The Joy Luck Club explores the universal theme of generational conflict, focusing on the relationships between mothers and daughters. A prime example is the love-hate relationship between Jing-mei (June) Woo and her mother, Suyan. Some argue that Jing-mei’s character is similar to the author, Amy Tan.
While there are interesting biographical similarities, like a mother with daughters left in China, it’s crucial to remember that this is a work of fiction. Most authors draw from their experiences to fuel their imagination.
The mother-daughter conflict in the story goes beyond Tan’s life and the Chinese American experience. Jing-mei steps into her mother’s role at the Joy Luck Club after Suyan’s passing, symbolizing the new generation replacing the old. The elder generation hopes to pass on their wisdom, much like the old woman in the opening parable, “Feathers from a Thousand Li Away,” who wants to pass on the duck’s feather that transformed into a swan.
Daughters naturally seek their own path in life. Like the girl with the bicycle in the parable at the beginning of Part 3, they yearn for independence, even if it means their mothers won’t be there to help them. Suyan tries to control and guide Jing-mei to an extreme extent.
Suyan hopes her daughter will become something special – an actress, an intellectual, or a concert pianist. However, as often happens, this pressure has the opposite effect.
If you’re still unsure whether to read the book, this review aims to provide you with enough information to make an informed decision.
So, let’s dive in and explore The Joy Luck Club further.
Table of Contents
Four Chinese mothers and their four Americanized daughters try valiantly —and sometimes successfully—to bridge the deep cultural abyss that separates them.
The novel is divided into four sections. In each section, various characters’ stories receive the attention of a short story.
Part 1: Feathers from a Thousand Li Away
The book opens with a moving parable in which an old woman recalls purchasing a bird in a
Shanghai market. The bird originally had been a duck, tried to become a goose, but stretched its neck so long it resembled a swan. It became “more than what was hoped for.” The woman, headed for America, wishes the same fate for her daughter.
Jing-mei Woo: The Joy Luck Club
As the novel opens, Suyan Woo has died of a cerebral aneurysm. Her daughter, Jing-mei (June) Woo, takes her place at the next meeting of the club that her mother founded. In a flashback, Suyan tells Jing-mei several stories about the origins of the club and her reasons for fleeing China.
The story changes each time, and the daughter seems bored by all these old tales. One day, however, the mother tells her the truth. She was married and living in Kweilin when she was forced to flee because of the Japanese invasion.
Along the road, she abandoned her possessions one by one.
At last, she abandoned her twin baby daughters. Jing-mei is amazed to hear that she has twin sisters. In her own life, Amy Tan’s mother told Amy and her brother that the mother had three daughters from a previous marriage and that she had lost them in China. Suyan does not live to see her daughters again; Tan’s mother, Daisy, did.
An-Mei Hsu: Scar
In another of the flashbacks essential to this novel, An-mei Hsu’s father has died, and she is being raised by Popo, her grandmother. Popo wants An-mei to believe that the mother is also dead since she has disgraced herself and the family by becoming a number-three concubine.
The mother returns, argues with Popo, and in the confusion, a pot of soup spills on An-mei, scarring her. An-mei eventually learns that both her mother and grandmother are capable of great love. The healing of the scar parallels the healing of the wounds in the family.
Undo Jong: The Red Candle
When Lindo Jong was only two years old, she was betrothed to a boy, Tyan-yu Huang, who was only one. The custom was not unusual in China. When Lindo was 12, the Fen River flooded, ruining the crops, destroying Lindo’s home, and sending the family to Wushi, a small town near Shanghai.
All of the family left except Lindo, who went to live with her betrothed’s family. The Huang home is impressive on the outside but ugly and mean-spirited within. Lindo, however, strives to be accepted and marries Tyan-yu when she turns 16.
The marriage is not consummated, and Lindo ends up blowing out both ends of the marriage candle. She tricks the family by telling of a dream in which the wind blows out the marriage candle, indicating disaster for the couple, and Tyan-yu impregnates a servant girl who, Lindo says, has imperial blood. A girl like that is pregnant. The family dismisses Lindo, Tyan-yu marries the girl, and Lindo is off to America.
Ying-Ying St. Clair: The Moon Lady
When Ying-ying St. Clair was four years old, she went to the Moon Festival. Her amah (nurse) tells her of the Moon Lady of whom the people may ask one wish to be fulfilled. Ying-ying falls into the lake and ends up on another boat.
Confused, she wonders if she could be the girl she saw on the other boat earlier. Like other characters in the novel, the child is desperate to find herself, her family, and her future. She pleads to the Moon Lady and believes this saves her.
Part 2: The 26 Malignant Gates
A mother warns her seven-year-old daughter not to ride her bicycle around the corner where, if she falls, the mother cannot hear her cries. The mother tells the girl that this and other warnings appear in a book called The 26 Malignant Gates.
Again, Tan uses an italicized parable to set the tone for the section. Daughters struggle to be independent; mothers warn of danger and hope to dissuade, perhaps even control.
Waverly Jong: Rules of the Game
Waverly Jong’s brother Vincent receives a chess set at the Baptist Church Christmas party but is indifferent to the game. Waverly, on the contrary, is not only enthusiastic but apparently a natural. She takes to it immediately and begins defeating all competition. Life magazine features her in an article.
By the age of nine, she is a national champion. However, the mother, Lindo, glories in the success more than Waverly does. Waverly just loves the game of chess, whose rules make sense to her, but the rules of life confuse her. She is embarrassed by her mother’s public boasting and wants to hide.
She sees her mother as a predator, a manipulator. Her mother sees power and control as “the art of invisible strength.” It is self-control in order to control others. The game of chess has become something else to Waverly.
Lena St. Clair: The Voice from the Wall
Like many of the characters in this novel, Lena St. Clair is confused by the dichotomy of Chinese culture and American influence. Her Caucasian father seems insensitive and overbearing. Her mother, Ying-ying, moves near madness; sometimes she can barely speak.
Through the wall of the family’s apartment, Lena hears a very different set of voices. Mrs. Scorci and her daughter, Teresa, shake the wall with their battles, but they are just as quick to make up and express love. The linguist Tan uses language to illustrate the depth of communication.
Rose Hsu Jordan: Half and Half
At the beach, Rose Hsu is to watch over her four brothers: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Bing. Rose loses track of Bing for a moment, and the youngest child drowns. Rose’s mother, An-mei, rejects the religion that will not return her son to her and uses her Bible to prop up a short leg on the kitchen table.
As an adult, Rose is never accepted by her husband’s, Ted Jordan’s, family. She is drowning in a marriage that isn’t whole. Instead of love, it features half love, half hate. Instead of becoming one, she and Ted are “half and half.” They are, like the kitchen table, out of balance.
Jing-mei Woo: Two Kinds
June’s (Jing-mei) mother wants her to become a star. First she tries acting, but that doesn’t work. Then the mother clips intelligence tests from popular magazines in hopes that her daughter is a budding genius.
Finally, Mrs. Woo decides that Jing-mei will be a great concert pianist. Perhaps it is only coincidence that Amy Tan’s parents wanted her to be not only a doctor but a concert pianist on the side. June has neither talent nor desire.
She is determined to undermine her mother’s ambitions, especially after the mother and Lindo Jong debate their children’s talents. June performs poorly at a recital that all the Joy Luck Club members attend. Jing-mei wishes she were dead, as she believes her twin sisters are. Only after Mrs. Woo’s death does the daughter begin to understand her mother.
Part 3: American Translation
Tradition, superstition, conflict between the generations, communication, and all the American influences continue in this section, which opens with a modern parable. A mother is upset when she finds an armoire with a mirror at the foot of her daughter’s marriage bed.
She fears that the mirror will deflect all happiness from the daughter’s marriage, so she gives the daughter a mirror to hang above the bed to counter the deflection.
Lena St. Clair: Rice Husband
When Lena was eight years old, her mother convinced her that she must finish her food because her future husband would have one pock mark for every grain of rice left by the child.
This terrified Lena because it reminded her of Arnold, a cruel 12-year-old neighbor boy who had pock marks. Lena feared that future so much that she schemed a way to kill Arnold. Having seen a movie about lepers, she cut down on eating in hopes of giving Arnold the disease.
When Lena was 13, Arnold did die, of measles, and she felt that she had caused the boy’s death. She becomes bulimic. Even as an adult, she seems to be punishing herself with her husband, the hapless Harold, whose career she structured but who insists that she pay half the expenses. She seems to want to disappear, to starve herself until she is so thin she can’t be seen.
Waverly Jong: Four Directions
Waverly wants to tell her dominating mother that she loves Rich Shields and is going to marry him. The first marriage, to Marvin Chen, failed, but this relationship seems to be the real thing to Waverly.
She and Rich live together. He seems kind and gets along with Shoshana, the daughter from the first marriage. However, Waverly waivers. She still has trouble facing up to her mother. Waverly quit playing chess for good at the age of 14; she could not bear to be ordinary in the game she had loved.
Waverly is torn in four directions: toward Rich, who loves her unconditionally; toward her mother, whose love is much more complicated; toward Chinese tradition; and toward America. Eventually, she learns to appreciate the depth of her mother’s love.
Rose Hsu Jordan: Without Wood
Rose is as lost as an adult as she was after her brother Bing drowned. She has no backbone, no structure; she is “without wood.” The dominating symbol in this chapter is the garden at Rose and Ted’s home.
When their marriage was happy, Ted tended the garden and Rose gloried in its perfection. It was their Garden of Eden. Rose felt like a prize flower in that garden. As the marriage disintegrates, the garden goes to seed. Rose finally realizes, however, that she can make it without Ted. She becomes a survivor like her mother.
Jing-mei Woo: Best Quality
At a dinner party, Waverly Jong renews the old rivalry with Jing-mei by taunting her about her choice of hairdresser.
Jing-mei counters that Waverly’s firm has never paid Jing-mei’s bill for ad copy, and Waverly cruelly answers that the bill is unpaid because the work was unsatisfactory. After the guests have left, Jing-mei’s mother quietly praises her for not taking the best of the crab meat. Her mother finds the daughter humble and generous, too kind to take the “best quality” for herself as Waverly would.
Part 4: Queen Mother of the Western Skies
An elderly woman plays with her granddaughter and muses about the loss of innocence and hope. She had taught her own daughter to give away her innocence to gain protection. Now she wonders if the price was too high.
She pretends that the child is “Syi Wang Mu,” Queen Mother of the Western Skies. She asks the child, as queen, to answer the question, which Tan seems to see as universal and eternal. Finally the grandmother asks the baby to teach her own daughter to gain experience but keep hope.
An-Mei Hsu: Magpies
An-mei remembers 60 years previously when her mother first returned. Popo, the grandmother, was dying. After Popo dies, Anwei’s mother takes her to the estate of Wu Tsing, where the mother is a lowly concubine. She had been raped and forced into the role by Wu Tsing. Two days before the New Year, the mother commits suicide with opium.
This frees An- mei. She has learned that tears are useless; they only feed someone else’s joy. She must take control of her life and stand up to sorrow. Eventually, An-mei’s daughter Rose comes to the same conclusion. In a similar way, the peasant farmers in the story rise up to fight the magpies that destroy the crops and the farmers’ lives.
Ying-Ying St. Clair: Waiting Between the Trees
Ying-ying, too, must confront the demons from her past. She came from a very wealthy family in Wushi but was reduced to poverty after her husband ran off with an opera singer. Ying-ying confronts the past not only for herself but in order to liberate her daughter, Lena, who is stuck in her life with Harold.
Lindo Jong: Double Face
At the hairstylist’s, Lindo looks at her daughter in a mirror and reflects on her own life. She had to appear to be one thing in order to be another when she escaped from her in-laws through the ruse of the candle.
In the present, she jokes with Waverly that their noses both look broken, giving them a devious, double-faced look. Lindo wanted to make Waverly both Chinese and American, a child of two faces. Like the rest of Tan’s leading women in this novel, they live in two different worlds; but each of them also lives in the other’s world.
Jing-mei Woo: A Pair of Tickets
Jing-mei and her father, Canning Woo, who is now 72, are visiting China to meet Jing-mei’s long-lost sisters, the twins from her mother’s first marriage. Canning tells the story of the separation from the twins, how the mother stuffed jewelry and money into their shirts and left to search for help.
The babies were found by peasants, who raised them, and were later recognized by an old school chum of Suyan, the mother. The story ends, fittingly, with a Polaroid snapshot of the three sisters, looking very much like their mother, the past blending with the present.
Suyan Woo: Jing-mei’s mother; founder of Joy Luck Club. In an act of faith that some critics compare to a literary fairy tale, Suyan leaves her daughters by the side of the road as she flees China, and seeks help. Unable to return, she later meets her second husband, Canning Woo, and emigrates to America. Wants Jing-mei to be a concert pianist.
Jing-mei “June” Woo: Daughter of Suyan and Canning; their hope for triumph in the United States. Has neither talent nor drive to be a concert pianist; a copywriter for a small advertising firm. Easily intimidated by others who are more assertive; struggles to stand up to both her mother and her peers.
Lindo Jong: Mother of Waverly. Has extraordinary ingenuity; tricks the family of an arranged marriage into dismissing her, comes to America, works in a fortune cookie factory, and marries. Wants Waverly to be a child chess prodigy.
Waverly Jong: Has true talent and great desire to be a child chess prodigy, at least for a while. Becomes a very successful tax accountant, but also struggles to be her own woman. First marriage fails; later marries a fellow tax accountant. Has a daughter from the first marriage, Shoshana.
Ying-ying St. Clair: Mother of Lena. Was somewhat spoiled, brave, careless as a child. Husband in China deserted her for an opera singer; had an abortion and was extremely poor for years. Found a job as a shop girl, married Clifford St. Clair, and came to America. Struggles to overcome poverty of spirit.
Lena St. Clair: Ying-ying’s daughter. Helped her husband, Harold Livotny, to considerable success in his architectural firm, but he treats her more like a roommate and expects her to pay half the household expenses. Strives to be an individual in context of her heritage and despite her husband.
An-mei Hsu: Mother of Rose. In China, An-mei’s mother, the widow of a respected scholar, was raped by Wu Tsing, a wealthy tyrant, and forced to be his concubine; mother committed suicide to free An-mei, who came to America, married, and had seven children, including Rose and the youngest, Bing, who drowns.
Rose Hsu Jordan: An-mei’s daughter. Extremely shy, frightened. Abandoned by husband, Ted, forcing her to choose between emotional breakdown or independence, between cultural wisdom and American opinion.
Themes and Ideas
1. Dichotomy of Daughters and Mothers
The primary conflict in The Joy Luck Club is between mothers and daughters. Jing-mei Woo and her mother, Suyan, have a love-hate relationship. Some critics see Jing-mei as a reflection of Amy Tan herself, but it’s important to remember that this is a work of fiction.
The mother/daughter conflict goes beyond Tan’s own experience and the Chinese American experience. Jing-mei takes her mother’s place in the Joy Luck Club after her death, symbolizing the passing of knowledge from the old generation to the new.
The daughters want to find their own way, but the mothers try to control and guide them, leading to rebellion and eventual understanding.
Communication, or the lack thereof, is a central theme in the mother/daughter conflict. The mothers speak little English, and the daughters speak little Chinese. They struggle to understand each other and express their hopes and dreams.
The opening parable sets the stage for this theme, as the mother saves a feather from a duck that became a swan to pass on to her daughter with good intentions. The daughter, however, is Americanized and unable to understand her mother’s intentions.
3. East vs. West
The cultural traditions of China and America conflict in the novel. The younger generation finds freedom in America, while the elders fear that this freedom leads to disobedience and the loss of ancient wisdom. The clash between these two cultures drives much of the conflict in the novel.
The daughters seek a balance between the wisdom of tradition and the freedom of their new lives. This sense of balance is reminiscent of the Chinese philosophy of yin and yang, where the passive and active cosmic principles must balance to form a whole. The young women seek a similar balance between old and new worlds.
Competition is another theme in the novel, as mothers and daughters often compete with each other. This universal theme exposes specific characteristics of the Chinese American experience.
6. The American Dream
The four mothers’ lives exist within the context of the American Dream, where anything is possible. They came to America for the hope that their daughters’ lives would be better. The daughters, however, take this opportunity for granted and find their mothers’ ambitions annoying.
The irony is that the American Dream turns out to be different for each immigrant, but their heritage allows them to discover new truths in the American experience.
1. Engrossing Stories and Rich Characters
One of the aspects I love about The Joy Luck Club is how the book is like a collection of short stories, all beautifully woven together to tell the tales of four Chinese immigrant women and their daughters.
Amy Tan expertly crafts each character’s story, making them both unique and engaging. Jing-mei’s journey, in particular, is an emotional roller coaster, showcasing the complexities of a mother-daughter relationship that, despite cultural differences and misunderstandings, is still filled with love and reverence.
The novel’s pacing and character development are so well-executed that I find myself drawn to read it multiple times, discovering new insights and appreciating its depth with each reading.
2. Delicate Exploration of the Mother-Daughter Relationship
The Joy Luck Club is a brilliant exploration of the intricate and often complicated mother-daughter dynamic. The novel highlights the challenges of bridging communication gaps, cultural differences, and personal histories, while at the same time celebrating the unbreakable bond between mothers and daughters.
June’s story, for example, shows how she begins to unravel the threads of her mother’s past and, in doing so, discovers more about herself and her own purpose in life. This delicate approach to such a complex subject makes The Joy Luck Club a truly captivating read that resonates with readers long after they finish the book.
3. Seamless Storytelling Across Generations
Amy Tan’s storytelling in The Joy Luck Club is nothing short of remarkable. She effortlessly weaves the tales of mothers and daughters, transporting the reader from one generation to the next.
Through these interconnected stories, the reader gains a deeper understanding of the rich and tumultuous histories that have shaped each woman’s life. The novel serves as a powerful reminder that we should never assume we know it all, as each person carries with them a story that has the potential to change and enlighten us.
1. Unlikable Characters and Disjointed Storylines
While The Joy Luck Club has received numerous positive reviews, some readers may find it difficult to connect with the characters in the book. The portrayal of the mothers as harsh and old-fashioned may be off-putting for some, making it challenging to empathize with them.
Moreover, the storylines can seem disjointed, with strange imagery, dreams, and superstitions throughout the narrative. This lack of cohesion can make it difficult for readers to become fully immersed in the book, leaving them disappointed and potentially unable to finish the novel.
2. Difficulty in Differentiating Characters and Their Stories
The Joy Luck Club is a collection of interconnected stories, which can make it challenging for readers to keep track of the characters and their individual tales. The book’s structure may require readers to take notes in order to remember whose mother is who and how the characters are connected.
This can detract from the overall enjoyment of the novel, as readers may find themselves more focused on keeping track of the various characters rather than fully engaging with their stories. Moreover, the lack of clear connections between the characters can make the book feel less cohesive and more like a collection of unrelated short stories.
3. Comparisons to the Movie and Confusing Beginning
For those who have seen the movie adaptation of The Joy Luck Club, reading the book may be a less satisfying experience. The movie’s emotional impact may not translate as effectively in the written form, particularly in terms of the relationships between the women and the intensity of their personal struggles. This can result in a diminished experience for readers who have already been moved by the film.
Moreover, some readers may find the beginning of the book confusing, as the members of the Joy Luck Club could benefit from more character building and descriptions before diving into each person’s perspective. This confusion can make it difficult for readers to become fully invested in the characters and their stories from the outset.
The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan is a powerful and poignant exploration of the complex relationships between four Chinese immigrant mothers and their first-generation Asian-American daughters.
The novel delves into the past through flashbacks, revealing the experiences and hardships that shaped the mothers into the women they are today.
Through the eyes of the daughters, particularly Jung, we witness their struggles to understand their mothers and the challenges they face growing up in a different cultural context. As secrets are revealed and the strength of the mothers becomes apparent, readers are reminded of the unbreakable bond between mother and daughter, and the enduring power of love and understanding.
This compelling novel is a must-read for anyone who has ever questioned or wondered about the intricacies of the mother-daughter relationship and the legacy of the past on the present.
Amy Tan was born in Oakland, California, the only daughter of John and Daisy Tan. Parents came to America from China shortly after World War II; named her An-mei, Chinese for “blessing from America.”
She earned a B.A. in English and an M.A. in linguistics at San Jose State University and studied in the doctoral program in linguistics at University of California at Santa Cruz and at Berkeley but did not earn a degree; instead, began work as a language-development consultant and found considerable success as a business writer.
Despite her business success, she decided to try to fulfil a lifelong dream of writing fiction. Her short story “Endgame” (1985) received considerable critical attention and led to a series of short stories that became The Joy Luck Club. The book received almost unanimous critical acclaim when published the next year; was a finalist for the National Book Award for fiction and the National Book Critics’ Circle Award.
Buy The Book: The Joy Luck Club
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