Throughout The Joy Luck Club, characters think and communicate using stories. Why might they choose to use stories instead of direct statements? As stories seem a less efficient way of relaying information, do the characters show stories to have some power that normal speech lacks?
Stories as communication prove especially powerful in The Joy Luck Club because of the cultural barriers that stand between the storytellers, often the mothers in the book, and their audience, usually the daughter characters. Because the mothers have had experiences in China that their American-born daughters find hard to understand, they fear that speaking directly of the lessons they have learned might only alienate their daughters.
For example, Ying-ying St. Clair knew many hardships in China. She married a man who was unfaithful and aborted her unborn baby out of her resulting rage. From these experiences, she has concluded that life is full of pain. Yet her daughter Lena might not understand her mother’s sufferings. Marrying in one’s teenage years is rarely done in America; Chinese culture might view differently the shame of infidelity or the morality of abortion. Thus, to convey to her daughter her perception of the emotional dangers that the world contains, Ying-ying tells Lena a story. She narrates Lena’s great-grandfather’s encounter with the ghost of a beggar, who pulled the man through the wall to the land of the dead. By telling Lena this story, Ying-ying graphically conveys her sense of fear. Because the story is so simple, it functions more universally than Ying-ying’s own. By expressing herself through stories, she communicates to her daughter on a deeper, almost subliminal level, sidestepping the generational and cultural gaps between them. In this way, Ying-ying hopes to make Lena understand and feel her fear in a way that the direct restatement of her past might not allow her to do.
Most of the female characters in The Joy Luck Club struggle with oppressive societal structures, often in the form of patriarchy and attendant sexism. But in America as well, the women characters fall victim to sexist structures. Many of the characters respond to this suppression simply by becoming passive, silent, and indecisive. What alternatives might the characters have? Does the book suggest methods by which a woman can become powerful? What are the positive and negative aspects of these methods?
The book offers two particularly conspicuous exceptions to its series of passive women: Lindo’s mother-in-law, Taitai, and the Second Wife of Wu Tsing, the man to whom An-mei’s mother is a concubine. Taitai represents a tyrannical power: she confines Lindo to her bed and abuses her in order to get the grandchild she wants. Second Wife manifests a more underhanded cruelty. Deceptive and manipulative, she banks on her husband’s fear of ghosts by faking suicides so that he will give her what she wants, and she traps An-mei’s mother into marrying Wu Tsing in the first place, wanting to fulfill his wish for heirs without losing her authority. Both of these women find ways of asserting themselves within a society that affords women little power. Yet they manage to do so only by repeating the very structures of oppression under which they have suffered.
Lindo Jong and her daughter Waverly represent a different kind of strength: the ability to assert invisible force, keeping silent until the right moment. Lindo manifests this power in the trick she plays on Taitai: Lindo takes advantage of a few coincidences to convince Taitai that her marriage to Taitai’s son is ill-fated, and that a secretly imperially born servant girl is carrying the “spiritual” heir of her husband. Waverly shows the same strength in her successes with chess: she waits for her opponents to make a weak move, and then she makes a surprise attack. Nevertheless, while Lindo and Waverly find in this “invisible strength” a method of gaining power for themselves and succeeding in a -male--dominated world—or a male-dominated game, such as chess—the method still relies on a certain passivity. One must depend on the false move of the opponent, on a servant girl’s chance impregnation by a deliveryman. Ultimately, the tactic lacks a certain sense of initiative.
In the end, then, passivity remains a persistent problem for the characters in The Joy Luck Club. If they are to avoid being cruel, they sacrifice power and autonomy. This bind appears to arise at least partially from the patriarchal structures in which these women are living. However, the text does seem to suggest a possible antidote to submissiveness and compliance, a possible means of asserting oneself: the human will. Especially in the narratives of An-mei and Rose, we encounter the viewpoint that one’s “assigned destiny” is in fact a matter of will. An-mei urges her daughter Rose to try to save her marriage, saying that one’s “fate” consists in being “destined” to struggle. This sense of will does not lead to oppression: it is a persistence to fight against all odds, but not to trample upon others.
The book emphasizes the importance of will not only in the Hsu family’s stories, but also more subtly in the other narratives. We recall Jing-mei’s realization that she may have found a sense of accomplishment in playing the piano if only she had tried, had put her spirit into it. Will becomes a way not only of achieving one’s desires but of achieving those desires in the face of hardship and oppression, in the face of hostile and controlling external forces.