Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Throughout The Joy Luck Club, the various narrators meditate on their inability to translate concepts and sentiments from one culture to another. The incomplete cultural understanding of both the mothers and the daughters owes to their incomplete knowledge of language. Additionally, the barriers that exist between the mothers and the daughters are often due to their inability to communicate with one another. Although the daughters know some Chinese words and the mothers speak some English, communication often becomes a matter of translation, of words whose intended meaning and accepted meaning are in fact quite separate, leading to subtle misunderstandings.
The first mention of this difficulty with translation occurs when Jing-mei relates the story of her mother’s founding of the Joy Luck Club. After attempting to explain the significance of the club’s name, Jing-mei recognizes that the concept is not something that can be translated. She points out that the daughters think their mothers are stupid because of their fractured English, while the mothers are impatient with their daughters who don’t understand the cultural nuances of their language and who do not intend to pass along their Chinese heritage to their own children. Throughout the book, characters bring up one Chinese concept after another, only to accept the frustrating fact that an understanding of Chinese culture is a prerequisite to understanding its meaning.
Because the barriers between the Chinese and the American cultures are exacerbated by imperfect translation of language, the mothers use storytelling to circumvent these barriers and communicate with their daughters. The stories they tell are often educational, warning against certain mistakes or giving advice based on past successes. For instance, Ying-ying’s decision to tell Lena about her past is motivated by her desire to warn Lena against the passivity and fatalism that Ying-ying suffered. Storytelling is also employed to communicate messages of love and pride, and to illumine one’s inner self for others.
Another use of storytelling concerns historical legacy. By telling their daughters about their family histories, the mothers ensure that their lives are remembered and understood by subsequent generations, so that the characters who acted in the story never die away completely. In telling their stories to their daughters, the mothers try to instill them with respect for their Chinese ancestors and their Chinese pasts. Suyuan hopes that by finding her long-lost daughters and telling them her story, she can assure them of her love, despite her apparent abandonment of them. When Jing-mei sets out to tell her half-sisters Suyuan’s story, she also has this goal in mind, as well as her own goal of letting the twins know who their mother was and what she was like.
Storytelling is also used as a way of controlling one’s own fate. In many ways, the original purpose of the Joy Luck Club was to create a place to exchange stories. Faced with pain and hardship, Suyuan decided to take control of the plot of her life. The Joy Luck Club did not simply serve as a distraction; it also enabled transformation—of community, of love and support, of circumstance. Stories work to encourage a certain sense of independence. They are a way of forging one’s own identity and gaining autonomy. Waverly understands this: while Lindo believes that her daughter’s crooked nose means that she is ill-fated, Waverly dismisses this passive interpretation and changes her identity and her fate by reinventing the story that is told about a crooked nose.
At some point in the novel, each of the major characters expresses anxiety over her inability to reconcile her Chinese heritage with her American surroundings. Indeed, this reconciliation is the very aim of Jing-mei’s journey to China. While the daughters in the novel are genetically Chinese (except for Lena, who is half Chinese) and have been raised in mostly Chinese households, they also identify with and feel at home in modern American culture. Waverly, Rose, and Lena all have white boyfriends or husbands, and they regard many of their mothers’ customs and tastes as old-fashioned or even ridiculous. Most of them have spent their childhoods trying to escape their Chinese identities: Lena would walk around the house with her eyes opened as far as possible so as to make them look European. Jing-mei denied during adolescence that she had any internal Chinese aspects, insisting that her Chinese identity was limited only to her external features. Lindo meditates that Waverly would have clapped her hands for joy during her teen years if her mother had told her that she did not look Chinese.
As they mature, the daughters begin to sense that their identities are incomplete and become interested in their Chinese heritage. Waverly speaks wishfully about blending in too well in China and becomes angry when Lindo notes that she will be recognized instantly as a tourist. One of Jing-mei’s greatest fears about her trip to China is not that others will recognize her as American, but that she herself will fail to recognize any Chinese elements within herself.
Of the four mothers, Lindo expresses the most anxiety over her cultural identity. Having been spotted as a tourist during her recent trip to China, she wonders how America has changed her. She has always believed in her ability to shift between her true self and her public self, but she begins to wonder whether her “true” self is not, in fact, her American one. Even while a young girl in China, Lindo showed that she did not completely agree with Chinese custom. She agonized over how to extricate herself from a miserable marriage without dishonoring her parents’ promise to her husband’s family. While her concern for her parents shows that Lindo did not wish to openly rebel against her tradition, Lindo made a secret promise to herself to remain true to her own desires. This promise shows the value she places on autonomy and personal happiness—two qualities that Lindo associates with American culture.
Jing-mei’s experience in China at the end of the book certainly seems to support the possibility of a richly mixed identity rather than an identity of warring opposites. She comes to see that China itself contains American aspects, just as the part of America she grew up in—San Francisco’s Chinatown—contained Chinese elements. Thus, her first meal in China consists of hamburgers and apple pie, per the request of her fully “Chinese” relatives. Perhaps, then, there is no such thing as a pure state of being Chinese, a pure state of being American; all individuals are amalgams of their unique tastes, habits, hopes, and memories. For immigrants and their families, the contrasts within this amalgam can bring particular pain as well as particular richness.