out more than once, she and her mother did not communicate in the same language; Jing-mei spoke to her mother in English, and Suyuan invariably responded in Chinese. Lacking a shared language and a common cultural tongue, Tan’s mothers and daughters face each other across the communication barrier that not only divides generations but also separates the old world and the new, the immigrant and the American-born.

To the frustration of the younger Americanized generation, the immigrant generation has created its own speech, a patois that incorporates Chinese and English words in a syntax that is derived from both languages and produces rich meanings of its own. For example, the widowed Ying-ying obliquely describes her straitened circumstances with a casual reference to her ‘‘so-so security’’ that her daughter supplements with a monthly check (243). Jing-mei complains about the special language used by the Joy Luck aunties who speak partly in broken English, partly in Chinese. The Chinatown patois bonds the mothers even as it confuses, alienates, and excludes their daughters who become impatient when their mothers speak Chinese, or smirk with superiority when their mothers caution that speeding causes unnecessary ‘‘tear and wear’’ on automobiles (150), or complain about a child who is a ‘‘college drop-off’’ (37). But for the mothers, the hybrid tongue is a form of selfidentification, a means of inscribing their unique existence on a culture that continues to exclude them, a strategy for preserving their heritage even as they embrace a new life.

Language becomes a political issue. Acutely aware that power and position in American culture are determined in large part by an individual’s ability to speak correct English with one of the approved accents, the mothers create their own private hierarchy within their circle, privileging the Chinese language. And although they are mired in an invisible ethnic ghetto to which their daughters have consigned them, and powerless because they lack skill in the dominant tongue, the mothers— who are bursting with stories to share and emotions to express—use Chinese and their special patois to articulate their most important thoughts, to exclude those whom they wish to ignore, to speak in their own authentic voices. When she gives Jing-mei a jade pendant, Suyuan lapses into Chinese, the language of her heart, to reveal that she has worn the pendant next to her skin so that when Jing-mei wears the piece she will understand her mother and realize at last what truly is important in her life. For Ying-ying St. Clair, Chinese represents her true self, the Ying-ying who has been erased by an unfaithful first husband, by a too-protective second husband who changed her name and birth date when she emigrated to America and now insists on speaking for her, interpreting her every comment to fit neatly into his image of her. After her second child—a boy—is stillborn, Ying-ying refuses to mention the baby in English, speaking only in Chinese so that her husband is forced to ask their daughter what her mother means. In that way, Ying-ying manages to separate a part of herself from the overwhelming, engulfing affection of her husband.

For the mothers, the Chinese language and the Chinatown patois enable a subversive form of humor at the expense of those who are not privy to the nuances of either tongue. A few examples should suffice. On a visit to her architect daughter’s new house—a renovated barn with a trendy minimalist interior—reticence prevents Ying-ying from openly criticizing a house that she dislikes because its furnishing and ornaments are all for ostentatious display, for making a statement rather than for beauty. But slyly claiming that she cannot pronounce accurately the word that names her daughter’s profession, Ying-ying contrives to voice her true opinion when she labels Lena—and by extension, her house— ‘‘arty tecky’’ (243), a phrase that wittily conveys judgment and dismissal. Ying-ying gives in to the same impulse that prompts An-mei Hsu to ask her daughter, Rose, why she needs to talk with a ‘‘Psyche-atricks’’ about her failing marriage. An-mei’s opinion is clear: therapy is nothing but a method for playing tricks on the mind.

Amy Tan/An Rong Xu (The New York Times)

MAJOR THEMES AND ISSUES

Although she writes about Asian immigrants in California’s ethnic neighborhoods and highlights culture-specific issues in her novels, Amy Tan has earned praise and her loyal international readership for her treatment of universal themes—recurrent subjects or topics that resonate deeply for readers of all ages and backgrounds. Chief among the themes that have been identified in The Joy Luck Club by readers and critics is the mother-daughter dyad and its inherent conflicts and frictions; but equally important issues are self-discovery and the search for identity, the search for the American Dream, acculturation and ethnicity (and by extension, cultural alienation), the disintegration of family relationships, and separation and loss. Through her portrayal of the four motherdaughter pairs in Joy Luck, Tan explores the generational dynamics that function in the relationship between mother and daughter, and the influence of the remembered relationship between a mother and her own mother.

The major source of friction between Tan’s mothers and daughters is the mothers’ desire for their daughters to be successful by American measures while remaining culturally Chinese. Now that the daughters are grown women with lives of their own, the mothers have been forced to admit to themselves that their dreams will more than likely never find fulfillment, but their legacy of maternal ambition continues to shadow the lives of the daughters. In response, the daughters have—perhaps unconsciously—managed to subvert their mothers’ plans by ignoring their attempts to inculcate Chinese tradition into their minds and becoming so thoroughly Americanized that they retain only fragments of theircultural heritage. The result is a breakdown in communication between mothers and daughters; more like antagonists than friends, the two groups are so wary around each other that they cannot voice their frustrations and fears.

Raised by their mothers to acknowledge the existence of a system of matrilineage, Tan’s Chinese mothers have a sense of generational continuity; they feel connected with their own mothers and their mothers’ mothers, and they feel equally linked with their daughters. ‘‘Your mother is in your bones,’’ says An-mei Hsu to Jing-mei Woo who admits that she knows little about her dead mother (40). Later, preparing to tell her daughter, Rose, about her own mother, An-mei muses, ‘‘I was born to my mother and I was born a girl. All of us are like stairs, one step after another, going up and down, but all going the same way’’ (215). Unfortunately, their American daughters do not feel the same connectedness to their heritage, and they do not recognize a symbiotic relationship between mothers and daughters; these second-generation Americans see only that their mothers appear to be trying to live through their children.

In speaking about her mother, Jing-mei Woo identifies the dream that has brought the women of her mother’s generation to America, the dream that has shaped their lives and their relationships with each other and with their daughters. ‘‘My mother believed you could be anything you wanted to be in America’’ (132) she says, articulating a crucially important sentence that mothers and daughters interpret differently. Believing in their duty to encourage—and push, if necessary—their daughters to great heights of achievement, the mothers expect not only to be heeded but also to be allowed to share in whatever glory devolves from accomplishment; and they are baffled when their daughters, who have their own dreams, chafe at having to fulfill someone else’s expectations. Because they have been schooled in the American tradition of individuality, the daughters resist their mothers’ attempts to define their lives or to participate vicariously in their accomplishments. As a child embarrassed by her mother’s constant bragging about her chess victories, Waverly at first asks her mother to stop announcing her name to passersby in the market. Misunderstanding the request to mean that Waverly does not wish to be seen in public with her mother, Lindo becomes very angry. Frustrated, Waverly shouts that her mother needs to learn to play chess herself so that she does not have to resort to showing off through her daughter. The rift between mother and daughter begins at that point, and continues to widen steadily through time. To Lindo Jong, pride in a daughter’s talent is natural and she believes that a mother is—or should be—entitled to share in her daughter’s triumphs; to Waverly, that pride represents a mother’s attempt to live through her daughter, thereby denying that daughter a separate identity and a sense of personal individual achievement.

As they grow to womanhood, the daughters feel that at every turn they are reminded of their failure to live up to their mothers’ expectations, and they resent what they perceive as their mothers’ attempts to live through them, to mold them into the women that their mothers would like to have become. When Jing-mei tries to explain that she has learned in her psychology course that parental criticism is destructive because human beings perform well when faced with high expectations while criticism dooms individuals to inadequate achievement through the suggestion that failure is expected, Suyuan retorts that Jing-mei is too lazy even to rise to her mother’s expectations. Years later, Jing-mei is still weighed down by her mother’s implication that she is incapable of success.

Even as adults, the daughters live with the knowledge that they have somehow disappointed their mothers, that they have failed to live up to expectations of fame and success. During her last New Year celebration with her mother, Jing-mei finally admits to herself that she will more than likely never achieve great goals; she is perfectly competent at what she does—small projects at the advertising agency where she works— but her accomplishments are merely adequate, never spectacular. Even aggressive, successful Waverly admits that her mother makes her feel like a failure. Lunching at Waverly’s favorite Chinese restaurant, Lindo criticizes Waverly’s new haircut, complains about dirty chopsticks and bowls and lukewarm soup, and disputes the amount of the check. When the women stop by Waverly’s apartment after lunch, Lindo denigrates a mink jacket that Rich has given Waverly, pointing out that the jacket is constructed of inferior fur. Lena St. Clair looks forward with trepidation to her mother’s visit to her new home, which is an expensively converted barn, and when Ying-ying arrives, Lena’s fears are justified. The older woman notices only the slanted floor, the sloping roof in the guest room, and a wobbly postmodern marble and wood table that to Ying-ying is simply a useless—and ugly—ornament.

In the daughters’ imaginations, the mothers have become mythologized as potent goddesses who exhibit uncanny powers and make impossible demands on their daughters who, in turn, are powerless to resist. Rose remembers being a little girl and hearing her mother, An mei, claim that she could see Rose and read her mind even when the child was in another room. Young Rose believed her mother because ‘‘the power of her words was that strong’’ (185). To Lena, her mother Ying-ying possesses an uncanny talent for seeing future events, but instead of using that ability positively, Ying-ying tends to foresee only impending disasters for the St. Clair family. Wondering if her mother ‘‘poisoned’’ her first marriage by being critical, Waverly fears Lindo’s destructively acerbic tongue and its possible effect on her relationship with Rich. Apprehensively, she waits for Lindo to initiate a quiet, steady campaign of criticism, one word at a time, phrase by phrase, negative comment by negative comment ‘‘until his looks, his character, his soul would have eroded away’’ (173).

Fearful of the power that they ascribe to their mothers, the daughters respond by distancing themselves, first emotionally and then—as circumstances and finances permit them to do so—physically and geographically.

Although the Joy Luck mothers have always been aware of the gulf between themselves and their daughters, they are at a loss as to how they might bridge the distance. To the mothers, their daughters are strangers who remember nothing of their mothers’ values. In a preamble to her first narrative, Lindo complains to her daughter Waverly that promises mean nothing to the younger generation. Lindo accuses Waverly of making promises to have dinner with her parents, and then cancelling dinner plans on the basis of flimsily transparent excuses: a traffic jam, a favorite movie on television, or that most invoked and most abused excuse of all time—a headache. It is clear that the daughters excuse themselves from association with the older generation by offering a familiar litany of reasons, all of which are products of contemporary Western society. Ironically, the mothers view themselves as powerless against the engulfing American culture that has estranged their daughters from the old Chinese traditions. In a kind of epiphany immediately following The Joy Luck Club dinner, Jing-mei realizes that she has been blind to the truth about her mother’s friends; the aunties are old and frightened because in Jing-mei, they are forced to confront their own daughters who know nothing about the ancestral homeland or about their elders’ hopes and ambitions and lost dreams. The aunties ‘‘see that joy and luck do not mean the same to their daughters, that to . . . American-born minds ‘joy luck’ . . . does not exist’’ (41). Lindo Jong, Anmei Hsu, and Ying-ying St. Clair are fearful that their generation and its dreams will be erased from the memories of their daughters, who will in turn bear children who know nothing about their Chinese heritage or the courage and resourcefulness of their emigrant forebears.

Another theme that many readers have identified in The Joy Luck Club is the pursuit of the American Dream, a theme with special resonance in a novel about immigrants who live in a diaspora culture. The Joy Luck mothers have all come to the United States after losing everything in China; they have traveled across an ocean to a country that has, for many Chinese, acquired mythic status as the ‘‘Gold Mountain’’ where immense wealth and success are possible for all who are willing to work hard. Beginning with the fable about the woman and the swan, Tan reveals the depth of the mothers’ belief that in America, everyone can become rich and successful, and even immigrants can share as full partners in the bounty of the New World. Suyuan’s faith in the American Dream, inspired and then nurtured by the articles she has read in American magazines like Good Housekeeping and Reader’s Digest, drives her into an obsessive search for the one talent that will make her daughter famous through television and the ‘‘Ed Sullivan Show.’’ Lindo Jong gives her children names that signal her hopes for them specifically and for the Jong family in general. She names her first son Winston because the two syllables of that name—‘‘wins’’ and ‘‘ton’’—suggest a sudden windfall of cash, or even fame; she calls her second son Vincent, a name with two syllables that sound to Lindo like ‘‘win’’ and ‘‘cent.’’ Among the members of The Joy Luck Club, belief in the American Dream is signaled in a number of ways. For example, like their more well-heeled fellow citizens in country clubs, the club follows the activities of the stock market, and the financial report that precedes the club dinner records selling Subaru and purchasing Smith International. Less obvious is the fact that those who can afford to do so leave Chinatown and move to somewhat more upscale neighborhoods where they furnish their new homes with brand new Western-style furniture that advertises their success to their friends. The mothers achieve a small measure of success in their adopted country, but their daughters, who have fewer barriers to cross and fewer obstacles to negotiate, come closer to the promise of the American Dream.

Of the daughters, Waverly Jong best exemplifies one aspect of success according to the most familiar definition of the Dream. As a child, she enjoyed fame as a chess prodigy, winning tournaments and amassing a collection of trophies. Now a well-paid tax lawyer, Waverly enjoys the life of the upwardly mobile single mother and career woman of the 1990s. She has outgrown the local beauty shop and now gets her hair cut at an upscale establishment owned by a man who calls himself Mr. Rory. Like other successful careerists with an eye to image, she attends the symphony, takes her daughter to the zoo, and treats her mother to lunch at an expensive restaurant. Rich, her fiance´ who also is an attorney, has given her a mink jacket for Christmas, and together they are planning a honeymoon in China. By any number of measures, Waverly lives the Dream—but the novel makes clear that her brand of success is not enough. Her relationship with her mother has been problematic since Waverly’s childhood outburst during which she told Lindo to stop trying to live through her daughter. The distance between the two women has grown with the years; Waverly is embarrassed by her mother’s stubborn adherence to Old World customs and not a little irritated by Lindo’s tendency to intrude. Lindo, for her part, is aware that her daughter is ashamed of her, and that knowledge eventually leads her to begin questioning whether she did the right thing when she decided to raise her children with what she calls ‘‘American circumstances’’ (254).

For at least one of the mothers, the American Dream works in reverse. Ying-ying St. Clair differs from the others in several ways: she was a child of privilege and wealth, and she does not emigrate to America to have a better life. She comes as the wife of Clifford St. Clair, a man who has to court her for four years before she decides to let him marry her. Her decision comes after she learns that her first husband—her first love, from whom she is divorced—has died. For Ying-ying, marrying St. Clair is the easiest course of action, one about which she does not have to think too deeply. Despite St. Clair’s belief that he has given Ying-ying the opportunity of a lifetime by taking her to the United States, Yingying is conscious always that in her adopted country she lives in houses smaller than those in which her family’s servants lived, she does servants’ work, and she wears cheap American clothes. For Ying-ying, the American Dream remains elusive and out of reach, and it remains for her daughter, Lena, to achieve a measure of success through her country home with its expensive furnishings and swimming pool.

A third theme that Amy Tan explores in the novel is relationships. The mother-daughter dyad has already been addressed previously, but other and different relationships, especially marriage, come under scrutiny as well. As a group, the mothers have not been successful in marriage. Lindo Jong is married first to a boy to whom she has been betrothed since childhood, and when that union proves to be spectacularly unsuccessful, she uses her wits creatively to devise an escape. Ying-ying St. Clair also experiences an arranged first marriage to a man with whom she falls in love after the wedding. Her tragedy is that her husband is a womanizer who eventually leaves her for a woman with whom he has been having an affair. Ironically, if Ying-ying’s first husband does not love her enough, her second loves her perhaps too well. Clifford St. Clair is so protective of his wife that he nearly obliterates her personality.

The daughters fare as badly in marriage as their mothers have done. Waverly Jong is divorced from her high school sweetheart who turned out to be irresponsible and stingy as well as inclined toward extramarital affairs. Rose Hsu and Lena St. Clair are still married, but Rose’s husband has filed for divorce, and Lena’s is obtusely blind to the fact that their marriage is dysfunctional beyond repair. Jing-mei Woo has never married, and does not appear likely to do so in the near future.

ALTERNATIVE READING: CULTURAL CRITICISM

Cultural Criticism Cultural criticism is such a vast and sprawling (and growing) discipline that it is not easy to arrive at a succinct definition that will both say enough for clarity and avoid the kind of over-definition that leads inevitably to obfuscation. To understand what is being examined by the cultural critic, we need a definition of culture. According to Clifford Geertz, culture is a semiotic (that is, based on signs and symbols) system, a concept that he explains as follows:

Believing with Max Weber, that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of a law but an interpretive one in search of meaning. (5)

In other words, culture is a human invention, a collection of hierarchies, relationships, practices, and behaviors that define the context in which an individual is expected to function as a member of a specific cultural group. Among the webs that Geertz identifies in his work are social institutions, cultural categories, patterns of socialization, habits of thinking and acting, and even modes of speaking. Race, ethnicity, class, and gender are significant cultural constructs that affect all individuals, and the points at which those constructs intersect form some of the most interesting and controversial subjects of cultural critique. Shirley Geok- Lin Lim, an Asian American literary critic, defines cultural criticism by codifying its purpose and describing its functions. She points out that cultural criticism is

concerned with analysis of race and ethnicity, specifically the imbalance of power between dominant white groups and peoples of color and the attempt to change the unequal sets of relationships. (571)

She further suggests that cultural criticism ‘‘resists and interrogates the claim that aesthetic criteria form a dominant, autonomous, objective, privileged position,’’ and that it views the literary text as a ‘‘lapidary of discourses from the past: memoir, myth, family and community history, folk tales, talk-story’’ (573). In other words, instead of relying on traditional and artificially constructed standards or criteria as guides to approaching a work of literature, the cultural critic attempts to visualize the social and cultural structures embedded in the work, and to understand the ‘‘lapidary of discourses,’’ or narrative and artistic practices, that have shaped that work, and, in a sense, called it into being and given it a voice.

To discuss contemporary texts as well as to interrogate the cultural practices and narrative forms that underpin those texts, cultural studies embraces and synthesizes approaches from anthropology, economics, feminism and gender studies, history, literary theory, psychoanalysis, and sociology. Employing a wide-ranging vocabulary drawn from those disciplines, cultural studies has created a critical language and identified a series of crucial questions that allow for the examination of the cultural codes that are embedded in literary texts.

We begin a cultural analysis of The Joy Luck Club by first noting that although the work is indubitably a novel, it bears little resemblance to other novels such as—to name a few literary classics that reside securely in the canon—Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, George Eliot’s Middlemarch, or Charlotte Bronte¨’s Jane Eyre, or even such enduringly popular works of fiction as Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca or Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind. Yet despite its difference from these works, Joy Luck has achieved the status of both classic and popular work. The contemporary text that Tan’s novel most resembles is Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior, another hybrid multi-generic and multi-perspectival text that appropriates a variety of narrative structures—many from oral traditions—and juxtaposing those structures not only with each other but also with poetry and reportage, myth and factual material, reminiscence and dream vision. Like Joy Luck, Woman Warrior appears to have earned both classic and popular labels, suggesting that these two texts have resonances for a variety of readers, both academic and nonacademic. Both Kingston and Tan employ for their novels the narrative form known as talk story (defined in Chapter 2), which allows them to privilege the voices of individuals for whom the more familiar Western narrative structures would be inappropriate and inadequate. As a narrative form, talk story provides the mothers in The Joy Luck Club with the structural and linguistic apparatus to tell their stories in their own words without having to resort to translation to fit the demands of the traditional Western narrative, which requires clear patterns of conflict, crisis, and denouement. Tan’s text is a novel—albeit one that radically alters and expands the traditional definition of novel—that invites an examination of the ways in which Tan appropriates a variety of modes of expressive writing to accomplish her purposes: the portrayal of the immigrant experience from the distinctive point of view of first- and second-generation Americans of noticeably ethnic heritage, and the ways in which that experience radically influences the lives of some of America’s ethnic minorities. Clearly, a connection exists between Tan’s focus on the ethnic diaspora community and her choice of that community’s multiple narrative forms to shape her text; such a choice allows the novel’s characters to speak in their natural voices and customary linguistic patterns, thus giving the novel the kind of authenticity that would be lacking in a straightforward linear narrative.

The Bicultural Condition

We continue the cultural analysis of The Joy Luck Club by focusing on issues of identity and ethnicity or race in the novel, especially on biculturalism as a condition in which identity and race intersect, as an experience that involves existing on as well as crossing and re-crossing national, ethnic, and generational boundaries. Tan’s protagonists inhabit a psychological and emotional landscape that has been labelled ‘‘the border’’: mothers mediate between the homeland of their birth and their adopted country; daughters feel trapped between their Chinese heritage and their American upbringing; and mothers and daughters meet uneasily in the unstable geography of the immigrant family in which one generation remains firmly entrenched in an ancestral culture while the younger family members feel like outsiders or aliens in that culture. For second-generation Americans, the dominant culture can be as unwelcoming as the ancestral culture; their black hair and brown skin ensure that these individuals cannot simply disappear into anonymity in American society. Thus they are American by birth, by education, and even by inclination, but they are marginalized by their Otherness, by their appearance that trumpets difference to the dominant culture.

In an essay entitled ‘‘Growing Up Asian in America,’’ Kesaya Noda poses a series of crucial questions that can lead to a cultural analysis of Tan’s novel. Beginning by asking how an individual might come to self-knowledge and self-definition, Noda posits two possible answers:

From the inside—within a context that is self-defined, from a grounding in community and a connection with culture and history that are comfortably accepted? Or from the outside— in terms of messages . . . from the media and people who are often ignorant? Even as an adult I can still see two sides of my face and past. I can see from the inside out, in freedom. And . . . from the outside in, driven by the old voices of childhood and lost in anger and fear. (244)

Noda’s questions suggest the existence of dual identities between which many immigrants and their children must oscillate, depending on their circumstances.

Amy Tan’s Joy Luck mothers know themselves from the inside; they are secure in a Chinese cultural context that they accept. As a group, the mothers—including Ying-ying at the end of the novel—have a fairly healthy sense of their worth and a clear conception of who they are individually. Proudly displaying her gold bracelets, Lindo Jong says that to the Chinese, fourteen-carat gold has very little worth, and she notes that her own jewelry is made of twenty-four-carat gold. Later, she explains that she buys only the most expensive gold bracelets to commemorate her escape from a bad marriage because she feels that she is worth the luxury. Ying-ying at first seems disconnected and lost, but her daughter’s distress goads her into confronting the memory of her failed first marriage and the child that she aborted, the source of the emotional pain that led to her depression. Having voiced her loss, Ying-ying is able to remember that she was born in the Year of the Tiger (a reference to thetraditional Chinese designation for the year of her birth), and with that recollection she gains the strength to reclaim her ‘‘tiger spirit,’’ so that she can pass it on to her daughter. The mothers’ self-knowledge and centeredness come from their ‘‘grounding in community and a connection with culture and history’’ (Noda 244). Deep in their hearts, they have carried from their ancestral culture what Orville Schell describes as a ‘‘sustaining fund of memory’’ (3), the heritage that they are trying to pass on to their daughters.

It is the mothers who talk story to give shape and significance to their lives. Their distinctive linguistic patterns and images fit comfortably with the conventions of popular narrative and oral tradition; moreover, their experiences defy description through conventional narrative structures. Wendy Ho points out that The Joy Luck Club foregrounds the stories of women whose lives have been neglected, women who feel the need to transmit their stories to their daughters who need to know their mothers’ lives if they are to integrate comfortably the two cultures into which they have been born:

The personal stories of the Joy Luck mothers do battle through gossip, circular talking, cryptic messages/caveats, dream images, bilingual language, and talk-story traditions—not in the linear, logical, or publicly authorized discourse in patriarchal or imperialist narratives. (339)

Talk story empowers the mothers, something that the dominant culture has failed to do for the daughters who remain mired in uncertainty about their identities, about their place in the culture that they want to claim as theirs.

The Joy Luck daughters have not experienced the cultural connectedness that sustains their mothers. Caught between the Chinese and American cultures, unable to connect with their mothers’ memories of a homeland that they have never seen, and unable because of their visible ethnicity to blend effortlessly into the American melting pot, the daughters derive the shapes and outlines of their identities from the images and icons of popular culture, as well as from media-generated images of success and fulfillment. Waverly Jong exemplifies the instability of identity that has plagued the daughters. When Lindo tells Waverly that the way she carries herself will mark her instantly as an outsider and as an American when she goes to China, Waverly is displeased. At Waverly’s ‘‘sour American look,’’ Lindo ruminates that although Waverly nowwants to be labelled Chinese because ethnicity has become fashionable, her interest has awakened nearly too late, and she remembers almost nothing of what Lindo tried to teach her years earlier. Lindo notes that Waverly as a child paid lip service to the role of the traditional Chinese daughter, listening to Lindo’s stories about China and paying some attention to the lessons embedded in those stories. But Waverly performs according to Lindo’s ‘‘Chinese ways’’ only while she is still dependent on her mother, ‘‘only until she learned how to walk out the door.’’ Now, Waverly is almost totally assimilated, Chinese in skin and hair color but thoroughly ‘‘American-made’’ in her values, her language, and her identity (254). Significantly, the daughter through whose story the others’ narratives are mediated discards her American name, June, in favor of her Chinese name, Jing-mei. As Jing-mei, she journeys to her mother’s ancestral homeland, China, and completes the circle of her heritage by claiming her Chinese half-sisters. But even as Jing-mei travels to her ancestral homeland, she still is a Chinese American—a stranger who is visiting a country that is foreign to her.

The Chinese American Experience

For many Chinese Americans, life in the United States is a series of dualities—two identities, two voices, two cultures, and even two names—that represent an uneasy stance somewhere between the traditional Chinese culture of their own or their parents’ homeland and the contemporary American culture in which they have chosen to live or into which they have been born. Maxine Hong Kingston articulates the position poetically in Woman Warrior:

Chinese-Americans, when you try to understand what things in you are Chinese, how do you separate what is peculiar to childhood, to poverty, insanities, one family, your mother who marked your growing with stories, from what is Chinese? What is Chinese tradition and what is the movies? (5–6)

Kingston eventually comes to the conclusion that the Chinese American identity cannot be divided simply into two ethnic halves, independent of each other, each retaining the distinctive characteristics of its origins, and she refuses to portray her identity as unified.

Orville Schell observes that after China opened its borders to travelers from the West in the 1970s, older Chinese emigrants who cherished memories of life before Mao Zedong welcomed the chance to revisit the homeland from which they had been exiled since 1949. Their children, however, ‘‘looked with deep ambivalence on the idea of having to awaken a dormant Chinese side in themselves’’ (3). It is this ambivalence that paralyzes Jing-mei when her Joy Luck aunties suggest that she travel to China; the same cultural uneasiness prompts Waverly to worry that she will look so much like the native Chinese that U.S. Immigration officials will bar her from re-entering the United States at the end of her trip.

Only tenuously connected with the ancestral home about which their mothers speak frequently, the daughters in The Joy Luck Club are more conscious of the complexities of living as hyphenated Americans in a society that privileges homogeneity. Heirs to a range of opportunities that their mothers never had, the daughters must nevertheless deal with American society’s inability to define them without stereotyping. More than their mothers, they are aware that they are neither Chinese nor American, that they are American by birth and education, but they are Chinese because their features force comparisons with white Americans. In need of some form of cultural identity, the daughters direct their best efforts toward unconditional assimilation and acculturation. They want to belong. Rose defiantly labels herself an American when her mother objects to her dating Ted Jordan on the grounds that he is an American (117). Unhappy as a child with her Asian eyes, Lena tried to make her eyes look rounder by pushing their outer corners in toward the center of her face. The daughters manage to succeed somewhat in blending into the mainstream: they refuse to learn to speak Chinese; unlike thousands of other Asian Americans they are not physicians or engineers (they are a restaurant designer who majored in Asian American studies in college, an advertising copywriter who is a college dropout, a tax lawyer, and a graphics production assistant); they marry men whom their mothers consider to be foreigners because they are not Chinese. But the price that the daughters pay for their assimilation is their nagging sense of unease in the identities that they have laboriously created for themselves. Worse yet, as Wendy Ho notes, another cost of assimilation is ‘‘the miscommunications between the Joy Luck mothers and daughters’’ (338). Without a language in which both the mothers and their daughters are fluent, the mothers cannot share the stories and the wisdom that can help their daughters to feel comfortable in their cultural contexts.

A particularly painful facet of the Chinese American experience is racism. The media label of ‘‘model minority’’ notwithstanding, Chinese Americans, along with other Americans of Asian origin, must frequently confront discrimination and prejudice, or, at the very least, stereotyping that is an insidious form of racism. In The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan illustrates one form of racism through Rose Hsu’s encounter with her future mother-in-law, Mrs. Jordan, who carefully explains why Rose must not marry Ted. Assuring Rose that the Jordans—unlike other unnamed people— are open-minded and harbor no prejudice against minorities, Mrs. Jordan further confides that she and Mr. Jordan ‘‘personally [know] many fine people who [are] Oriental.’’ She reveals also that their circle of acquaintances includes even individuals of Hispanic or African- American ancestry. Reminding Rose that Ted wants to be a physician and that physicians and their wives have to conform to certain social expectations, Mrs. Jordan remarks that ‘‘it [is] so unfortunate . . . how unpopular the Vietnam War [is]’’ (118). Thus she implies that by continuing the relationship with Ted, Rose would certainly jeopardize his chances for a successful medical career. When Mrs. Jordan points out that she is ‘‘personally’’ acquainted with many ‘‘fine’’ minority individuals, she inadvertently reveals a bigotry that is so ingrained in her that she is unaware of its existence. She further displays her insensitivity by suggesting through her reference to the Vietnam War that all Asians are interchangeable—a common misperception and one that disturbs most Americans of Asian origin.

We do need to note that prejudice is not the exclusive property of the dominant culture; in her own fashion, Rose’s mother is no less bigoted than Mrs. Jordan. On meeting Ted Jordan for the first time, An-mei Hsu cautions Rose against the relationship, voicing her disapproval of the young man by identifying him as a waigoren, a foreigner, thus relegating Ted to marginal status in her own—and, she hopes, her daughter’s— Chinatown culture. Like Mrs. Jordan, An-mei Hsu fears that she might lose her child, and by extension her grandchildren, to someone from an alien culture.

The Chinese American experience is characterized by deep divisions, disjunctions, contrasts, and seemingly irreconcilable oppositions, not just between individuals or groups of individuals but also within personal identities. Being Chinese American is not the ‘‘happy marriage of East and West’’ of Broadway musical or popular fiction fame, nor is it simply a matter of choosing to be either more Asian or more Western. Being Chinese American means living with duality and division, with contrast and opposition. And those divisions and dualities become very real and very personal for Lindo Jong as she sits in Mr. Rory’s beauty parlor, listening to her daughter, Waverly, and Mr. Rory discuss her as if she is not present. Lindo is acutely aware that she is in the hairdresser’s chair because her daughter is ashamed of her mother and worried about what her American husband’s parents will think of ‘‘this backward old Chinese woman’’ (255), and she fumes in silence when Waverly repeats to her in an artificially loud voice what Mr. Rory is saying, as though Lindo does not understand English. But Lindo is accustomed to this treatment and she simply smiles:

I use my American face. . . . the face Americans think is Chinese, the one they cannot understand. But inside . . . I am ashamed . . . [b]ecause she is my daughter and I am proud of her, and I am her mother but she is not proud of me. (255)

Lindo also has a ‘‘Chinese face’’ that she dons smugly when Mr. Rory comments, to Waverly’s initial displeasure, that the two women are uncannily similar. Lindo’s awareness of her two faces reveals that she is conscious of her dual identity in ways that Waverly cannot begin to understand. Waverly has assimilated so thoroughly and has so internalized her Western identity that she is guilty of treating her mother like a non-English–speaking alien—in effect, Waverly has positioned herself on the other side of a cultural divide from her mother.

For Lindo, Waverly’s position is both triumph and defeat. Lindo has wanted her children to have what she calls ‘‘American circumstances’’ in addition to their ‘‘Chinese character,’’ and Waverly has certainly achieved American-style success: she is a tax lawyer, she has a daughter whom she loves, and she is about to marry another tax lawyer. In addition, her English is fluent and idiomatic, and her close friends are not Chinese but rather other young white professionals. As Lindo points out, ‘‘Only her skin and hair are Chinese. Inside—she is all American made’’ (254). To Lindo’s great disappointment, she has been unsuccessful at instructing Waverly in what ‘‘Chinese character’’ entails: the ability to keep one’s thoughts hidden to gain every advantage in every situation; the acceptance of the fact that easy goals are never worth pursuing; and the continuing acknowledgment of self-worth.

Ultimately, Lindo Jong is left with only questions that even she cannot answer, questions about the choices she has made, questions that deepen the divisions in her soul. She has come to America with high ambitions,with the intention of giving her children the best opportunities available, but in her old age, she begins to wonder whether she has made the right decisions:

I think about my intentions. Which one is American? Which one is Chinese? Which one is better? If you show one, you must always sacrifice the other. . . . So now I think, What did I lose? What did I get back in return? (266)

Lindo recalls her return to China after a long absence of decades. On that trip, she had been careful not to flaunt fancy jewelry or wear loud colors—the marks of a tourist; she spoke Chinese fluently and handled local currency with ease; she did everything in her power to blend in with the local residents. Nevertheless, Lindo was treated like a wealthy visitor who could afford artificially inflated prices. Clearly, something ineffable about her—her appearance, her carriage, her manner—had changed. Remembering that experience, Lindo not only realizes that she is no longer truly Chinese, but also that in the eyes of people like Mr. Rory and her own daughter, she is not American. She is Chinese American; she inhabits a space on the border between two worlds, belonging to neither world completely, destined to live permanently in that border country.

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Source: Huntley, E. D. (1998). Amy Tan: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press.



Categories: American Literature, Chinese Literature, Feminism, Literary Criticism, Literature, Novel Analysis

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