The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

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The Joy Luck Club

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

In a brief story that opens The Joy Luck Club, a woman leaves Shanghai for America, carrying with her a beautiful swan which she is determined to give one day to her yet unborn daughter, as a symbol of her high aspirations for her in the new land. At the immigrations office amid a confusion of forms and foreign sounds, the swan is confiscated, leaving the woman with only one loose feather and a now dazed conviction about why she had even wanted to come to America. Nevertheless, she saves the worthless-looking feather, still planning to hand it someday to her daughter, in hopes that it will carry some of the good intentions for her offspring that had originally launched her on her way. The Joy Luck Club is about those things handed down from Chinese-born mothers to their American-born daughters; like the swan’s feather, this legacy carries with it a mixture of both hope and disappointment, pain and love. More than only a record of the cultural transition from the old world to the new, The Joy Luck Club asks a universal and penetrating question: What exactly is it that daughters, in any culture, inherit from their mothers?

Eight women, each of four mother-daughter pairs, narrate the novel. Their common link is the Joy Luck Club, a weekly mah-jongg party, formed in San Francisco in the 1940’s by four Chinese emigrants as a way to erase the tragedies left behind in war-torn China and to foster new hopes for their futures. As the novel begins, in the 1980’s, one of the members of the club, Suyuan Woo, has just died; her Americanized daughter June is expected to take her mother’s place at the mah-jongg table. The rituals of the evening’s game are at once familiar and mystifying to June, calling into relief the powerful cultural dissonance between the two generations and reminding June of all those qualities in her mother which she had intimately known yet never fully understood. Toward the end of the evening the aunties spring a surprise on June: The two daughters her mother had borne from a previous marriage and that she tragically had to abandon have, after a years-long search by her mother, finally been located, sadly, within weeks of her mother’s death. The aunties have arranged for June to go to China and meet these women, so she can tell them all she can about the mother they never knew. “What will I say?” June wonders, “What can I tell them about my mother? I don’t know anything.” Dismayed but not surprised at June’s response, the aunties see in her their own Americanized daughters,just as ignorant, just as unmindful of all the truths and hopes they have brought to America. They see daughters who grow impatient when their mothers talk in Chinese, who think they are stupid when they explain things in fractured English. They see that joy and luck do not mean the same to their daughters, that to these closed American-born minds “joy luck” is not a word, it does not exist. They see daughters who will bear grandchildren born without any connecting hope passed from generation to generation.

Semi-autobiographical, Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club becomes itself the means by which this connecting hope can be passed on to future generations. Tan, an American-born daughter of a Chinese-born mother, was moved to write the book after her mother’s heart attack. Even when Tan was a child her mother complained how little her daughter knew and understood of her. In the dedication Tan replies, “You asked me once what I would remember. This, and much more.”

In the novel, June resolves to go to China and tell her half-sisters all she knows of her mother; the aunties eye her warily. So the text begins, a shared text, with each mother and each daughter weaving her own interior meditation on this generational gulf and the struggle toward connection. The book is divided into four sections, comprising four chapters each. June is the only narrator appearing in all four sections; the mothers speak in the first and fourth sections,...

(The entire section is 6,837 words.)