Analysis—“Without Wood” & “Best Quality”

As throughout The Joy Luck Club, in these sections we see that a mother’s seemingly paranoid intuitions, groundless hunches, and unwelcome meddling are frequently on target and represent a loving rather than critical mind-set. When Rose first tells An-mei that Ted has sent her a check for ten thousand dollars, An-mei asks if that means he is having an affair; Rose laughs in response to her suggestion. However, she later notices that the garden in her home has gone untended for quite some time: this had been Ted’s task, and he had once shown almost obsessive care for it. Once, Rose’s fortune cookie stated that if a man neglected his garden, he was thinking about pulling up roots. When she talks to Ted on the phone, he tells her that he wants the divorce to move quickly because he wants to remarry and move back into the house—An-mei’s instincts were on target all along. She also seems correct now in urging Rose to take action and not remain passive.

By refusing to sign the divorce papers quickly, Rose allows herself the time to ponder what she wants and what her marriage means to her. She learns that Ted has been planning to uproot her from his life all along. Once she has the necessary information, Rose decides that she won’t allow Ted to bully her into doing what will best suit him. Her mother has often told her that she lacks “wood”—the element that gives people what we would call a strong backbone, the ability to refuse to give way in the face of hardships or aggression from others. Now, Rose realizes that her mother was right. Yet although Rose now recognizes her excessive indecisiveness, she also sees that Ted’s frequent harangues against her inability to make decisions allowed him to tacitly and unfairly blame her for all the problems in their marriage.

Jing-mei’s story also deals with superstition blending into wisdom. Again, cultural tensions emerge as a motif. At the beginning of her narrative, Jing-mei describes her first reaction to the “life’s importance” pendant; she had found it garish and unstylish, yet since her mother’s death she has come to realize its meaning. Once symbolizing only a cultural difference between herself and her mother, the pendant has now become a testament to the maternal wisdom and love that Jing-mei once mistook—indeed, perhaps due to cultural differences—for superstition and criticism.

Suyuan asserts that a crab that has died before it is cooked will taste bad and that a missing leg on a crab is a bad sign on the Chinese New Year. Jing-mei seems to find these beliefs silly; yet, at the same time, she exhibits the same admittedly irrational thoughts when she sympathizes with the boiling crabs. Moreover, Suyuan’s seemingly illogical conceptual linkages between the crabs and the women’s lives later prove rather insightful: while she seems to display a certain foolishness in drawing causal connections between the crabs’ fate and human fate, she proves her insight when she later draws a metaphorical connection between a crab’s movement and the way Waverly conducts her life, always looking sideways out of the corner of her eye at potential competitors, making jabs at people while veiling them as innocent comments.

When Suyuan gives Jing-mei the jade pendant, Jing-mei thinks that the gift is meant merely as a sign of sympathy after her humiliating interchange with Waverly. But Suyuan explains the meaning of the gift: she has worn the pendant against her skin; now Jing-mei can wear it, too, and absorb from it Suyuan’s love. Suyuan presents the pendant to Jing-mei at this moment not out of pity but out of pride: she has ceased to measure Jing-mei against Waverly, having recognized the fundamental differences in their personalities and their motivations. Jing-mei’s behavior during dinner shed light on these differences: while everyone else at the table chooses his or her crab in a spirit of selfishness and competition, Jing-mei chooses the worse of the two remaining crabs because she wants her mother to enjoy the better one. Suyuan recognizes the flip side to what she had always seen as Jing-mei’s lack of ambition—her humility and modesty, which can often translate into generosity and selflessness. At times, this is the “best quality” one can have. Suyuan acknowledges and celebrates this aspect of her daughter with the gift of the pendant.