The Joy Luck Club | Study Guide

Amy Tan

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The Joy Luck Club | Discussion Questions 31 - 40


Of what importance are the names of the characters in The Joy Luck Club?

In Part 4, Chapter 4 Jing-mei wonders "if any name in Chinese is not something special" because it seems like everyone she knows has a name with an important meaning. Other characters have names based in English, again with special significance attached to those names: Jing-mei's name comes from jing, which means "pure, essential, the best quality." Mei comes from meimei, which means "younger sister" (Part 4, Chapter 4). Jing-mei is essentially the essence of her half-sisters. Yet outside of the confines of the novel Jing-mei is generally called by the American name of June. Her parents gave her an American nickname so she would fit in with her surroundings, and before her mother's death that's how she presents herself to the world. Lindo Jong's children's names all have special meanings. She wanted her first-born son to be successful, so she named him Winston, like "wins ton." Next came Vincent, which she thought sounded like "win cent," which she hoped would make him prosperous (Part 4, Chapter 3). Waverly, however, is named Waverly Place Jong, after the street on which they live, Waverly Place (Part 2, Chapter 1). Lindo does this so Waverly will always feel as if she belongs somewhere, and when the day comes when she moves out on her own she will be able to take a piece of her mother with her. Ying-ying's name is important not because of it's meaning ("clear reflection," which describes how much she was like her mother [Part 4, Chapter 2]) but because of its disappearance. When she moves to the United States, Clifford St. Clair changes her name to "Betty" on her immigration papers (Part 2, Chapter 2). This symbolizes a new beginning and the total loss of her former self, including her tiger spirit.

What role does love play in the marriages depicted in The Joy Luck Club?

For the mothers in The Joy Luck Club love is an afterthought to marriage. Marriages in China were, and in some areas still are, more like business arrangements than love affairs. As depicted in the novel love was not the mothers' impetus for marrying but rather a pleasant surprise when it happened. As a teenager Ying-ying St. Clair marries a man she finds vulgar and sometimes unkind. Yet she learns to love him after they are married because "when a person joins your body" it is instinctual for your mind to "join that person against your will." The same thing happens when she marries Clifford St. Clair. She doesn't think he's anything special when he courts her, and there are times when she even finds him pathetic. But he was such a good husband that she couldn't help but love him. Lindo Jong despised her first husband when they were initially married. She found him spoiled and cruel, but she couldn't go back on the arranged marriage for fear of hurting her parents' reputation. She, too, learns to love her husband, but unlike Ying-ying her love for Huang Tyan-yu is more sisterly than romantic, and it is not enough to make her stay. The daughters in The Joy Luck Club who marry all do so for love, not convenience, but even they have difficulty making their relationships work. Waverly divorces her first husband, Marvin Chen, whose image she says was "poisoned" by Lindo's criticisms. Rose Hsu Jordan falls out of love with her suddenly cold husband, Ted, and Lena St. Clair worries love might not be enough to save her rocky marriage to her husband, Harold. Love, as depicted in The Joy Luck Club, is not enough to fix a broken relationship on its own.

What role does "invisible strength" play in the lives of the mothers and daughters in The Joy Luck Club?

The concept of invisible strength is brought up in Part 2, Chapter 1. Waverly Jong learns it from her mother, who teaches her to "[b]ite back [her] tongue" instead of blurting out her desires and observations. As Lindo Jong explains it to Waverly, it is a Chinese concept used to get what you want without revealing your true intentions. At various times in the novel it is used "for winning arguments [and] respect from others." It is also the secret to Waverly's domination in local chess tournaments. Lindo uses this strategy when trying to get out of her marriage to Huang Tyan-yu. She keeps her displeasure about the marriage to herself, watching and waiting for the time to strike. When it arrives she constructs her plan so her in-laws think the dissolution of the marriage is neither shameful nor her idea. Ying-ying St. Clair is a paragon of invisible strength. After her crushing first marriage, she "waits between the trees" until she is ready to make her next move. That takes 10 years. This time sh knows not to flirt with egotistical, dominant men and focuses her reserved attention on Clifford St. Clair. She's not in love with him, but she knows he is the key to helping her "black side" disappear. Sometimes the idea of invisible strength is misinterpreted. Lena St. Clair and Rose Hsu Jordan appear to be "biding their time" by not speaking up for themselves, but in reality they are letting their husbands take the lead in their marriages. Invisible strength only works if there is an end goal. Otherwise it's just passivity. An-mei Hsu and Ying-ying both try to correct this aspect of their daughter's personality by teaching them there are times one needs to speak up for oneself, if not in words then in actions.

In what ways is Jing-mei Woo the protagonist of The Joy Luck Club?

A protagonist is the main character of a story. The Joy Luck Club actually has seven major characters who use first-person narration to tell their stories, but it is Jing-mei, Suyuan Woo's daughter, who serves as the protagonist. Suyuan's death leaves an open space at the mah jong table, and Jing-mei is forced to take her spot just a few months later. This introduces the reader to the rest of the book's characters while also setting up the novel's major storyline in which Jing-mei meets her half-sisters so she can tell them about Suyuan and connect with her own Chinese heritage. Jing-mei's story is the focus of the novel as she deals with the feelings surrounding her mother's death. The passages written from the point of view of the other characters serve as support for the feelings Jing-mei is experiencing in the present. The mothers all worry about their daughters' futures, then worry about how their daughters will view them after their deaths. Jing-mei is experiencing that exact problem. How can she tell her half-sisters about a mother she felt she didn't really know at all? Amy Tan uses Jing-mei to tie together the disparate anecdotes of each of the characters into a larger tale about mother-daughter relationships, the importance of the mothers' legacy, and the difficulties of bridging a generational and cultural divide.

How does the Chinatown setting of The Joy Luck Club in Part 2, Chapter 1 help the reader understand the cultural divide between the mothers and daughters?

San Francisco's Chinatown, not far from the Angel Island Immigration Station where most Chinese immigrants entered the United States, was the home of thousands of legal Chinese immigrants who came to the United States prior to 1949. To Waverly Jong and the other daughters in the novel, it is a different world from the surrounding neighborhoods and cities. In Part 2, Chapter 1 author Amy Tan gives detailed descriptions about the sights, sounds, and smells of the crowded neighborhood, from the boxes of dried fish and dead ducks in the window of a restaurant, to the sign at the fish market that says "Within this store, is all for food, not for pet." This gives the reader the sense the daughters lived in an area that was, from an ethnographic point of view, more like China than the United States. Yet as the daughters age they become less like their mothers as their tastes and ideals align with American practices and values, not those of the microcosm of Chinatown. It is easy to imagine the daughters felt out of place when returning home to their families' apartments there every night, especially after spending their school day with kids of different backgrounds and ethnicities. In The Joy Luck Club Chinatown serves as a reminder of how much the daughters have trouble fitting in either culture.

How does the relationship between Lindo Jong and her mother in The Joy Luck Club compare or contrast to the relationship between Lindo and Waverly Jong?

Lindo idolized her mother. As a little girl she wished she looked even more like her so their circumstances and lives would follow the same path. Yet she does not blame her mother for the arranged marriage to Tyan-yu. Betrothing one's children at a young age was common in rural areas of China, such as where Lindo's family lived, and it was a financial arrangement more than anything else. Lindo's family would no longer have to provide for her, and Lindo would move up the social ladder by marrying into the Huang family. Lindo understands this is for her own good, and she knows her mother does it out of love. The same cannot be said for Waverly's feelings about Lindo. Displaying an independent streak a mile wide, she is offended when people tell her she looks like her mother. She wants to be seen as her own person, separate from her mother's shadow, which has been looming over her since her first years playing chess. As a child Waverly interprets Lindo's high standards and constant prodding to "win more, lose less" as criticisms, not signs of her mother's love. Because she is so disinterested in her mother's past and in Chinese culture in general, it takes years for Waverly to see that her mother is not her enemy, as she had always thought, but her greatest ally.

How does the Second Sino-Japanese War affect the mothers in The Joy Luck Club?

The second part of the Sino-Japanese War took place from 1937–45. The fighting took place in China, and Japanese troops systematically marched through the country, claiming territory for their homeland. It was a tumultuous time in Chinese history, and all of the mothers in the novel were affected by the fear and instability plaguing the country, which may have prompted some of them to leave altogether. Two of the women make direct mention of the war. In Part 1, Chapter 3 Lindo Jong says her wedding was very small because the "Japanese showed up as uninvited guests." Chinese weddings are usually enormous celebrations, and the Huangs had invited the entire town to attend the nuptials. The Japanese arrived a week before the wedding, and people became nervous. A storm on the day of the wedding further scared the locals, as they thought the thunder was the sound of bombs being detonated. Lindo's small wedding was not a good omen for her marriage. Suyuan Woo suffers the most during the Sino-Japanese War. Her first husband was an officer with the Nationalist Party. He settles Suyuan and their twin daughters in Kweilin, then leaves for work. Suyuan flees Kweilin with the girls when she hears the Japanese are on their way. Exhausted from her escape, she becomes so sick she has to leave her daughters on the side of the road for someone else to rescue. After she herself is rescued she learns her husband has died. Though she looks for her daughters for years after, she never sees them again. This sets up the major narrative arc in the novel as Suyuan's daughter Jing-mei is united with her half-sisters in the novel's final chapter.

How does the structure and narration of The Joy Luck Club help the reader better understand the book's mother-daughter relationships?

The Joy Luck Club is a compilation of 16 intertwined short stories, each told from the point of view of one of seven narrators. Three of the narrators are mothers, while the other four are daughters. (Jing-mei Woo, one of the daughters, is also responsible for telling her late mother Suyuan's story.) The book doesn't follow anything resembling a chronological timeline but is instead structured to show the change in the relationships between the mothers and their daughters. This is done through the order in which the stories are presented and who tells them. The Joy Luck Club has four parts. Each part is prefaced with an epigraph, or a short piece of text that introduces a parable related to the theme of the following stories. In this case the epigraphs are Chinese parables about mothers and daughters. In Part 1 the mothers share stories from their youth as a means of showing how very little their daughters know about them and Chinese culture. In Part 2 the daughters tell stories from their childhoods that illustrate the burgeoning rifts between mother and daughter. As the daughters attempt to deal with their own problems in Part 3, they finally begin to understand their mothers' points of view and how their mothers want to help them, not hurt them. The mother-daughter relationships begin to heal. In Part 4 the mothers' stories are completed. The sacrifices the mothers made become clear, and the mothers and daughters become closer than before. The alternating viewpoints ensure the reader understands both sides of the story. Likewise the characters themselves are given the opportunity to understand the other person's point of view, which helps bridge the gap between the generations.

What is the situational irony in the mothers' decisions to come to the United States in The Joy Luck Club?

Situational irony is when a particular outcome is expected but the exact opposite happens instead. As Lindo Jong says in Part 4, Chapter 3 the mothers in The Joy Luck Club all decide to come to the United States so they can give their children "the best combination: American circumstances and Chinese character." In China it was very difficult to rise above one's birth class. In the United States however, "nobody says you have to keep the circumstances somebody else gives you." The problem the mothers don't foresee is American culture and how it will create a rift between them and their children. They find it nearly impossible to raise their children with Chinese character in an environment that champions the individual, not the group. Lindo says of her daughter, Waverly Jong, "I couldn't teach her about Chinese character. ... Why Chinese thinking is best." Despite all their efforts they end up raising children that combine American circumstances and American character.

What is the role of fate in Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club?

Fate is often thought of as a person's unchangeable destiny, but the women in The Joy Luck Club view it a little differently. In Part 2, Chapter 3 Rose Hsu Jordan tells the story of how her youngest brother, Bing, died. All of the family feels they are to blame for his drowning, but Rose feels that she was the person who was supposed to be watching him. She expected Bing to listen to her when she told him not to walk on the rocks, then turned her attention away from him to break up her other brothers' fight. This experience leads her to decide "fate is shaped half by expectation, half by inattention." For too long Rose, and all of the daughters to some extent, focuses on the expectations of her parents and carefully cultivates an inattentive attitude in herself. She and her fellow sister-neighbors ignore the saying's opposite meaning: that fate can actually be changed if she revises her expectations and starts paying attention to the factors involved in making the change. Lindo Jong changes her fate in Part 1, Chapter 3. Subjected to an unfulfilling and unhappy marriage, she changes her expectations of living a terrible life with the Huangs and makes a plan to escape with her reputation intact. She then pays close attention to everyone around her in order to find the right moment to enact her plan. As a result she successfully changes her fate: she is ultimately released from her marriage without any penalties. Rose is also given the chance to change her fate. She always expected her marriage to Ted Jordan to last so she ignored the signs that it was failing. She changes her fate—a lifetime of feeling confused and lost—by realizing she and Ted really are going to get divorced. She stands up for herself, insists on her self-worth, and demands the house as part of her divorce settlement. By paying attention and revising her expectations she is able to change her future.

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