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