Rules of the Game Questions and Answers
by Amy Tan

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

The main theme of "The Rules of the Game" is power. Throughout the story, Waverly struggles to gain power over her controlling mother and exercise her independence. Waverly is also caught up in a power struggle between Asian and American cultural influences, which is implicit in the mother-daughter struggle.

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Steph Müller eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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In "Rules of the Game", the main theme is conflict and the quest for power, within families, between cultures and on the chessboard. This becomes apparent early on, when Waverly is yearning to have more power over the ways in which her time is spent when she, as a girl, is made to do chores while her brothers are free to do as they wish.

One of the activities her brothers enjoy is chess, and Waverly quickly learns this game and becomes much better than them, thereby undoing her mother's belief that as a girl, she should be doing chores.

The bigger power struggle comes later however, and it arises between Waverly and her mother. Lindo, who ascribes to many traditional Chinese values. She attributes her daughter's success in various chess competitions to the whole family, whereas Waverly wishes to see them as her own individual accomplishments. After some fairly serious family dramas, Waverly comes to understand that she can strike a balance between asserting her individuality and being part of a family and a culture.

Another conflict which Waverly must learn to navigate is that of the Chinese values which her mother espouses and the American values which she sees at school and in every other facet of her life.

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The main theme of Amy Tan's short story "The Rules of the Game" is power. Tan explores the theme of power by depicting Waverly's struggle to gain control and independence from her domineering mother. Waverly's mother, Lindo, is the primary controlling force in her life and is constantly looking over her shoulder. A psychological struggle ensues between mother-daughter as Waverly attempts to break free from her mother's oppressive influence. The more accolades Waverly receives, the more Lindo exercises her control and forces Waverly to comply with her demands. For example, Waverly is required to accompany her mother to the market on Saturdays to appease her mother's ego. Lindo also watches Waverly when she practices and critiques her chess matches, even though she has no experience playing the game. When Waverly attempts to assert her independence, Lindo shuns her and Waverly must carefully plan her next move.

In addition to the power struggle between mother-daughter, Tan also explores Waverly's conflict between Asian and American values. Lindo represents traditional Asian values and attributes Waverly's achievements to her family and upbringing. In contrast, Waverly desires to take individual credit for her accolades and desires to embrace American culture. A power struggle also ensues between Waverly and her brothers, who resent her for having certain privileges. Throughout the story, Waverly is engaged in a power struggle between her mother, cultural influences, and her brothers. As a talented adolescent, Waverly's primary goal is to break free from her mother's psychological control, embrace American culture, and appease her envious brothers.

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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.

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