The Joy Luck Club | Study Guide

Amy Tan

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The Joy Luck Club | Symbols


Black Vase

The guest room in Lena St. Clair's sparsely decorated home is embellished with a black vase filled with freesias, sitting on top of a rickety table her husband, Harold Livotny, built during college. Lena's mother, Ying-ying St. Clair, who is staying with Lena and Harold for the week, can't understand why they keep the table when it's clearly about to tip over at any moment. "What use for?" she asks. "You put something else on top, everything fall down." Ying-ying later proves her point by purposefully knocking over the table, which sends the vase crashing to the floor, where it breaks.

The vase is symbolic of Lena and Harold's marriage. Lena knew it would break as long as it was seated on the poorly made table, but she never did anything to stop it, just as she has never done anything to stop the downward trajectory of her relationship with Harold. She ignored the shaky foundation—her subordinate position in their marriage—in favor of the beautiful object on the top—their love for one another. When Ying-ying tips over the table, she shows Lena that love isn't always enough.

The vase is a wake-up call to Lena, who "knew it would happen" but did nothing to stop it.


Jewelry symbolizes the strong bond between mothers and daughters in The Joy Luck Club. In some instances it is presented as a talisman, or good luck charm, as when Lindo Jong gives Waverly Jong her red jade tablet. Other times it serves as a reminder of the mother's love and wisdom, as with the jade pendant Suyuan Woo gives Jing-mei Woo; "[W]hen you put it on your skin, then you know my meaning," Suyuan says after removing the necklace from her own skin. After she dies, the necklace reminds Jing-mei not only of the cryptic message about her "life's importance" but also about the moment she realized her mother loved her because, not in spite, of her differences. The jade pendant deepens their relationship and keeps them connected even when Suyuan is gone.

The purity of the jewelry in The Joy Luck Club represents the intensity and the quality of the mother's love. The jewelry passed from one generation to the next is always real and pure, like the 24-karat gold bracelets Lindo buys herself to celebrate her worth. In Part 4, Chapter 1, An-mei experiences the difference between a mother's love and the false affections of another. Second Wife gives An-mei a necklace that looks like a strand of pearls but is actually made of glass. It breaks easily underneath An-mei's mother's foot. An-mei knows then that Second Wife is only pretending to love her. After she has learned her lesson, An-mei's mother gives An-mei a real sapphire ring. "Now can you recognize what is true?" her mother asks. An-mei nods. What is true is her mother's love.

Red Candle

One of the centerpieces of Lindo Jong's marriage ceremony to Huang Tyan-yu is a double-ended red candle. During the marriage ceremony it symbolizes the bond between man and wife. The candle is placed in a special holder so both ends can be lit. If the flames burn throughout the night, the marriage can never be broken. It is "a marriage bond that was worth more than a Catholic promise not to divorce." If the candle burns all night Lindo will not be allowed to divorce Tyan-yu, and if he dies she will not be able to remarry.

Lindo doesn't want the candle to burn all night because she doesn't want to be married to Tyan-yu. He is cruel to her and treats her like a servant, and at this point she does not love him. She leaves their bedroom in the middle of the night and watches the candle burn through an open window. She hopes the wind will extinguish it, but when it doesn't she takes matters into her own hands and blows out Tyan-yu's flame. This act is symbolic of Lindo's assertion of her own desires over cultural tradition. She will not stand by and let chance determine her fate.

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