Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1067
Jing-mei (June) Woo: narrator of most of this story; age 36, daughter of Suyuan and Canning Woo
Suyuan Woo: narrator of part of the story; Jing-mei’s mother, Canning Woo’s wife, and founder of the Joy Luck Club. She dies two months before the story begins
Canning Woo: Suyuan’s husband; Jing-mei’s father
An-mei Hsu: Suyuan’s friend; one of the members of the Joy Luck Club
George Hsu: An-mei’s husband
Lindo Jong: Suyuan’s “best friend and arch rival”; one of the members of the Joy Luck Club
Ying-ying St. Clair: Suyuan’s friend; one of the members of the Joy Luck Club
Uncle Jack: Ying-ying’s younger brother
Waverly Jong: Lindo’s daughter, one month younger than Jing-mei
Lena St. Clair: Ying-ying’s daughter
Jing-mei, the narrator, attends a meeting of the Joy Luck Club to replace her mother, who has died two months earlier. The story flashes back to Suyuan and Canning Woo’s arrival in San Francisco. Suyuan invites three other women to start the Joy Luck Club. As Jing-mei remembers what her mother told her about the first Joy Luck Club, in China, the story shifts, and Suyuan becomes the narrator.
Suyuan’s first husband, an officer in the Kuomintang, had sent her and their twin daughters to Kweilin to escape the invading Japanese. To fight misery and despair, she started the Joy Luck Club with three other women. One morning an army officer warned her the Japanese were about to invade. She packed her daughters and some household belongings into a stolen wheelbarrow and fled on foot. When she arrived in Chungking, however, she had only the clothes she wore. When Jing-mei asks what happened to the babies, Suyuan says only, “Your father is not my first husband. You are not those babies.”
The story returns to the American Joy Luck Club, now a successful stock investment club. After eating, the women play mah jong, with Jing-mei taking her mother’s place. While they play, the aunties gossip and talk about their children.
When Jing-mei rises to leave, the aunties ask her to stay. Ying-ying tells her Suyuan had never given up hope of finding her twin daughters. Just after her death, someone found them. The aunties give Jing-mei a check for $1,200 and tell her to visit her sisters and tell them about her mother. Jing-mei protests that she doesn’t know what to tell them. The aunties, incredulous, point out different facets of Suyuan she can talk about.
Jing-mei suddenly understands that they are afraid their own daughters also don’t know anything about them. She says, “I will remember everything about her and tell them.” Doubtful but hopeful, they return to telling stories, leaving Jing-mei sitting at the mah jong table, “on the East, where things begin.”
“The Joy Luck Club” is the title of both the novel and this story. Author Amy Tan introduces and explains the concept of “joy luck” by showing two different Joy Luck Clubs in action.
The first Joy Luck Club, in Kweilin, shielded the women’s spirits against the harsh living conditions and constant threat of war. Suyuan had dreamed of visiting Kweilin, a place of great natural beauty, where she thought she would be perfectly happy. Instead, she and the other refugees lived with bad food, disease, overcrowding, and uncertainty. To combat their fear, the women played mah jong once a week. “Each week we could hope to be lucky. That hope was our only joy. And that’s how we came to call our little parties Joy Luck.”
The second Joy Luck Club, in San Francisco, offered hope to women with a common bond. Jing-mei says:
My mother could sense that the women of these families also had unspeakable tragedies they had left behind in China and hopes they couldn’t begin to express in their fragile English.
The second Joy Luck Club becomes an investment group and social gathering by the time Jing-mei is an adult, and the women have formed strong friendships.
“Joy luck” has become a concept the women would like to pass on to their American-born daughters, who do not understand the tragedies their mothers experienced. The mothers are afraid they will have “grandchildren born without any connecting hope passed from generation to generation.”
Tan uses the device of the Joy Luck Club meeting to introduce the mothers and the daughters. She offers initial insight into the mothers’ characters by giving Suyuan’s opinion of them and develops the characters of Jing-mei (June) and Suyuan.
The conversation about black sesame-seed soup in the first few paragraphs reveals that Jing-mei understands some Chinese, but imperfectly. Her statement, “I can never remember things I didn’t understand in the first place,” begins the development of two conflicts. In the first, Jing-mei struggles with understanding her Chinese heritage. Not until the final pages does she come to terms with it. The second conflict, overcoming language problems, affects all the characters to greater and lesser degrees. Later in the story, Jing-mei states she felt as though “my mother and I spoke two different languages, which we did. I talked to her in English, she answered back in Chinese.” Mothers and daughters struggle with their imperfect understandings of one another, seeking reconciliation.
Suyuan is a complex character. She has built such strong friendships with An-mei, Lindo, and Ying-ying that they are willing to pay for Jing-mei to visit China and see Suyuan’s daughters. However, Suyuan was also very critical of them. She claimed An-mei had no spine and never thought about what she was doing; she competed with Lindo by comparing their daughters; and she said Ying-ying was not hard of hearing but “hard of listening.” This criticism of her best friends suggests she is able to see and appreciate someone beyond her flaws. The reader will see her apply this appreciation to her own daughter as the novel progresses.
This story also introduces a continuing motif, the idea of seeking balance. Suyuan’s criticism runs along the lines of “Something was always missing. Something always needed improving. Something was not in balance.” Auntie Lindo explains that Jing-mei will take her mother’s place at mah jong because without her the women are “like a table with three legs, no balance.” These are minor examples of what will be a significant concept in the novel.
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