In a way, Jing-mei Woo is the main character of The Joy Luck Club. Structurally, her narratives serve as bridges between the two generations of storytellers, as Jing-mei speaks both for herself and for her recently deceased mother, Suyuan. Jing-mei also bridges America and China. When she travels to China, she discovers the Chinese essence within herself, thus realizing a deep connection to her mother that she had always ignored. She also brings Suyuan’s story to her long-lost twin daughters, and, once reunited with her half-sisters, gains an even more profound understanding of who her mother was.
For the most part, Jing-mei’s fears echo those of her peers, the other daughters of the Joy Luck Club members. They have always identified with Americans (Jing-mei also goes by the English name “June”) but are beginning to regret having neglected their Chinese heritage. Her fears also speak to a reciprocal fear shared by the mothers, who wonder whether, by giving their daughters American opportunities and self-sufficiency, they have alienated them from their Chinese heritage.
Jing-mei is representative in other ways as well. She believes that her mother’s constant criticism bespeaks a lack of affection, when in fact her mother’s severity and high expectations are expressions of love and faith in her daughter. All of the other mother-daughter pairs experience the same misunderstanding, which in some ways may be seen to stem from cultural differences. What Tan portrays as the traditional Chinese values of filial obedience, criticism-enveloped expressions of love, and the concealment of excessive emotions all clash with the daughters’ “American” ideas about autonomy, free and open speech, and self-esteem. However, by eventually creating a bridge between China and America, between mothers and daughters, Jing-mei ultimately reconciles some of these cultural and generational differences, providing hope for the other mother-daughter pairs.
Suyuan Woo is a strong and willful woman who refuses to focus on her hardships. Instead, she struggles to create happiness and success where she finds it lacking. It is with this mentality that she founds the original Joy Luck Club while awaiting the Japanese invasion of China in Kweilin. Her sense of the power of will can at times cause problems, such as when Suyuan believes that her daughter Jing-mei can be a child prodigy if only the Woos can locate her talent and nurture it well enough. This leads to a deep resentment in Jing-mei. Yet it is also by virtue of Suyuan’s will that she eventually locates her long-lost twin daughters in China. Only her death prevents her from returning to them.
Suyuan shares many characteristics with her fellow mothers in the Joy Luck Club: fierce love for her daughter, often expressed as criticism; a distress at her daughter’s desire to shake off her Chinese identity in favor of an American one; and a fear that she may be alienated from her daughter either because of her own actions or because of their divergent ages and cultural upbringings.
At an early age, An-mei Hsu learns lessons in stoic and severe love from her grandmother, Popo, and from her mother. Her mother also teaches her to swallow her tears, to conceal her pain, and to distrust others. Although An-mei later learns to speak up and assert herself, she fears that she has handed down a certain passivity to her daughter Rose.
An-mei sees “fate” as what one is “destined” to struggle toward achieving. When her youngest child Bing dies, An-mei ceases to express any outward faith in God, but retains her belief in the force of will. Rose initially believed that the death had caused her mother to lose faith altogether, but she eventually realizes that she may have misinterpreted her mother’s behaviors.
Rose Hsu Jordan finds herself unable to assert her opinion, to stand up for herself, or to make decisions. Although she once displayed a certain strength, illustrated by her insistence on marrying her husband, Ted, despite her mother’s objections and her mother-in-law’s poorly concealed racism, she has allowed herself to become the “victim” to Ted’s “hero,” letting him make all of the decisions in their life together. She finally needs her mother’s intervention in order to realize that to refuse to make decisions is in fact itself a decision: a decision to continue in a state of subservience, inferiority, and ultimate unhappiness.
Rose’s youngest brother, Bing, died when he was four years old. Because Bing drowned at the beach while Rose was supposed to be watching him, Rose feels responsible for his death, despite the fact that the rest of the family does not hold Rose accountable. Her refusal to take on future responsibilities may stem from her fear of future blame should misfortunes occur.
Lindo Jong learns from an early age the powers of “invisible strength”—of hiding one’s thoughts until the time is ripe to reveal them, and of believing in one’s inner force even when one finds oneself at a disadvantage. She discovers these values while in China, caught in a loveless marriage and oppressed by the tyranny of her mother-in-law. By playing upon her mother-in-law’s superstition and fear, Lindo eventually extricates herself from the marriage with her dignity intact, and without dishonoring her parents’ promise to her husband’s family.
Lindo later teaches these skills of invisible strength—for which she uses the wind as a metaphor—to her daughter Waverly. Her lessons nurture Waverly’s skill at chess, but Waverly comes to resent her mother’s control and seeming claims of ownership over her successes. Eventually, Waverly seems to become ashamed of Lindo and misunderstands her as a critical, controlling, and narrow-minded old woman.
Lindo perhaps experiences the largest crisis of cultural identity of any of the characters. She regrets having wanted to give Waverly both American circumstances and a Chinese character, stating that the two can never successfully combine. She thinks that from the moment she gave Waverly an American name—she named her after the street where the family lived—she has allowed her daughter to become too American, and consequently contributed to the barrier that separates them. At the same time, however, she recognizes her own American characteristics and knows that she is no longer “fully Chinese”: during her recent visit to China, people recognized her as a tourist. Distressed by this, Lindo wonders what she has lost by the alteration. Her strategies of concealing inner powers and knowledge may be related to her ability to maintain what Waverly characterizes as a type of “two-facedness”—an ability to switch between a “Chinese” and an “American” face depending on whom she is with.
From her mother, Waverly inherits her “invisible strength”—her ability to conceal her thoughts and strategize. Although she applies these to chess as a child, she later turns them on her mother, Lindo, as well, imagining her struggles with her mother as a tournament.
Waverly’s focus on invisible strength also contributes to a sense of competitiveness: she feels a rivalry with Jing-mei and humiliates her in front of the others at Suyuan’s New Year’s dinner. Yet Waverly is not entirely self-centered: she loves her daughter, Shoshana, unconditionally. Nor is she without insecurities: she fears her mother’s criticism of her fiancé, Rich. In fact, it seems that Waverly tends to project her fears and dislikes onto her mother. As she sits through dinner with her parents and Rich, she becomes distraught as she imagines her mother’s growing hatred of her fiancé. Yet, later on, she realizes that her mother in fact likes Rich—Waverly was the one with the misgivings, perhaps a sort of cultural guilt: Rich is white, and Waverly does not like to think that she has lost her ties to her Chinese heritage.
Ying-ying was born in the year of the Tiger, a creature of force and stealth. However, when her nursemaid tells her that girls should be meek and passive, Ying-ying begins to lose her sense of autonomous will. Furthermore, at an early age Ying-ying’s profound belief in fate and her personal destiny led to a policy of passivity and even listlessness. Always listening to omens and signs, she never paid attention to her inner feelings. Because she believed that she was “destined” to marry a vulgar family friend, she did nothing to seriously prevent the marriage, and even came to love her husband, as if against her will. When he died, she allowed the American Clifford St. Clair to marry her because she sensed that he was her destiny as well. For years she let Clifford mistranslate her clipped sentences, her gestures, and her silences.
Only after Ying-ying realizes that she has passed on her passivity and fatalism to her daughter Lena does she take any initiative to change. Seeing her daughter in an unhappy marriage, she urges her to take control. She tells Lena her story for the first time, hoping that she might learn from her mother’s own failure to take initiative and instead come to express her thoughts and feelings. Lena, too, was born in the year of the Tiger, and Ying-ying hopes that her daughter can live up to their common horoscope in a way that she herself failed to do. Moreover, in this belief in astrology Ying-ying finds a sort of positive counterpart to her earlier, debilitating superstitions and fatalism, for it is a belief not in the inevitability of external events but in the power of an internal quality.
Lena St. Clair is caught in an unhappy marriage to Harold Livotny. Harold insists that the couple keep separate bank accounts and use a balance sheet to detail their monetary debts to one another. Although he believes that this policy will keep money out of the relationship, it in fact accomplishes the opposite, making money and obligation central to Lena and Harold’s conjugal life. Lena has inherited her mother Ying-ying’s belief in superstition and deems herself incapable of reversing what is “fated” to happen. She fails to take initiative to change her relationship, despite her recognition of its dysfunctional elements.
While still a child, Lena learns an important lesson from her neighbors. She constantly hears the mother and daughter in the adjacent apartment yelling, fighting, and even throwing things. She is shocked by the difference between these noisy confrontations and her own relationship with her mother, which is marked by silences and avoidance of conflict. Yet, when she realizes that the shouting and weeping she hears through the wall in fact express a kind of deep love between mother and daughter, she realizes the importance of expressing one’s feelings, even at the cost of peace and harmony. Although the neighboring family lives a life of conflict and sometimes even chaos, they possess a certainty of their love for each other that Lena feels to be lacking in her own home. Reflecting back on this episode of her life, Lena begins to realize how she might apply the lesson she learned then to her married life with Harold.
Is there any symbolism in this short story? I was assigned to analyze it like a "professor" and I am not sure if there is any symbolism. All I know is that when Jing-mei's mother offered her to keep to piano it was like a peace offering or forgiveness.
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You could always do it yourself. I mean, we sometimes get books in our lives that Sparknotes doesn't always offer to summarize and give us straightforward answers to.
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