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
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