Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 594
At first glance, The Joy Luck Club may seem randomly structured, but in actuality the book’s organization is complex. Tan’s use of multiple narrators and connecting vignettes shows the influence of writers such as William Faulkner and Louise Erdrich, but the narrative scheme is also patterned after the game of mah-jongg. Each family is represented once in every group of stories, just as each family is represented at the mah-jongg table at the Joy Luck Club. In mah-jongg, after each of the four players has started a round, a series is complete and the players change positions round the table. Likewise, the order of narrators changes after each group of stories. The first storyteller in the book is June. This corresponds to the position that she assumes at the mah-jongg table, the East wind, which always starts the game.
The stories in The Joy Luck Club are structurally self-contained. Built around a central incident or conflict, each one can be read without reference to the other stories. Yet there are numerous links among the stories that give unity to the book as a whole. Characters appear in one another’s narratives, as when the Jongs eat Chinese New Year’s dinner with the Woos in June’s story “Best Quality.” A recurring motif throughout the work is misunderstanding caused by cultural differences. All the mothers are perplexed by their American-born daughters, as are the daughters by their Chinese-born mothers. A more subtle device occurs in the third and fourth sections of the book. Each of the daughters’ stories in the third group mentions the narrator’s mother in the first sentence. Likewise, each of the mothers’ stories in the fourth group begins with a reference to the narrator’s daughter. The effect is not only to create unity within each group but also to suggest a close tie between the pairs of mothers and daughters. What one thinks, says, and does is important to the other, even in relationships where conflict is pronounced, as with Lindo and Waverly.
The short vignettes between groups of stories are an important structural feature as well. They are narrated by an omniscient voice, and their fablelike quality derives from their depiction of universal situations, such as a child challenging her mother’s warnings against danger and a grandmother musing aloud to her infant granddaughter. The vignettes introduce important thematic concerns, such as preserving hope in the face of loss and passing on one’s cultural legacy.
The quest for personal identity is the central theme in The Joy Luck Club. The death of Suyuan Woo causes Jing-mei to realize that she knew very little about her mother’s life, and in her stories she ponders the meaning of her own life. Her discovery that she has two half sisters in China prompts her to take her cultural heritage seriously for the first time in her life. Rose, Lena, and Waverly are also engaged in various stages of the quest for selfhood. Rose and Lena are both learning to think and act independently of their husbands, and Waverly is discovering that her mother is not an adversary that she must outsmart. The author depicts the mothers as having resources that the daughters lack. Suyuan, An-mei, and Lindo were all severely tested by circumstances when they were young and found the strength to survive cruelty and hardship. Although Ying-ying lost her inner drive for many years, her daughter’s unhappy marriage inspires her to try to regain her true nature in order to show Lena how to survive.
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