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Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Themes, Motifs & Symbols


Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Challenges of Cultural Translation

Throughout The Joy Luck Club, the various narrators meditate on their inability to translate concepts and sentiments from one culture to another. The incomplete cultural understanding of both the mothers and the daughters owes to their incomplete knowledge of language. Additionally, the barriers that exist between the mothers and the daughters are often due to their inability to communicate with one another. Although the daughters know some Chinese words and the mothers speak some English, communication often becomes a matter of translation, of words whose intended meaning and accepted meaning are in fact quite separate, leading to subtle misunderstandings.

The first mention of this difficulty with translation occurs when Jing-mei relates the story of her mother’s founding of the Joy Luck Club. After attempting to explain the significance of the club’s name, Jing-mei recognizes that the concept is not something that can be translated. She points out that the daughters think their mothers are stupid because of their fractured English, while the mothers are impatient with their daughters who don’t understand the cultural nuances of their language and who do not intend to pass along their Chinese heritage to their own children. Throughout the book, characters bring up one Chinese concept after another, only to accept the frustrating fact that an understanding of Chinese culture is a prerequisite to understanding its meaning.

The Power of Storytelling

Because the barriers between the Chinese and the American cultures are exacerbated by imperfect translation of language, the mothers use storytelling to circumvent these barriers and communicate with their daughters. The stories they tell are often educational, warning against certain mistakes or giving advice based on past successes. For instance, Ying-ying’s decision to tell Lena about her past is motivated by her desire to warn Lena against the passivity and fatalism that Ying-ying suffered. Storytelling is also employed to communicate messages of love and pride, and to illumine one’s inner self for others.

Another use of storytelling concerns historical legacy. By telling their daughters about their family histories, the mothers ensure that their lives are remembered and understood by subsequent generations, so that the characters who acted in the story never die away completely. In telling their stories to their daughters, the mothers try to instill them with respect for their Chinese ancestors and their Chinese pasts. Suyuan hopes that by finding her long-lost daughters and telling them her story, she can assure them of her love, despite her apparent abandonment of them. When Jing-mei sets out to tell her half-sisters Suyuan’s story, she also has this goal in mind, as well as her own goal of letting the twins know who their mother was and what she was like.

Storytelling is also used as a way of controlling one’s own fate. In many ways, the original purpose of the Joy Luck Club was to create a place to exchange stories. Faced with pain and hardship, Suyuan decided to take control of the plot of her life. The Joy Luck Club did not simply serve as a distraction; it also enabled transformation—of community, of love and support, of circumstance. Stories work to encourage a certain sense of independence. They are a way of forging one’s own identity and gaining autonomy. Waverly understands this: while Lindo believes that her daughter’s crooked nose means that she is ill-fated, Waverly dismisses this passive interpretation and changes her identity and her fate by reinventing the story that is told about a crooked nose.

The Problem of Immigrant Identity

At some point in the novel, each of the major characters expresses anxiety over her inability to reconcile her Chinese heritage with her American surroundings. Indeed, this reconciliation is the very aim of Jing-mei’s journey to China. While the daughters in the novel are genetically Chinese (except for Lena, who is half Chinese) and have been raised in mostly Chinese households, they also identify with and feel at home in modern American culture. Waverly, Rose, and Lena all have white boyfriends or husbands, and they regard many of their mothers’ customs and tastes as old-fashioned or even ridiculous. Most of them have spent their childhoods trying to escape their Chinese identities: Lena would walk around the house with her eyes opened as far as possible so as to make them look European. Jing-mei denied during adolescence that she had any internal Chinese aspects, insisting that her Chinese identity was limited only to her external features. Lindo meditates that Waverly would have clapped her hands for joy during her teen years if her mother had told her that she did not look Chinese.

As they mature, the daughters begin to sense that their identities are incomplete and become interested in their Chinese heritage. Waverly speaks wishfully about blending in too well in China and becomes angry when Lindo notes that she will be recognized instantly as a tourist. One of Jing-mei’s greatest fears about her trip to China is not that others will recognize her as American, but that she herself will fail to recognize any Chinese elements within herself.

Of the four mothers, Lindo expresses the most anxiety over her cultural identity. Having been spotted as a tourist during her recent trip to China, she wonders how America has changed her. She has always believed in her ability to shift between her true self and her public self, but she begins to wonder whether her “true” self is not, in fact, her American one. Even while a young girl in China, Lindo showed that she did not completely agree with Chinese custom. She agonized over how to extricate herself from a miserable marriage without dishonoring her parents’ promise to her husband’s family. While her concern for her parents shows that Lindo did not wish to openly rebel against her tradition, Lindo made a secret promise to herself to remain true to her own desires. This promise shows the value she places on autonomy and personal happiness—two qualities that Lindo associates with American culture.

Jing-mei’s experience in China at the end of the book certainly seems to support the possibility of a richly mixed identity rather than an identity of warring opposites. She comes to see that China itself contains American aspects, just as the part of America she grew up in—San Francisco’s Chinatown—contained Chinese elements. Thus, her first meal in China consists of hamburgers and apple pie, per the request of her fully “Chinese” relatives. Perhaps, then, there is no such thing as a pure state of being Chinese, a pure state of being American; all individuals are amalgams of their unique tastes, habits, hopes, and memories. For immigrants and their families, the contrasts within this amalgam can bring particular pain as well as particular richness.


Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Control over One’s Destiny

The Joy Luck Club contains an ongoing discussion about the extent to which characters have power over their own destinies. Elements from the Chinese belief system—the twelve animals of the zodiac, the five elements—reappear in the characters’ explanations of their personalities. For example, Ying-ying St. Clair speaks about how she and her daughter, Lena, are both Tigers, according to the years in which they were born. The “black” side of her Tiger personality is that she waits, like a predator, for the right moment for the “gold” side to act—the right moment to snatch what she wants. Yet Ying-ying’s behavior contradicts this symbolic explanation of her character. Ironically, her belief in “fate” ends up negating her understanding of her “fated” nature. She believes she is destined to marry a certain vulgar older man in China, does so, and then ends up feeling bereft after she learns of his infidelity. She shows she can take matters into her own hands when she aborts the fetus of the unborn child from her first marriage, but then falls back into the same trap when she “allows” Lena’s father, Clifford, to marry her because she thinks it is her destiny. She lives in constant anxiety and fear from tragedies that she believes she is powerless to prevent.

Jing-mei and her mother also clash because of their opposing concepts of destiny. Suyuan believes that Jing-mei will manifest an inner prodigy if only she and her daughter work hard enough to discover and cultivate Jing-mei’s talent. Jing-mei, on the other hand, believes that there are ultimately things about her that cannot be forced; she is who she is.

An-mei Hsu seems to possess a notion of a balance between fate and will. She believes strongly in the will, and yet she also sees this will as somehow “fated.” While her faith in her ability to will her own desires becomes less explicitly reli gious after the loss of her son Bing, An-mei never resigned herself, as Ying-ying does, to thinking that human beings have no control over what happens to them. Thus, when Rose asks why she should try to save her marriage, saying there is no hope, no reason to try, An-mei responds that she should try simply because she “must.” “This is your fate,” she says, “what you must do.” Rose comes to realize that for her mother, the powers of “fate” and “faith” are co-dependent rather than mutually exclusive.


Sexism is a problem common to both Chinese and American cultures, and as such they are encountered by most of the characters in the novel. In China, for example, Lindo is forced to live almost as a servant to her mother-in-law and husband, conforming to idealized roles of feminine submission and duty. Because An-mei’s mother is raped by her future husband, she must marry him to preserve her honor; whereas he, as a man, may marry any number of concubines without being judged harshly. Indeed, it is considered shameful for An-mei’s mother to marry at all after her first husband’s death, to say nothing of her becoming a concubine, and An-mei’s mother is disowned by her mother (Popo) because of the rigid notions of purity and virtue held by the patriarchal Chinese society. Ying-ying’s nursemaid tells her that girls should never ask but only listen, thus conveying her society’s sexist standards for women and instilling in Ying-ying a tragic passivity.

In America, the daughters also encounter sexism as they grow up. Waverly experiences resistance when she asks to play chess with the older men in the park in Chinatown: they tell her they do not want to play with dolls and express surprise at her skill in a game at which men excel. Rose’s passivity with Ted is based on the stereotypical gender roles of a proactive, heroic male and a submissive, victimized female. Lena’s agreement to serve as a mere associate in the architecture firm that she helped her husband to found, as well as her agreement to make a fraction of his salary, may also be based on sexist assumptions that she has absorbed. Tan seems to make the distinction between a respect for tradition and a disrespect for oneself as an individual. Submission to sexist modes of thought and behavior, regardless of cultural tradition, seems to be unacceptable as it encompasses a passive destruction of one’s autonomy.

Sacrifices for Love

Many of the characters make great sacrifices for the love of their children or parents. The selflessness of their devotion speaks to the force of the bond between parent and child. An-mei’s mother slices off a piece of her own flesh to put in her mother’s soup, hoping superstitiously to cure her. An-mei’s mother’s later suicide could also be seen not as an act of selfish desperation but as one of selfless sacrifice to her daughter’s future happiness: because Wu-Tsing is afraid of ghosts, An-mei’s mother knows that in death she can ensure her daughter’s continued status and comfort in the household with more certainty than she could in life. Later, An-mei throws her one memento of her mother, her sapphire ring, into the waves in hopes of placating the evil spirits that have taken her son Bing. So, too, does Suyuan take an extra job cleaning the house of a family with a piano, in order to earn Jing-mei the opportunity to practice the instrument. These acts of sacrifice speak to the power of the mother-daughter bond. Despite being repeatedly weakened—or at least tested—by cultural, linguistic, and generational gulfs, the sacrifices the characters make prove that this bond is not in danger of being destroyed.


Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Suyuan’s Pendant

In Jing-mei’s story “Best Quality,” she discusses the jade pendant her mother, Suyuan, gave her, which she called her “life’s importance.” Over the course of the story, the symbolic meaning of the pendant changes. At first, Jing-mei found the pendant garish and unstylish; to her it represented the cultural differences between herself and her mother. After Suyuan’s death, however, Jing-mei comes to see it as a symbol of her mother’s love and concern. It is particularly interesting to note that, in its very ability to change meanings, the pendant gains an additional symbolism: it symbolizes the human power to assign new meanings to the phenomena around us. The development that Jing-mei undergoes in understanding the gift of the pendant symbolizes her development in understanding her mother’s gestures in general. While Jing-mei used to interpret many of her mother’s words as expressions of superstition or criticism, she now sees them as manifesting a deep maternal wisdom and love.

Lena’s Vase

In the story “Rice Husband,” a vase in Lena’s home comes to symbolize her marriage. Lena had placed the vase upon a wobbly table; she knew the placement of the vase there was dangerous, but she did nothing to protect the vase from breaking. Like the vase, Lena’s marriage is in danger of falling and shattering. According to the text, it was Lena’s husband, Harold, who built the wobbly table when he was first studying architecture and design. If one takes this information as similarly symbolic, one might say that the precariousness of the marriage may result from Harold’s failure to be “supportive” enough, “solid” enough in his commitment. In any case, Lena, too, is to blame: as with the vase, Lena realizes that her marriage is in danger of shattering, but she refuses to take action. When Ying-ying “accidentally” causes the vase to break on the floor, she lets Lena know that she should prevent disasters before they happen, rather than stand by passively as Ying-ying herself has done throughout her life.

Lindo’s Red Candle

When Lindo Jong is married, she and her husband light a red candle with a wick at each end. The name of the bride is marked at one end of the candle, and the name of the groom at the other. If the candle burns all night without either end extinguishing prematurely, custom says that the marriage will be successful and happy. The candle has a symbolic meaning—the success of the marriage—within the Chinese culture, but within the story it also functions as a symbol of traditional Chinese culture itself: it embodies the ancient beliefs and customs surrounding marriage.

Lindo feels conflicted about her marriage: she desperately does not want to enter into the subservience she knows the wedding will bring, yet she cannot go against the promises her parents made to her husband’s family. In order to free herself from the dilemma, she secretly blows out her husband’s side of the candle. A servant relights it, but Lindo later reveals to her mother-in-law that the flame went out, implying that it did so without human intervention. By blowing out the flame, Lindo takes control of her own fate, eventually extricating herself from an unhappy marriage. Thus, the candle also symbolizes her self-assertion and control over her own life.

It is important to consider the candle’s original symbolism as a sign of tradition and culture, for it is by playing upon the traditional beliefs and superstitions that Lindo convinces her mother-in-law to annul the marriage. Her act of blowing out the candle would have been meaningless without an underlying, pre-established network of belief. Thus the candle, first a symbol of tradition, then of self-assertion, ultimately comes to symbolize the use of tradition in claiming one’s own identity and power.

Test Your Understanding with the Themes, Motifs & Symbols Quiz

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Test Your Understanding with the Themes, Motifs & Symbols Quiz



Which theme is illustrated when Jing-mei tries and fails to convey the significance of the Joy Luck Club’s name?
Challenges of cultural transition
Power of storytelling
Test Your Understanding with the Themes, Motifs & Symbols Quiz

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Analysis & Symbolism

by MiracleeCream, September 10, 2012

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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by hollyrosemaile, November 06, 2012

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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by SarahH4599, August 26, 2013

What is the function of the myth that introduces each section?

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