“What will I say? What can I tell them about my mother? I don’t know anything. . . .” The aunties are looking at me as if I had become crazy right before their eyes. . . . And then it occurs to me. They are frightened. In me, they see their own daughters, just as ignorant. . . . They see daughters who grow impatient when their mothers talk in Chinese . . . who will bear grandchildren born without any connecting hope passed from generation to generation.
This quote, which is found at the end of the book’s first story, “The Joy Luck Club,” establishes some of the central themes of the novel. The passage establishes Jing-mei Woo as a representative of the book’s younger generation, the American-born daughters who feel largely out of touch with their Chinese identities and with their Chinese mothers. As Jing-mei acknowledges this, she also shows a deep sympathy with the older generation. She understands their fears about their daughters, their distress at the idea that their hopes and dreams may not survive them in these modern American women for whom so many of the old values no longer have meaning.
However, even while Jing-mei perceives the mother-daughter gap from both sides, this double perception ultimately serves not to accentuate the gap, but to bridge it. Throughout the novel, Jing-mei provides the connecting voice between the generations. She tells both the story of an American-born daughter longing for independence and the story of her mother, who fought hard to give her daughters the freedoms that she never had. Thus, by the last chapter of the book, Jing-mei will come to represent a figure of hope for both generations, that they might understand each other better than they had thought, that they might share in a dialogue of love that often transcends linguistic and cultural barriers.
I . . . looked in the mirror. . . . I was strong. I was pure. I had genuine thoughts inside that no one could see, that no one could ever take away from me. I was like the wind. . . . And then I draped the large embroidered red scarf over my face and covered these thoughts up. But underneath the scarf I still knew who I was. I made a promise to myself: I would always remember my parents’ wishes, but I would never forget myself.
In this quotation, which is from Lindo Jong’s narrative “The Red Candle,” Lindo introduces what will become an important link between herself and her daughter Waverly. Here she narrates how she first came to recognize her inner invisible strength, a strength that her daughter will inherit and come to use in her chess matches.
This strength gives Lindo the power to endure the hardships that a restrictive and patriarchal society forces upon her. She stares into the mirror as she prepares for her arranged marriage to a man she does not love, knowing that to flee the marriage would be to go back on her parents’ promise to her husband’s family. Yet she also makes a promise to herself, which she determines to honor with equal devotion.
Lindo’s lesson in balancing duty to one’s parents and duty to oneself also links her to her own daughter, and to all of the daughters in the book, who must learn to revere their heritage and their elders without becoming passive, without giving up their own desires and aspirations. While the struggle for this balance often alienates mothers and daughters, it also brings them closer together, for all of them have faced this challenge at some point in their lives, whether or not the mothers choose to recollect it.
The central event in this passage—Lindo’s recognition of her value and her subsequent covering of it with her scarf—symbolizes another lesson in balance. She learns to listen to her own heart and maintain her strength even as she hides these away beneath the scarf. She knows that sometimes the strongest force is a hidden one. Although this gesture of concealment can also easily become a gesture of passivity, Lindo escapes the passivity that characterizes so many of the other female characters in The Joy Luck Club because she knows when to expose what she hides.
3. “A mother is best. A mother knows what is inside you,” she said. . . . “A psyche-atricks will only make you hulihudu, make you see heimongmong.” Back home, I thought about what she said. . . . [These] were words I had never thought about in English terms. I suppose the closest in meaning would be “confused” and “dark fog.”But really, the words mean much more than that. Maybe they can’t be easily translated because they refer to a sensation that only Chinese people have. . . .
This quotation is from Rose Hsu Jordan’s story “Without Wood.” Rose and her mother An-mei sit in church and speak about Rose’s visits to the psychiatrist. Challenging her daughter’s adherence to what she feels is an odd Western convention, An-mei asks Rose why she feels she must tell a psychiatrist—a complete stranger—about her marital woes, when she refuses to confide in her mother about them.
Linguistic barriers between Chinese and American cultures are especially prominent in this section of the novel, “American Translation.” The passage highlights linguistic discrepancy twice. In the first instance, An-mei appears unable to pronounce “psychiatrist.” Yet her mispronunciation may also be deliberate: by calling the doctor a “psyche-atricks,” she may be deviously disparaging him as someone who plays tricks on the psyche—a quack not to be trusted. The second illustration of language barriers arises in Rose’s own meditations on the Chinese words her mother has used. She struggles to explain them and then wonders whether they can be “translated” into English at all. While one might find substitutes for them in English, she doubts whether the true feeling they connote can be felt by a non-Chinese person. The question then becomes whether these problems of translation inevitably alienate immigrant mothers from their American-born daughters, leading to the situation that An-mei complains of: a situation in which mother and daughter are unable to confide in each other or discuss their inner experiences with one another—in which they must go to strangers for help and support.
Her wisdom is like a bottomless pond. You throw stones in and they sink into the darkness and dissolve. Her eyes looking back do not reflect anything. I think this to myself even though I love my daughter. She and I have shared the same body. . . . But when she was born, she sprang from me like a slippery fish, and has been swimming away ever since. All her life, I have watched her as though from another shore. And now I must tell her everything about my past. It is the only way to . . . pull her to where she can be saved.
This quotation comes from the beginning of Ying-ying St. Clair’s second narrative, “Waiting Between the Trees.” Seeing her daughter Lena in a painful marriage, Ying-ying resents her daughter’s stubborn refusal to learn from her the Chinese ways of thinking, which Ying-ying regards as wiser than the American ways. Yet she also acknowledges the extent to which her own passivity has led to her daughter’s failure to stand up for herself in a dysfunctional marriage. Thus, she knows that the only way to save her daughter is to tell her story, the story of how her submission to fate and other people’s wills led to discontent and even agony.
The imagery here creates an especially potent effect and resonates throughout the novel. Although Ying-ying thinks of herself and her daughter as having shared the same body, as being of the same flesh, she also sees Lena as having sprung away like a slippery fish that now exists on a distant shore. Significantly, while many of the mother-daughter pairs view themselves as reflections of one another, Ying-ying looks into Lena’s eyes and sees not her reflection but a “bottomless pond.” What joins the women—their mutual passivity—is also what divides them.
Ying-ying’s notion that the telling of a story can “save” her daughter is not unique in The Joy Luck Club. Throughout the book, the mothers insist on the importance of stories not only in guiding their daughters and protecting them from pain, but also in preserving their own memories and hopes, keeping their culture alive.
. . I wanted my children to have the best combination: American circumstances and Chinese character. How could I know these two things do not mix? I taught [my daughter] how American circumstances work. If you are born poor here, it’s no lasting shame. . . . In America, nobody says you have to keep the circumstances somebody else gives you. She learned these things, but I couldn’t teach her about Chinese character . . . How not to show your own thoughts, to put your feelings behind your face so you can take advantage of hidden opportunities. . . . Why Chinese thinking is best.
In this passage from “Double Face,” Lindo Jong questions the feasibility of the mixed cultural identity she once wished for her daughter. She fears that Chinese identity has come to constitute merely Waverly’s exterior, while American identity dominates her interior self. Lindo blames herself for Waverly’s lopsided duality.
Yet, from Waverly’s own narrative, we know that Lindo’s fears are not entirely justified: Waverly exhibits a deep respect and concern for her Chinese identity. Waverly attributes much of her early talent in chess to her mother’s lessons in how “not to show [her] thoughts,” and she seems to have brought this skill to her adulthood.
Just as Lindo’s fears are exaggerated, her descriptions of the American and Chinese ways of life also appear idealized: she seems to believe somewhat naively in the “American Dream,” the notion of equal opportunity for all. At the same time, she describes Chinese thinking as “best” and speaks of the Chinese values of obedience and modesty as if they were universally ascribed to in China.
Thus, when Lindo fears that the American and Chinese cultures cannot mix, she is contemplating the combination of two extremes. In reality, each identity is itself mixed: just as the American culture is not wholly about autonomy and liberty, the Chinese culture is not wholly about passivity, obedience, and self-restraint. Nonetheless, the challenge of finding a way to combine aspects of both into one’s own unique personality is a challenge faced not only by Waverly, but all of the novel’s daughter characters—even, to some extent, by the mother characters, as they become increasingly accustomed to their lives in the United States.
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.
33 out of 39 people found this helpful
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.
6 out of 14 people found this helpful
What is the function of the myth that introduces each section?