Illustration of the profiles of a young woman and an older woman facting away from each other

The Joy Luck Club

by Amy Tan

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The Joy Luck Club is not structured like a typical novel. In fact, it is more like a collection of short stories joined together by the thread of the Joy Luck Club woven through them. The novel consists of sixteen tales, two of which are told by each of the eight major characters, four mothers and their four daughters. This structure allows readers to look at the lives of these characters, individual and shared, from several points of view, as though to allow the diamond of the overall story of immigration, culture, heritage, and relationships to shine in many different facets.

Each of the stories is told from the first-person point of view. This lends an immediacy and an intimacy to the tales, for they are told by those who have and are experiencing the events. Sometimes there is also a second-person element to the narratives as the mothers talk directly to their daughters. In “The Red Candle,” for instance, Lindo speaks to Waverly. She begins with the shocking statement, “I once sacrificed my life to keep my parents’ promise.” Then she turns to her daughter with “This means nothing to you, because to you promises mean nothing.” Lindo wants Waverly to know how she feels, and by telling her story directly to her daughter, she hopes that Waverly will come to understand promises, true value, and the Chinese way and Chinese mind.

As these women tell their stories, they also relate stories within the stories, usually in the form of flashbacks. This lends a great depth and helps readers (and other characters) better understand the backgrounds of the storytellers. In An-mei’s “Scar,” for example, An-mei moves back in time to 1923, when she was nine years old and her mother returned. But then the tale reverts even further back, to around 1918, when An-mei was burned by the soup pot, to provide a more thorough portrait of the family and of An-mei’s personal pain. The daughters’ stories also span different time periods. As Lena tries to cope with her unsatisfactory marriage to Harold, she recalls her mother’s admonition that she would end up with a mean and ugly husband if she did not finish all her food. The daughters are trying to integrate their pasts with their present lives just as their mothers are trying to do. Exploring the past provides insight into the present and perhaps even hope for the future, and this is one of the primary purposes of the flashbacks.

In fact, storytelling as a whole is key to this novel. The narrators are conscious that they are telling stories, and they use these stories to present their lives and their experiences to their loved ones, but also to make them clearer to themselves. In “Waiting Between the Trees,” Ying-ying St. Clair, referring to her daughter, says, “now I must tell her everything about my past. It is the only way to penetrate her skin and pull her to where she can be saved.” The story is for Lena, to let Lena know why her mother is the way she is and why Lena, too, is the way she is. But it is also a form of catharsis for Ying-ying herself. The story helps her see again, helps her find the “Clear Reflection” that her name means, as she looks back over her life from the careless days of childhood through the pain of betrayal through her descent to being an “unseen spirit.” In fact, Ying-ying declares that she wants to remember, for “it is like looking into a bowl and finding the last grains of rice you did not finish.” The memory, the story, provides the meaning and the clarity necessary to understand the past. Ying-ying will look at her past and use her own pain to help her daughter and herself.

The stories in this novel are divided into four sections of four stories each. Before each section, there is a title and a short narrative. These are symbolic, and they set the tone for the stories in the section and offer tantalizing hints about their meaning. The first section is titled “Feathers from a Thousand Li Away,” and the short narrative focuses on an immigrant woman who comes to her new country with a swan that she will give to her daughter. But the swan is taken away, and the daughter does not appreciate the swan feather her mother gives her instead. This symbolizes the desire of a mother to pass down her culture to a daughter who is not willing to receive it. The second section is entitled “The Twenty-six Malignant Gates,” a reference to a book owned by An-mei Hsu that describes all the things she fears will happen to her children. The introductory narrative is a dialogue between a mother and her daughter. The mother longs to protect her daughter from all the bad things. The daughter will not listen and tells her mother she knows nothing, yet the girl falls from her bicycle anyway. The piece symbolizes the daughters’ resistance to their mothers’ wisdom.

The third section, “American Translation,” contains stories of grown daughters trying to navigate their lives. They want to ignore their mothers’ wisdom even yet, but as in the short narrative at the beginning of the section, they sometimes cannot help but accept their mothers’ traditional ways because deep down, they too want “peach-blossom luck.” Finally, the fourth section, “Queen Mother of the Western Skies,” begins with a short narrative about a woman and her baby granddaughter. The woman wants to teach the child, but she does not know what to teach anymore. She has thrown away her own innocence to try to protect herself and has taught her daughter the same thing. The woman rediscovers innocence, hope, and laughter in the face of the baby. Indeed, the stories in this section focus on rediscovery through an examination of the lost innocence of the past.

The Joy Luck Club lacks the resolution of a typical novel. There are many unanswered questions left, both about the characters’ pasts and presents. There are gaps in the stories, and this is intentional. No one discovers, for instance, how An-mei married her husband or came to America. The situation between Lena and Harold is left to stand as it is when Ying-ying says that she must help her daughter discover her tiger. No one knows if this happens. Some story lines come to a satisfying close, at least to an extent. Jing-mei finds her sisters at last. Rose stands up for herself. Yet readers are left with a sense that the stories will continue. They are not finished because life is not finished. There can be no resolution because these tales mirror real life, and many episodes of real life do not find resolution. In one sense, though, there is a “happy ending,” for the members of the Joy Luck Club and their daughters continue to live and to search for meaning and to love each other even in the confusion of their lives and relationships.

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