4. 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.