Summary and Analysis
Jing-mei Woo: The Joy Luck Club
"Before I wrote The Joy Luck Club," Tan said in an interview, "my mother told me, 'I might die soon. And if I die, what will you remember?"' Tan's answer appears on the book's dedication page, emphasizing the novel's adherence to truth. How much of the story is real? "All the daughters are fractured bits of me," Tan said in a Cosmopolitan interview. Further, Tan has said that the members of the club represent "different aspects of my mother."
When the novel opens, a mother, Suyuan Woo, has died of a cerebral aneurysm, and her husband has asked their thirty-six-year-old daughter, Jing-mei ("June"), to assume her mother's role and take her seat at the next meeting of the Joy Luck Club. Suyuan innovated this particular version of the club long ago — in 1949, the year she arrived in San Francisco from China. At the First Chinese Baptist Church, she met the Hsus, the Jongs, and the St. Clairs, and soon she enticed the wives to join with her and form a Joy Luck Club.
In a flashback, we hear Suyuan telling her daughter about the origins of the very first Joy Luck Club, as well as stories from her past. Her first husband, an officer with the Kuomintang, feared an imminent Japanese invasion, so he took her and their two small babies to Kweilin. There, Suyuan created the Joy Luck Club in order to cope with the horrors of war. Each week, four young women met to play mah jong, share a few meager luxuries, and talk about happier times. Because Suyuan's stories about that first Joy Luck Club — especially the endings — change each time she tells them, June discounts them as little more than embroidered, restyled, improvised memories.
One day, however, Suyuan tells her daughter an entirely new story: An army officer arrived at their house in Kweilin and urged Suyuan to escape to Chungking as quickly as possible. The exodus was so effected suddenly and was so grueling that, along the way, she was forced to abandon all her possessions, one by one. Finally, she had to abandon her most precious possessions of all: her two baby daughters. June is stunned. She has two sisters, about whom she knew nothing — until now.
This central episode in this section of the novel is based on truth. In 1967, Tan, her mother Daisy, and her brother John left California for Switzerland. On the eve of their departure, Daisy revealed that somewhere in China, she had three daughters from an earlier marriage — daughters lost to her when political ties were severed between the U.S. and China in 1949. In the novel, Suyuan loses two daughters and does not live long enough to be reunited with them. In real life, however, Tan's mother, Daisy, was reunited with two of her daughters in 1978. Thus, Tan interweaves fact and fiction in the novel, taking truth from her mother's stories while creating a larger canvas for her novel, focusing on two cultures and two generations and the chasm between them. The transformation of truth into dramatic fiction parallels the transformation within each of the four mothers — from being young girls to being old women. The novel also focuses on the transformation of the Chinese daughters into full-fledged Americans. And, of course, Tan's emphasis on communication — and particularly the lack of communication — between the two generations is always present.
The novel, in fact, opens with the concept of communication: Mr. Woo, June's father, believes that his wife died because she could not express herself. Unvoiced ideas, he says, can literally cause death. A few paragraphs farther on, June alludes to the problems that she and her mother had communicating: "I can never remember things I didn't understand in the first place."
In "Mother Tongue," an essay in The Threepenny Review, Fall 1990, Tan commented on her problems communicating with her mother: "I think my mother's English almost had an effect on limiting my possibilities in life. . . . While my English skills were never judged as poor, compared to math, English could not be my strong suit . . . for me, at least, the answers on English tests were always a judgment call, a matter of opinion and personal experience."
Tan is too modest. Her novel is rich — especially in figurative language, words and phrases that convey ideas beyond their literal meaning. Tan's most common figures of speech are similes, metaphors, personification, and hyperbole. Many critics have compared her narrative style and her unique voice to the Native American writer Louise Erdrich. Tan recalls reading Erdrich's Love Medicine in 1985 and being "so amazed by her voice. It was different and yet it seemed I could identify with the powerful images, the beautiful language and such moving stories." Tan's images are equally powerful. Her metaphor "the peaks looked like giant fried fish trying to jump out of a vat of oil," for example, uses a common food item eaten regularly within a terrifying context in order to convey the horrors of war and to foreshadow the unbearable events that will befall the mother who is forced to abandon her babies by the side of the road.
This section also introduces the theme of identity and heritage. June is ashamed of her heritage, symbolized by the strange clothes that the mothers wear to the Joy Luck Club; June is uncomfortable looking at the "funny Chinese dresses with stiff stand-up collars and blooming branches of embroidered silk sewn over their breasts." She imagines that the Joy Luck Club is a "shameful Chinese custom, like the secret gathering of the Ku Klux Klan or the tom-tom dances of TV Indians preparing for war." However, when June accepts the Joy Luck Club's gift of $1200, she takes a first step toward fully discovering, accepting, and appreciating her Oriental heritage.
Interestingly, Tan herself and her friends have formed their own version of the Joy Luck Club. They call it "A Fool and His Money" and use the club as a forum where they can exchange investment tips.
she died just like a rabbit Suyuan's stroke occurred in her brain, killing her instantly, just as one would club a rabbit in the head — without warning. She had no symptoms. One moment she was alive; the next, she was dead.
her first marriage . . . before the Japanese came As early as 1920, Japan tried to conquer China. On September 18, 1931, they seized all of Manchuria. The following spring, they set up a puppet government, Manchukuo. In 1937, Japan and China plunged into full-scale war.
the Kuomintang From 1928 to 1949, the Kuomintang was the main political party of China; founded by Sun Yat-sen in 1911 and later led by General Chiang Kai-shek, it has been the main political party of Taiwan since 1949.
mah jong an ancient Chinese game introduced to America in 1920. The game is played with dice, racks, and 144 domino-like tiles, divided into seven suits — bamboos (bams), circles (dots), characters (cracks), dragons, winds, seasons, and flowers. The game is usually played by four people. After the tiles are mixed, each player builds a wall two tiles high and about seventeen tiles long. The walls are pushed together to form a square. Players take tiles from the square to form specific combinations.