The Joy Luck Club Essays and Criticism
by Amy Tan

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Exploring Mother-Daughter Differences

(Novels for Students)

Published in 1989, Amy Tan's first novel, The Joy Luck Club, remained nine months on the New York Times bestseller list. The book was considered a sensation and its success has not yet been duplicated by any other work of Asian-American literature. The film adaptation of The Joy Luck Club, directed by Chinese-American director Wayne Wang, was enthusiastically received as well. Though highly lauded, even Tan's later works The Kitchen God's Wife (1991), The Moon Lady (1992)—a children's story based on an episode from The Joy Luck Club, and most recently, The Hundred Secret Senses (1995), have not matched the legendary stature of Tan's first novel.

The success of The Joy Luck Club, according to Sao-Ling Cynthia Wong, is due in part to its "persistent allure of Orientalism." Other literary critics have attributed the author's achievements to Tan's excellent treatment of a prevalent theme in ethnic American literature: mother/daughter relationships. While most mother/daughter texts portray the daughter's struggles for identity, what distinguishes Tan's text from other ethnic novels, as Maria Heung points out, is the "foregrounding of the voices of mothers as well as of daughters." An analysis of Amy Tan's narrative techniques will explain how Tan brings the mothers' voices to the foreground.

The first narrative technique readers will notice is Tan's use of multiple points of view to narrate the stories, sixteen interlocking tales told from the viewpoints of four Chinese immigrant women and their four American-born daughters. (One of the mothers, Suyuan Woo, is recently deceased, so her story is told through her daughter, Jing-Mei (June) Woo.)

Tan's technique is relatively rare in literature. What is even more unusual is the portion of stories told from the mothers' points of view. The novel is divided into four parts. The mothers' stories constitute the first and fourth parts of the novel with the second and third parts told by their daughters. In other words, the mothers tell half of the stories in the novel.

Furthermore, the mothers are all depicted as strong and determined women who play significant roles in the daughters' stories. For example, Waverly Jong's stories portray her mother's power over her, a power so great that Waverly loses her ability to win chess tournaments after she becomes angry at her mother in the marketplace. Lena St. Clair remembers her mother's "mysterious ability to see things before they happen." Rose Hsu Jordan's mother wants her to fight her divorce. And Jing-Mei Woo remembers her mother's high expectations of her becoming a child prodigy on the piano. The presence of such significant mothers is one way The Joy Luck Club distinguishes itself from other mother/daughter texts.

Because of their significant presences, the mothers reinforce Tan's portrayal of tension existing in the intricate relationships between mothers and daughters. Gloria Shen notes that the Joy Luck Club "mothers are possessively trying to hold onto their daughters, and the daughters are battling to get away from their mothers." Lindo Jong may be the most possessive and powerful of the mothers. In both stories narrated by her daughter, Lindo often hovers over Waverly's shoulders as she practices chess; gives Waverly instructions such as "Next time win more, lose less"; takes credit for Waverly's victories; and brags about Waverly in the marketplace. Finally, Waverly, not able to bear her mother's boasts, says, "I wish you wouldn't do that, telling everybody I'm your daughter." The tension between mother and daughter then erupts into Lindo's prophecy of Waverly's future failures at chess. Lindo's prophecy is fulfilled; Waverly eventually gives up chess at fourteen. Twenty years later, Lindo Jong's power over Waverly nearly inhibits Waverly from reporting her forthcoming second marriage for fear of Lindo's disapproval. However, the daughter's battle song about getting away from her mother has a positive finale. Waverly's narrative about the conflict...

(The entire section is 5,108 words.)