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Critical Essay by Bonnie Braendlin
SOURCE: "Mother/Daughter Dialog(ic)s in, around and about Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club," in Private Voices, Public Lives: Women Speak on the Literary Life, edited by Nancy Owen Nelson, University of North Texas Press, 1995, pp. 111-24.
In the following excerpt, Braendlin analyzes how the women's liberation movement has affected mother-daughter relationships, specifically focusing on the mother-daughter dialogics in Tan's The Joy Luck Club.
In the 1970s I became, almost simultaneously, a feminist teacher/critic and the mother of a daughter. While analyzing novels emerging from the Women's Liberation Movement, where daughters struggle to free themselves from enslaving ideologies of wife/motherhood, I tended to identify with the daughters and to deplore the maternal machinations of fictional mothers, often characterized as little more than co-opted wives in cahoots with domineering fathers to coerce rebellious daughters into traditional wife/mother roles. As a mother of a daughter in an era when feminism was demanding a place for women in male-dominated culture, I often felt the conflicts among my perceived duty to socialize her toward survival and success in a masculine world, my determination not to replicate my own mother, and my desire to be my own woman and to let my daughter be hers. And just as often my daughter seemed caught between her need for parental direction and her desire for independence….
Antagonisms between mothers and daughters in U.S. history and literature became particularly acute during and after the 1970s, when the women's movement—advocating equality in a man's world—defined subjectivity in masculinist terms that privileged independence, self-sufficiency, and autonomy at the expense of traditional "feminine" relational values of nurturing and caring. Because these values had been embodied in an ideology of motherhood defined and dominated for years by patriarchal males, daughters of the liberation movement viewed them as outdated restrictions foisted upon them by their retrograde mothers. Defining themselves in ways formerly allowed only to men, "liberated" daughters wanted to usurp the traditional son's position, to move out of the home and into the workplace, to climb the ladder of success….
Conflicts between mothers of one generation and daughters of another are inscribed in numerous texts of the liberation era, for instance Rita Mae Brown's Rubyfruit Jungle, Alice Walker's Meridian, Lisa Alther's Kinflicks, Margaret Atwood's Lady Oracle, and Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior, all published in the early to mid-seventies. In Kinflicks, independence for the daughter necessitates both divorce and rejection of her own child, and her mother's abrogation of maternal control. The novel represents maternal self-sacrifice as a fatal blood disease, implying that mothers must die in order for daughters to live. Hong Kingston's fictionalized autobiography also portrays the mother-daughter relationship as antagonistic and obstructive to female development, but she at least spares the mother, and at the end her "Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe" unites autonomy, nurturing, and artistry, albeit in a fantasy of utopian female solidarity….
In the eras following the women's liberation movement, we daughters of the seventies have become disillusioned with and conscious of our own co-option in masculinist ideologies and our efforts to replicate our fathers at the expense of maternal values; we've begun to identify with the mothers we had formerly rejected, thus complicating what formerly seemed to be a simple daughter versus mother conflict. Women can now, if they wish, be nurturing without being servile and can encourage men to care about others, protect and nourish relationships. In both fictional and critical texts, moreover, we are moving from antagonistic dialectic arguments—which were often (among critics and between mothers and daughters) really monovocal power plays—to more polyvocal, more dialogic, forms of spoken and written communication.
Dialogism, according to Mikhail Bakhtin, is the constant interaction among meanings expressed in spoken or written communication, insuring that no word, ideology, or discourse is privileged or remains privileged, even when it is supported by some kind of authority. In life, the development of individual subjectivity (personhood or self) occurs in the context of one's social and cultural languages (discourses); during the development process, when adolescents and young adults are encouraged—or coerced—into internalizing the discourses of their elders, conflicts arise because the new generation also resists becoming the old. But while individuation is the process by which a society indoctrinates its young into its value systems, it also creates a space for defiance of tradition and of choice among other, competing ideologies. Resistance to and re-evaluation of old values, coupled with new choices, introduce new voices into society; thus as the young grow up into adulthood, becoming modified versions of their parents, they promote and insure sociocultural change (if not, necessarily, progress). In the novel, Bakhtin suggests, the interaction among discourses appears as dialogues among characters, between an author and the characters, between readers and texts, and among various ideologies that permeate a work, linking text and contexts. Literary characters may be read as representing various subject positions, beliefs and behavior patterns that shift and change as the characters act and react within their fictional milieu. And we as readers interpret literature in the context of our own lives; who we are—our cultural, social, political, and psychological selves—guides our reading. Those selves, of course, change over time, modifying the way we read.
As my daughter grows up, I am changing as a mother, becoming less concerned about guiding her development and more willing to appreciate her as a fellow adult, a young woman who struggles to make her own decisions, to become the person she wants to be, while retaining something of her parents' values and mores. She, I can tell, vacillates between resistance to becoming like me and a desire to emulate those qualities in me she admires. And my reading of literature continues to be guided by my own experiences as a daughter/mother and also by my study of contemporary feminist theory. Increasingly, feminist authors, theorists and critics—as we wrestle with issues of gender, race, and class, of history, ideologies, and aesthetics—are calling into question binary oppositions such as culture/nature, male/female, and mother/daughter. Cultural feminist theorists are redefining these putatively "natural" oppositions as socially constructed and thus dependent upon consensus for their continued existence and also open to modifications. Not only have I changed as a reader and critic since the 1970s, but women-authored novels have changed as well, reflecting the increased diversity of American culture and the literary scene, as formerly marginalized and silenced women and ethnic groups voice their perspectives. Published in 1989, Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club both imitates and revises works like Kinflicks and The Woman Warrior, which antedate it by some fifteen years. Tan's novel depicts the socialization of young women as a dialogical process in which the mother/daughter opposition becomes more complicated, with mothers and daughters still antagonistic, but also more accepting of the similarities between generations. Instead of one daughter confronting one mother, Tan creates four mothers (three living and one deceased) and four daughters—contemporary young women caught in the marriage/motherhood discourse of western bourgeois capitalism. In conflict with their mothers, who embody marital/maternal ideologies of old China, the daughters express their desire for individuality and independence, often entailing divorces from marriages that entrap them in "other-defined" roles. While their mothers object to these separations and appear to coerce their daughters into remaining in marital "enslavement," their own stories of their early lives in China reveal a female desire for self-definition and resistance that transcends generations, closing generational gaps. And, unlike earlier novels where the daughters' stories predominated, even to the extent of eclipsing the mothers' autobiographies, The Joy Luck Club foregrounds the mothers as characters and narrators who tell their own stories….
The mother-daughter dialog(ic)s of Tan's novel inscribe various discourses, both traditional (for example, patriarchal ownership of women, the sacredness of motherhood) and resistant (as in the desire for independence and selfhood). These are not exclusively expressed by either the mothers or the daughters; although communication between the two is hindered by differences in language and social orientation, both mothers and daughters share inherited beliefs about wife/mother roles that empower and disempower women. Both are in conflict over simultaneous desires to comply with and to resist society's demands and definitions of women. And although the mothers feel compelled to persuade their daughters to accept prescribed marital and maternal duties, they too resist total compliance with demands made by these roles. Some readers of The Joy Luck Club complain that its ending, with daughters reunited with one another and with the spirit of the dead mother, is too easy, too simplistic, too utopian in light of the continued conflictual relationships between "real" mothers and daughters. As a feminist mother in the nineties, I read the ending of the novel, where Jing-Mei Woo holds her long-lost Chinese sisters in an embrace, as a resurrection and vindication of their dead mother, who longed to reunite her daughters, and as a rewriting of earlier novels where lone daughters repudiated their mothers' desires. Like Kinflicks, Tan's novel kills off a mother, but then replicates her in her daughter, creating a matrilinear genealogy of resemblances less utopian than that in The Woman Warrior. It can also be argued that closure in Tan's novel applies an Eastern philosophy of "both/and" to a Western predicament of either (daughter)/or (mother).
What I want to do in the remainder of this essay is to change the format to reflect the multiplicities of mother/daughter relationships and feminist readings of them in literature. As a feminist critic I object to the authoritarian word of the "fathers," the master scholars who appropriate knowledge, possess it, and (often reluctantly) give it over to their chosen initiates. Thus, instead of insisting upon a position as a mother who replicates the fathers by preaching the authoritative interpretation of a novel, I want to open my text to multiple voices and invite you as readers to interact with them, to participate in a dialog(ic) that "concerns the relations among persons articulating their ideas in response to one another, discovering their mutual affinities and oppositions, their provocations to reply, their desires to hear more, or their wishes to change the subject."
What follows is a scenario I have created as a dramatized pastiche of The Joy Luck Club. Imagine the table around which three of Tan's mothers and one daughter gather to play mah jong and to socialize the daughter into the mother role. Just as Tan increases the number of voices and hence complicates the socialization process by interpolating the stories of other mothers, grandmothers, and daughters, so I wish to complicate (but also illuminate) the issue of mother/daughter relations by gathering together around the table several women for a discussion, mixing in postmodern fashion textual figures and "real" people. I as moderator work to unify the group and focus the discussion, in much the same way as a mother might attempt to orchestrate a dining-table conversation (like Mrs. Ramsay in Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, for example) or as a novelist, according to Bakhtin, tries to orchestrate the "Tower of Babel mixing of languages," the "heteroglot voices among which [her] own voice must also sound" in her text.
By illuminating subtleties in the mother/daughter binary opposition, this polyvocal conversation suggests ways in which mothers and daughters may exchange and sometimes change their (and our) ideological positions and thus encourage a better understanding of one another's views. This dialog(ic) inescapably reinscribes but also defies the opposition—socially and textually constructed in the liberation era—through interchange of ideas and identities among women who both adhere to and resist traditional roles, who agree and disagree, exchanging roles and positions so "that [binary] oppositions are only apparent, that the alleged polarities inhabit each other." In the women's discussion, differences may not be resolved, but emerging similarities among the women call into question the divisive mother/daughter dichotomy that plagues intergenerational relationships.
My scenario opens Tan's text to a contextual dialogue that resists the closure of any one interpretation; in the end, there will be no resolution to the discussion or to the generational conflict. But I hope that through the exchanges and in the gaps and interstices between them, meanings will be made and interpretation enhanced by the participants, including you as reader. Here you may participate in the dialogue as one does in any conversation where speakers anticipate answers and exchange ideas, constructing meaning in the process; you are invited not to be "a person who passively understands but … one who actively answers and reacts," offering either "resistance or support," but in either case "enriching the discourse."
This section contains 2,072 words
(approx. 7 pages at 300 words per page)