The Joy Luck Club | Critical Essay by Walter Shear

This literature criticism consists of approximately 12 pages of analysis & critique of The Joy Luck Club.
This section contains 3,312 words
(approx. 12 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Walter Shear

SOURCE: "Generational Differences and the Diaspora in The Joy Luck Club," in Critique, Spring, 1993, pp. 193-99.

In the following essay, Shear analyzes the mother-daughter relationship in Tan's The Joy Luck Club.

Orville Schell's review of The Joy Luck Club for the New York Times emphasizes that those millions of Chinese who were part of the diaspora of World War II and the fighting that resulted in the triumph of the Communists were subsequently cut off from the mainland and after 1949 left to fend for themselves culturally. Though Schell is struck by the way this book renders the vulnerability of these Chinese women in America, the novel's structure in fact succeeds in manifesting not merely the individual psychic tragedies of those caught up in this history, but the enormous agony of a culture enmeshed in a transforming crisis. What each person's story conveys is the terror of a vulnerable human consciousness torn and rent in a culture's contortions; and although, like other Chinese-American books, this novel articulates "the urge to find a usable past," it is made up of a series of intense encounters in a kind of cultural lost and found.

The structure that presents this two-fold impression recalls works such as Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, Ernest Hemingway's In Our Time, and William Faulkner's The Unvanquished, books that feature distinct, individual narratives but that as a group simultaneously dramatize the panorama of a critical transition in cultural values. In The Joy Luck Club Tan organizes her material in terms of a generational contrast by segregating stories of mothers and their daughters. The separate story sections are divided into four parts with mother figures telling two stories, mostly concerned with their past in pre-1949 China, and their daughters telling two stories, one about growing up and one about a current family situation. The exception to this pattern is Jing-mei Woo, the daughter of the founder of the Joy Luck Club, who narrates a story in each of the four sections and who adds additional continuity by narrating the first and last section. Though all these people, for the most part, know one another, few of the stories involve contacts with anyone outside the immediate family group. While the daughters' stories usually involve their mothers, the mothers' stories tend to feature a distinct life, involving rather rigid family experiences in old China and their current relationship to their American daughters. By using the perspectives of both mothers and daughters, Tan initially seems to solve what Linda Hunt, examining Maxine Hong Kingston, describes as a basic problem for a Chinese-American woman: "being simultaneously insider (a person who identifies strongly with her cultural group) and outsider (deviant and rebel against that tradition), she cannot figure out from which perspective to speak."

Nevertheless, just as in The Woman Warrior, the communication barrier here is a double one, that between generations and that created by the waning influence of an older culture and the burgeoning presence of another. Jing-mei announces in the first section: "My mother and I never really understood one another. We translated each other's meanings and I seemed to hear less than what was said, while my mother heard more." Generally, the daughters tend to perceive cultural blanks, the absence of clear and definite answers to the problems of family, whereas the mothers tend to fill in too much, often to provide those kinds of cultural answers and principles that seem to empower them to make strong domestic demands on their daughters. Thus, as in Woman Warrior, the object of "confrontation" for a daughter is often the mother, "the source of authority for her and the most single powerful influence from China."

The mothers tend to depict themselves as, in a broad sense, students learning about the social realities around them and using their experiences to come to conclusions about essential forms of character strength and weakness. For example, one of the mothers, An-mei Hsu, seems to see in her own mother's suicide how to use the world for her own advantage. She not only traces how her mother makes the Chinese cultural beliefs work for her—"suicide is the only way a woman can escape marriage and gain revenge, to come back as a ghost and scatter tea leaves and good fortune"—but also she realizes almost immediately the acute significance of the words of her mother who tells her "she [the mother] would rather kill her own weak spirit so she could give me a stronger one."

Ying-ying St. Clair claims, "I have always known a thing before it happens." Her daughter tends to confirm at least an ironic version of her mother's acquired powers by adding, "She sees only bad things that affect our family." In at least one case the mother's knowledge is a gift passed to the daughter: Waverly Jong opens her story by claiming, "I was six when my mother taught me the art of invisible strength. It was a strategy for winning arguments, respect from others, and eventually, though none of us knew it at the time, chess games." In the last case the knowledge apparently blossoms from the mother's folk saying, "Bite back your tongue," and although Waverly regards it as a secret of her success in chess, she herself is finally a victim of her mother's more authoritarian deployment of the tactic, as it suddenly takes the form of simply ignoring her.

As the last interaction demonstrates, there is nearly always some tension in the exchange between mother and daughter, between old China and the new American environment. Most often the focus is either on a mother, who figures out her world, or on the daughters, who seem caught in a sophisticated cultural trap, knowing possibilities rather than answers, puzzling over the realities that seem to be surrounding them and trying to find their place in what seems an ambivalent world. Strangely, given the common problems presented, there is little concern with peer communication among the daughters. Jing-mei explains, "Even though Lena and I are still friends, we have grown naturally cautious about telling each other too much. Still, what little we say to one another often comes back in another guise. It's the same old game, everybody talking in circles." This difficulty in communication may simply be a consequence of living in what Schell describes as an "upwardly mobile, design-conscious, divorce-prone" world, but it also tends to convey a basic lack of cultural confidence on the part of daughters and thus a sense of their being thrown back into the families they have grown up in for explanations, validations, and identity reinforcement and definition.

Again, in the tradition of The Woman Warrior, The Joy Luck Club explores the subtle, perhaps never completely understood, influence of culture on those just beginning to live it. The mother-daughter tensions are both the articulation of the women's movement and the means of specifying the distinctness of Chinese and Chinese-American culture. As in Woman Warrior, behind the overt culture is odd intuition of a ghost presence, at times a sense of madness waiting at the edge of existence. It is an unseen terror that runs through both the distinct social spectrum experienced by the mothers in China and the lack of such social definition in the daughters' lives. In this context the Joy Luck Club itself is the determination to hope in the face of constantly altering social situations and continually shifting rules. The club is formed during the Japanese invasion of China, created by Jing-mei's mother as a deliberate defiance of the darkness of current events. With a mixture of desperation and frivolity, she and a group of friends meet, eat, laugh, tell stories, and play mah jong. She reasons, "we could hope to be lucky. That hope was our only joy." "It's not that we had no heart or eyes for pain. We were all afraid. We all had our miseries. But to despair was to wish back for something already lost. Or to prolong what was already unbearable."

It is the old China experience that manifests most definitely the enormous weight of fate in the lives of the characters. On the one hand, the constrictive burden is due to the position of women in that society. An-mei seems to regard the woman's role as an inescapable fate: "I was raised the Chinese way; I was taught to desire nothing, to swallow other people's misery, to eat my own bitterness. And even though I taught my daughter the opposite, still she came out the same way … she was born a girl. And I was born to my mother and I was born a girl. All of us are like stairs, one step after another, going up and down, but all going the same way." Another mother, Lindo Jong, is the victim of a marriage arranged when she was only a child. In her struggle to extricate herself from the situation, she does not blame her family who made such arrangements but the society, the town where she grew up, a place she claims is frozen in custom at a time when the rest of China was beginning to change. Although the old culture places the family at its heart, as the experience of the women in this revolutionary situation demonstrates, its attitude toward women begins in the more fluid modern world to tear away at this fundamental unit, making the difficulty of mother-daughter bonding a crucial problem for the culture as a whole.

Ying-ying St. Clair blames herself more than her circumstances, but it is her early social circumstances that structure the experience that so haunts her and cripples her psychically. Situated higher in the social scale of old China than the other members of the club, she seems to fall as a child into a subconscious state from which she never fully recovers, a state that in the social context may stand as a paradigm for individual nightmare in a fragmenting culture. Hers is an episode with a fantasy/folk flavor and a motif of dreaming, which seems to represent a naive, open but mechanical relationship to culture—opposed to a vital reciprocity of being. Ying-ying (the childhood nickname here may be intended to suggest the regressive nature of her trauma) describes her adventures on a boat cruise during the Moon festival, which in her account becomes a symbolic episode, a psychological drifting from the fundamental reality of family. While everyone else sleeps, the little Ying-ying watches in fascination as some boys use a bird with a metal ring around its neck to catch fish. The bird serves its purpose, catching the fish but being unable to swallow them, its social function thus symbolically dependent on an intensely personal, intensely perverse individual frustration.

Finally the boys leave, but Ying-ying stays, "as if caught in a good dream," to watch "a sullen woman" clean fish and cut off the heads of chickens and turtles. As she begins to come back to self-consciousness, she notices that her fine party clothes are covered with the mess of these deaths—"spots of bloods, flecks of fish scales, bits of feather and mud." In the strangeness of her panic, she tries to cover the spots by painting her clothes with the turtle's blood. When her Amah appears, the servant is angry and strips off her clothes, using words that the child has never heard but from which she catches the sense of evil and, significantly, the threat of rejection by her mother. Left in her underwear, Ying-ying is alone at the boat's edge, suddenly looking at the moon, wanting to tell the Moon Lady her "secret wish." At this key moment in her young life, she falls into the water and is about to be drowned when miraculously she finds herself in a net with a heap of squirming fish. The fishing people who have saved her are of a class known to her, but a group from which she has previously been shielded. After some initial insensitive jokes about catching her, they attempt to restore her to her family group by hailing a floating pavilion to tell those aboard they have found the lost child. Instead of the family appearing to reclaim her, Ying-ying sees only strangers and a little girl who shouts, "That's not me…. I'm here. I didn't fall in the water."

What seems a bizarre, comically irrelevant mistake is the most revealing and shocking moment of the story, for it is as if her conscious self has suddenly appeared to deny her, to cast her permanently adrift in a life among strangers. To some degree this acute psychic sense of and fear of being abandoned by the family is a basic reality for all the mothers in this book, each of whose stories involve a fundamental separation from family, an ultimate wedge of circumstances between mother and child.

Though Ying-ying is finally restored to her family, the shock of separation has become too intense a reality. She tries to explain, "even though I was found—later that night after Amah, Baba, Uncle, and the others shouted for me along the waterway—I never believed my family found the same girl." Her self-accusations at the beginning of this story become a miniature autobiography: "For all these years I kept my mouth closed so selfish desires would not fall out. And because I remained quiet for so long now my daughter does not hear me…. I kept my true nature hidden…." Later she accuses herself of becoming a ghost: "I willingly gave up my chi, the spirit that caused me so much pain." She fears that this abandonment of self has in some way been passed on to her daughter. "Now," she announces to herself, "I must tell my daughter everything. That she is the daughter of a ghost. She has no chi. This is my greatest shame. How can I leave this world without leaving her my spirit?" Her first narrative ends with her trapped in the legendary world of old China, still a child but with all the terrible insight into her later life: "I also remember what I asked the Moon Lady so long ago. I wished to be found."

The chi that she refers to may be impossible to render wholly into English, but it involves a fundamental self-respect, a desire to excel, a willingness to stand up for one's self and one's family, to demonstrate something to others. It may well be a quality that the daughters in the book lack, or that they possess in insufficient amounts. Veronica Wang states, "In the traditional Chinese society, women were expected to behave silently with submission but act heroically with strength. They were both sub-women and super-women." Possibly those cultural expectations, although almost totally erased in American culture, could still survive in residual roles when validated by a concept such as chi.

Whereas the major problem for the older generation had been the struggle against fate, the younger generation perceives their essential difficulty to involve the making of choices. The problem, as Rose Hsu Jordan defines it, is that America offers too many choices, "so much to think about, so much to decide. Each decision meant a turn in another direction." Like their mothers, many of the daughters are moving out or thinking of moving out, of family relationships, but such moves involve decisions about divorce, about whether their marriages are working out, about whether their husbands or future husbands fit into their lives.

One group of stories concerning the daughters features the struggle for maturity, a rather typical generational tension with the mothers. Perhaps surprisingly, the older women are for the most part not portrayed as pushing their daughters into an outmoded or inappropriate set of values and traditions, but they do insist on a basic cultural formulation. Lindo Jong's comments express a typical attitude: "I wanted my children to have the best combination: American circumstances and Chinese character." This sounds a note of compromise, but in reply to her daughter's declaration, "I'm my own person," she thinks, "How can she be her own person? When did I give her up?"

Curiously, in two instances, the generational tensions appear to have their origins in what seems a very American ambition. Waverly feels that her mother leeches off her chess achievements with an appropriating pride, and Jing-mei feels her mother, inspired by a competition with Waverly's mother as well as the belief that in America you could be anything you wanted, pushes her beyond her abilities, at least beyond her desires. The familiar cry "You want me to be someone that I'm not!" accelerates to "I wish I wasn't your daughter. I wish you weren't my mother." and finally to "I wish I'd never been born!… I wish I were dead! Like them." The "them" are the other daughters her mother had been forced to abandon in China. This story of Jing-mei moves toward the kind of muted conclusion typical of most of the daughter stories: "unlike my mother, I did not believe I could be anything I wanted to be, I could only be me." There is the sense that this "me" lacks some vital centering, the cultural force that would provide its chi.

In the context of cultural analysis, the happiness of the conclusion seems only partially earned by what has preceded it. And the fact that the return and the reunion with the two half-sisters reflect almost exactly the author's own experience suggests that there may be more than a little biographical intrusion here. Ultimately, however, the book's final cultural argument seems to be that there is always a possibility for the isolated "me" to return home. At one time Jing-mei notes, "in a crowd of Caucasians, two Chinese people are already like family." As she makes the return trip to China in the last story, she feels she is at last becoming Chinese. What she discovers in her reunion with her Chinese half-sisters, in her father's story of her mother's separation from these children and from the mother's first husband, and in the photograph of her and her sisters is a renewed sense of her dead mother. The mother's living presence in them is the feeling Jing-mei has been searching for, the feeling of belonging in her family and of being at last in the larger family of China. In this case the feeling of cultural wholeness grows out of and seems dependent on a sense of family togetherness, but the return to the mainland certainly suggests a larger symbolic possibility, one, however, that must still cope with the actual barriers of geography, politics, and cultural distinctness.

In contrast to the treatments of generational differences in earlier books such as Fifth Chinese Daughter, both Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan are empowered by current feminist ideas in their examinations of the Chinese-American woman's dilemma. In both The Woman Warrior and The Joy Luck Club, much of the focus springs out of the mother-daughter relationships and the way the diaspora has created a total contrast in the experiences of mother and daughter. Kingston's influential book tends to sort out the problems of a single "I" persona and is thus sharper in its dramatizations of the varied identity strands of a single individual, whereas Tan's multiplicity of first person narratives establishes a broader canvas with more feeling of fictional detachment between the reader and "I" and creates a voice for both generations. Both these authors testify to a rupture in the historical Chinese family unit as a result of the diaspora, but both seem to believe in a cultural healing. However, as her conclusion suggests, Tan seems to place more emphasis on the Chinese identity as the healing factor. Although perspectives are difficult to come by with contemporary work, the ability of both Kingston and Tan to render the experience of a culture through vividly dramatic individual narratives provides a sound basis for what seems to be a developing tradition of Chinese-American women's writing.

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This section contains 3,312 words
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Critical Essay by Walter Shear from Literature Criticism Series. ©2005-2006 Thomson Gale, a part of the Thomson Corporation. All rights reserved.