Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
“Rules of the Game” is one of the stories making up Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club (1989). It is also Tan’s first written story, originally entitled “Endgame” in manuscript. Although the story was originally published as an independent work, it also contains several thematic motifs of the book.
The central subject of “Rules of the Game” is power. Although pure power itself is immaculate and invisible, the effects of power can be seen manifested in a mother-daughter struggle, a male-female tug-of-war, a conflict between Asian and American values in an immigrant family, and the opposition between black and white in a chess game.
The mother-daughter struggle for psychological ascendancy between Lindo and Waverly is the most prominent manifestation of Tan’s theme of power. Lindo wants Waverly to be dependent on her for the fulfillment of Waverly’s wants (salted plums), her physical and psychological well-being (home and nurturing), and even her unique, defining mental power (her chess talent). If Waverly admits her dependence, she is her mother’s creature. If Waverly succeeds in asserting her independence by claiming individual credit for her chess powers, she will be her own person. Implicit in this mother-daughter struggle is a conflict contrasting Asian values, which emphasize familial and communal honor, against American values, which reward individual achievement. Asians more readily attribute a person’s achievement to familial and communal nurturing (hence Lindo’s claims), whereas Americans more readily give this credit to an individual’s own efforts and talents (hence Waverly’s assertions).
The story also portrays a male-female rivalry between Waverly and her brothers. This rivalry also intersects with the contrast between Asian and American values. By Chinese rules, the big brothers, significantly named Winston and Victor, should be the main achievers of the family, whereas the feminine “little sister”—Waverly’s diminutive Chinese nickname—should be merely a decorative background figure. Here, however, it is the young girl who appropriates the chess set originally intended for a brother and who achieves victory and fame through mastering the rules of a game long considered a male preserve.