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Amy Tan American Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 3,186 words.)