A brief parable introduces one of the novel's primary themes: transformation. An old woman remembers purchasing an unusual "swan" in a Shanghai market; the swan had originally been a duck, but it stretched its neck so long — trying to become a goose — that it eventually looked exactly like a swan. The old woman took her swan and booked passage on a ship bound for America, and during the journey, she imagined what it would be like to raise a daughter in America. She hoped that her daughter would be valued for herself — and not valued as only a reflection of her husband. She would give her daughter this swan, "a creature that became more than what was hoped for."
In America, immigration officials immediately confiscated the swan, and, in her confusion with all of the official forms and papers to fill out, the woman forgot why she came to America and what she left behind. Many years later, the woman still treasured a single feather from the wondrous swan; she planned to give her daughter this feather — she would do so on the day when she could speak "perfect American English" to her daughter.
Within this parable lies Tan's ironic treatment of the theme of the American Dream — the belief that America is a guaranteed Land of Opportunity, of success and happiness. An old woman sets off on a journey, certain that this fabled destination will ensure her a fresh start, a place where her daughter can gain respect and accomplish wondrous things, unburdened by the enormous hardships that she herself suffered in the past. In a sense, the woman's dream comes true: Her daughter gains respect, but meantime, she becomes so Americanized — "speaking only English and swallowing more Coca-Cola than sorrow" — that the two women are unable to communicate with one another.
Inability to communicate because of the generation gap is yet another theme in this novel. On a literal level, the daughter can speak very little Chinese, and her mother's English is poor. On a figurative level, the daughter grows up without anguish or sorrow, so she cannot understand her mother's painfully tragic past, and her mother knows no way that she can communicate the depths and the details of her suffering to her sheltered, fortunate daughter. This mother-daughter tension is a key to understanding the lives of the four Chinese mothers and their American daughters, who are the central characters in this novel. Using this tension, Tan explores and reveals the emotional upheaval that results when people's hopes and expectations are continually thwarted by the realities of their lives.
This prologue, set in italics, introduces several of Tan's literary techniques. Notice, for example, how she constructs her novel by using parallelisms — the repetition of similar elements. Each of the four sections of the novel begins with a brief parable, set in italics. In addition, each section contains four separate stories, each of which will parallel one another in various ways.
Tan also uses symbolism — a person, place, or object that stands for, or represents, something beyond itself, such as an abstract idea or feeling. Initially, Tan uses the swan in its traditional fairy-tale sense to symbolize transformation. As the ugly ducking of the fairy tale matured into a beautiful swan, so the old woman who was degraded by her husband in China hopes that she will be transformed in American into her own person, someone whom her daughter can respect. More important, however, the woman hopes that her daughter will transcend this possibility of gaining respect and be transformed into "a creature that became more than what was hoped for."
Tan now creates her own fairy tale of the duck's becoming a swan. In her version, the duck initially hoped to become a magnificent goose, one that would someday be the centerpiece for a roast goose dinner. Ironically, the duck stretched its neck so long that it resembled more than it hoped for: it resembled a swan. Similarly, the old woman hopes that her daughter will become transformed in America. Ironically, the daughter is transformed — but she is transformed into an Americanized Chinese-American woman, one with whom her mother can no longer communicate. Like the duck, the daughter becomes so changed that her life is forever altered. The swan can never become a duck again; likewise, the daughter of the Chinese immigrant can never again be Chinese — only American. The swan has vanished and its single, remaining feather symbolizes a mother's almost extinguished expectations, the sparse remnants of her hopes and plans to bequeath her fierce optimism and rich Oriental heritage to her daughter.
As with most parables, there is a lesson here: Be careful what you dream. Your dreams may become reality — and more.