Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1213
Choices and Consequences
The Joy Luck Club presents the stories of four Chinese immigrant women and their American-born daughters. All of their lives, the Chinese mothers in The Joy Luck Club have struggled to make their own decisions and establish their own identities in a culture where obedience and conformity are expected. For example, when Suyuan Woo is a refugee during the Japanese invasion, she decides that she will not be a passive victim and will choose her own happiness. She forms the Joy Luck Club to provide a distraction for herself and her friends. Thus, in a situation where there appears to be no room for disobedience, Suyuan creates an identity that she and her friends assume in order to survive. The continuation of the club in the United States helps Suyuan and her friends redefine themselves in a new culture.
The mothers want their daughters to take charge of their own lives, too. Yet the mothers find it difficult to voice their concerns and be open enough about their personal experiences to make their advice valid with their daughters. Ying-Ying St. Clair, however, sees her daughter Lena's unhappiness in her marriage and courageously faces her own bad memories to help Lena make the decisions she needs to make to be free.
The American-born daughters have their own choices to make and their own identities to establish. While their mothers want Chinese obedience from their daughters, they do not want their daughters to be too passive. The Chinese mothers want their daughters to have American-like strength. The daughters work to find compromises their mothers can accept. Rose Hsu Jordan, for example, overcomes her passivity with the help of her grandmother's story and stands up to a husband who is trying to take everything from her.
Throughout the stories presented in The Joy Luck Club runs the common thread of mother-daughter connectedness and its influence on a daughter's identity formation. Tan's portrayal of the intense relationships between and among her characters shows the strength of the ties that bind culture and generation. These firmly undergird the choices the characters make and the identities they shape as a result of their decisions.
The American-born daughters are ambivalent about their Chinese background. While they eat Chinese foods and celebrate Chinese traditions, they want their Chinese heritage to remain at home. They make American choices when they are in public and cringe in embarrassment when their mothers speak in their broken English. Worst of all, the American daughters do not see the importance of "joy luck"; to them, it is not even a word. They regard the Joy Luck Club as a "shameful Chinese custom."
The Chinese mothers fear the end of Chinese tradition in their families. Their American-born daughters hide their Chinese heritage and think like Americans. While the Chinese mothers want their daughters to enjoy the benefits of being Americans, they do not want them to forget their roots. They hope that their daughters will develop strong American characters, yet keep positive Chinese beliefs alive. The mothers need the daughters to understand the significance of the Joy Luck Club and all that it represents.
The clash of adolescence with the Amencan and Chinese cultures leaves the Chinese mothers without hope for their daughters' Chinese futures. Yet, time works its magic; the daughters grow up, and the mothers' dreams prevail. The Joy Luck Club survives with a daughter, Jing-Mei, continuing the tradition in place of her deceased mother, Suyuan Woo. Broken ties mend, and hope for happiness despite misfortune (what the Chinese call "joy luck") lives.
In presenting the stories of four Chinese immigrant women and their American-born daughters in The Joy Luck Club, Tan uses "cradling," a formal literary device that can be thought of as telling a story within a story, or nesting. In other words, Tan embeds the daughters' stories within the mothers' narratives. The Joy Luck Club is divided into four main segments that contain sixteen stories. The first and last sections tell eight stories—two for each mother—while the middle two sections each tell a story for each of the four daughters. The entire novel revolves primarily around the stories of Suyuan Woo and her daughter, Jing-Mei ("June"). Jing-Mei takes her mother's place in the Joy Luck Club, a club her mother created when she was in China and that she continued for her Chinese friends in America. Jing-Mei learns from her "aunties," the women who are members of the club, that they will fund her trip to China to meet with her "lost" sisters.
The Joy Luck Club is set in two places. The mothers' stories take place mostly in pre-World War II China, just before and during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945). The daughters' stories occur primarily in contemporary San Francisco, although June does visit contemporary China in the final section. These differing settings help emphasize the culture clash experienced by many of the novel's characters.
Point of View and Narration
Tan uses several first-person narrators in the novel, narrators who directly speak to the reader by using "I said", "I did" to express events. Because three of the mothers and all of the daughters tell their own stories, the narrative shifts from a mother's point of view to a daughter's point of view. Except for Suyuan Woo, each mother speaks for herself in the first and final sections of the book; the daughters each speak for themselves in the second and third sections of the book. Since Suyuan has already died when the story opens, Jing-Mei speaks for her.
Conflicts arise between each mother and her daughter as the result of generational and cultural differences. The mothers and daughters experience the typical difficulties in understanding each others' viewpoints. Daughters try to establish their personal identities by being like their mothers, yet different in response to contemporary pressures. These generational differences are compounded by the mothers' culture-driven views of tradition. The mothers want their daughters to be Americanized, yet they also want their daughters to honor the Chinese way of life. In Asian culture, women's identities are more often defined by their relationships to others than by their occupational success, as scholar Tracy Robinson has observed. For example, while Waverly Jong is different enough from her mother to have established herself as a successful tax attorney, she is enough like her mother that she worries that her mother will not accept her Caucasian fiance. The mothers' basic concern is that their daughters will turn their backs on their culture and their Chinese heritage will be forgotten.
Suyuan Woo's stories tell about a woman whose allegiances were divided between her American daughter and the Chinese daughters she had lost. Suyuan's Chinese and American souls are resurrected and reunited when the daughters meet at the end of the novel. The daughters' names symbolize this rebirth and reunion. Chwun Yu (Spring Rain), Chwun Hwa (Spring Rower), and Jing-Mei (June) represent the renewing force that is connected to the seasons of spring and summer. Even Suyuan's name, meaning Long-Cherished Wish, alludes to the resolution of the conflicts she and Jing-Mei shared. Finally, the Chinese interpretation of Jing-Mei's name, "pure essence and best quality," represents Jing-Mei's learning to appreciate and coming to terms with her Chinese heritage.
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