Tan uses first-person narratives as the basis of her first three books. The Joy Luck Club was conceived and written as a collection of short stories, but early reviewers erroneously began to call it a novel. Her publisher carefully skirted the issue by referring to Tan’s “first work of fiction” on the book jacket.
The book is composed of sixteen related stories narrated by three mothers and four daughters. It recalls such loosely structured works as Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1919), William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (1930), and Erdrich’s Love Medicine, which feature individual narratives that together reflect a culture or a period. Tan organizes The Joy Luck Club in terms of the contrast between generations—two sections in the voices of the Chinese-born mothers and two in the voices of their California-born daughters. The exception is June Woo, whose mother, Suyuan, founder of the Joy Luck Club, has just died. June’s voice is heard in all four sections of the book.
Tan’s second book, The Kitchen God’s Wife, is constructed like a traditional novel, following one major story line. It is narrated by two voices—three chapters by daughter Pearl and all others by mother Winnie Louie, who tells Pearl of her earlier life. This is a book of revelations, illuminated vertically as well as horizontally, for things are never what they seem. When characters think they know the truth, they know only part of it. Similarly, The Hundred Secret Senses employs two narrators, but Tan uses a traditional third-person viewpoint in The Bonesetter’s Daughter, a choice that sometimes distances her characters from the reader.
In books exploring emotionally intense events, Tan’s humor is a pleasant surprise. June, an aspiring child prodigy, takes piano lessons from a deaf teacher. Another family names its four sons Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Bing. Some of the dialogue is priceless: June’s mother calls her “a college drop-off,” and another mother collects “so-so security.” Tan also masters the one-line retort. Learning that Grand Auntie Du is dead at ninety-seven, Pearl asks, “What was it? . . . A stroke?” “’A bus,’ my mother said.”
A major theme of Tan’s work is the conflict between cultures and generations. The Bonesetter’s Daughter even traces that same conflict across three generations. Of the Chinese women, an extreme example is Winnie Louie’s Old Aunt, whose feudal upbringing taught that a woman’s eyes should be used for sewing, not reading; ears should listen to orders, not ideas; and lips should only be used to express gratitude or approval. When Winnie’s cousin Peanut married a homosexual, her mother-in-law bought her a baby to save face. Their schoolmate, forced to marry a simpleminded man and chided by her unsympathetic mother, hanged herself in despair. Winnie realizes that she has been wrong to hold such women responsible for their troubles, but, she says, “That was how I was raised—never to criticize men or the society they ruled. . . . I could blame only other women who were more afraid than I.” Another woman dreams, “In America I will have a daughter just like me. But over there nobody will say her worth is measured by the loudness of her husband’s belch.”
These little bits of history are things of which the resentful American daughters have no awareness. They do not understand the intensity of their mothers’ need to protect them from life, and they have little sense of their mothers as people. Instead, their mothers seem to be embarrassments—stingy, fussy old women. Pearl, in her old bedroom, finds her worn slippers and is impatient that her mother refuses to throw anything away. Later, Winnie, cleaning the same room, takes comfort in these traces of her daughter’s childhood.
Tan explores not only the rift between mothers and daughters but also its healing. She believes in the power of love. The daughters have a desperate need to communicate with their mothers and one another which they do not even recognize, and as the barriers to communication begin to crumble, their first tentative steps toward reconciliation promise more.
Tan also examines a deeper question that she has stated as, “What in our life is given to us as fate, and what is given to us as sheer luck of the moment, and what are choices that we make?” The mothers raised in China were taught to believe in fate and luck. In The Joy Luck Club, An-mei Hsu’s mother is the widow of a respected scholar. She is befriended by the Second Wife of a rich man who is attracted to her. Second Wife arranges the rape of An-mei’s mother by this man so that he will take her as a third concubine, as she is now disgraced, and will stop spending so much money in teahouses, leaving more for the wife. When a son is born to An-mei’s mother, Second Wife claims the baby as her own. The mother eats poisoned sweet dumplings, telling her daughter, “You see how this life is. You cannot eat enough of this bitterness.”
An-mei points out again and again how her unhappy mother had no choice. Yet An-mei has learned from her mother’s suicide that choices can be made, and she tries to teach her American daughter, whose marriage is ending, to stand up for herself: “If she doesn’t speak, she is making a choice. . . . I know this, because I was . . . taught to desire nothing, to swallow other people’s misery, to eat my own bitterness.”
The mothers’ wisdom and finely drawn characters are revealed in all of these books by a peeling away of layers down to the unblemished heart. Though their lives have been harsher, the mothers are incredibly stronger than their uncertain, unhappy daughters. If the mothers were not permitted choices, suggests Tan, perhaps the daughters are weakened by having too many.
Tan employs a world of metaphor and symbolism, especially in The Joy Luck Club. A thematic title and vignette introduce each section of that book. For example, “The Twenty-six Malignant Gates” section alludes to a Chinese book that warns of dangers to children, and here each daughter tells of a problem she faced as a child. In an ironically titled story, “Rice Husband,” the shaky marriage of Ying-ying St. Clair’s daughter is represented by a wobbly end table, designed by her husband and ready to collapse. The marriage is further symbolized by the remodeled barn that is the couple’s new house, furnished in the husband’s preferred minimalist style, pared down and stingy like him. Ying-ying thinks “everything . . . is for looking, not even for good-looking. . . . This is a house that will break into pieces.” The Hundred Secret Senses adds the mystical elements of reincarnation and the World of Yin, while the vengeful ghost of Great-Granny Liu haunts the outhouse in The Bonesetter’s Daughter.
The Joy Luck Club
First published: 1989
Type of work: Novel
These linked stories reveal the intricate lives and conflicts of four Chinese mothers and their Chinese American daughters.
The Joy Luck Club takes its title from a gathering begun in wartime China by Suyuan Woo, who met with three women in a weekly attempt to maintain their sanity and luck. They prepared special foods and played mah-jongg, even though the city was filled with horror. In 1949, in San Francisco, Suyuan resumed the tradition with three new friends.
One critic has suggested that the book is structured like the four corners of the mah-jongg table at which the women sit, with four stories in each of the book’s four sections, and four mother-daughter pairs. In mah-jongg, one critic has noted,...
(The entire section is 3186 words.)