The Joy Luck Club Critical Review Essay

The Joy Luck Club Amy Tan

(Full name Amy Ruth Tan) American novelist, screenwriter, and children's writer.

The following entry presents criticism on Tan's The Joy Luck Club (1989). See also Amy Tan Criticism.

The Joy Luck Club (1989) is Tan's most successful and widely acclaimed novel. It is regarded as a significant achievement in documenting the hardships and struggles of immigrants in America and in portraying the complexities of modern Chinese-American life.

Plot and Major Characters

The Joy Luck Club is a collection of sixteen interrelated stories, centered around the diverse emotional relationships of four different mother/daughter pairs. To escape war and poverty, the four mothers emigrate from China to America. In the United States, they struggle to raise their American-born daughters in a vastly different culture. The novel opens with the death of Suyuan Woo, the matriarch of the Joy Luck Club, a social group of women who play the Chinese tile game mah-jongg and rely on each other for support. Suyuan founded the club in China and later reformed it in San Francisco. Suyuan's daughter, Jing-mei, takes her mother's place at the east side of the club's mah-jongg table. Jing-mei's interactions at the table with her older “aunties” symbolize the generational conflicts that play a major role in all of the stories. Each of the mother/daughter pairs has their own personal and cultural conflicts that are unique to their situation. In each relationship, events in the mother's past deeply affect how she identifies with and relates to her daughter. Because Suyuan lost a husband and was forced to abandon her twin daughters during the Japanese invasion of China, she consistently pushed Jing-mei to succeed and make a better life for herself. But her mother's high expectations paralyze Jing-mei, who begins to doubt her own talents and abilities. “Auntie” Lindo managed to escape her disastrous arranged marriage by manipulating her husband's family. In America, Lindo's daughter Waverly becomes a junior chess champion whose achievements give Lindo a great sense of pride. Waverly feels that Lindo takes too much credit for her success and, eventually, she accuses her mother of living vicariously through her. This confrontation causes each of them to question their own personal identity and the respect they have for each other. “Auntie” Ying-Ying grew up in a wealthy family. After her husband leaves her, Ying-Ying is forced to move in with some of her poorer relatives. She emigrates with her second husband, Clifford, to America, where she is forced to change her name to “Betty” and adjust to an even lower standard of living. Ying-Ying's daughter, Lena, is a successful architect, but her husband doesn't value her. Furthermore, Lena's lifestyle and materialism clash with Ying-Ying's traditional Chinese ways, which she fears will be forgotten. “Auntie” An-mei Hsu's mother served as a wealthy gentleman's concubine. Because of her mother's occupation, young An-mei was raised surrounded by riches, but was not allowed to share in any of the luxuries. Her mother eventually commits suicide, giving An-mei a way to escape the life of a concubine. Rose Hsu Jordan, An-mei's daughter, struggles with filing divorce papers after her husband leaves her. Rose's indecisiveness comes from recurring nightmares, inspired by her mother's stories and her mother's assertion that she can read Rose's mind. The novel concludes with Jing-mei, who decides to discover the end of her mother's life story by finding and meeting her abandoned twin half-sisters. Her aunties give Jing-mei the money she needs to travel to China, affirming the healing effect of storytelling and the very real—if elusive—bond between generations.

Major Themes

The major theme of The Joy Luck Club concerns the nature of mother-daughter relationships, which are complicated not only by age difference, but by vastly different upbringings. The daughters—who have grown up embracing the American emphasis on individuality—feel that their mothers are “Old World fossils.” They rebel against the Chinese tradition of heeding their elders and pleasing parents above all else. The mothers are appalled at their daughters' insolence. They fear that their daughters' desire to achieve the American Dream will prevent them from ever learning about or understanding their Chinese heritage. Despite these fears, all four of the mothers attempt to give their children the best of both worlds. As Lindo states, “American circumstances but Chinese character. … How could I know these two things do not mix?” The painful events in the mothers' pasts and their “Chinese character” have a definite impact on their daughters' present lives. The power and importance of storytelling is another significant theme in the novel. One reason the mother-daughter relationships suffer is that neither generation speaks the language of the other—literally and metaphorically. The mothers try to compensate for this difficulty in communication by relating information through stories. However, most of the stories only frustrate their daughters, who are at a loss to interpret what they really mean. When the daughters—particularly Jing-mei—are finally able to see the true meaning behind their mothers' tales, they find that the stories are an important form of instruction and comfort. Issues of self-worth and identity are also central to The Joy Luck Club. All of the women (both mothers and daughters) wrestle with their past, their present, their ethnicity, their gender, and how they view themselves, as they struggle to construct their own life story and find a place for themselves in the world.

Critical Reception

Many critics have asserted that although the characters in The Joy Luck Club are Chinese-American, their struggles have a strong resonance for all people, especially women raised in America. Reviewers have studied the novel from a variety of angles and have generally agreed that the book presents a poignant, insightful examination of not only the generation gap between mothers and daughters, but of the gaps between different cultures as well. Critics have argued that the book works as an exploration of the issues that are vital to all immigrants in America—including ethnicity, gender, and personal identity. Some reviewers have identified the mother-daughter relationships in the book as part of a growing tradition of matrilineal discourse that is becoming ever more popular in America. Others have lauded the multiple perspectives presented in the novel, citing the work's multiple viewpoints as a unique strength that invites analysis on several levels. One critic has even analyzed the fable-like qualities of The Joy Luck Club, interpreting it as a modern-day fairy tale. Although several reviewers have argued that the novel presents stereotypical portrayals of China and of Chinese people, many critics feel that it addresses important universal issues and themes—common to all, despite their age, race, or nationality.

My Interpretation of The Joy Luck Club

Children, as they become adults, become more appreciative of their parents. In The Joy Luck Club, the attitudes of four daughters toward their mothers change as the girls mature and come to realize that their mothers aren’t so different after all.

As children, the daughters in this book are ashamed of their mothers and don’t take them very seriously, dismissing them as quirky and odd. “I could never tell my father . . . How could I tell him my mother was crazy?” (p. 117). They don’t try to comprehend their culture, which is a big part of understanding their traditional Chinese mothers. On page 6, one of the daughters states, “I can never remember things I don’t understand in the first place,” referring to Chinese expressions her mother used. When their mothers show pride in them, the girls only show their embarrassment. One daughter shows her shame when she says to her mother, “I wish you wouldn’t do that, telling everyone I’m your daughter” (p. 101). The girls cannot relate to their mothers because they were raised in a different world. No matter how much the mothers care for them or how much they sacrifice to make their girls’ lives better, the daughters are blind to their mothers’ pain and feelings.

All four of the Joy Luck mothers need their daughters to understand them, pass on their spirit after they are gone, and understand what they have gone through for their girls. One mother dreams of doing this on her trip to a new life: “In America I will have a daughter just like me . . . over there nobody will look down on her . . . and she will always be too full to swallow any sorrow! She will know my meaning because I will give her this swan . . . it carries with it all my good intentions” (pp. 3-4). Another mother plans how she will give her daughter this perception:

Things don’t exactly turn out the way the mothers hope, though. Their hopes and dreams are shattered when they realize their daughters’ misconceptions of them. On page 282, a mother laments, “When my daughter looks at me, she sees a small, old lady. If she had chuming [inside knowledge of things] she would see a tiger lady.” One daughter sees the fear of the remaining mothers after she tells them that she doesn’t know anything about her dead mother that she can pass on:

This fear does not persist, however. As the daughters mature, the two generations discover that they aren’t so different after all. One mother says, “She puts her face next to mine, side by side, and we look at each other in the mirror . . . these two faces, I think, so much the same! The same happiness, the same sadness, the same good fortune, the same faults” (p. 292). One daughter, after her mother’s death, sits down to play the piano that she had refused to touch before to defy her mother. Amy Tan uses the metaphor of two piano pieces to compare the mother to this daughter: “The piece I had played for the recital . . . was on the left-hand side of the page . . . and for the first time . . . I noticed the piece on the right-hand side . . . It had a lighter melody but the same flowing rhythm [as the recital piece and] . . . was longer but faster. And after I played them both . . . I realized they were two halves of the same song” (p. 155).

The daughters, as they grow to be adults, become more appreciative of their mothers. Their attitudes change over time to create an understanding and respect that hadn’t been there before:

In conclusion, as children, the daughters didn’t understand their mothers or their culture. The daughters were being raised in a different world. Their perceptions of their mothers changed, though, as they grew up and realized that they weren’t so different from them after all. They finally understood and respected their traditional Chinese mothers.

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