Full title   The Joy Luck Club

Author Amy Tan

Type of work  Novel

Genre  Postmodern novel; short story collection

Language  English with occasional Mandarin and Cantonese words and accents

Time and place written   1985–1989, San Francisco

Date of first publication   1989

Publisher  G. P. Putnam’s Sons

Narrator   The Joy Luck Club features seven narrators: Jing-mei Woo (who also tells her mother Suyuan Woo’s story); Lena and Ying-ying St. Clair; An-mei Hsu and Rose Hsu Jordan; and Lindo and Waverly Jong.

Point of view  Point of view in The Joy Luck Club shifts from narrator to narrator. Each narrates in the first person, and sometimes an event is narrated twice so that we get more than one perspective—frequently a mother’s and a daughter’s. The narrators are highly subjective and tend to focus mostly on their own feelings.

Tone  Bemused; sorrowful; speculative; respectful

Tense  Tense in the novel shifts from past to present as each character reflects on her past and relates it to her present life.

Setting (time)  The novel’s events take place within four general time frames: the childhood years of the mother narrators in China; the youthful adult years of the mothers around the time of their immigration to America; the childhood years of the daughter narrators in the United States; and the youthful adult years of the daughters as they interact with their aging mothers. The four time frames span the 1920s–1930s, the 1940s–1950s, the 1960s, and the 1980s, respectively.

Setting (place)  All of the mother characters’ childhood memories take place in China; their youthful memories take place either in China prior to emigration or in San Francisco or Oakland after coming to America. Their American-born daughters remember events that have taken place only in San Francisco or Oakland, although Jing-mei travels to China at the end of the novel.

Protagonist  Each of the narrators serves as protagonist in her own stories, but Jing-mei, because she tells two more stories than each of the other characters, could be said to be the main character.

Major conflict  The Chinese mothers strive to instill their American-born daughters with an understanding of their heritage, yet also attempt to save them the pain they felt as girls growing up in China. The daughters, on the other hand, often see their mothers’ attempts at guidance as a form of hypercritical meddling, or as a failure to understand American culture. The daughters thus respond by attempting to further their mothers’ assimilation. Both the mothers and the daughters struggle with issues of identity: the mothers try to reconcile their Chinese pasts with their American presents; the daughters attempt to find a balance between independence and loyalty to their heritage.

Rising action  Having located the long-lost twin daughters of their friend Suyuan, the members of the Joy Luck Club want for these grown Chinese daughters to know their emigrant mother’s story. They give money to Suyuan’s younger, American-born daughter, Jing-mei, so that she may buy a plane ticket to China and narrate to her half-sisters her mother’s tale. Jing-mei fears that she doesn’t know enough about her mother to tell her story, but this fear, once expressed, prompts her quest for understanding, also sparking similar quests among the three other women and their three daughters.

Climax  It is difficult to pin down a single climax in the book, as it is composed of interwoven narratives. However, insofar as Jing-mei’s narrative is representative of the other characters’ situations, the climax of her story may be said to be her trip to China, which serves in many ways as a test of how “Chinese” Jing-mei feels, of whether she in fact knows her mother well enough to tell her story and carry out her dreams. These issues are also at stake in all of the other characters’ stories; thus, by embarking on her trip to China and receiving her first impressions, Jing-mei is drawing all of the stories’ tensions to a head.

Falling action  Insofar as Jing-mei’s trip to China can be said to be the book’s climax, the novel’s falling action consists in her realization that she has passed the “test” that the trip constituted. Having journeyed through China for a few days and having met her sisters for only a few minutes, Jing-mei realizes that, deep down, some part of her is in fact Chinese, and that even though she may not think she looks like her sisters or that her sisters look like her mother, the three of the sisters together resemble Suyuan: the sisters will help Jing-mei to come to know parts of her mother that she never before understood, and thus help her to tell Suyuan’s story. In this last scene of the book, Jing-mei successfully creates a bridge between two countries, two generations, and two cultures.

Themes  The challenges of cultural translation; the power of storytelling; the problem of immigrant identity

Motifs  Control over one’s own destiny; sexism; sacrifices for love

Symbols  Suyuan’s pendant; Lena’s vase; Lindo’s red candle

Foreshadowing   The Joy Luck Club’s realism precludes the use of much foreshadowing. However, because the characters are mother-daughter pairs, a number of the challenges faced by the mothers come to be repeated in some form in their daughters’ lives. Many of the mothers’ personal strengths and weaknesses are reflected in their daughters, and they struggle with the same issues of obedience versus autonomy, passivity versus assertiveness, whether in relationships with men or other women.