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Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

In her essayMother Tongue,” Amy Tan identifies the reader she envisions for her novel The Joy Luck Club (1986) as her own mother, because these were stories about mothers. Appearing in the novel as a chapter about the major protagonist of the entire novel, “Two Kinds” represents the central theme of the voracious love between mother and daughter and the arduous journey that one already has taken and the other will take both for herself and for her mother. It is a journey of self-discovery made through painful yet joyful connections. Just as June puts her mother’s things in order for her father, she does the same for herself by gathering up her past childhood struggles with her mother, turning them over and examining them, then carefully putting them into order.

In the novel, June retraces her mother’s and her three aunties’ journeys from China to the United States. Initiated by Suyuan Woo’s death at the start of the novel, this long pilgrimage is interwoven with the past and present lives of four Chinese mothers and their four American daughters. June’s mother, as originator of the Joy Luck Club, holds a special place at the mah-jongg table, which must be assumed by her daughter. To complicate June’s life further, her mother’s twin daughters, whom she left in China forty years earlier, have been found alive and well. Now the familial connection between China and the United States is made even stronger by June’s desire to know her half sisters and, by doing so, to understand both her mother and herself.

The theme of two seemingly opposite sides of a person is symbolized in the two musical pieces by Schumann: “Pleading Child,” the one she plays at her first and last piano recital, and its companion piece, “Perfectly Contented.” At the conclusion, June realizes that they were two halves of the same song, and that by playing both she becomes whole.

Although the self-realization completes this rich vignette, it is not without pain and loss. For June to come to this conclusion, she has had to lose her mother and revisit, through memory, the terrible moment of final conflict, betrayal, and guilt: “For after our struggle at the piano, she never mentioned my playing again. . . . The lid to the piano was closed, shutting out the dust, my misery, and her dreams.” In the process of reexamining the duality of a daughter’s existence—obedience versus willfulness—June reconciles and finally resolves her guilt and disappointment in herself and embraces both the memory of her mother and the strong woman she has become.

Themes

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Anthropologists and other scholars who study the immigrant experience in America have long noted that the American dream exerts a powerful influence on new arrivals in the country. These scholars have also pointed out that the burden of these dreams usually falls more heavily upon the shoulders of American-born children of immigrants. Immigrant parents are often willing to sacrifice everything, including careers, family, and property, to pursue new lives in America. Realizing that they may not achieve the American dream of material success and social acceptance, they tend to transfer those ambitions to their children.

The narrator's mother in "Two Kinds," for example, insists that "you could be anything you wanted to be in America." She ticks off the possibilities to her daughter: "You could open a restaurant. You could work for the government and get good retirement. You could buy a house with almost no money down. You could become rich. You could become instantly famous." While such pressures on the second generation of immigrant families is common to all ethnic groups in America, the mother in "Two Kinds" and other Chinese American women of her generation were particularly interested in their daughters' success. The women of Jing-mei's (and Tan's) mother's generation grew up in rigidly patriarchal China and were expected to be subservient and silent even in America. Though they feared the effects...

(The entire section is 1,870 words.)