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The Joy Luck Club

Amy Tan

Queen Mother of the Western Skies: Introduction, “Magpies,” & “Waiting Between the Trees”

Summary Queen Mother of the Western Skies: Introduction, “Magpies,” & “Waiting Between the Trees”

Analysis

The parable that introduces the last section of The Joy Luck Club centers on the cyclical nature of inheritance. As the grandmother broods, she hears a wisdom in the baby’s laughter and decides that the baby is Syi Wang Mu, Queen Mother of the Western Skies, already reborn infinite times, come to counsel her grandmother and mother. Thus, the grandmother notes that wisdom can be passed both ways—from old to young, but also young to old. Each generation can offer valuable lessons to the others.

The woman in the parable also realizes that many lessons will not come naturally and must be taught to her granddaughter. In the stories that follow the parable, the three mothers recognize their own flaws and virtues manifested in their daughters, and they worry about how to keep their daughters from suffering the same pains they suffered. An-mei’s mother teaches her two different lessons. The first, which she teaches through the story of the turtle, is to swallow her tears and suppress her bitterness. The second, which she teaches by crushing a pearl from Second Wife’s necklace, is to see beyond appearances. This second lesson proves useful to An-mei, as it teaches her to be on guard against deceit. An-mei in turn passes this lesson on to her daughter Rose, so that Rose sees through Ted’s manipulative ways: she realizes that he wants to get out of his marriage with the house and most of the money, so he can quickly move a new wife into Rose’s place.

However, An-mei’s mother’s first lesson—that one should swallow one’s own tears—proves harmful, first to An-mei’s mother herself, then to An-mei, and then to Rose, to whom An-mei passes it on unwittingly. An-mei reflects on this phenomenon, saying that even though she tried to teach her daughter to speak up for herself, Rose followed in her mother’s footsteps. An-mei remarks that only after her own mother’s suicide did she learn “to shout”—to assert herself—when she confronted Second Wife. An-mei recognizes that while passivity and reticence may once have been the only option for women, women no longer need live this way. She wonders now how to rectify the seemingly irrepressible force of inheritance, how to extricate her mother’s passivity from her daughter. The text implies that the answer may lie in the power of storytelling.

An-mei’s mother sacrifices herself for the sake of her child. When she sees that her declining status in Wu Tsing’s household would mean a lower status for An-mei as an adult, she commits suicide, forcing Wu Tsing to promise to give An-mei a respected rank in his household and removing her from Second Wife’s clutches. An-mei comes to manifest the same maternal devotion later in her life. In “Half and Half,” Rose tells the story of An-mei’s incessant search for her son Bing. An-mei throws the sapphire ring her mother gave her into the ocean to appease the evil spirits keeping Bing’s body, even though the ring, which we learn in this story was given to An-mei when she was a child, seems to have been An-mei’s only memento of her mother. Yet, An-mei’s sacrifice of the ring commemorates her mother’s own act of devotion by repeating it in a new form.

Like An-mei, Ying-ying worries that she has unintentionally handed down her passivity to her daughter Lena. As their earlier stories have demonstrated, for Ying-ying and Lena, passivity interweaves itself with fatalism and prevents them from taking initiative. In “Waiting Between the Trees” Ying-ying believed that she was “destined” to marry her husband, despite her dislike of him, so she made no real effort to resist, and the tragic course of events that followed destroyed her spirit. After she aborted her child, Ying-ying thought she would take advantage of the cunning, “black,” side of her Tiger spirit and wait for a ripe opportunity to reenter life in full force. However, when she meets Clifford St. Clair, Ying-ying displays the same fatalism that led her to her first marriage disaster. Although she neither likes nor dislikes the foreign merchant, she “knows” that he embodies a message: that the black side of her would soon fade away. Later, in America, Ying-ying passively watches Lena grow up as if they stand on separate shores. Nonetheless, she has realized that her inaction has been a bad example for her daughter. She resolves to share the story of her past mistakes with Lena so that Lena’s own Tiger spirit will waken to action.

An-mei and Ying-ying both suffer traumatic experiences that destroy their innocence. An-mei recovers from her grief, taking with her important knowledge about trust and faith, but Ying-ying has only begun to recover from her painful first marriage. She is roused to confront her past because Lena’s marriage is in trouble—Ying-ying’s story demonstrates, like the parable that precedes it, that the older generation can and does learn from the younger one.