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The Joy Luck Club | Study Guide

Amy Tan

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The Joy Luck Club | Part 4, Chapter 2 : Waiting Between the Trees (Ying-ying St. Clair) | Summary



Ying-ying St. Clair was born in the Year of the Tiger, as was her daughter, Lena. According to Ying-ying the "gold side" of her personality "leaps with its fierce heart" while the black side "stands still with cunning between trees ... waiting patiently for things to come." It has been a long time since Ying-ying's gold side made an appearance, but she feels the need to reclaim it in order to pass it on to her daughter and strengthen her.

Ying-ying grew up wealthy, spoiled, vain, and "too good to listen." When she was 16 she met a crass older man who became her husband within six months. She learned to love him despite his obvious flaws, but love made her "a stranger to [her]self" as she took on the traditional female role of pleasing her husband and giving him a son. She discovered from an aunt that her husband, who went on frequent business trips, had been cheating on her. Pregnant when she learned the truth, she aborted the fetus and moved to the countryside to live with distant relatives. It was 10 years before she met Clifford St. Clair. Ying-ying "thought him neither attractive nor unattractive" but knew he was a sign her black side would soon go away. Saint, as she calls him, courted her for four years, and she consented to marry him only after learning of her husband's death. She changed herself yet again, becoming "pale, ill, and more thin," like a "wounded animal" in order to give up "the spirit that [had] caused [her] so much pain."

Looking back Ying-ying realizes her life in America has been lived without spirit, as if she were a ghost. This is why Lena doesn't have any spirit of her own. As she stands in Lena's small guest room, Ying-ying decides to revisit "the pain that cut [her] spirit loose" by telling her daughter about her history in China. She believes that doing so will release Lena's own spirit. They will fight, but when Ying-ying wins she will give her spirit to Lena "because this is the way a mother loves her daughter." But first she will push over the rickety marble table in the guest bedroom that is a sign of how rickety Lena's marriage is. Then Ying-ying will "[wait] between the trees" for Lena to come see what is wrong.


Chinese astrology says those born in the Year of the Tiger are brave, confident, and competitive. They're also unpredictable. Ying-ying exhibits these traits when she first catches the eye of her husband-to-be, who is under the impression Ying-ying isn't as innocent as she actually is. Yet underneath her bravado, Ying-ying is more girl than woman. She has not yet seen the harsh reality of the world beyond her privileged lifestyle. As she changes herself to please her husband, her tiger spirit starts to wane. It disappears completely once he abandons her for another woman. She becomes even more divided from her true self after marrying Saint, not because he is cruel to her but because she wants to be the kind of wife he expects. He buys into the stereotype of Chinese women being meek and submissive, little "China dolls" who need to be saved. He has no idea of the strength coiled within his wife's soul.

Ying-ying's decision to unleash her inner tiger spirit is an enormous sacrifice. To accomplish this she has to revisit all the pain of her personal history and "hold it in [her] hand until it becomes hard and shiny, more clear." For the first time in decades, she will have to feel the anger, shame, and loneliness that ripped her soul apart and turned her into a ghost. That will bring back her fierceness, which she will immediately give Lena.

This requires a fight between mother and daughter, and it most likely won't go well but it is a necessary part of the process. Not knowing her mother's history, Lena will not understand why her mild-mannered mother has turned into a fierce opponent. Feelings will be hurt and egos will be wounded, but Ying-ying hopes that Lena will be filled with the fire to correct the missteps in her own life. Ying-ying expects to go back to being a ghost after giving her tiger spirit to Lena, and that's okay with her. She doesn't like that version of herself, but it is more important for her to give everything she has to her daughter to ensure her daughter's future happiness. This is similar to An-mei's mother's decision in Part 4, Chapter 1 to kill herself so An-mei can have a better life. The mothers in The Joy Luck Club all feel their children's futures are more important than their own lives, and they are willing to undergo sacrifices for them.
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