The Joy Luck Club Themes
The main themes in The Joy Luck Club are the mother-daughter relationship, immigration and cultural conflicts, and loss and grief.
- The mother-daughter relationship: The complexities of the relationships between mothers and daughters are the central focus of The Joy Luck Club.
- Immigration and cultural conflicts: The women in the novel, the older of whom have immigrated to the United States from China, must navigate between American and Chinese cultures.
- Loss and grief: The characters in the novel experience painful losses and deep grief, though the possibility of hope and joy remains ever present.
Last Updated on December 9, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1274
The Mother-Daughter Relationship
The mother-daughter relationship stands at the heart of The Joy Luck Club, which features four pairs of mothers and daughters who love each other fiercely and misunderstand each other constantly. The mother-daughter relationships in this story are complex, frustrating, and beautiful as these eight women strive to express their love, discover each other, and come to terms with their differences.
The love between the mothers and their daughters is clear to readers even if it is not always clear to the characters. Suyuan, for example, loves her twin girls and Jing-mei so much that it hurts her at times. Leaving her babies by the side of the road was the most difficult thing she ever had to do, but it was the only chance they had to survive. Suyuan never stops looking for those girls. She never gives up hope. She never stops loving them. And she loves Jing-mei just as much, even though Jing-mei cannot always see it. Suyuan’s desire for her daughter to be a prodigy is an expression of love. She wants something wonderful for the girl. The gift of the jade pendant is another example of deep love. Jing-mei dislikes the pressure her mother puts on her, and she lashes out at times, but her love remains. She realizes it fully after her mother is dead and as she sees her mother’s reflection in her sisters.
An-mei grows up without her own mother for several years, and then she suffers alongside her mother when she finds out the truth about what it means to be Wu Tsing’s Fourth Wife. She watches her mother die by suicide. An-mei expresses her love for her daughter, Rose, through warnings and advice. She tells Rose that Ted is doing “monkey business” with someone else, and she turns out to be right. She pushes Rose to speak up for herself. Rose, for her part, looks back to a time when she believed everything her mother said, and now, when An-mei turns out to be correct about the “monkey business,” Rose finally follows her advice and stands up to Ted, realizing that An-mei is correct in saying that she is “without wood.”
Ying-ying’s depression has harmed her relationship with her daughter, Lena, for Lena has long felt invisible to her mother. She has longed to pull Ying-ying back to life and back to her. Yet Lena does not understand the depths of her mother’s pain or where it comes from, at least not until her mother relates the story of her first marriage and its results. In her love and concern for her daughter, Ying-ying recaptures some of her “tiger lady” so that Lena can find her inner tiger as well.
Lindo says right out that she is proud of her daughter, but it hurts that Waverly is not proud of her in return. Waverly tends to treat her mother as though she were a child or a backward old lady, yet Lindo is a wise woman with much more experience than her daughter. She knows Waverly’s intentions about Rich, and she is saddened by her daughter’s many broken promises. Lindo also fears that her granddaughter will one day forget her. Lindo has tried to give her daughter the right blend of Chinese and American, but she knows she has failed. Yet she still loves her daughter deeply, and as she and Waverly look into the mirror and discuss their noses, Waverly’s love becomes apparent as well. She truly desires her mother’s approval, and she realizes that sometimes her mother’s perspective is actually correct.
Immigration and Cultural Conflicts
Suyuan, Lindo, An-mei, and Ying-ying are all first-generation immigrants who struggle to find a balance between Chinese and American cultures. Lindo speaks for all of them when she announces that “Chinese thinking is best.” These women have tried to hold onto their Chinese ways. They value tradition, respect, obedience, and above all, family. They retain their stories and customs and foods. They continue to speak their languages, even as they strive to learn English. They want to keep their Chinese minds and ways.
At the same time, though, the women have left China behind. They have learned English, and they have adopted some American ways. They wear American clothing. They attend a Baptist church. Ying-ying married an American man, who called her “Betty.” America changes them. They are Chinese yet not completely Chinese. Lindo even reflects on how, when she returned to China, people saw her as a foreigner. She wonders if she has lost some of her Chinese face.
To their daughters, however, these women remain so Chinese that it is embarrassing. The younger women want to be completely American. Jing-mei insists that she does not want to be Chinese, even though her mother insists just as firmly that she always will be. Waverly laughs at Chinese customs. Her mother wanted to provide both American circumstances and Chinese character, but Waverly and her siblings largely rejected the latter. Rose marries an American man, as does Lena, but neither of them is happy. Lena is only half-Chinese and has long felt the split within herself between American and Chinese thinking.
By the end of the novel, however, each of the younger women has made some kind of reconnection with her immigrant mother and Chinese heritage. Jing-mei feels Chinese during her trip and experiences Chinese family life firsthand. Waverly looks in the mirror with her mother, accepts their connection, and decides to go to China with Rich for their honeymoon. Rose discovers her mother’s hidden strength and her own as well. Lena learns her mother’s wisdom and the reasons for her struggles. Each one embraces, at least to a point, her Chinese culture.
Loss and Grief
The individual stories in The Joy Luck Club are filled with loss and grief, yet usually, these elements do not overwhelm the hope and joy also present in the tales. In fact, the two sides strike a poignant balance. Suyuan’s story stands out as a prime example. Suyuan loses everything in China. She must leave her babies by the side of the road as she flees Kweilin. Her husband is killed. A bomb falls on her family’s house, killing everyone inside. She ends up in a hospital, drastically ill, with only some silk dresses to her name. Yet this woman learns to live again. She marries Canning Woo and moves to America. She gives birth to another daughter. She even reestablishes the Joy Luck Club, all while continuing to search for her lost daughters. In Suyuan’s story, loss and grief—indeed, the deepest tragedy imaginable—meet hope and joy as she starts a new life, not forgetting what has passed but moving into the future.
The other women experience a similar blend. An-mei watches her mother die a slow death from an opium overdose. Ying-ying’s first husband leaves her. Lindo is mistreated by her first in-laws. Yet they all survive. They refuse to be overwhelmed by loss and grief (although for a while Ying-ying falls into depression after the death of her infant). They carry on and strive toward better lives. They raise their children. They do not forget what has happened. In fact, they turn it into stories, and through the stories, they find strength and meaning to cope and even notes of hope and joy. And they all continue to participate in the Joy Luck Club, Suyuan now through her daughter, to raise their spirits, feast, laugh, and play games even in the hardest of times, fulfilling the club’s original purpose.