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Critical Essay by Stephen Souris
SOURCE: "'Only Two Kinds of Daughters': Inter-Monologue Dialogicity in The Joy Luck Club," in MELUS, Vol. 19, No. 2, Summer, 1994, pp. 99-124.
In the following essay, Souris applies Wolfgang Iser's theory concerning multiple-narrator novels to Tan's The Joy Luck Club.
Amy Tan has said that she never intended The Joy Luck Club to be a novel. Instead, she thought of it as a collection of stories. But she did plan on having the stories cohere around a central theme, and she did plan the prefaces from the start, although they were written last. More importantly, her collection of first-person monologues participates in and contributes to a tradition of multiple monologue narratives. Since the precedent-setting experiments of Woolf and Faulkner—The Waves, The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Absalom, Absalom!—a number of interesting novels written in the decentered, multiple monologue mode have been published. Louise Erdrich's Tracks, Peter Matthiessen's Killing Mister Watson, Louis Auchincloss's The House of the Prophet, and Kaye Gibbons's A Virtuous Woman are just a few of the contemporary examples of this compelling genre.
Because of its decentered, multi-perspectival form, The Joy Luck Club invites analysis from critical perspectives that theorize and valorize fragmented, discontinuous texts and the possibilities of connection across segments. Mikhail Bakhtin may come to mind first because of his emphasis on and celebration of texts flaunting a diversity of fully valid and autonomous voices with relativistic and centrifugal consequences as well as counter-centrifugal tendencies such as the active intermingling of perspectives within single consciousnesses (what I call "intra-monologue dialogicity"). Tan's "novel" offers a heteroglot collection of very different, fully valid voices each presented from its own perspective, with relativistic and centrifugal implications. Moreover, its unique theme—mothers from China and their American-born daughters struggling to understand each other—allows for a rich array of dialogized perspectives within single utterances: the Chinese, the American, and the Chinese-American, all three of which can be discerned, to varying degrees, in the monologues.
My concern in this essay, however, will not be with the counter-centrifugal phenomenon of "intra-monologue dialogicity." Rather, it will be with what I call "inter-monologue dialogicity," or the potential for active intermingling of perspectives across utterances, with the site of the dialogicity located in the reader's experience of the narrative. Although Bakhtin has some provocative things to say about the dialogic potential of textual segments set side by side and even hints at the role a reader would have to play in establishing that dialogicity, his theory does not fully allow for a reader's moment-by-moment processing of a text. Wolfgang Iser picks up where Bakhtin leaves off regarding the counter-centrifugal dialogicity that can be said to exist between textual elements in a multiple narrator novel. It is with his narrative model that I propose to uncover and articulate the dialogic potential across monologues in The Joy Luck Club.
Iser's phenomenologically rigorous model of the act of reading is ideally suited to the pursuit and articulation of inter-monologue dialogicity in narratives modeled more or less after The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, or The Waves. Although The Act of Reading is a classic text in the reader-response school, a brief summary of the main points of Iser's theory will establish the context for my analysis of the potentially interacting structures of The Joy Luck Club.
Like other reader-response critics, Iser emphasizes the active involvement of the reader in the creation of meaning. For Iser, reading is a "dynamic happening" and is the product of a "dyadic interaction" between text and reader. "Meaning is an effect to be experienced," he asserts; it does not inhere in a literary work independent of the reading experience. For Iser, "literary texts initiate 'performances' of meaning rather than actually formulating meanings themselves." Meaning for Iser is "text-guided though reader-produced." What a reader encounters in processing a text are "instructions for the production of the signified."
Iser's emphasis on the reader's active involvement with the text does not allow for the extreme subjectivism that Norman Holland and David Bleich allow for in their theories. As such, Iser's model is relatively conservative because it insists that all concretizations be "intersubjectively" valid: "The subjective processing of a text is generally still accessible to third parties, i.e., available for intersubjective analysis." Indeed, the reason for restricting the creative activity of the reader is to allow for observations that can be agreed upon across subjectivities: "One task of a theory of aesthetic response is to facilitate intersubjective discussion of individual interpretations." To that end, Iser distinguishes between "meaning" and "significance": "meaning" is what all readers who are properly following the "instructions for the production of the signified" should arrive at; "significance" concerns how a particular reader might apply that meaning to his or her own life. But the emphasis in Iser's model is always with the processing of textual elements rather than the production of a detachable message, as he indicates by asserting that "what is important to readers, critics, and authors alike is what literature does and not what it means."
In calling for an "erotica of art" (following Sontag), and in inviting the reader to "climb aboard" the text, Iser emphasizes the moment-by-moment experience of what a text "does" to the reader. He refers to the reader's "wandering viewpoint" because of this emphasis on the temporal experience of a text. "The wandering viewpoint," he argues, "divides the text up into interacting structures, and these give rise to a grouping activity that is fundamental to the grasping of a text." These interactive structures are conceptually apprehended as a gestalt. Any perspective of the moment—or "theme," in his terminology—is apprehended against the backdrop of a previous "theme," which becomes the "horizon." For Iser, responding to the textual prompts as "instructions for the production of the signified" amounts to actively recalling previous moments and allowing them to enter into significant combinations with present moments. Or, since his model allows for readers rereading, any present moment can be creatively paired up with a moment one remembers will be encountered later in the text. Constantly creating foreground/background Gestalten, an Iserian reader's experience of a text is very three dimensional. But each theme/horizon concretization is temporary and may have to be modified as other Gestalten are experienced. Iser expresses this complex concept thusly: "The structure of theme and horizon constitutes the vital link between text and reader … because it actively involves the reader in the process of synthesizing an assembly of constantly shifting viewpoints, which not only modify one another, but also influence past and future syntheses in the reading process." Iser illustrates the concept of constantly modifying one's concretizations by comparing the reading experience to a cybernetic feedback loop. Because of this experiential emphasis, he can assert that "the text can never be grasped as a whole, only as a series of changing viewpoints, each one restricted in itself and so necessitating further perspectives."
"Gaps" or "blanks" (Unbestimmtsheitsstellen) provide the impetus for the creation of a theme/horizon gestalt by inviting the reader to respond to an interruption in the flow or exposition with a meaning-creating pairing. "Wherever there is an abrupt juxtaposition of segments there must automatically be a blank," he argues, "breaking the expected order of the text." Iserian gaps have been explained as "conceptual spaces" between textual elements that allow for reader ideation. According to Iser, "Gaps are bound to open up, and offer a free play of interpretation for the specific way in which the various views can be connected with one another. These gaps give the reader a chance to build his own bridges." But gaps do not really allow for "free play"; the reader must engage in "intersubjectively" valid concretizations: "The structured blanks of the text stimulate the process of ideation to be performed by the reader on terms set by the text. The concept of Unbestimmtsheitsstellen, or gaps, is Iser's central trope for figuring the active reader involvement required by the reading experience.
The final concept to summarize before applying Iser's phenomenologically precise model of the reading process to Tan's Joy Luck Club is negativity. For Iser, the depiction of anything unattractive or deformed automatically causes the reader to imagine a positive counterbalance. This is another kind of gap, then: deformity creates a space in which the active reader compensates for the unattractive depiction with the imagining of a more positive situation or character.
Iser's unusual sensitivity to the moment-by-moment construction of the text by a reader makes his theory especially relevant to fragmented texts. Indeed, he "valorizes the discontinuous work" that is full of gaps. This can be seen in his comments on Ulysses, The Sound and the Fury, and Humphrey Clinker in The Implied Reader and The Act of Reading.
Reading The Joy Luck Club in the context of Iser's elaborately worked out theory and his remarks on fragmented, multi-perspectival texts require paying attention to the way in which a reader's moment-by-moment processing of the text confers a centripetal coherence upon a potentially chaotic, centrifugal collection. We need to ask how the discontinuous nature of the narrative (the gaps between sections, in particular) impels the reader to establish Gestalten that are multiple, constantly shifting, and thematically suggestive. We need to look for ways in which initial constructions of foreground/background configurations have to be revised as additional text is encountered. And we need to ask where the line can be drawn between responses that are "intersubjectively" valid and those that range beyond what can be agreed upon intersubjectively.
The segmented presentation of The Joy Luck Club allows for many combinational possibilities. I will present some of the most salient Gestalten; other foreground/background paintings will, no doubt, suggest themselves based on the examples I offer.
One way Gestalten can be created is through juxtapositions of contiguous and non-contiguous monologues. With contiguously placed utterances that "speak to" each other, the side-by-side placement of monologues with common denominators, or, to use Bakhtin's term, "semantic convergence," constitutes an overt invitation to the reader to explore the dialogic potential between the monologues. In these cases, the gap between the sections, which always invites a reflective pause, ensures that a rereading reader will make the connection (although the reader still deserves credit for making the connection).
The first cluster of four monologues provides us with some examples of meaningful juxtapositions, both contiguous and non-contiguous.
In the opening monologue of the novel, Jing-mei (June) offers comments on both Ying-ying and An-mei that color our attitude toward those two. Of Ying-ying, she says that the aunt "seems to shrink even more every time I see her." A few pages later, she adds to this unflattering picture by reporting what her mother thought of Ying-ying. "'Oh, I have a story,' says Auntie Ying loudly, startling everybody. Auntie Ying has always been the weird auntie, someone lost in her own world. My mother used to say, 'Auntie Ying is not hard of hearing. She is hard of listening.'"
A few monologues later, we meet Ying-ying from her own point of view. Her account of the traumatic experience of falling off her family's boat and, more generally, growing up in a wealthy family without much contact with her mother, sets up a meaningful gestalt with Jing-mei's comments. On first reading, June's unappreciative comments prejudice us against Ying-ying as the "weird" one; when we read her own account of her childhood and pair that with Jing-mei's words, we realize Jing-mei's account is reductive. On the outside she may appear to be shrinking, and she may appear "hard of listening" on the inside she has a story to tell that helps explain why she is the way she is. The experience of this gestalt, which shifts depending on one's position in the text (June's words as foreground, Ying-ying's monologue as background, or the latter's monologue as foreground, and June's unappreciative words as background), points out to the reader that greater understanding can lead to greater appreciation and tolerance.
June also comments on An-mei in an unappreciative manner, reporting what her mother has said of An-mei. This allows for the establishment of another theme/horizon configuration.
"She's not stupid," said my mother on one occasion, "but she has no spine…."
"Auntie An-mei runs this way and that," said my mother, "and she doesn't know why."
As I watch Auntie An-mei, I see a short bent woman in her seventies, with a heavy bosom and thin, shapeless legs. She has the flattened soft fingertips of an old woman.
When we meet An-mei in "Scar," immediately after June's opening monologue, we realize that her childhood helps explain why she appears to have no spine. Her moving account of her painful separation from her mother and the traumatic circumstances resulting in her throat scar establishes a context for her apparent spinelessness; it adds to the outer appearance of weakness a story that makes the reductive labeling inadequate to the human reality. This juxtaposition would be interesting even if An-mei herself said she did not have spine: the theme/horizon juxtaposition would make for a poignant realization in the reader's mind of the subjective, limited nature of understanding, with An-mei's terrible childhood, on the one hand, helping to explain why she behaves the way she does, and the unsympathetic, reductive pigeonholing by Suyuan, on the other, typifying the overly reductive manner in which we often sum people up.
The theme/horizon gestalt produced and experienced by the reader following the textual prompts is further enhanced, however, when it is remembered that An-mei thinks she herself does have spine, and that her daughter Rose is the one who is weak. Rose tells us in "Without Wood": "My mother once told me why I was so confused all the time. She said I was without wood. Born without wood so that I listened to too many people. She knew this, because once she had almost become this way." June's mother, Suyuan, who was a bold woman, may have thought that An-mei lacked spine; An-mei, who is proud of having stood up for herself after her mother died, thinks that her daughter lacks "wood": what results is a vivid realization in the mind of the reader who is alert to the potential dialogicity between textual segments that some things are entirely relative.
Another kind of inter-monologue dialogicity in the first cluster of four monologues consists of a triptych of personality difference the monologues of An-mei, Lindo, and Ying-ying. At the center of this trio of self-portraits is a remarkably bold and strong individual who managed to extract herself from a repressive situation cleverly and diplomatically so that everyone benefited. Lindo's resourcefulness and boldness is framed by two portraits of passivity and weakness: An-mei and Ying-ying are victims of their childhood circumstances. As we move from An-mei's "Scar" to Lindo's "Red Candle," we are impressed with the very different responses to repressive circumstances; as we move from Lindo's "Red Candle" to Ying-ying's "Moon Lady" we return to the perspective of a victim. One specific gestalt the reader is invited to create between Lindo's "Red Candle" to Ying-ying's "Moon Lady" revolves around the "semantic convergence" (using Bakhtin's phrase) of losing and finding oneself. Lindo tells us that she discovered her inner power through an epiphany:
I asked myself. What is true about a person? Would I change in the same way the river changes color but still be the same person? And then I saw the curtains blowing wildly, and outside rain was falling harder, causing everyone to scurry and shout. I smiled. And then I realized it was the first time I could see the power of the wind. I couldn't see the wind itself, but I could see it carried the water that filled the rivers and shaped the countryside. It caused men to yelp and dance.
I wiped my eyes and looked in the mirror. I was surprised at what I saw. I had on a beautiful red dress, but what I saw was even more valuable. I was strong. I was pure. I had genuine thoughts inside that no one could see, that no one could ever take away from me. I was like the wind.
I threw my head back and smiled proudly to myself. And then I draped the large embroidered red scarf over my face and covered these thoughts up. But underneath the scarf I still knew who I was. I made a promise to myself: I would always remember my parents' wishes, but I would never forget myself.
This remarkable passage about self-discovery and self-assertion in the midst of repression can be set in dialogue with the concluding passage in Ying-ying's monologue following Lindo's, where Ying-ying tells us that the most important moment of her childhood was when she lost herself:
Now that I am old, moving every year closer to the end of my life, I … feel closer to the beginning. And I remember everything that happened that day [the day she fell into the water] because it has happened many times in my life. The same innocence, trust, and restlessness, the wonder, fear, and loneliness. How I lost myself.
I remember all these things. And tonight, on the fifteenth day of the eighth moon, I also remember what I asked the Moon Lady so long ago. I wished to be found.
These contiguously placed monologues with a common denominator of finding or losing one's self enter into a dialogicity of difference with the reader as the agent and site of the dialogicity. The result is to enhance the range of personalities offered: the mothers, for all their similarities, are indeed very different, as comparisons such as the one just made establish. Tan succeeds in achieving a truly diverse and heteroglot range of mothers's perspectives in The Joy Luck Club.
Another example of a counter-centrifugal gestalt the reader is invited to create from contiguously placed monologues consists of a pairing of Lena's worries in "Rice Husband" with Waverly's worries in "Four Directions." In this third quartet of monologues, both Lena and Waverly express frustration over their meddlesome mothers. In "Rice Husband," Lena is apprehensive about her mother's visit, fearing that her mother will perceive that her relationship with Harold is flawed. Ying-ying has an unusual ability to sense trouble and even predict calamity.
During our brief tour of the house, she's already found the flaws…. And it annoys me that all she sees are the bad parts. But then I look around and everything she's said is true. And this convinces me she can see what else is going on, between Harold and me. She knows what is going to happen to us.
Knowing that there is something wrong with the rigid policy she and Harold follow of sharing all costs equally, she is afraid her mother will confront her with a truth she does not want to admit. Waverly, on the other hand, is worried that her mother will poison her relationship with Rich the way Lindo poisoned her marriage with her previous husband, Marvin. Lindo had effectively ruined the gift of a fur coat Rich had given Waverly: "Looking at the coat in the mirror, I couldn't fend off the strength of her will anymore, her ability to make me see black where there was once white, white where there was once black. The coat looked shabby, an imitation of romance." Lindo has destroyed something that Waverly took pleasure in. Likewise, she is apprehensive that Lindo will undermine her love for Rich.
I already knew what she would do, how she would be quiet at first. Then she would say a word about something small, something she had noticed, and then another word, and another, each one flung out like a little piece of sand, one from this direction, another from behind, more and more, until his looks, his character, his soul would have eroded away. And even if I recognized her strategy, her sneak attack, I was afraid that some unseen speck of truth would fly into my eye, blur what I was seeing and transform him from the divine man I thought he was into someone quite mundane, mortally wounded with tiresome habits and irritating imperfections.
Whereas Ying-ying will confront Lena with something Lena should deal with, Lindo will insidiously undermine the love Waverly has for Richard, thus poisoning her relationship. The gestalt that the text invites the reader to create from these contiguously placed monologues counters the centrifugal tendency of this decentered text by setting into an aesthetically meaningful dialogue these two very different kinds of apprehension. This linkage across monologues works to point out the difference between the two daughters—thus enhancing the heteroglot nature of the multi-voiced narrative even as it creates coherence across fragments through the essential similarity.
In Bakhtinian terms, we might think of Lena's and Waverly's apprehensions as entering into a dialogic relationship of similarity. Bakhtin points out in Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics that there can be a dialogicity between two speakers uttering the same words—"Life is good"—depending on the particular nuances each gives to the utterance from embodied and distinct reference points. Simple disagreement can be less dialogic than agreement, he points out. We might say that Lena declares, "Mothers are meddlesome," and that Waverly concurs with "Mothers are meddlesome"; the reader is the agent and the site of the dialogic engagement of these two essentially similar, yet very different, complaints.
My final example of counter-centrifugal Gestalten created from contiguously placed monologues is the triptych of three mothers in the final cluster. An-mei's "Magpies," Ying-ying's "Waiting Between the Trees," and Lindo's "Double Face" all present the reader with a mother who wants desperately to reach out and establish a connection with her daughter—in spite of the disagreements and conflicts. Each mother hopes to establish a closer relationship by telling her a story. And each mother is shown with a story to tell. Each mother offers the second installment of her life story: An-mei tells what it was like living with her mother as Fourth Wife; Ying-ying describes her marriage in China, the murder of her child, and her marriage to her current husband; and Lindo tells about how she left China and came to the United States. In each case, however, it appears that the actual communication does not occur. Tan's multiple monologue novel seems to participate in the convention of having speakers speak into the void—or to the reader as audience. No actual communication between mothers and daughters occurs. Presented with these three monologues, the reader is invited to establish the connection between them. The dialogicity of similarity in this gestalt, where each theme of the moment can be set against one or both of the other monologues as the horizon, is a powerfully persuasive method of arguing on behalf of the mothers. No narrative voice need announce that mothers should be listened to; the narrative makes the reader poignantly aware of the distance between each mother and daughter by showing the unbridged gap between them and the potential for sharing and communication that is only partially realized. This triptych of well-meaning mothers who want to pass on something to their daughters is another example of how there can be dialogic potential between similar utterances (as in "Life is good," "Life is good") in a multiple narrator novel, with the reader's consciousness as the site of the inter-monologue dialogicity.
So far, my discussion of the counter-centrifugal Gestalten created by the reader has focused on the pairing of "themes" (Iser's term for perspectives of the moment) that are already presented by the narrative in a relationship through simple contiguous juxtaposition. It is also possible to consider Gestalten that a reader's wandering viewpoint might create from "themes" that are not already set side-by-side. These juxtapositions might be called conceptual rather than contiguous (although even with side-by-side placement, the resulting gestalt must be a creation in the reader's mind and thus conceptual).
The pairings possible with monologues from Lena and Ying-ying are examples of the interesting Gestalten creatable from non-contiguous monologues. We might take Lena's "The Voice from the Wall" as a starting point. Her perspective on her mother is entirely unappreciative here; she has no understanding or sympathy—and how could she, since Ying-ying's past is never talked about ("My mother never talked about her life in China, but my father said he saved her from a terrible life there, some tragedy she could not speak about."). She presents her mother as psychologically imbalanced. She thinks of her mother as a "Displaced Person," using a photograph taken after the scared woman was released from Angel Island Immigration Station to represent her personality:
In this picture you can see why my mother looks displaced. She is clutching a large clam-shaped bag, as though someone might steal this from her as well if she is less watchful. She has on an ankle-length Chinese dress…. In this outfit she looks as if she were neither coming from nor going to someplace….
My mother often looked this way, waiting for something to happen, wearing this scared look. Only later she lost the struggle to keep her eyes open.
We realize that Ying-ying's troubled mental state must have impinged negatively on Lena as she grew up, and we sympathize with her for that. But as readers who are privileged to know the inner thoughts of every character, we can balance off that perspective with what we know from Ying-ying's "Moon Lady" monologue, where we learn about the childhood trauma that has clearly affected her personality. And from "The Voice from the Wall," we can look forward, as well, and set Lena's frustration with her mother's aberrational personality against "Waiting Between the Trees": in this moving monologue, Ying-ying reveals a side of herself that Lena would be surprised to learn about. The Ying-ying we meet here is completely unknown to her daughter.
So I will tell Lena of my shame. That I was rich and pretty. I was too good for any one man. That I became abandoned goods. I will tell her that at eighteen the prettiness drained from my cheeks. That I thought of throwing myself in the lake like the other ladies of shame. And I will tell her of the baby I killed because I came to hate this man so much.
I took this baby from my womb before it could be born. This was not a bad thing to do in China back then, to kill a baby before it is born. But even then, I thought it was bad, because my body flowed with terrible revenge as the juices of this man's firstborn son poured from me.
When the nurses asked what they should do with the lifeless baby, I hurled a newspaper at them and said to wrap it like a fish and throw it in the lake. My daughter thinks I do not know what it means to not want a baby.
When my daughter looks at me, she sees a small old lady. That is because she sees only with her outside eyes. She has no chuming, no inside knowing of things. If she had chuming, she would see a tiger lady. And she would have careful fear.
This set of Gestalten—"Voices" and "Moon Lady," "Voices" and "Waiting"—points out the relativity theme that this multiple narrator novel, like many, proposes. The very structure and narrative mode of the novel suggest that we appreciate the subjective nature of perception there is in Lena's thinking of her mother as a Displaced Person and Ying-ying's thinking of herself as a "Tiger Woman." However, The Joy Luck Club differs from other radically decentered multiple narrator novels such as As I Lay Dying and, more recently, Auchincloss's The House of the Prophet or Matthiessen's Killing Mister Watson—in that it does not insist on absolute epistemological relativism. The reader who actively pairs momentary "themes" realizes that there is more to Ying-ying than Lena's "Displaced Person" label allows for; the reader senses the potential for dialogue between mother and daughter that fails to take place.
This repeated failure for mother and daughter to enter into meaningful exchange is effectively represented through another Lena/Ying-ying gestalt: the pairing of Lena's "Rice Husband" monologue with Ying-ying's "Waiting Between the Trees." In "Waiting," Ying-ying is apparently about to cause the unstable table to fall, sending the vase crashing to the floor. She hopes to attract her daughter's attention and get her to come into the room where Ying-ying can talk to her. Ying-ying clearly wants to use it as the occasion to tell Lena everything she has wanted to tell her and to pass on her chi to her daughter. But in "Rice Husband," five monologues prior to "Waiting," the vase has already crashed to the floor and mother and daughter have already had their moment together. From what Lena reports in "Rice Husband," nothing came of the encounter. Tan's use of the unstable table as a common denominator across the two monologues constitutes an effective exercise in triangulation, a common technique in multiple narrator novels to demonstrate (usually) the subjective nature of perception.
Another example of triangulation that prompts the reader to create a gestalt pairing two monologues that have a common denominator occurs with An-mei's "Magpies" and Rose's "Without Wood." The common denominator inviting a pairing of the monologues is Rose's psychiatrist. This gestalt is an especially interesting one for the novel because of the way it foregrounds the distance between the traditionally minded Chinese mother living in the United States and the American-born daughter who has embraced many American ways. From the American perspective, it is normal and even stylish for Rose to see a psychiatrist; from the Chinese perspective, seeing a psychiatrist is incomprehensible; indeed, An-mei might even regard it as bringing shame upon the family. An-mei's "Magpies" begins and ends with her complete dismissal of the idea of seeing a psychiatrist; she does not approve of Rose's seeing one. But this conceptual gestalt—"Without Wood" and "Magpies" on the issue of seeing a psychiatrist—is more interesting than just the representation of complete lack of understanding on the part of mother and daughter. Rose actually does stop seeing her shrink—and she's better off because of it. She stops talking to other people as well, which her mother recommended. After a prolonged period of isolation and sleep—three days—she emerges defiant, ready to take on Ted. She thus relies on her own inner strength and faces up to Ted, which is just what her mother wanted her to do. However, she reaches this point on her own, not by simply listening to her mother (her mother's alternative to seeing a psychiatrist is the daughter simply listening to the mother's advice). And confronting Ted seems to have unleashed a realization at a deeper, psychic level about the abusive nature of her mother, as well. In her dream, her mother is planting weeds in her garden that are running wild.
Another example of how non-contiguous "themes" can be set into a gestalt through the active memory and conceptual pairing activity of an Iserian reader is the linkage of the moments of self-assertion throughout the novel. This involves a series of linkages, with several possible pairings, or even one mega-gestalt. Rose's self-assertion in "Without Wood" can be linked up with June's in "Two Kinds," An-mei's in "Magpies" (where her self-assertion after the death of her mother is described), and Lindo's in "The Red Candle" (where she describes the epiphany that led her to her ruse, as previously discussed). Here we have another example of the dialogic potential of similar utterances: each of these women has had to assert herself in the face of some kind of oppression; in spite of their differences, they are united on this theme, but each has a different nuance to give to the statement, "I have had to assert myself."
Another way in which The Joy Luck Club invites through its discontinuous form the creative work of a reader pairing segments into order—conferring Gestalten in response to textual prompt—is with the four prefaces. They serve, much like the interludes in The Waves, as a universalizing backdrop against which to see the particularized monologues. Each monologue can be set against the preface, and each cluster can be taken as an Iserian "theme" set against the "horizon" of the respective preface. The prefaces also help the reader pick up on what Tan calls the "emotional curve" of each "quartet."
The prelude to Part One, "Feathers From a Thousand Li Away," presents in fable-like form a nameless Chinese woman who emigrated to America with hopes that she'd have a daughter who would lead a better life than was possible for a woman in China. The Chinese woman is full of good intentions and hopes for that daughter. But her relationship with her daughter is characterized by distance and lack of communication. The following four monologues reveal mothers who bemoan the distance to their daughters but who had good intentions. This prefatory piece, then, helps us organize the four very different opening monologues around that "emotional curve," which serves as a horizon against which the monologues can be apprehended.
The preface to Part Two, "The Twenty-Six Malignant Gates," helps organize the way we think about the daughters's monologues in that section by suggesting that Chinese mothers can be overbearing in their attempts to protect and control their daughters, and that this will result in rebelliousness on the part of their daughters, as well as misfortune. This brief fable-like anecdote manages to encapsulate the dynamics of the monologues that follow and helps us organize the disparate elements of those monologues around the implied criticism of overprotective, overbearing mothers. If the first preface prepares us to be sympathetic towards the mothers, this second preface prepares us to be sympathetic towards the daughters as we read each monologue against that preface as a backdrop.
The preface to Part Three, "American Translation," also enters into a dialogic relationship with the monologues of that section through the gestalt-producing activity of the reader. Introducing another round of daughters's monologues, it presents us with a mother who appears to be overbearing in her desire for a grandchild. She insists that her daughter mount a mirror on the wall for good luck. The mother sees her grandchild in the mirror; the daughter sees only "her own reflection looking back at her." Tan seems to be suggesting with this the theme of conflicting perspectives and the struggle between daughters and mothers—a theme that is seen in the monologues that follow. Mothers see one thing; daughters see something entirely different. But the metaphor here is actually relevant only to the daughters's perspective: it suggests that mothers project their own subjective preferences upon what they see whereas daughters see objectively, which is itself a distorted notion. From the mothers's perspective, they see clearly and daughters distort reality. Because this preface is designed to make us sympathetic to the daughters, it is slanted towards them; the "emotional curve" is with the daughters.
A dialogic relationship also exists between the final fable-like preface and the final four monologues when the gestalt-creating capacity of the reader is called upon. The preface gives shape to the monologues that follow by presenting a mother who has a grandchild and who is treated sympathetically: she is self-critical and hopeful for her daughter, wishing that her daughter can learn "how to lose [her] innocence but not her hope." Very sympathetic to the mother, this preface prepares us to organize the monologues we are about to encounter in a manner that is sympathetic to the mothers. Reading each monologue in this cluster against the backdrop of the fourth preface helps establish the thematic point.
The Gestalten the reader creates from the four prefatory pieces thus confer considerable order upon what might at first appear to be a dizzying display of very different personalities, even with the common denominator of Chinese mothers and Chinese-American daughters. Like The Waves, The Joy Luck Club sets monologues against third-person interludes that function by suggesting a universal backdrop to the series of individualized voices; unlike The Waves, however, which uses nature as the universal backdrop, The Joy Luck Club prefaces use nameless human figures and abstract situations to suggest general truths.
Although the narrative invites the reader to establish all sorts of specific pairings between contiguous and non-contiguous monologues, the fundamental Gestalten, of course, consist of pairings of mothers collectively and daughters collectively. The daughters complaining about their mothers can be gathered together as one gestalt, with each daughter set against another daughter or the rest of the daughters. Presenting the daughters together in the middle two quartets encourages this kind of pairing. The mothers complaining about their daughters can be gathered together as well, with each complaining mother set against any other or the group. The narrative's most basic gestalt is that of mothers apprehended against the backdrop of daughters, or daughters apprehended against the backdrop of mothers. Among the daughters and among the mothers there is a dialogicity of sameness that consists of a fundamental similarity with individual nuances.
The narrative steers the reader, however, towards a particular kind of gestalt consisting of mothers's and daughters's perspectives; we have more than just an array of different perspectives with combinational possibilities among them. The daughters's positions, however understandable and valid, are enclosed and framed by the mothers's positions; however unreasonable or narrow-minded the mothers may seem in their attempts to impose their wills on their daughters, the narrative's structure, which invites the reader to apprehend the daughters against the backdrop of mothers, gives the mothers the upper hand in the argument. The three mothers presented before Jing-mei's closing monologue acquire a critical mass; their voices add up to an overwhelming appeal to respect the life experience and wishes of the mothers. Amy Ling's observation that the book "more often takes a sympathetic stand toward the mother" is a sound assessment because of the shape Tan gives the collection by allowing the mothers to have the final say.
The reader's processing of the four quartets over time necessitates changing initial assessments and thus illustrates Iser's concept of reading as a feedback loop requiring the revision of Gestalten. The Iserian reader's primary activity and response consists of creatively pairing different sections or moments into meaningful Gestalten and then revising initial constructions when new material is encountered. The clustering of monologues into quartets tempts the reader into certain judgments that must be revised as more of the text is encountered (upon an initial reading): the first cluster biases us towards the parents; the second and third clusters make us more sympathetic to the daughters; the final cluster ensures that the mothers get the upper hand in the debate, even though the daughters are given a very full hearing. The various foreground/background conceptual structures (and Gestalten from contiguously placed monologues are conceptual as well as Gestalten from non-contiguous monologues) can be created during an initial reading, or upon rereading (which allows one to reach forward as well as backwards from any present moment of reading).
Iser's concept of negativity, another kind of "gap," also applies to The Joy Luck Club. The reader is poignantly aware of the potential for greater communication and understanding, but only in the reader's mind is the dialogicity between positions uncovered and experienced. The mothers and daughters are speaking into a void, not to each other (I read the occasional use of the second person in some of the monologues as an aside to an imagined audience, not an actual audience). Thus the narrative form and the thematic point complement each other. The result of this depiction of failed communication is that the reader, through the process of "negativity," is motivated to imagine a healthier response. Although the narrative provides a solution to the dilemma in the final chapter, the reader's experience before the final chapter of the failure to communicate ensures that the reader will be motivated to avoid such incommunicative relationships in his or her own life.
At this point I would like to address the issue of closure in The Joy Luck Club. Although depicting in the final chapter an answer to the problem of non-communication demonstrated up to the ending may seem like the perfect way for Tan to conclude, I have had difficulty accepting what seemed to me to be an overly sentimental and facile resolution. I would like to present my initial assessment of this issue and then attempt to move beyond that resisting response with a more accepting reading of the ending. My purpose in presenting my own experience with the issue of closure in The Joy Luck Club is to foreground various issues that I believe are important for an understanding of Tan's book.
In my 1992 study of contemporary American multiple narrator novels, I summed up my discomfort with June's novel-ending monologue thusly:
My sense, when viewing The Joy Luck Club in the context of other multiple narrator novels, is that the book is at odds with itself. The various monologues of mothers and daughters, monologues that foreground difference—indeed, that flaunt discrepancy, conflict and relativism—set in motion a centrifugality that cannot so easily be overcome. The happy ending … [is] not true to the heteroglot diversity actually revealed throughout the text…. In my experience of The Joy Luck Club, the Suyuan/Jing-mei reconciliation is not convincing, and there clearly is no final reconciliation between all the mothers and daughters. Thus, as I see it, the attempt to reign in the heteroglossia does not do justice to the resonating diversity; that diversity actually eludes subduing through the kind of reductive thematic reading [that the ending invites].
I then pointed out the similarity between my observation about closure in The Joy Luck Club and Dale Bauer's comment about the novels she analyzes in her Feminist Dialogics. In Bauer's Bakhtin-inspired uncovering of repressed heteroglossia, she observes that "while the plot resolutions give closure to the novels, the dialogue resists that closure." I continued my attempt to articulate my discomfort with the ending by arguing that the process Iser terms "negativity" is sufficient to make the thematic point without a heavy-handed ending.
The reader's sense of the poignancy inherent in a situation where mothers and daughters do not communicate as fully as they might in itself implies a remedy, in itself motivates the reader to imagine a solution—one that would accommodate the needs of both mothers and daughters…. The Joy Luck Club interferes with the imagined affirmation by prodding the reader too much. It is one thing to show Waverly, at the close of "Four Directions," attempting to impose an artificial, superficial pleasantness on her deeply problematic relationship with her mother by thinking about taking her mother with her on her honeymoon that reveals an interesting split within this particular consciousness; it is another matter to have Tan … [impose] a superficial sense of harmony at the end of the book that does not do justice to the actual diversity and conflict between the covers. The collection of stories is full of moral potential without the heavy-handed ending simply through its presentation of multiple voices, artistically organized.
My having been immersed in Bakhtin, Iser, and Faulkner at the time contributed to my lack of appreciation for the way this novel ends. Bakhtin's take on the novel as a genre is one that privileges the flaunting of diverse perspectives that, while dialogized, are never resolved into harmonious agreement or simple synthesis. His insistence on "unfinalizability" led me to privilege open-ended multiple narrator novels over those with strong closure. Iser's model led me to privilege texts that allow the reader to establish the thematic point without having it boldly announced. And my reading of Faulkner's own multiple narrator novels likewise biased me. As I Lay Dying, for example, while providing a sense of ending, flaunts diversity and discrepancy across subjectivities; it revels in the diverse viewpoints and the isolated personalities. The Sound and the Fury, too, while offering closure, resists its own ending and the thematic answer it provides (through Dilsey) to the problem of the solipsistic ego epitomized by the Quentin and Jason monologues. Faulkner, as I read him, is more interested in the poetic potential of pathology than in offering any thematic proposition about life.
My effort to rethink my initial response to the strong sense of closure in The Joy Luck Club involves a number of considerations based on feedback about this response from other scholars and my own students.
One of those considerations is gender. The "sentimental" ending of the novel may simply evoke different responses from male and female readers. With the kind of psychodynamic model of personality development that feminists like Nancy Chodorow offer (c.f. The Reproduction of Mothering), it is possible to argue that women, who are more oriented to bonding and relationships than men (men emphasize separation and autonomy instead, according to this theory), are less likely to resist Tan's ending. My experience teaching the novel in an all-female classroom at Texas Woman's University was enlightening because no one found the ending to be sentimental or false….
Perhaps the most useful approach to the issue of closure in The Joy Luck Club is a culturally grounded one. When Tan's contribution to the multiple narrator sub-genre is considered in the context of Asian values, the desire for an ending that brings the resonating diversity and conflicting positions to a tidy close is entirely understandable.
A culturally nuanced reading of the novel might begin with the fundamental orientation toward the group rather than the individual in Asian cultures generally, as stated in the following passage taken from the classic reference book cited earlier of Asian culture for American therapists whose client population includes Asian Americans:
American society has tended toward the ideals of the self-sufficient, self-reliant individual who is the master of his or her fate and chooses his or her own destiny. High value is placed on the ability to stand on your own two feet, or pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, or do your own thing. In contrast, Asian philosophies tend toward an acknowledgment that individuals become what they are because of the efforts of many things and many people. They are the products of their relationship to nature and other people. Thus, heavy emphasis is placed on the nature of the relationship among people, generally with the aim of maintaining harmony through proper conduct and attitudes.
This general orientation toward the group is manifested in the emphasis on respecting and serving one's parents, not resisting them. "The greatest obligation of East Asians," according to McGoldrick and her colleagues, "is to their parents, who have brought them into the world and have cared for them when they were helpless. The debt that is owed can never be truly repaid; and no matter what parents may do the child is still obligated to give respect and obedience"—an attitude that can be traced back to Confucius.
Another aspect of Asian cultures generally (East Asian in this particular case) that is pertinent to a culturally nuanced response to The Joy Luck Club has to do with shaming. McGoldrick and her co-authors explain that in these cultures, "shame and shaming are the mechanisms that traditionally help reinforce societal expectations and proper behavior." Vacc and his colleagues explain more specifically that "control of the children [in Chinese and Japanese families] is maintained by fostering feelings of shame and guilt." Without knowing this, it is more likely that the shaming behavior some of the mothers of The Joy Luck Club engage in to control their children will result in a reading that blames those mothers for inappropriate behavior. As a consequence of the misunderstanding, such a reader would not grant those mothers the sympathy for which they qualify.
Yet another aspect of Asian culture that contributes to a sensitive reading of Tan's novel is the close relationship between a mother and her children in Asian countries. McGoldrick and her co-authors explain it thusly:
The traditional role of the mother must also be understood and respected within the context of her role expectations within the family. Issues involving the children reflect upon her self-esteem as a mother. We must remember that in the traditional family, the children are primarily her responsibility, as well as her resource for the future. Frequently, issues around perceived dependence of children and overprotection of the mother are raised by American therapists who are unfamiliar with traditional family dynamics of Asian families. Therapists do not always understand that within the family mutual interdependence is stressed and expected. This is not to say that individuation does not occur or is not promoted, but it is constantly tinged with the subconscious knowledge of the relationships and obligations between the individual and other family members.
Although The Joy Luck Club gives equal time to the position of daughters who resist or resent a domineering mother, an American reader is less likely to grant those mothers their due without understanding that Asian mothers normally behave in a more heavy-handed manner than their American counterparts.
The final point I wish to make about Asian cultures that contributes to a balanced response to both the mothers and the daughters in The Joy Luck Club is that Asian families in America tend to place extraordinary emphasis on the importance of education for their children. Vacc and his co-authors explain it thusly:
The pressure to succeed academically among Asians is very strong. From early childhood, outstanding achievement is emphasized because it is a source of pride for the entire family…. Reflecting the emphasis on education is the finding that college enrollment rates for Chinese and Japanese between the ages of 18 and 24 and the percentage completing college is higher than for any other group in the United States. Parental expectations for achievement can be an additional stress factor in young Asian-Americans.
This information is important for a sensitive response to both Jing-mei and Suyuan, who calls her daughter a "college drop-off." It is in the context of explaining her dropping out of college that Jing-mei tells us: "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."
With this background information in mind, it is easier to understand the thematic readings of Tan's novel that do not focus on the differences between mothers and the differences between daughters as much as upon the similarities. In this culture-specific context, Tan's attempt to rein in the reverberating heteroglossia has a compelling logic.
The readings of The Joy Luck Club offered by Amy Ling and Elaine Kim are undertaken within this context. They emphasize the mother/daughter gestalt discussed earlier and the importance of the broader dynamic between mothers and daughters that this gestalt suggests; Ling and Kim are not as focused on individual personalities as a reader coming from Faulkner, Bakhtin, and Iser would be. Ling argues that "though the mothers all have different names and individual stories, they seem interchangeable in that the role of mother supersedes all other roles and is performed with the utmost seriousness and determination. All the mothers in The Joy Luck Club are strong, powerful women." Kim likewise argues that "one of the triumphs of the book is that it is easy to lose track of the individual women's voices: the reader might turn distractedly to the table of contents, trying to pair the mothers and daughters or to differentiate among them, only to discover the point that none of this matters in the least." Ling's reading privileges the mothers's perspectives and argues that the narrative endorses their position more than the daughters's resisting positions. Her reading of the novel is that it "more often takes a sympathetic stand toward the mothers's. Ling further argues that in spite of the battles described, the daughters eventually acquiesce: "The daughters' battles for independence from powerful commanding mothers is fierce, but eventually, as in [The Woman Warrior], a reconciliation is reached. The daughters realize that the mothers have always had the daughters' own best interests at heart." Ling has no problem with Jing-mei's "act of filial obedience" closing the narrative. Her concluding remarks clearly indicate her acceptance of the ending as a perfectly appropriate one; she does not resist the narrative's attempt to counterbalance the conflicting voices with its ending. "[The novel] ends on a note of resolution and reconciliation. The struggles, the battles, are over, and when the dust settles what was formerly considered a hated bondage is revealed to be a cherished bond." Thematizing the novel, she interprets its message thusly
To be truly mature, to achieve a balance in the between-world condition then … one cannot cling solely to the new American ways and reject the old Chinese ways, for that is the way of the child. One must reconcile the two and make one's peace with the old. If the old ways cannot be incorporated into the new life, if they do not "mix" as Lindo Jong put it, then they must nonetheless be respected and preserved in the pictures on one's walls, in the memories in one's head, in the stories that one writes down.
Bonnie TuSmith, in her recent study of the importance of community in American ethnic literatures, All My Relatives, offers a reading of the battling positions of the narrative that also privileges the mothers's perspective. She interprets the passage describing the Polaroid shot of the three sisters as follows: "This composite image of three daughters who, together, make up one mother reflects the novel's communal subtext, which works as a counterpoint to the textual surface of individualistic strife between mothers and daughters." More specifically, she suggests that the narrative argues against the daughters's individualistic voices and for the establishment of harmony with the mothers:
The novel opens with Jing-Mei's assuming her mother's role at the mahjongg table of the Joy Luck Club. Her "substitute" role is recalled in the conclusion when she is in China and taking her mother's place once again. This literary frame alone suggests that, although the mother-daughter power struggle appears individualistic on the surface, there is a different message embedded in the text.
The culturally based, heavily thematic readings that TuSmith and Ling offer thus emphasize the overall Gestalten of mothers set against daughters and daughters set against mothers with a nod towards the position of the mothers. Ling emphasizes the importance of the daughters respecting and acknowledging the position of the mothers; TuSmith offers a more complex surface versus deep structure analysis that sees the conflicting perspectives as merely a surface phenomenon and the difference-transcending communalism as a more fundamental underlying impulse.
Although my own earlier reading was not sufficiently cognizant of cultural factors—such as the emphasis in Chinese-American cultures on group and family orientation, respect for parents, shaming by parents for control of children, dependent relationships, and education of children—a reading of The Joy Luck Club that fully accounts for its complexity perhaps requires taking a middle-ground position: the narrative, with its overall structure (framing) and thematic conclusion, suggests resolution and reconciliation, but the actual collection of voices cannot with complete accuracy be reduced to a thematic reading. If one imagines Tan writing with her mother looking on (and from what she has said about her relationship with her mother, this seems accurate), there should be no surprise that the novel argues for something while at the same time resisting it through the very presentation of a heteroglot array of individual voices.
In either case, a Bakhtin-inspired and Iser-based reading of The Joy Luck Club is possible and contributes to a moment-by-moment uncovering and articulation of the counter-centrifugal dialogicity in the collection of monologues. An Iserian reading locates the various points of difference and agreement across monologues and establishes the connections between them. As Bakhtin suggests, the dialogicity can be of agreement as well as disagreement; to use his example, "Life is good" and "Life is good" can resonate through slightly different accents given to the basic proposition. "Mothers are oppressive" and "Mothers are oppressive"—or "daughters should show respect" and "daughters should show respect"—can likewise resonate across monologues by having a different accentuation with each speaker.
Whether or not one agrees that the novel genuinely achieves a resolution and reconciliation (that might be an objective "meaning" versus subjective "significance" issue, in Iserian terms), an Iserian reading focuses on the moment-by-moment experience of the dialogicity of difference and agreement across monologues. On a first reading, during a rereading, or standing back after reading and selectively meditating on the assemblage, there are several ways the segments enter into a dialogic relationship through the active agency of the reader responding in a controlled way to textual prompts. Meaningful connections can be established between contiguous monologues, non-contiguous monologues, moments within monologues or entire monologues, prefaces and post-preface monologues, and quartets (such as the mothers's quartets framing the daughters's quartets). We might say that the fundamental Iserian gap in this text is the conceptual space between daughters and mothers, between one generation and the other. The primary objective "meaning" that obtains at the site of the dialogicity—the reader's consciousness—is one of unrealized potential. That, in itself, argues, through Iserian negativity, for children and parents to try to listen better and communicate more. By writing a multiple narrator novel with an argumentative edge to it—a thematic thrust that extends beyond an assertion of the relativity of perception—Tan makes a distinct contribution to the genre of the multiple first-person monologue novel.
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