In "The Rules of the Game," what is the main theme?

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accessteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Clearly what one person takes from a story will be different from another, and any work possesses a multiplicity of themes, but for what it's worth, here is my "take" on this great short story! What Tan writes about so well both in this story and in her other excellent short story "Two Kinds," is the conflict between mother and daughter and between two different cultures. The mother in this story is born in China and comes over to the States later on in her life, still possessing her Chinese values and culture. The daughter, however, is born in America, and therefore is brought up learning different values. Inevitably, as we see in this tale, this is a situation where much conflict can emerge. Therefore, we are presented with a central character who seems trapped between two different worlds and has to work out her own identity as a result. One great example of this is at the Christmas party and Waverly is asked the difficult question of how old she is:

When my turn came up, the Santa man asked me how old I was. I thought it was a trick question; I was seven according to the American formula and eight by the Chinese calendar. I said I was born on March 17, 1951. That seemed to satisfy him.

Waverly has two conflicting backgrounds and cultures impacting her life, equally strong and equally powerful, but her mother seems to represent the dominant Chinese culture that exerts such power over her. It is only at the end that Waverly realises that, for now at least, her mother's will is more powerful than her own, as she decides to sit it out and plan for her future independence when she is older:

I closed my eyes and pondered my next move.

The chess game metaphor becomes a symbol of the struggle for independence that occurs between Waverly and her mother throughout the story. This last line imagines Waverly playing chess against her mother, realising she is fighting a losing strategy, and now considering other alternatives to win the game. Therefore this story is about conflicting cultural values, growing up and the struggle for independence.