Characters Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Suyuan Woo, the founder of the Joy Luck Club, which meets monthly to play mah-jongg. In fleeing from a Japanese attack in 1944, she was forced to abandon her twin infant daughters on a road outside Kweilin. She searched for them until 1949, when she immigrated to San Francisco with her second husband. Her daughter Jing-mei was born in 1951. Suyuan secretly continued looking for her other daughters until her death at the age of seventy-two, two months before the book opens.
Jing-mei (June) Woo
Jing-mei (June) Woo, a thirty-six-year-old college dropout who writes advertising copy for a small ad agency in San Francisco. After her mother’s death, she learns that she has two half sisters still alive in China. By setting out to meet them, she begins coming to terms with her own Chinese heritage.
Lindo Jong, Suyuan’s competitive and critical best friend, who was born in 1918 in a village near Taiyuan. A marriage was arranged for her when she was two, and she joined her husband’s family when she was twelve. Eventually, she tricked her mother-in-law into dissolving the marriage. After immigrating to San Francisco, she worked in a fortune cookie factory with An-mei Hsu, who introduced her to her second husband, Tin Jong. They have three children: Winston, who is killed in a car accident at the age of sixteen, Vincent, and Waverly.
(The entire section is 560 words.)
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The main characters in this novel are four women: China-born Suyuan Woo, An-Mei Hsu, Lindo Jong, and Ying-ying St. Clair; and their four daughters, American-born Jing-mei "June" Woo, Rose Hsu Jordan, Waverly Jong, and Lena St. Clair. Some readers have expressed difficulty in sensing a distinctness among the four mothers and the four daughters. The voices seem, at least on a first reading, too similar.
But if there is similarity in their voices and a sameness to the daughters' complaints about growing up Chinese-American, there is a brilliance of detail and individuality in the lives of the four women from China, who met and formed the San Francisco version of the Joy Luck Club in 1949. One cannot forget the picture of Suyuan Woo, fleeing Kweilin before the approaching Japanese army, leaving behind first her suitcases, then her food, and at last the twin daughters she could no longer carry. Or Linda Jong, getting out of a matchmaker marriage by her wits, getting to Peking, and getting out of the country. Or Ying-ying St. Clair and her stories of falling into Tai Lake at the celebration of the Moon Festival. Or An Mei Hsu, with her memories of her sad and bitter mother, the unhappy fourth wife of a wealthy man.
The daughters show varying degrees of success, American-style. Waverly, learning to play with a cast-off chess set donated by Baptist ladies, becomes a chess prodigy; June is accused by her mother of being a "college drop-off;" Rose is...
(The entire section is 288 words.)
An-Mei empowers her daughter, Rose, to stand up for her rights. Having grown up fearful of the people around her and being accustomed to self-denial, An-Mei refuses to see her own daughter endure the same unhappiness. She turns her back on her own pain and experiences, and vows to raise her daughter differently than she was raised.
An-Mei's grandparents cared for her after banning her mother for becoming another man's concubine following the death of her husband. The grandparents warned An-Mei never to speak of her mother. To them, An-Mei's mother was a ghost—someone to be forgotten entirely. An-Mei obeyed and never asked about her. An-Mei came to know her mother, however, when she returned to be with An-Mei's grandmother as she was dying. An-Mei learned from her that honor for one's mother goes much deeper than the flesh and that when you lose something you love, faith takes over.
An-Mei teaches her daughter the lessons she has learned from her own mother and from the loss of her son, Rose's brother. Rather than ignore loss, one must pay attention to it and undo the expectation. When Rose complains to An-Mei that her marriage is falling apart and she can't do anything about it, An-Mei reminds Rose of her upbringing and tells her to speak up for her rights. Rose passes An-Mei's test by advising her husband that she will not sign the divorce papers and that her lawyer will contact him about her keeping the house.
(The entire section is 248 words.)
Lindo Jong tries to instill in her daughter, Waverly, a sense of both obedience and self-worth. She wants her daughter to have "American circumstances and Chinese character."
Lindo's parents promise her to her future husband, Tyan-Hu, when she is only two-years-old. While she sees him at various functions over the years, she does not actually go to live with him and his family until she is twelve. Always the obedient daughter, she does not question this arrangement. She recognizes immediately, however, the kind of husband Tyan-Hu will be and feels discouraged.
Lindo and Tyan-Hu marry when she turns sixteen. While they are unhappy with each other, they do not let his family know. In the meantime, Lindo devises a plan that will allow Tyan-Hu's family to release her without their losing face. Lindo pretends that she has a dream in which Tyan-Hu's ancestors tell her that their marriage is doomed; she uses existing facts to back up her story.
When she is free of the marriage, Lindo leaves for America, where she remarries and has three children. She decides that her children should live like Americans and should not have to keep the circumstances someone else gives them. While she believes that she has succeeded in teaching this idea to her daughter, Lindo thinks she has failed to teach her Chinese character. She is surprised and satisfied, however, when Waverly demonstrates Chinese character that Lindo did not know she possessed.
(The entire section is 240 words.)
Waverly Jong is the figure to whom Jing-Mei is always compared by her mother, Suyuan Woo. Waverly's mother, Lindo, and Suyuan were best friends when the girls were growing up, but also tried to outdo each other when comparing their children's accomplishments. Waverly continually gave her mother something to brag about. As a child, she was a national chess champion; as an adult, she is a successful tax attorney.
When Waverly was very young, her brother received a chess set as a Christmas gift. She quickly caught on to the game and was soon winning matches against everyone she played. Her mother taught her how to "bite back her tongue," a strategy for winning arguments that also helped her win chess games. By the time she was nine, Waverly was a national chess champion. Her mother was so proud of her that she constantly boasted of her daughter's abilities, wanting people to know that she was Waverly's mother. Waverly hated her mother's bragging, and it soon became a point of contention between them.
Not only did Waverly despise her mother's bragging, she also hated that her mother tried to take credit for Waverly's talent. Lindo would tell people that she advised Waverly on the moves she made and that Waverly wasn't really smart, she just knew the tricks of the game. Finally, Waverly told her off—in public—saying that she knew nothing, that she should shut up. After that, it was a long time before Lindo spoke to Waverly, and she no longer...
(The entire section is 431 words.)
Rose Hsu Jordan
Rose Hsu Jordan, the daughter of An-Mei Hsu, marries Ted Jordan in defiance of their parents. Typically passive by nature, Rose takes charge by choosing to marry Ted, a non-Chinese. It is probably the most decisive action she has ever taken.
Ted balances her personality. Where she is weak, he bears the burden; where she is indecisive, he takes charge. Ted makes all the decisions in their married life until a professional mistake changes him. He then expects Rose to help him make the choices in their life together. When she can't change, he wants a divorce.
Rose begins to think about her mother's beliefs. Her mother had always had a firm belief in God until a family tragedy made her question God's wisdom. Her mother continues to believe, though, that a voice from above guides all people and that Rose needs to listen to that voice. When Rose had nightmares as a child, with an angry Mr. Chou telling her bad things, Rose's mother told her not to listen to him, to listen only to that voice above. She told Rose that listening to too many voices would cause her to bend when she should stand strong.
Rose remembers her mother's past advice and continues to listen to her now. Her mother tells her that she must speak up for her own rights when Ted asks for the divorce. Rose finally makes a decision on her own. When she does, she dreams of her mother and Mr. Chou smiling at her.
(The entire section is 252 words.)
Lena St. Clair
Lena St. Clair grew up worrying about the mental health of her mother, Ying-Ying, who constantly battles paranoia and depression. While her father is English-Irish, Lena is more Chinese, having inherited many of her mother's Chinese traits—particularly her ability to see "with Chinese eyes." Lena could "see" the things her mother feared, but she kept them from her father by changing her mother's meanings in their translation to English.
Lena continually hoped that her mother would someday be well and that she and her mother could have the close relationship she saw in her dreams. Lena felt invisible and alone.
As an adult, Lena believes that her mother has always been able to see the terrible things that were going to happen to their family. Lena remembers that when she was eight, her mother had told her that she would marry a bad man. Now, she sees that her husband, Harold, might be the bad man her mother had envisioned.
While Lena and Harold had started out as equals in their relationship, Lena has discovered that their life together has become unbalanced. Harold has taken her business ideas and her money, yet has given little in return. He keeps a detailed accounting sheet and claims that they share everything equally. Lena, however, detects an unfairness. Where is Harold's love? Why must their relationship be reduced to columns on a ledger? Feeling invisible again, Lena yearns for something that she cannot put into words.
(The entire section is 244 words.)
Ying-Ying St. Clair
Ying-Ying, mother of Lena, experiences periods of depression and paranoia. She considers herself "lost" and attributes the cause of her mental illness to a ceremony she remembers attending as a four-year-old.
The Moon Festival ceremony gives people the opportunity to see the Moon Lady and secretly ask for a wish to be granted. Four-year-old Ying-Ying is being allowed to attend the event for the first time. She is warned, however, to behave and not to speak of her wish or it will be considered a selfish desire and will not be granted.
In the excitement of the celebration, Ying-Ying falls off the boat unnoticed and is lost. She encounters a dramatic production of the Moon Lady's arrival and believes the Moon Lady can grant her wish. When she hears the Moon Lady's sad story, she loses hope. Her despair deepens when she asks the Moon Lady that she be found, then sees that the Moon Lady is really only a man in disguise. Ying-Ying's parents find her, but she feels such a sense of loss, she never believes that she is really their daughter. This sense of loss, loneliness, and despair stay with her for the rest of her life.
Ying-Ying marries a man whom she loves very much, but who turns out to be abusive. In her pain, she aborts the son she is carrying. Ying-Ying later remarries but is never able to recover from the losses she has endured. She feels she has lost her chi, or spirit.
Only when Ying-Ying sees the pain in Lena's...
(The entire section is 294 words.)
Jing-Mei (Also called June Woo), daughter of Suyuan Woo, takes her mother's place in the Joy Luck Club when her mother dies. Jing-Mei searches for her own identity, lacks confidence, and wonders how she will fill her mother's shoes.
From the time she was a child, Jing-Mei has always lived in someone else's shadow. Her mother continually compared her to other people's children, particularly Lindo Jong's daughter, Waverly. Suyuan felt that Jing-Mei could do anything that she wanted to. She gave Jing-Mei intelligence tests and piano lessons, but Jing-Mei never measured up to her mother's expectations. Jing-Mei always felt that she was disappointing her mother.
As she got older, Jing-Mei still failed to succeed at the things her mother wanted her to do. She was less than a straight-A student. She was accepted at only an average college, from which she dropped out. Jing-Mei eventually became a freelance writer, even though her mother wanted her to earn a doctorate. Jing-Mei suffers one final insult when Waverly informs her that the freelance work Jing-Mei submitted to Waverly's tax firm was not accepted.
Jing-Mei had always felt uncomfortable with her mother's Chinese ways. When Suyuan attended the Joy Luck Club in her Chinese dresses, Jing-Mei was embarrassed. She viewed the Joy Luck Club itself as a "shameful Chinese custom." Jing-Mei's view changes, however, when she joins the Joy Luck Club. The realization that these Chinese women...
(The entire section is 276 words.)
Suyuan Woo does not tell her own story in The Joy Luck Club. Recently deceased when the story begins, Suyuan speaks through her daughter, Jing-Mei. Because Suyuan started the Joy Luck Club, her story provides the foundation for the novel.
Suyuan started the original Joy Luck Club in Kweilin, China, during the second Japanese invasion (the Second Sino-Japanese War) right before World War II. She and other refugees had come to Kweilin seeking safety from the Japanese troops. The crowding, constant bombing, and fear immobilized everyone. Suyuan needed something to help her keep her faith. She decided to invite a group of women to play mah jong. They met weekly to play, raise money, and eat special foods. While other people criticized their extravagance, the women forgot their troubles for a short time and enjoyed one another's company. They met to share their desire to be lucky in life. Their hope for luck was their joy. Thus, the weekly meetings became known as the Joy Luck Club.
Suyuan, however, experienced great tragedy when news of the approaching troops forced her to leave for Chungking. Having no other way to travel, she fled on foot, pushing a wheelbarrow and carrying her infant twin daughters in slings on her shoulders. Suyuan grew more weary the farther she traveled. She had to start leaving her possessions along the way. Finally, when she could go no further, she left the babies along the road, too, with a note telling their...
(The entire section is 400 words.)